Monody For A Broken Cat

Sometimes a careful reader cannot make it past your Dedication Page without finding a point to ponder. I dedicated my first novel, Standing On A Whale, to my family, my students, my grandson, and to “Bones—the cat that taught me more in three days than I have managed to learn in a lifetime.”

One of my readers wanted to know what on earth Bones did “to me/with me/for me within a three day span to stir up my education beyond all of my previous decades of life-lessons.” He said, “I simply must unearth this untold mystery. I am like Poirot; my little gray cells are spinning and reeling in contemplation of this hidden nugget.”

For those of you who follow me, this reader was TJ. I loved TJ’s five-page letter. I knew when I read it that I would be using it in my blog. Here was the response I wrote to him.

Bones was a random cat that entered my world one uncommonly cold November evening. The cat appeared in my back yard out of nowhere. That was the most messed up cat I had ever seen. Every rib was exposed, an eye was missing, it had open wounds all over its body and it walked crooked. I didn’t know if it was a ‘he’ cat or a ‘she’ cat because I didn’t dare check, but let’s go with a ‘he’ cat.

My husband and I tried to “shoo” him away because he looked disease-ridden and dangerous and we had a young child in the house with serious allergies. God only knew if he had rabies or scabies. But the cat didn’t go away at our “shoo.” He walked right up to us and nuzzled up against my leg. Out of fear of contagion, I pulled away indifferently and ran into the house.

For the rest of the evening my lack of compassion troubled me. Not even Chris Matthews could pull me away from my disgust for myself. I stared at that cat from the kitchen window for long periods of time. I had pets of my own that I loved dearly and wondered what in the hell was wrong with me. The cat was suffering. Why couldn’t I engage?

My husband suggested we get a box out of the garage to shelter the cat from the cold. He put a few old towels and some food in the box; I simply stood there, a witness to his heroic efforts. My biggest contribution was turning the back porch light on so the cat wouldn’t be in the dark.

I couldn’t sleep at all that night. I kept getting up and checking on the cat through the kitchen window. There he stood—in the box, in the light, staring at me with those pathetic soulful eyes. I wondered why he was still standing and then I realized he was probably in too much pain to lie down.

The next morning we tried to feed him but he was too weak to eat. We figured he was going to die any moment, but he didn’t die. He lingered for two long days. By the morning of the second day I was able to touch him with my hand. The feel of his hard body against my hand stabbed at my heart and I started to cry hysterically. I had to go to work that day. By the time I got home the cat had died. A piece of me died that day, too. What had I done to help him—turn on the lights?

To justify my lack of compassion, I gave the cat a name. I called him Bones. We had the neighbor boy bury him in our back yard and I erected a simple flower arrangement over his grave. I cried on and off for the next two weeks. I saw Bones’ face everywhere I went.

It took weeks to get over the ordeal, but as time passed, I realized that Bones had come into my life to crack my shell of indifference to the suffering. Bones taught me that no matter what physical form we arrive in, we have something to teach. I learned a lot about myself from Bones. The experience was illuminating, so when I published my novel I made sure that Bones was added to my Dedication Page. He was, after all, one of my greatest teachers and deserved an Honorable Mention. Little did I know that the Mention would cause such a stir!

For book and review see: Amazon

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The Scalpel Of Decision – To Cut Or Not To Cut

I walked into the aging classroom, eager to teach the new group of writers. Before I introduced myself, a woman in the group stood up and took me by surprise: “I recently lost my husband,” she said. “I’ve been writing all about it to help process my pain. I signed up for this class so you would edit my work.” She sat down, I introduced myself and the class began. Through group introductions, I learned that her name was Hazel.

I taught the first night’s lesson and at the end of class, I walked up to Hazel. “I’m not an editor,” I explained, “but I would be willing to look over the first three chapters of your manuscript and make a few comments.” She agreed and handed me her entire manuscript in a folder. When I got home I removed the first three chapters I had offered to edit and placed the rest in a rubber band.

Those first three chapters were very good. Hazel was writing vivid detail about her husband’s last days in his hospital bed and the writing was raw and alive. I noted how good it was in the margin. I also noted that she needed to get me out of that hospital room now and then; I was starting to suffocate. I suggested that she take me to the window and show me something that was happening in the parking lot or perhaps show me the sky and describe the light. I thought it was sound advice and handed the folder back to her at the end of the next class.

Hazel did not come back to class the following week, nor did she come for the rest of the six-week session. One year had passed before Hazel signed up for another one of my classes. She walked up to me and told me that my editing really upset her. I was surprised. She said my comments made sense, but she didn’t want to alter her writing in any way and that she had stopped writing that story altogether. She also said she was in a better place emotionally and was ready to make a fresh start.

Editing is a touchy area and self-editing is tough work. This is why we cannot edit alone. We need feedback, advice and criticism and getting emotional when we get it, especially when we ask for it, isn’t productive. If you want to be a writer, it is essential to accept criticism. Beta readers and critique groups are good, but professional editors are my favorite. Not only do they line edit, they work on developmental editing which involves the shape of the plot, characterization, structural narrative and timeline issues.

In Standing On A Whale, my first novel, I had some major time line issues that I couldn’t see by myself. My editor was invaluable in helping me getting it all straightened out and my story was better for it. By remaining open and listening to sound advice, I learned a lot about editing. I also had a first chapter that I used as Back Story to get me jump started. I was sure my editor was going to ask me to cut it and let my story stand on its own, but she liked it and suggested I use it as the Prologue. I was thrilled that I got to keep it, but had she asked me to cut it, I would have.

We must constantly ask ourselves, “Can my story stand on its own without this line, this paragraph, or this narrative?” If it can, use your scalpel. If revision means to envision again, using your scalpel can be a good thing. Search your writing, scalpel in hand, and hunt for shining thoughts, energized thoughts, alive and present thoughts. Cut the rest. While you are editing, you may just find some extra time to add more layers and create more tension. You owe it to yourself and to your readers to submit well-edited writing. Your future writing career could depend on it.

For book and reviews, see: Amazon.com

Your Title Is Your Hook

Many people ask me about the title of my book, Standing On A Whale. The title is a metaphor and it was not my original title for this novel.  The title changed three times while I was working on it. The first title was The Crystal Mystic and the second was Stage Whisper. As with everything else I have experienced in the writing process, things change frequently and usually when we are not looking.

By accident, if you believe in such a thing, I stumbled upon this quote, “Standing on a Whale, Fishing for Minnows.” I liked the sound of it and researched it further. I found it to be a metaphor for a Polynesian philosophy that captured every element of my novel. I adore metaphors, so I changed my title immediately. My editor agreed. She said it was the perfect title for the book.

According to this philosophy, most people are looking in the wrong direction in their search for truth and wholeness. For the Polynesians, the whale represents the inner ground of our being or the deep unconscious mind. They believe this is where we live and where we need to look to find answers to our deepest questions about life. Most of us are constantly looking in the outer world—for diversions, hobbies, pastimes, relationships and entertainment. These are the distractions or the minnows that we believe will find us happiness, prosperity and fame. According to the Polynesians, it is the inner, the center of our being that makes life worth living and the sooner we find our center and ground ourselves in it, the happier we become. When we fish for the minnows and forget to check out the whale right beneath our feet, we are not at peace. I chose this metaphor because it clearly represents the life and transformation of my protagonist, Lance Stavros.

In this vapid world of fast-food, disposable products and corporate greed, young and old alike are searching for meaning in their lives. It is this audience that I had in mind when I wrote my novel and I hope to reach as many as I can. Anyone who lives with or has experienced emotional pain, destructive tendencies, or addictions will find Standing On A Whale familiar, engaging, and at its heart—inspirational

So, whatever title you choose for your book, remember that it is a hook. Your title needs to snag your readers and make them curious enough to want to fall into your pages. Sometimes you may have to change your title several times before you find the one that fits.

For book and reviews see: Amazon.com

Stirring Coffee With An Anxious Spoon

Shortly after I published Standing On A Whale, I received a letter from one of my readers. He claimed that the book was a spirited read from which he learned much, but that he was having some trouble with one of my descriptive passages. For the sake of anonymity, we’ll call this reader TJ. Here’s what he had to say:

“The descriptive passage that drove me a bit mad was on page 150. It read, “He swirled his coffee with an anxious spoon.”  A spoon cannot be anxious. An anxious hand can swiftly swirl a spoon within a cup, but the spoon itself cannot be anxious. Professor McTaggart taught me in Creative Writing 101 that you cannot humanize an object. Have the rules changed since 1980? Am I a completely outdated writer? Am I a keypunch in a time of iPhones? I was walking about the house for ten minutes mumbling, “An anxious spoon?! This can’t be!” And then I couldn’t get that crazy scene out of my mind from “The Owl and the Pussycat” picture with George Segal and Barbra Streisand wherein she reads the first line of his newly drafted novel, and it reads, “the sun spit morning,” and she exclaims, “the sun spit morning?! What?! You Can’t say that?!The sun spit morning…that makes no sense…” and on and on they go, round for round in the middle of the night over this one line in the book, until they are asked to leave the friend’s house they are overnighting at due to their hilarious loud bickering over this one line. And here I was, walking the house, murmuring, “He stirred his coffee with an anxious spoon.” That can’t be. I mean, it could read, ‘His anxious hand swirled the coffee within the mug with such velocity the coffee spilt from the sides onto the white linen table cloth’ — but an anxious spoon?!”

The following was my partial response to TJ:

Dear TJ

“First of all, I want to thank you for your letter. Your extravagant humor amused me and delighted me at every turn.  Secondarily, anyone who takes the time to write a five page letter about anyone’s book certainly deserves a reply. I am impressed with your attention to detail. Let me address “the anxious spoon.” I am quite certain that the rules of Creative Writing 101 have not changed very much since 1980, but I have changed a lot. No longer am I a rule-follower. In my reality, the “cow can jump over the moon” and “the dish can run away with the spoon.” I can even allow the spoon to feel anxious. It is a freeing world, this world of writing, and once in a while I allow myself to break the rules and indulge in creative wonder. I do not remember planning that line on page 150. It flowed quite naturally out of my subconscious and I never gave it a second thought. Perhaps I am learning to let go of my preconceived ideas of the way things should be. Perhaps I am learning to let go of those artificial boundaries that have enslaved me for so long. We are all one, after all. There are no boundaries.”

Write whatever is in front of you. Write to free yourself. Leave the rules behind and remember, “The dish can run away with the spoon,” even if the spoon is anxious!

For book and review see Amazon.