It’s not usual for a woman to long for fat thighs, but I sometimes do. A plump pair of Rubenesque thighs would turn my lap into a wide enough platform for my gray cat Telemann to doze on, and then I would stand a chance of getting some writing done. As things are, though, no sooner do I sit down at the computer than he materializes out of thin air, possibly alerted by the aura of apprehension that surrounds me just before I get to work, and leaps onto my table. Instead of settling down nicely under the desk lamp, he circles the computer three times like a shaman and then jumps on my lap.
As I sit upright on my writing chair, my hips are slightly higher than my knees, and this causes Telemann to slide off unless I put my feet up on a stool and clamp my knees firmly together. If I let down my guard for one second, he steadies himself by digging his claws into my legs.
Even with these measures, though, I cannot get any peace, because he finds the clacking of the keys, the movement of the cursor, and perhaps even my writing irresistible. He sits up and, purring imperiously, places his white paws on my forearm. This is the beginning of his attempted takeover of the keyboard, followed by exasperated shooing and hand-clapping on my part, followed by his jumping off, looking offended, and ambling out of the room. Followed by his inevitable return and further attempts to settle on my inadequate lap.
This conflicted situation is not the norm among writers, and literature abounds with testimonials from famous poets and novelists who rank next to the ancient Egyptians in their adoration of cats. Here are a few examples:
“There are no ordinary cats.” (Colette) There is a famous photograph of Colette’s aged hand holding her fountain pen while her gray cat dozes sweetly next to a blue-tinted page half-filled with writing.
“Books. Cats. Life is good.” (Edward Gorey) Gorey had several cats, whom he said he preferred to people. They would wander around on his desk and sometimes tip his ink bottle over.
“If you want to write, keep cats.” (Aldous Huxley) In his advice to a would-be novelist, Huxley says that a pair of cats will reveal everything about human nature that a writer needs to know.
“The smallest feline is a masterpiece.” (Leonardo da Vinci) O.k., he wasn’t a writer, but I couldn’t resist the quote, to which I would add: the smallest feline is a masterpiece…and knows it.
George Sand used to eat breakfast out of the same dish as her cat Minou. I wonder if she used a spoon or simply lapped the milk along with Minou.
Baudelaire has a poem about a large, charming cat who paces inside his brain. His voice is musical, his fur gives off a sweet scent. And when the poet looks deep inside himself, he sees the cat’s opalescent eyes staring back at him.
This is all very nice, but the one comment that really resonates with me is from Joyce Carol Oates. When asked how she manages to write so much (she’s published fifty-eight novels since 1963), she said that it was because her cat sits purring on her lap while she writes, and she doesn’t want to disturb it by getting up.
If writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, a warm, purring cat on the lap might be a huge help, especially at those all-too-frequent times when the right word refuses to bubble up out of the subconscious, or the logic of a passage breaks down, or one has just disgorged something so unutterably dull that the only possible relief is to leap out of the chair and go do laundry or rearrange the sock drawer or dust the bookcase. So you see how crucial it is for me to resolve the cat-on-lap situation.
In case you’re wondering about the obvious, the room where I write has no door.
Twenty-plus years go I used to visit a friend who lived a stone’s throw from Edmund Gorey’s cape Cod house. Corey was a bit reclusive, and this was perhaps before he died. Anyway, he was well known for the many cats who shared his living space. Hemingway was another cat lover: his Cuba residence was full of them. He wrote standing up, typewriter perched on a shelf attached to a wall.
I adore Gorey in all his strangeness. I have an old signed print of his, unstained by cats. I’ll show it to you someday.