Writing About Cats

by | Feb 19, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

“We do not publish pornography, society gossip, or poems about cats.”

Almost twenty years ago, that sentence was part of the Submission Guidelines for Oxford American magazine, to which I was a subscriber. At that time, I knew myself to be a Very Serious Writer, even though I didn’t do a whole lot of actual writing, except for all the history papers I was writing as a history major. And I could tell that Oxford American was a magazine that published Very Serious Writers, so I was in on the joke, which also wasn’t a joke: pornography, society gossip, and poems about cats are frivolous, not serious, not suitable. Not for Oxford American and not for the likes of me, who knew better, whose laughter was tinged with contempt.

I’ll leave it to others to argue either way about the literary merit of pornography or society gossip. I’d prefer to zero in on poems about cats, while also broadening the category to include writing about pets, and art about pets. Here’s my thesis: writing/art about pets is not, by nature, frivolous, and it can absolutely have literary/artistic merit, just as any subject can. 

Issue 1 of Everyone Quarterly, the literary journal edited by Joseph Young and published by our partner site, The Art of Everyone, is devoted to animals. The whole issue is wonderful, and I hope reading it motivates you to submit to Issue 3: Amusement. Most animals are not pets, of course, and accordingly, most of the pieces in Issue 1 are not about pets. But some are, and they are remarkable, and instructive as you start to think about writing about pets yourself.

Coincidentally, both of my examples are actually about not having a pet. In “The Maintenance Crew,” Florina Falce begins her essay on endangered species with a personal anecdote about wanting a pet but knowing it wasn’t possible. The feelings, as she writes about them, are very real and not easy to navigate. 

And in the fourth and longest of her “Letters to Animals,” addressed to “dear cat i want to adopt,” Stephanie Barber writes with longing and painful self-awareness about her “bad pet record,” exemplified (in her mind) by a particularly tragic story about a different cat, George. The letter is relatable to anyone, not just cat owner’s, who feels, from time to time, that they’ve somehow been grossly remiss in their responsibilities. In this case, the narrator certainly hasn’t been remiss, but that doesn’t make the guilt any less real. 

Virginia Woolf wrote a whole novel (well, arguably a novella) from the close third-person point of view of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel. Third-dog point of view? It’s called Flush: A Biography, and in it, little Flush tells his frightening (and true-to-life) tale of being dognapped, and, less dramatically but perhaps more poignantly, being a bit forgotten in favor of his companion’s suitor, Robert Browning.

Is Flush Woolf’s most celebrated work? Certainly not, nor should it be. Browning’s own poems about Flush might not be her best work, either, though they do render genuine emotion and the personality of their subject.

But Flush is still Woolf, and it’s still delightful. Here, the potency of a dog’s sense of smell lends a synesthetic immediacy to a description of Italy:

He nosed his way from smell to smell; the rough, the smooth, the dark, the golden. He went in and out, up and down, where they beat brass, where they bake bread, where the women sit combing their hair, where the bird-cages are piled high on the causeway, where the wine spills itself in dark red stains on the pavement, where leather smells and harness and garlic, where cloth is beaten, where vine leaves tremble, where men sit and drink and spit and dice — he ran in and out, always with his nose to the ground, drinking in the essence; or with his nose in the air vibrating with the aroma. He slept in this hot patch of sun — how sun made the stone reek! he sought that tunnel of shade — how acid shade made the stone smell!He devoured whole bunches of ripe grapes largely because of their purple smell; he chewed and spat out whatever tough relic of goat or macaroni the Italian housewife had thrown from the balcony — goat and macaroni were raucous smells, crimson smells. 

You could convincingly argue that Flush is really about the ills of the city or that it’s really about Elizabeth Barrett Browning herself rather than her dog. And that’s fine. There’s no rule that poems about cats have to be, deep down, poems about cats and nothing else. “A Lady with a Dog” by Anton Chekhov isn’t really about a Pomeranian, either.

But the next example that supports my thesis, Laurie Anderson’s documentary Heart of a Dog, really is, primarily, about a pet. After the passing of her beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle, Anderson made this beautiful tribute film, which also touches on the deaths of her mother and of her husband and partner of over twenty years, Lou Reed. 

I went in thinking the movie would really be about Reed, but at its core, it really is about Lolabelle. It’s about other things, too: memory, Buddhism, September 11, the complications of love, especially in regard to her mother. But I saw the film at least 5 years ago, and what lingers is how powerfully Anderson renders the soul and spirit of Lolabelle through her own footage and her narration. Heart of a Dog is meditative and lyrical, most obviously, and very sad, but the joy Anderson clearly took in her companion along with the dog’s incredible personality as we experience it on screen, is  life-giving.


Prompt

Write a poem about a cat. Or a story about a horse (my literary specialty as a child). Or start a memoir about your irascible chinchilla. This prompt offers a lot of room for experimentation. It could be funny, as Flush often is, or it could be more serious, like Heart of a Dog

When I’ve assigned personal essays to high school students in the past, I tend to steer them away from writing about the loss of a dog (or a grandparent) because I worry their piece will end up being a bit cliche, probably in the same way the editors of Oxford American felt about poems about cats. But often my students’ essays about a beloved pet’s death were some of the best work I received, both in the sensory detail of capturing the animal on the page, and in the emotional texture of their love and grief. 

This is not to say death has to be the subject matter. You could write about not having a pet, or not wanting a pet. You could imagine a pet as a way to develop a character in a story, or write about someone else’s pet, as Woolf did. Like Anderson, you can easily explore other ideas or narratives while still staying true to representing the animal somehow as the primary subject. 

Alternate Prompt

Write something that you feel really good about, schedule it to publish in two weeks, give birth to an adorable baby, and then find out that most of the thing you wrote has been irretrievably erased. Rewrite it in the sleepless haze of having a newborn, knowing it’s not nearly as good as the first version. Forgive yourself. You just had a baby, and everyone will understand.