The Story behind “Cat Stories”
The grey cat that appears in my essay has been moving in and out of my head for years with the same freedom he had to come and go through the window my mother left open for him. Neko-chan’s bond with my mother predated my existence by ten years. Although he disappeared before I was old enough to remember him, he left an indelible mark: through him, I became the girl who slept peacefully with a cat, the good baby who never cried.
Neko-chan is in the book of personal narrative I am currently working on, but only as a back story. When I started my essay for Waveform, I had several chapters of the book in rough draft, all of them still too amorphous to be trimmed and shaped into stand-alone essays. So I decided to write a separate essay to explore one of the emerging themes: how cats have defined my sense of self. I would combine and re-mix several elements scattered across various chapter drafts, add new segments of narrative and reflection, and see where that work would take me for the essay and also for the book. I was excited about starting “Cat Stories” with Neko-chan and giving him a larger space to roam around in. It was also a relief to take a break from the book project and focus my attention on a self-contained piece of writing that would have a beginning, middle, and end in the space of 5,000 to 8,000 words.
In his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate suggests that the essay’s essential movement is circular: “the essay form allows the writer to circle around one particular autobiographical piece, squeezing all possible meaning out of it, while leaving the greater part of his life story available for later milking.” Although I don’t think of myself as a farmer milking a cow (I’m not comfortable with the assumption that the writer is a man and the material is a ripe fruit or a female animal), I, too, love the essay for its freedom of movement, the leisurely circling approach to the truth.
The essay allows us to alternate between narrative and reflection, personal experience and public information. We can tell a story and then interrogate or even contradict that story, or ask questions we may not be able to answer completely. In the process, we get to “think on the page” or at least leave some traces of the thinking that went on behind the scenes so that, even after a dozen revisions, the prose retains a sense of spontaneity.
I do believe that an essay is or should be linear as well as circular. The progression of a successful essay is an increasing sense of clarity: after all that circling, we should arrive at (or near) some wisdom, truth, or understanding. I’m not drawn to essays that leave too many questions unanswered, or those that beautifully recreate the confusing state of the world but decline to deliver the writer’s opinion or judgment about it. I value both complication and clarity; I prefer essays to be expansive and definitive. I suppose that makes me a traditional rather than an experimental essayist.
My goal was for the essay to appear to be drawing loose overlapping circles that, nonetheless, became tighter and tighter: like a plane descending toward a landing strip. I drafted “Cat Stories”—as I do all my essays—from an informal outline, just a handful of items arranged with a simple sense of logic. My outlines resemble grocery lists. I don’t use numbers, letters of the alphabet, or (God forbid) bullets. I feel free to disregard any item on the list if it doesn’t look good when I get there and grab something else instead. I don’t save my drafts because I find it more confusing than helpful to look back and compare. The original list gets tossed or lost somewhere along the way. After multiple revisions, I often forget which parts were on the original list, which parts got added or shifted around when. But I do remember this.
The final part of “Cat Stories” about sleeping with my current cats was unplanned. The idea just “came to me” when I got to the end and realized that an essay that started with sleeping with a cat as an infant should close with sleeping with cats all these decades later. The last sentence of anything I write is either an hour-long struggle or a no-brainer. This one seemed to write itself: “That’s my cat story, still in progress.” Although I didn’t think of it in such an analytical way at the time, the statement leaves the essay in a place that is at once definitive and expansive. The story is pinned down and yet changing, just like the paradox of my two cats: the one that clings to me keeps me afloat and the other, who sits serenely on my lap (almost seeming to float), anchors me. Of course I had been aware for years of the contrast between my two cats, but I had never been able to put it quite this way. I like coming to an essay already possessing (as a result of some life experience outside of writing) a piece of wisdom I can put into it, but I love having a new thought occur to me while I’m writing. The first kind of wisdom is hard won; the second feels like a freebee, a gift.
Now, my cats and I can fall asleep every night knowing that we are reenacting a piece of writing I managed to finish. We’re still working on the book but “Cat Stories” helped me see my way clearer through the larger project.