Kick The Cat

I’m not a mystic, but what I am about to tell you is the true story of Jim Hathaway, a crotchety old editor who found a way to give me the exact writing advice I needed, at the critical moment — and even better — several years after he was dead and buried. Given Jim’s strength of will, I doubt even cremation would have stopped him.

Jim was a member of The Lafayette Park Writers, a critique group of retired editors, columnists, English professors, novelists, and one traveling actress. Each week they met in a city parks and rec building and enthusiastically welcomed each newbie who fell in off the street. Each of the core members was experienced and nurturing, and each in his own right could have lit up Sin City on the sheer strength of his personality and charm. But even in that group, Jim stood out.

Tall, svelte, and mostly bald, Jim wore double-knit pants and white shoes. He had a pugnacious delivery, a voice like a cheese grater, and in spite of his liver-spotted skin and huge ears, blue eyes as round and eager as any eight-year-old boy’s. I admired a lot about Jim, but the quality I most respected was his life-long elasticity, his willingness to reinvent his skills, his writing, and himself with each new physical challenge or technical advance placed before him. In writing and in life you could always spot Jim; he was the barefoot, shirtless boy skateboarding fearlessly down Breakneck Hill.

The first short story I read to the group was about a woman at the end of her rope and considering suicide. Each day she took out a container of pills, pulled off the top and set them on the kitchen counter. Overwhelmed by her past, she cooked and cleaned and battled the urge to swallow the pills and end her life. At the crisis point of the story, her cat jumped up on the counter and knocked the pills all over the floor. I had her react by dissolving into tears and sinking to the linoleum in a heap.

Jim leaned over the table, stuck his gruff stare in my face and rasped, “She really needs to kick that cat.”
I was horrified. “I would never kick a cat!”
“You wouldn’t,” he said, sitting up. “But she would.”

Wow. What a memorable way to sum up one of the most cardinal rules of writing: be true to your characters. In seven short words Jim taught me to forget that my mother, my priest, and my in-laws would read my work and get on with the business of writing. Since then my characters have cursed and acted just as ugly as they need to. I tell my relatives which pages to skip, and my priest is almost over making the sign of the cross each time I walk by.

But that was easy for Jim. That he did while still alive.

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I’m no good at funerals. I don’t have the ability to rise to the occasion, to provide strength for the grieving. I see the pale and the hurting, and I fall to pieces. More often than not, the family ends up comforting me. Standing in the receiving line at Jim’s funeral was no different. I had not met his family, but Jim’s deep and abiding love for them had laced his writing. Drawing closer to his daughter, I wiped my cheek and introduced myself.

Her fingers tightened around my hand. Her voice rose urgently. “Leigh Muller? You’re Leigh Muller?”
Surprised by her reaction, I nodded. “Yes.”
“Dad sat up in his hospital bed and demanded paper and a pen to write you a note.”
I was taken aback. “Do you have the note?”
“Yes. I’ll send it to you when I get home.”

I waited, but Jim’s message never arrived in my mailbox. Over the next few years I often wondered what Jim had felt was so important to tell me, but I didn’t know his family and didn’t want to bother them.

Three years or so after Jim’s funeral, I found myself struggling with the final draft of my novel, one Jim had encouraged since its infancy. Something was dreadfully wrong with my technique, some flaw I could feel myself repeating on every page, but couldn’t quite get a clear bead on. I was seriously debating if I should continue to write at all when the phone rang.

It was Jim’s daughter.

She was going through Jim’s desk and had looked up my number in his address book. She’d found a trove of his short stories and poems, and had a question about copyright. As the conversation drew to a close, I plucked up my courage.

“Do you remember Jim writing me a note just before he passed?”
She did, had seen it recently among his papers, but couldn’t put her hand on it right then.
“Do you remember what it said?” I asked.
“Yes. Dad wrote, ‘Tell Leigh, it’s not the body, it’s the mind.’” She paused. “Does that mean anything to you?”
My eyes filled. “Yes,” I answered. “It means everything.”

You’ll never convince me that Jim didn’t move his daughter to pick up the phone and call, and at the exact moment I needed him so badly. The moment I’d considered abandoning writing completely.

As terse and to the point as ever, Jim had found a way to tell me I needed to be inside my characters’ minds and hearts, not outside watching them move. I’d been so busy placing my reader into the physical – the room, how the characters looked, sat, and moved — that I’d forgotten the most critical part of fiction. It’s not the body, stupid. It’s the mind.

Jim’s revelation lifted the film from my eyes. I reworked the novel, this time focusing on the characters’ inner turmoil, opinions, growth, and revelation. All the things that make a character most real to the reader.

When I first met The Lafayette Park Writers, each of the core members was in his eighties. As I grew to love them, as mentors, as family, it seemed painfully inevitable they would slip away and break my heart one by one. But I was wrong. Over the ten years I met with them and watched them pass, they didn’t break my heart, they expanded it, five times over and larger than life. And even beyond.

Question For The Day:

  • What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

  • Mary Lois Sanders February 15, 2011 at 1:03 am

    What a wonderful experience! And insight! Thank you for sharing Jim’s pearls of wisdom with the rest of us!

    Mary Lois

    • Leigh Muller February 15, 2011 at 12:17 pm

      Thanks, Mary Lois. Jim remains an inspiration for all fortunate enough to have known him.

  • February 15, 2011 at 7:09 am

    My mother, who was also a fiction writer, is the touchstone I return to again and again when I think about the craft of writing, but the biggest piece of advice I got from her was not conveyed in words but actions.

    My mother also had priests, and family expectations and the entire Italian culture which saw women as servers of family to contend with. The message the world gave her (except for my Dad who was always supportive) was that when it came to being “good” everything was more worthy of her attention than writing a story. And yet she wrote many.

    She stole minutes at the typewriter, she composed with one hand while ironing with the other. Although this activity was self-serving and unnecessary she craved it–and she did it, little by little, year after year.

    My mother demonstrated the vital passion that drives someone with an ordinary life to stand up for LIFE as something bigger than daily routine, something significant, something worth writing about.

    Adrian Fogelin

    • Leigh Muller February 15, 2011 at 12:26 pm

      That’s the critical piece of writing advice, Adrian. If we allow guilt, fear, or anything else keep us from writing, all other advice is worthless.

      • February 15, 2011 at 2:10 pm

        One thing I loved about my mother was that she experienced guilt, fear–and everything else–and yet she wrote.

        • Leigh Muller February 15, 2011 at 2:30 pm

          And it’s exactly because your mother felt and fought her emotional conflicts that she had something worthwhile to say.

  • tgumster February 15, 2011 at 7:23 am

    “Kick the Cat” is now in my writer’s bag of tools. What a beautifully written essay, Leigh. It sparkles. I can hear The Lafayette Park Writers cheering from every realm.

    My tried and true is the “so what” test from Donald Murray’s book, Write to Learn. The complete sentence is, “so what is the point?” For me, it works especially well with my “darlings.”

    For me, “darlings” are those sentences that are so beautiful or so over-the-top they stop me cold. “Darlings” jar my exposition or dialog–verbiage roadblocks (see?)–I squint at them as I say aloud, “so what is the point?”

    Sight, sound or both let me know what has to go. Thanks to Leigh, I can kick the cat as well.

    • Susan Heyboer O'Keefe February 27, 2011 at 4:44 pm

      My equivalent of that, which writer Carole Bermann said endlessly in our critique group, is, “How does it move the plot?” And I’ve reworded it myself to, “What does the story lose if I cut it?” But Ow! It hurts, tgumster.

  • Leigh Muller February 15, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    tgumster, I wish I could reclaim all the minutes I’ve spent carefully crafting beautiful words that detract from the story. Inevitably, the phrases I spend the most time on and love dearly, are the ones I have to cut. Verbiage roadblocks — what a great term. That’s exactly what they do, stop readers in their tracks, pull them out of the fictional world, and say “look at me, aren’t I great!”

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