Years ago, I shared an apartment with a cat named Ico. My roommate had abducted her from a barn as a kitten. Being from a long line of barn cats, Ico was feral by any measure. She was largely resistant to litter box training. The cat was antisocial even by loose feline standards; we couldn’t have guests, because she would always end up climbing my body like a tree, sinking her claws into my flesh as she attempted to escape the danger. She’d also stalk me and pounce on my face while I was reading a book or sleeping.
Ico had six toes on each paw. While the extra claw made her attacks all the more savage, the superfluous digit had been a selling point for me during the pre-adoption negotiations. Some people call these animals polydactyl cats. Readers will know them by their other name: Hemingway Cats. If you visit his home-turned-museum today, you can meet six-toed descendants of the one old Ernie was given by a ship captain.
What Is It with Writers and Cats?
In the Stephen King short story L.T.’s Theory of Pets, he wrote, “It might be that the biggest division in the world isn't men and women but folks who like cats and folks who like dogs.” In real life, he keeps both, but there still may be some truth to the quote.
Hemingway referred to cats as love sponges and purr factories. Dogs can’t purr, but surely they’re at least as capable of love as cats, right? Some would probably argue that a dog’s needy love runs even deeper than the indifferent affection of a cat.
Maybe it’s just that indifference that makes a cat the ideal animal friend of the author. Writing can be a lonesome task, often requiring hours of isolation while the artist gets into the flow of their work. The demands of a canine can interrupt this state, which isn’t always easy to reach. A cat is more content to come and go, sitting silently in a lap or across the room as the writer bangs out their daily word count.
My cat, Minnie, is currently sunning herself near the front window. She’ll still be there when I finish writing this. She’s not going to bark at me if I ignore her. She doesn’t want to play or go for a walk. In fact, I’m sure she’d prefer if I left her alone during this important activity.
Feeling Like A Writer
In cat-loving Philip K. Dick’s novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, people touch an empathy box in an attempt to connect with their fellow man. The bleak conditions of the story suggest the box is not a huge success. John Isidore, though, seems to have developed a deeper sense of empathy than most. At one point, he brings a real cat to work, thinking it’s one of the robotic animals so important to the story (and left out of Ridley Scott’s version for some reason). To Isidore, both real and fake animals deserve his empathy.
This deep sense of empathy is vital to writers, whose task is to make us feel for their characters. It’s no wonder that even authors like Charles Bukowski, a hard-drinking, hard-punching, womanizing man’s man of masculine toughness, have so loved their feline companions. As have purveyors of the darkest of literature. Long before King wrote Pet Sematary, Poe and Lovecraft were immortalizing their own beloved pets in their writing.
There’s also the matter of the cat’s natural mysteriousness. A quote often attributed to but probably not written by Poe is, “I wish I could write as mysterious as a cat.” Sometimes I simply cannot find the purring enigma who lives in my apartment, and she inspires daydreams of what she may be doing. Neil Gaiman probably has similar thoughts about his kitties, as he’s been including cats in his fantastic stories since the very beginning. Jorge Luis Borges was the first writer ever to be called a magical realist. He was also a proud cat owner. The animals tickle the imagination. The writing of William S. Burroughs may be an acquired taste, but few could argue the man who called cats his “psychic companions” didn’t have a powerful imagination.
The list of authors inspired by their feline friends runs on and on. It could fill a book, at least. Give your pet some delicious, stinky wet food tonight as a thanks for all the contributions cats have made to literature, and then read a book to the soothing sound of purring.