The Most Unconventional Writing Advice I’ve Ever Read

cat on books

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of my favorite novels, so I’ve been working my way through everything that Muriel Spark wrote. As I was reading A Far Cry From Kensington, I came across some highly unusual advice for writing which actually sounds like it might be pretty effective, for the right person.

The narrator of the novel, Mrs. Hawkins, works at a publishing house, and a retired Brigadier General tells her that he wants to write a book but he “can’t concentrate.” (A common problem, right?)

Mrs. Hawkins recounts:

I passed him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp.  The light from a lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. 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. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.

I can’t test this proposition, because I’m allergic to cats and don’t want any pets, but it really struck my imagination. Oddly, I’ve found, a burning candle helps me to concentrate. Or snow or rain falling outside the window. There’s something about the presence of  spark of life and movement that gives a sense of focus. I imagine that a living creature would provide that much more powerfully.

In my forthcoming book about habits, I write about the strategies we can use to shape our habits, and one of the most powerful strategies is the Strategy of Other People. But in fact, animals, like people, can have a profound effect on our habits — as anyone who regularly walks a dog can attest. And so a cat can help with writing!

Another unorthodox writing strategy was used by novelist Victor Hugo. According to legend, Hugo forced himself to work by ordering his servant to take away all his clothing for the day. Left naked in his study, with only paper and pen, he had nothing to do but write.

Have your habits been affected by a pet? Or have you found an unconventional way to help yourself concentrate?

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