Thursday, 23 June 2011

Writer's Lap Cats

I'm involved in a difficult project right now -- a project so challenging, I may never succeed in my efforts to bring it to fruition.

I'm not talking about actual writing this time, however challenging it is. And writing is, to be sure, very challenging. I'm making revisions on a novel I've written for adults. I thought I was finished with it two weeks ago. After numerous beta readers had weighed in, after umpteen revisions and rewritings, I even sent it off to my agent. Then I happened to reread one paragraph and found, within it, both unnecessary words and a small plot hole. So, I'm clipping and tweaking yet again, because if I found these infelicities in just one paragraph, there's no telling what horrors lurk in the rest of the manuscript. And yes, it's hard work. But my newest project is harder still.

I'm not talking about teaching either; although I find my small class absorbing, time-consuming, and exhausting. We've been working on graphs lately, and how to write simple sentences comparing statistical data. This ought to be straightforward, but I find breaking down the concepts into understandable chunks quite difficult. My students have also been scratching their heads on the finer points of English idioms, and how you can get something half right, but still manage to fail entirely in getting your ideas across. Consider that machines can break down, but couples can break up; that thieves break in while wars and skin break out. Consider that when you arise in the morning, you get up, but when you alight from a vehicle you get down. Then consider that people sing songs about getting down and getting it on and even, occasionally, tell others to get with it, which is all very mystifying if you are comparatively new to English. If you're already preposition-challenged, English phrasal verbs are hell on earth. Still, teaching them is no match for this latest challenge I have taken on.

I'm not talking about translating either -- which mercifully has been put on hold for a while, and let's hope that it stays that way for as long as possible -- and I'm not even talking about raising teenagers. Teenagers who might want to go to rock concerts in far away cities in the middle of the school week, for instance, when there are no reputable parents prepared to collect them, at midnight. Teenagers who almost certainly have to be nagged about homework assignments, household chores, and putting away their laundry.

No, this challenge is greater than all of these things: I am trying to train my cats to be lap cats. Specifically, a writer's lap cats.

My last cat was the perfect writer's lap cat. She would sit for hours on my lap, occasionally getting her head between my hands and the keyboard, but generally behaving herself and offering me nothing but slavish devotion and love. She had a few tiny bad habits: she drooled (disgusting until I got to know her); she brought me no end of dead rodents (which occasionally interrupted my work, especially when they weren't quite dead and managed to crawl under furniture to die in peace). But by and large, she was a huge help. Whenever I got rejections, she gave me her shrewdest, canniest look: she would stare up at me and in her eyes I would read How can you let this stop you from writing? Don't you realize what a gift you have, oh wondrous one? Her purrs soothed and comforted me.

Sadly, my current cats do not have her writer's lap cat skills. Occasionally, one of them will jump up on my lap. This would be encouraging, if only he or she would sit down, curl up, and start purring. But for some reason, they don't do this. Instead, they remain standing, blocking my view of the keyboard and screen. They then turn their backs to me, tails held high, presenting a view of themselves I would rather not become acquainted with. The male drools; the female meows incessantly. They both scratch furniture to get attention, they both hunt, and they both insist on bringing me their prey. On the rare occasions they have been with me during periods of writer angst, what I read in their eyes is Another rejection, huh? Haven't you figured it out, idiot? Get up and get us some grub!

But I am patient and I am stubborn, because those are skills I have had to hone as a mother, as a teacher, and as a writer. When they jump onto the keyboard, I gentle them off it. When they present their bottoms to me, I turn them around. When they scratch to get attention, I let them know, kindly but firmly, that this is Not the Way. Slowly, I am doing what I can to make sows ears into silk purses.

And who knows? It might just work. Especially now that I've got a 2-kg box of special-offer chicken 'n liver cat treats.


Linnhe Mara said...

Have you considered a lap dog? Easier to train and infinitely more loyal, though not so good with the purring.

Charles Gramlich said...

egads, why not try to create world peace while you're at it? :)

MG Higgins said...

Yes, the treats will definitely help. Although I'm with Charles a bit on this one. One of our cats sits on our laps but only when we're in certain chairs and at certain times of the day. The other won't voluntarily jump on our laps, but tolerates sitting there for a few minutes when we lift him up and plop him down. Sigh.

Dale said...

:-) good luck, dear!

Anonymous said...

Ah, the old "positive reinforcement" technique (aka post-facto bribe). It might work, but then again, based on my experience with cats, trying to train them NOT to sit on your lap might be a more efficient way to get them to do it!

Chocolatesa said...

I think I have ignored and shoved away my cat to the point where she doesn't even jump up in my lap any more when I'm in front of the computer lol. But she always does if I'm on the couch. I prefer this to her doing the "look how unclean my butt is!" thing like yours and walking/lying on the mouse/keyboard.

angryparsnip said...

Oh My, Good Luck with that !

Son had a beautiful small snake that would curl up in and around his hand when he read a book before computers. Daughter had a tiny Hamster that sat on the keyboard when she worked on the computer. I have dogs who love to sleep on and by my feet when work. I had a cat who sat on my worktable but no cats who sat on my lap while I worked for hours.
You had a very lovely cat !

cheers, parsnip

Vijaya said...

Oh, how I miss my old cat ... he was true lap cat. Sigh. But one of the new kittens may follow in his paws. He's attached to me and follows me around, but he's not quite learned to settle in my lap when I'm writing. Too playful still. Give them a couple of years, I'd say.

You sure have a lot of irons in the fire. But the lap-cat is the best project of all.

Angelina C. Hansen said...

My lapcat competes with the laptop. Right now, lapcat is purring away, working hard to make himself comfortable (and me uncomfortable but of course, he must be accomomdated, right). Best wishes with that training.

Chocolatesa said...

As my boyfriend says, we have a keyboard cat, not a lap cat lol. Here's a picture I just took with my phone, sorry for the bad quality:

Angela Ackerman said...

Training a cat! It might be easier to lasso the

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

KLM said...

Herding cats.

Writing books.

It takes the same level of hard-headedness to undertake these crazy, doomed-to-fail sorts of things.

I pity you, Mary. I do.

I completely understand you as well.

Robin said...

That sounds really difficult. I didn't even know cats could be trained. My cat seemed to know what to do automatically, but she only really did what she wanted, so that doesn't quite count.

My dogs would be perfect for you, except for the intelligent and knowing looks. They have vapidly happy looks. It would make you smile, but not be very comforting.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Angelina would never work as a lap cat, she demanded too much attention. For a cat, she was pretty high maintenance.

Kim Ayres said...

Just train Mr Witzl to sit with his head on your lap while you're typing... ;)

Mary Witzl said...

Linnhe -- Lap dogs need walking, right? Unfortunately, that's a deal breaker, though I can see the value of it.

Charles -- If it works, I'll definitely try the peace thing -- right after recording my achievement with the Guinness World Records people.

MG -- That's pretty much the stage mine are at. When they know treats are forthcoming, they tolerate the odd couple of minutes on my lap. Then, duty accomplished -- and treat consumed -- they jump down. But if we wanted dogs, we'd have gotten dogs, right? Sigh.

Dale -- Thank you! I need all the luck I can get. They're putting up steady resistance.

Anne -- I have no luck keeping them off the table or getting them NOT to scratch the furniture, so yes, you're right. Wish I knew how to make them think my lap is as delightful a place for them to sit as the top of the stove or the kitchen table.

Chocolatesa -- I'm less than eager about them jumping on my bed in the morning, because they tend to bring their prey with them, or have muddy paws. But perhaps because I try to get them to sit on my lap, they're suspicious and resist doing this. I keep those treats handy and hope for the best. I want at least one functional, practising lap cat.

AP -- I was spoiled with my last cat. I knew it at the time, but each time I try and fail to get one of my selfish, entitled ingrate cats to sit on my lap I am reminded afresh.

Your daughter's keyboard hamster sounds great! When these cats eventually go back to the person they belong to, I may replace them with a rodent.

Mary Witzl said...

Vijaya -- Training a lap cat is a good way to hone patience, and it helps keep me humble too. I hope my next cats will be quiet ones who know how to curl up on someone's lap, purr, and KEEP STILL. But in the meantime I've got these two irritating cats, and I just have to keep trying. I've got my fingers crossed for your trainee kitten!

Angelina -- I like your use of the word 'accommodated': any kind of cat affection ought to be accommodated as a general rule. Personally, I can never resist the belly displaying ploy. No matter what I'm doing, once my cats roll over and give me that come-hither look, I have to acknowledge the gesture.

Chocolatesa -- My cats prefer the keyboard to my lap too. I think they figure that's where the action is: my fingers are moving all over it, so they want to get in on the digital input.

Angela -- I know, I'm crazy! But I love tilting at windmills and dreaming the impossible dream. After all, I'm also trying to get an MG book published ;o).

KLM -- Someone has to climb the towering mountains, don't they? Someone has to lasso the moon and paint the stars gold and put a silver collar around the sun. People who are trying to publish books know all about doomed, crazy, reckless hope.

Robin -- What I do is keep the treats at hand and offer them randomly after a few minutes of quality lap sitting. So far I've only had to shell out a couple of times, so you can see how well my training isn't going. The female jumps up on my lap, feigns affection for up to two minutes, then, unable to bear it any longer, starts making a noisy, in-your-face, irritating bid for treats. She is driving me INSANE, but I'll keep at it (cue in theme music for Chariots of Fire & Man of La Mancha).

Robert -- I've got an Angelina-type cat right now. She gets into everything, talks non-stop, and is about to get herself chucked out of this room even as I write this. But I will persevere!

Kim -- It wouldn't be the same. No human can simulate the purring long enough. Plus, he weighs too much.

Pat said...

Now Mary - are you sure this isn't just a ploy to get out of actually doing the writing?
As a great procrastinator myself it sounds a tad familiar - and I do it without the aid of dumb animals:)

Aledys Ver said...

I don't have a cat but a bunny. He is very sweet and likes spending time sitting just very close to my feet while I'm working. Occasionally, he will try to call for attention by pulling my trousers with his teeth or pushing me with the flat of his head.
I've tried to train him to jump and sit close to me or on my lap but he just seems to panic when I pick him up.
Good luck with your cats - I just hope that you don't get both used to sitting on your lap at the same time and then you get them fighting for the best spot while you're trying to do some work! :D

veach glines said...

A challenge. Since I have trained cats, I think it is doable. Might I suggest:

1 - An electric heating pad in your lap, turned up high, in a cold room, where the cat is trapped with you.

2 - If the cat chooses a different place to lie, remove that item (cushion, blanket, etc) from the room.

3 - Last resort: shear the cat's torso hair with electric shears (not head, tail, or leg hair) and repeat 1 and 2. Drastic, I know, but it'll grow back.

4 - When the cat "chooses" to lie on your heating-padded lap, don't fuss or overly praise it.

5 - Repeat this for weeks (gradually turning the pad temperature down). After about two the three weeks you should be able to remove the heating pad.

Carole said...

Training cats? I agree with Charles. Just go for world peace.

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