Can’t concentrate? Having trouble getting into flow with your writing? Get a cat!
Advice to writers can come from the most interesting places. An unexpected, but most entertaining source of advice is A Far Cry from Kensington, a novel by British writer Muriel Spark.
A Far Cry takes place in 1954 London. Mrs. Hawkins, the narrator, has a job in publishing. And yes, it is she who offers the acutely insightful advice that if you can’t concentrate, get a cat.
In a hilarious dinner party scene, Mrs. Hawkins is seated by a red-faced, watery-eyed Brigadier, who, in response to her question about his having had an interesting life, replies, “Could write a book.” He hasn’t because he hasn’t been able to concentrate.
Mrs. Hawkins tells him that to concentrate, “you need a cat”:
Alone with a cat in the room where you work . . . the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp. . . . The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost.
Spark is saying in her engaging style that to regain the self-discipline and focus you need to write, let go of the negative, chattering voices in your mind and all of the endless responsibilities calling to you.
Occasionally my dissertation coaching clients speak of the quieting influence of their pets.
Unfortunately, in Spark’s novel, the narrator informs us that the Brigadier’s writing fails. Mrs. Hawkins says, “I had advised him only that a cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.”
Mrs. Hawkins freely gives her wise advice to other would-be writers. She tells writers to have in mind a particular person who will be your reader.
What you have to say will come out more spontaneously and honestly than if you are thinking of numerous readers. Before starting . . . rehearse in your mind what you are going to tell . . . . But don’t rehearse too much, the story will develop as you go along.
Working toward discovery and trusting a process –both in life and in writing– are strong themes in the book.
Life isn’t fair, of course, and trusting the process does not always lead to exemplary writing or to published works, as evidenced by the novel’s depiction of many questionable publishers and of less than stellar writers who do get published.
But we can take pleasure in Muriel Spark’s esteem for honest, hard-working writers, as well as her undisguised contempt for the undeserving who sometimes receive their just rewards.
As a writer, have you found good or interesting advice from an unexpected source? I would love to hear from you.
All good wishes,
Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation and Academic Career Coach