6  A Slip of the Tongue

Bingley has always liked to catch a string–I’ve told you about the tiger-jump.  Whether I pull it under a blanket or towel so that he has to dig underneath to get it or just run along so he can catch up and grab it, catching the string has always been one of his favorite games.  He likes when I position the string just beyond the edge of his view, around a corner or underneath a piece of furniture.  If he can see it, it’s no fun to catch, and if I hide it too well,  he figures it’s not worth the energy to pursue.  Hints fascinate him more than facts.

Once, after he had pursued and caught the string a few times and we were taking a break, he picked up one end of the string in his mouth and walked out of the room, stopping just on the other side of the door.  He left the frayed end that he enjoys catching so much just visible to me around the corner.  After a few seconds, he peaked stealthily around the corner to see if I was just about to jump over to catch it.  Only then did I get what he wanted.  When he saw me still sitting where I’d been, he looked at me, and his eyes said, “Come on, man, you’ve got to try this game.  It’s really fun.  I can tell you from experience.”

One morning we’d been playing games for about an hour when I realized time was slipping away from me.  “Sorry:  have to go to work now,” I told Bingley.

“No!” he said.

“Really:  I’m sorry, but I have to go now.  Got to get to work.”

“Don’t go!”  He ran over and grasped my foot in both front paws and put his face against my ankle.  The claws sunk into my skin just a little.

“I know.  I don’t want to go.  I have to go.”

“Why?”  The claws sunk in a little deeper.

“That’s how I make a living.  I need to go to work so I can pay for things.  I’d rather stay and play.”

“Stay and play!” he said, and the claws got deep enough to cause pain.

I pried myself free at the expense of getting a nip on the ankle.  Then I made my big mistake.

“I have to work to make money to buy mmao.”  I did my best to say his word for food.

Mmmao?”  He said.  “Mmao now?  Mmaooo!” he called out, and he ran for the pantry where we keep his food.

I was stuck then.  I had to give him something, or he’d panic all day while I was gone.  So I gave him a few nibblies and hurried out to work.

When I got home, he was waiting, standing by his bowl in cat stance giving me his Mr. Spock look.

You know how Spock will raise one eyebrow, glance pointedly, and say “Fascinating.”  Bingley can do almost that look, but instead of an eyebrow raising, one of his ears lowers to about half mast.  The corner of his eye curls up just a bit, too.

I knew I was in trouble.


“Yes, I know.” I said.  “And I’m glad to see you, too.”

So I got him his dinner.  After he ate, he jumped up in my lap (didn’t trouble him that I was trying to eat dinner, too), took two turns around, settled in, sighed loudly, and went to sleep.

I was glad to be forgiven, even if finishing my dinner was a little more difficult while balancing a (large) sleeping cat in my lap.

Ever since, I have taken great care not to say the “m-word” except when I really mean it, because it is sacred, and one doesn’t use such words lightly.

In the morning I try to keep him playing long enough so that when I leave for work, he’s ready for a nap and so, for a time, not thinking about food.  Now where did I leave that string?




6  Git’n ‘er Done

Stephen Crane wrote in one of his letters that he had figured out how to turn his writing on or off like a spigot.  He could write when he wanted to and stop when he needed to.

I haven’t learned quite that much control.  Once I get it going, the words will go and go.  I have enough things to write about that I don’t have to search for subjects, but getting over the inertia to start sometimes poses a problem.  I have a little computer game, and sometimes twenty minutes of that will get me going.  Sometimes I need to read a little first to get words going through my head.  A walk or some tai chi practice will nearly always work if I have enough time for them to get my brain waves working right.

Once I get ready to start, I have a few commandments–not Commandments, and they’re for me, so they may not work for you.  But they help me, so maybe they’re worth thinking about.

Get words down on a substrate, in print or on an electronic device, whatever, just so it’s on something–even if I have to borrow pen and note paper.  Then find a way to save or keep those words.  I’ve lost too many good thoughts by not writing things down in time or losing them after I did.

Try to spend more time writing what I’d like to write than what I must write, while always doing my best with both.  I can never know who will read what and what good it may do.

Edit as well as I can without going mad.  I’m the monarch of typos:  I fix every one I can find, but I’m always going to miss some.  I must live with that and not punish myself too much.  Also, a writer must know his or her bugaboos.  I write sentences that are too long.  I don’t stop myself as I’m composing, but when I edit, I try to cut long sentences into two.  Or three.  Or four.

Get work into somebody’s hands:  a piece of writing never matters to me until someone else reads it and likes it.  I don’t write for myself alone:  it’s too hard (I’m not saying that someone else shouldn’t).  Know that some pieces will get bad reviews just because some bad reviewers take great joy in writing them.  Keep writing anyway.

Don’t worry if a piece takes a long time to finish.  Some do regardless of how hard one works at them.  Lucky for me I don’t have to write for a living:  I have a job that requires writing, but as long as I’m working on something, that’s all right, and I will get it done.

Have more than one project to work on at once:  on any given day I may not want to work on one, so I can work on another.

Try to put something fun, funny, and interesting in everything, even in a (boring) prose report.

Keep working on bilocation.  Who knows?  One day it may work.

Remember that having time to write is a blessing.  I do.


7  Happy happy, joy joy

Most people have heard at least a few really good jokes, even if we can’t always remember them to tell them at parties.

How many really good comedies or happy stories can you think of, either in short stories or novels or plays or movies?  Compare that to how many good tragedies or sad stories you can remember in the same genres.  Most of the “greats” are more serious and troubling than light and happy, probably because we need them more to help us deal with human problems.  When we’re happy, we don’t want to write; we want to enjoy ourselves.

Funny bits can appear in sad stories as well as happy ones, but the sad tends to overwhelm the happy or funny.  I’ve never believed in the idea of “comic relief,” not in serious writing; I’m more in Thomas De Quincey’s camp:  comic elements place the tragic elements in greater relief to make them stand out and astonish us all the more.  Sad or tragic stories also seem to me easier to write:  we understand pain and describe it better than we can joy or pleasure, which may quickly become trite in print or on stage or screen.  Can we write comedies with “tragic relief”?  Or can we use the sad bits to make the comedic elements more powerful by contrast?  Krazy Kat may say “Happy happy, joy joy,” but Ignatz the mouse is usually waiting around the corner to fling a brick.

Here’s something I’m trying now:  to write a happy story.  Not a story that goes only from one joyous moment to another, but one that mostly highlights joy and happiness and understanding rather than suffering and pain and violence.  One of my friends calls that the “nicey nicey” approach to writing.  For now, I’m willing to accept that term, derogatory though its intent, because I think it’s an exercise worth trying.  I’m not meaning a story with no tension at all, nor am I thinking of one where the characters go through all sorts of trouble to get to a happy ending, but one that focuses mostly throughout on characters finding reward or satisfaction in each others’ company and in what they do.

The attempt may fail.  If it does, that’s all right.  I think it’s an exercise worth trying.  What do you think?

7  Another Perspective on Bingley

My wife said that I should write down her thoughts about Bingley.  She has moments of ambivalence, I know, but he’s her House Lion, too.  So here’s what she says.

When she wants to give him a hug, he sometimes plays hard to get and skitters under the kitchen table.  If she walks away, a few minutes later he’ll come out and run over to jump in her lap.  He loves his cuddle time, but he wants to be the one to initiate it.  When she holds him up, he’ll place his head gently between her neck and shoulder and nuzzle against her skin.  He goes limp in her arms like a Rag Doll cat (I don’t think he is one, though who can know for sure?).

He obsesses over plants, at least some of them.  Any new plant must get an immediate inspection.  Once he ate so much of a ponytail palm before we realized what he was doing that he clogged his intestine, and we had to take him to the vet.  That wasn’t fun for any of us.

For a cat who spent some time in the Wild and who has been on earth for around ten years now, he still has remarkably pristine pink paw pads.  He also has what my wife calls “baby-butt pink skin” under his thick fur.  Okay. . . .

When we first got him, we also got a couple donut-shaped beds for him to sleep in.  He avoided them for about three years, even though we’d place toys or treats in them or pat them on the inside to show they were safe.  Then, one evening, he casually strolled over, stepped into one, did a few circles, and settled in for a nap.  Everything in its season.

He loves blankets:  sitting on them, in them, or under them.  We have quite a number placed strategically around the house so he can slide in and be a cave kitty whenever he wants to.  Sometimes he will stand beside a blanket and call to one of us to come over and tuck him in.  Jeeves, I say, Jeeves!

My wife has taught him a trick that she calls “Up up, kiss kiss.”  She goes over to the little mantle by the doorway and pats her hand on top and says those words.  Bingley will jump up and give her a kiss on the nose.  He then gets some treats.  I’ve taught him “Slide into third base.”  I place a string under a small blanket or towel several feet in front of him with most of it visible from the side closer to him.  Then I pull the string under the towel.  He runs toward the towel, leaps in the air, and slides head-first under the towel to catch the string.  He’ll do that one with or without treats.  Other than that he’s not a big baseball fan.  He prefers tennis.

He loves for us to hold him and sing to him.  At least in the case of my singing (not my wife’s), that means you can’t account for musical taste even in cats.  I think he takes gentle singing to mean we’re purring, which he likes.  He prefers soft, low tones, and for lyrics he especially likes anything that praises what a good cat he is.  Who could blame him for that?

For treats he will sometimes say “thank you,” but mostly he’ll come over and give a head butt instead.  We’re both all right with that.

8  Characters

Bingley likes to sit in my lap when I work at the computer.  Since my study is really his room, he takes that as his right.  I once wrote nearly a whole book with Bingley stretched out along my left arm, which means I typed it with my right hand only.  The manuscript took about two times as long to write as it should have; I had a persistent cramp in my arm, but a very happy cat buddy.

Not long ago I was working on a new book, and Bingley was once again in my lap, but since I was editing rather than composing, his presence there caused me little slowdown.  Usually he sleeps, but that day he was staring at the screen, following along as I went through the pages.  At one point he uttered “Nice. . . .”  The story includes a heroic dog, and Bingley, being a dog-cat, had just read about her and found that character quite fitting.

So I asked him a question.  “Besides Mr. Bingley and Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, who are your favorite literary characters?”  We have a varied and interesting little collection of books in the study, and one can find many books, especially those in the public domain, online anymore.

He thought for a minute.  “Captain Ahab and Milton’s Satan,” he said.

I admit I was surprised.  Then he gave me that look out of the corner of his eyes, and I knew I’d been had.

“C’mon,” I said.  “Your favorites.”

“You have favorites?” he asked.

“Lots,” I said, and I told him a few of them.

“Hmm,” he said, and he looked left and then right, then back to the screen.  “I like Cassie the dog in your new story,” he said.  “Hmmm.  Favorites.  Manfred and Bertha Rochester.  And Old Deuteronomy, of course.”

Again he looked at me out of the corner of his eyes, and we both guffawed.

Then he started to get a little more serious.

“Opus the penguin,” he said.

“For me, too,” I replied.

“And Calvin and Hobbes,” he said.


“They go adventuring, like us,” he said, and he purred and snuggled up and closed his eyes.

“Which one are you?” I asked.  “Calvin or Hobbes?”

“Calvin,” he said, opening eye one.  And he smiled.

“I always have liked tuna sandwiches,” I said.

“Me, too,” he said.

He slipped off to sleep, and I kept editing.  A short while later he was twitching and mewing gently in his sleep.

I wonder what adventures we were having.


8  Let It Become What It Wants

Lately I’ve been wanting to write poetry, but I’ve been able to get myself to write only fiction (oh yes:  and a few blogs).

More often than not I write nonfiction, but I haven’t felt in the mood for that any more than for poetry.

I’m teaching a poetry course right now, so I should be writing poems to keep myself in the right frame of mind to help the students.  In class, when the students do exercises, I do them, too, and I’ve been able to scare up something pretty quickly that fits the assignment and also has a bit of fun in it.  But I don’t save those:  they’re for practice, and I erase the chalkboard when class has ended.  About a week ago a colleague asked me for a new stanza for an old poem, and I was able to get back into the state of mind of that poem and write something pretty decent right away.  But for starting new poems:  my thoughts just aren’t moving in that direction right now.

I’ve long had this idea about a piece of writing:  we have to let it become what it wants to become.  We may feel in the mood to write a poem, but it may want to come out as a story.  We may want to compose an expository essay, but it may want to take the shape of a one-act play.  It works out better if we let it organically achieve the shape it wants to.  I suspect artists, composers, and choreographers have this issue, too.

Of course, that’s a problem for students.  We tend to ask them for something specific:  an argumentative essay, a brief autobiography, an annotated bibliography, a journal of their responses to readings.  We don’t–because of academic restrictions we often can’t–always consider that, like us, they may feel in the mood to produce something quite different.  And of course professional writers must complete what their editors ask of them, at least if they want to make a living.

But that doesn’t mean the intermediate product must be the final product.  Even something we write for now may yet reshape itself into something else, something better and more complete.  The imagination, I believe, will naturally lend the right form to an idea if we keep at it and let it become.

A friend recently told me:  “When I think of the word blog, your name isn’t the first one that comes to mind for something like that.  It probably isn’t even in the first million.”

I know.  I know.  I’m not a tech savvy type person.  But I’m glad that for now some thoughts are very much wanting to take that shape.

Do you think consciously about form, or does your subconscious take you right where you need to go?

9  Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

Watching Bingley is a study in evolution.  I’ve mentioned that he’s a dog-cat (by behavior, Felis canis) and a house lion (by preference, Felis leo domesticus).

But attentive watching over time shows the innate or potential or “ghost” presence of a number of other animals.  Once a moth got into the house, and in pursuit of it he called to mind a ferret–same thing with flies.  As a rather full-figured fella, he sometimes gives the impression of a raccoon.  When he’s taking his morning tour on my shoulder, if he decides he hasn’t quite finished his breakfast yet and wants to get down now, he’ll twist and squirm like an otter.  From one angle, looking at his face from below, the shape of his jaw and nose will call to mind, of all creatures, a dolphin.  While he takes no special interest in rabbits–I think, like me, he has a distaste for them–he seems to have an empathy for squirrels:  he likes to watch them scramble up the crabapple tree.  My wife says that when his ears perk up and he looks like he’s ready to stalk, he shows bobcat features.  Sometimes when he curls up to sleep, he looks almost human–no offense intended to our feline friends.  In his moments of wise reflection with his eyes wide open and glowing, he may even call an owl to mind.

But he has other moments when no one could mistake him for anything but a cat.  He loves to watch birds out the window:  he admires their speed in flight.  But his reaction to them shows instinctive response.  Last spring we opened the window in his room so he could get a better look at the garden.  Out from behind the evergreens popped a good-sized duck, quacking and angry that we’d disturbed her in her hiding place.  As the duck ambled off, complaining, Bingley looked at me before she could get too far away and asked, “Room in the freezer?”

A couple summers back we were looking out the back window at the trumpet vine with its large, inverted-vase flowers.  Bingley was standing on the window sill, and right up to screen flew a hummingbird.  It held its position right in front of Bingley’s eyes for a few moments, then dashed off.  “Wow!” Bingley said.  A face to face encounter!

Earlier this week, before the new snows hit, we were looking out front when a mourning dove dropped suddenly onto the railing.  In the midst of her second coo she got sight of Bingley staring out at her, stifled her complaint, and nearly fell off backwards before catching her balance and zooming away.  He didn’t even have time to do his bird imitation for her.  He had a sad look on his face and said only “Mmaooo. . . .” experiencing, I think, a sense of loss.

Once a small bird, a finch, I think, did a header into one of the big windows in the sun room and nearly knocked itself out.  Bingley insisted I go outside to check if it was all right.  I kneeled by it, and it managed to stand up and hop away.  Shortly after that it flew off.  That seemed to please him.  It’s not all about food, you see.  His interest is ornithological, not simply gustatory.  Maybe he has just a bit–just a bit–of bird in his genetic material, too.  We’re all family in the ecosystem.

We remember those encounters and talk about them occasionally.  He thinks fondly of them and hopes for more.  “Cultural exchange,” he says.

9  Being a Writer

Once upon a time (yes, it does seem that long ago) I was attending the wedding of a friend, and at the rehearsal the father of the bride kindly came over to talk with me.  “I hear you’re a writer,” he said.

That was what he said, but not what I heard.  I heard, “I hear you’re a rider.”

Americans often do get mushy with our consonants, a trait not exclusive to dialects different from our own.

“No,” I said.  “I admire the animals, but I’ve had very little experience with horses.”

He gave me one of the strangest looks I’ve ever seen.

We had an awkward moment, with a few mutually unintelligible attempts on each side, until finally he made a sign of someone writing with a pen on paper.

“Oh!” I said.  “I beg your pardon.  Well, I write a bit, but I haven’t accomplished enough that I would call myself a writer.  Very kind of you to say so, though.”

We had a little more conversation, less awkward as we progressed, and then he went on to speak with other guests.

I’ve thought about that brief conversation periodically not only for its mixed embarrassment and humor, but also for the pertinent (where it isn’t impertinent) and difficult question it raises.

When can someone say–confidently, accurately, honestly, humbly–“Yes, I am a writer”?

Now and then I’ll encounter an indignant student (usually a teenager, and usually after getting a “B” or something even more intolerably horrible and insulting on a paper) who will argue, “But I’m a published author!”  Right:  not just a writer, but an author:  I certainly do beg your pardon.

To that person author is a term of honor that he or she has won by appearing in the high school’s annual creative publication or from having answered an add in the back of a magazine from a grocery store rack that invites, “Become a published author! Win cash prizes!”  The result brings a chance to buy an enormous book with hundreds of willy-nilly poems sent in by others who read the same magazine and couldn’t resist the call to fame and prize money.  I don’t condemn anyone for doing that, nor do I intend to make fun of them.  Figuring out how to write well and publish reasonably is as hard as or harder than it has ever been, and the only way I know to learn is to try.  The attitude is the problem.  I’ve worked also with students who have self-published their own books.  In a couple cases, the books have been pretty good.  I don’t at all blame them for that, and I admire their energy, commitment, and courage, especially if they have produced something fun to read.  But that doesn’t make them authors yet.  It does suggest to me the possibility that someday they may well become authors:  they have work ethic, drive, desire, and the hope to please a reader.

If they aren’t yet authors, they may well be writers–beginning writers, anyway.  To me author implies someone who has gained a readership and credibility by publishing over time substantial work that is at least pretty good–the person has probably supplemented his or her income if not made a living by writing.  Writer:  again that means commitment and practice over time, though it may not imply regular successes.  Is a person who writes only for his or her own pleasure, without sharing the work with others, a writer?  I don’t see anything at all wrong with that.  Writing can provide a means for self-reflection and development while helping a person clarify thoughts–how do I know what I think until I see what I say, E. M. Forster said.  To me writer implies commitment to craft, desire to do well, and the ability to make pages–and maybe at some point the intention to share that work.

I’m just now beginning to think of myself as a writer, and I don’t yet think of myself as an author–though I hope to get to that stage, after death if not before.  I’ve done many sorts of writing over many years with the aim of sharing that writing with readers, but it has served as part of my profession, not as a sole endeavor or means of making a living.  Many readers have said they’ve enjoyed the work; some have said they hated it and me.  As Kurt Vonnegut wrote:  so it goes.

If you are an author:  congratulations, and well done!  If you are a writer:  press on, and let’s do our best together to write well and find our audiences.  If you want to be a writer:  it takes lots of work, but we gotta do what we gotta do.

10  A Ghost Story

Over winter holiday I wrote a new book:  a ghost story.

I had never written one before, nor had I thought ever to write one.  I’ve read a fair number of them, but don’t especially like the genre.

If you’ve heard of ghostly possession:  this was a case of story possession.

On a fall evening, around midnight, I was standing in our sunroom (which also makes a very nice moonroom) looking outside.  The light was a strange silvery-white, the ground was beginning to frost over, and the moon hung lopsided over the fir trees.

Over the south fence crept the ghost.  It dropped down beside the garden and began looking around and sniffing.

I don’t think it saw me, but it sensed my presence.  I hunched down by the sofa to get a good look at it without giving too clear a view of myself.

The neighbors’ dog barked.  It barked again, and then it howled.  With two steps and a leap the ghost had disappeared over the west fence.

The image of the ghost took me back to a nightmare I had in childhood.  I must have been five or six years old at the time, and I woke up frozen and shaking from that dream.  I wonder if Mary Shelley felt that way when the monstrous image first struck her imagination.

Then the story hit me with as much surprise as had the vision of the ghost.  The story came nearly whole, minus only historical details, in an instant, and it insisted that I write it.

I held it off until after Christmas, when I had the opportunity to work, and then I could hold it off no longer.  I didn’t want to write that story, but it wanted to be written.

The research and outline took two days.

The story took twenty-two days and 64,000 words.  Not a long story, but long enough–long enough.

I took three more days to edit it and make sure I felt comfortable with it.

I thought of Horace’s entreaty that the poet should put a new poem away for nine years before showing it publicly.

Then I shrugged off Horace and sent the manuscript to an editor who had asked me to send my next book when I had it ready.

I don’t know if that editor will take it.  I hope so.  I hate the process of sending, rejection, sending, rejection, sending, rejecting . . . sending, half-hearted acceptance.  You know what goes in the ellipsis.

I’ve heard and read accounts of writers completing books in unbelievably short periods of time.  I’ve written one in a summer or in a sabbatical semester.  But this one dashed ahead at a nearly unearthly speed.  I held on and typed as quickly as I could.

I told a couple friends what had happened.  One said, “Don’t send it out yet.  Keeping reworking it, or even put it away for a while, and then go back to it.  You don’t want to feel embarrassed later about having sent out something unfinished.

But it does feel finished.  I told the whole story as well as I can, I think.

The other friend said, “Don’t worry.  This one will do well.  When they come that quickly and naturally, that will be your best work.  If not this editor, the next editor will take it.”

I don’t know.  Who does?

By the way:  the two friends weren’t named Justinus and Placebo.

I do wish you that experience.  To be taken over by a story that so eagerly wants you to tell it is a very strange and interesting experience.  Perhaps you’ve had it already.  It’s much easier and pleasanter than having to grind out and work up every small plot detail from scratch.  But I hope for you it’s something less unsettling than a ghost story.

Unless, unlike me, you really like ghost stories.  In that case:  have a good scare!


10  Tennis, Anyone?

Watching tennis on tv has never especially grabbed me, though I like to play it or even to watch, in person, good players play.

Bingley loves to watch tennis on tv.  It’s the only tv he watches except for his favorite period dramas.

He’s more of a music kind of guy, npr especially:  string quartets if he’s feeling sleepy, jazz if he wants to watch the birds outside, acoustic guitar when he wants to play, choirs or folk vocalists around the holidays, wind ensembles when the weather’s nice and symphonies when it snows.  His tail sways back and forth with the music.

But he will watch his tennis intently.  He follows the ball so closely that he won’t talk with me while a match is going on.  The rest of the world disappears for him.  He often sighs after double-faults, and he’ll sometimes mew for winners.

I asked him if he has a favorite player.

“Nadal,” he said nonchalantly.  “For now.”


“Catlike,” he said.

“Is he your all-time favorite?”



“Navratilova.”  Ah:  too much ESPN Classic again.


“Even more catlike.”

Once we were watching a younger player who had hit a bad spell and couldn’t seem to get any shots in. I always feel bad for good players when they play badly, so I was going to change the channel.

“No!” Bingley said.

“All right.”  I put down the remote.  “I wonder what’s wrong with her today?”

“Forehand and backhand,” Bingley said.  “Rhythm’s off.”

Well, he does listen to lots of music.

“Oh?” I asked.  “How can you tell?”

He turned toward me and looked me in the eye.  “Forehand should go like this.”  He swiped a paw–no claws–across my cheek.  “You see?”


“And backhand should go like this.”  He whipped his paw back across my cheek the other way.

“Understand now?  Rhythm.”  He looked me right in the eyes.

“Yes, yes, I understand now.  Thank you very much.”

“Welcome,” he said.

After a bit, the young player was doing a little better, though she didn’t win her match.  Her opponent was too tough.

“Williams sisters are cool,” he said.

“Catlike?” I asked.

“Catlike,” he said, and he smiled and closed his eyes.