Cats Are the Solution to Writer’s Block (Well, Sort Of)

My Name is Pambu
My Name is Pambu

M. Paul Emanuel, a professor of Literature and director of the school play in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, advises Lucy Snowe, about to take the stage, to “not look at the crowd, nor [to] think of it… Imagine yourself in the garret, acting to the rats.”*

It’s funny that M. Paul/Brontë addresses one fear (performing in public) by referencing another fear (rats), unless people weren’t as afraid of rodents in the more rural mid-19th Century as they are now (maybe the connection to disease wasn’t as obvious, despite the Black Plague; the “miasma” theory of infection was still commonplace then). I happen to be terribly afraid of rodents, and so would much prefer performing in a public venue to spending any amount of time in the company of rats. I don’t even want to think about rats, not even domesticated ones.

Nevertheless, M. Paul has a point, and while it probably doesn’t work for everyone, many adhere to versions of this advice when trying to overcome performance anxiety. From the stage, the audience largely vanishes in the dark seating area anyway.

Could M. Paul’s advice, sans rats, also work for those wrestling with writer’s block?

To the extent that perfectionism lies at the heart of both stage fright and writer’s block, the advice is likely useful. Perfectionism results in the paralyzing fear that our work is flawed, whether it’s a vocal performance, the opening statement of a trial, or a piece of creative writing. We’re afraid that our best efforts won’t please our audience: the ticket holders, the jurors/judge, or the readers. It makes us clam up on stage, fumble over our words, or doom our manuscripts to a state of perpetual tweaking. (See my previous post, Perfectionism and Publishing).

These fears can debilitate us even in the earliest stages of our work because we get too far ahead of ourselves. We imagine the reception (or lack thereof) of our work when we should be focusing on plot and character development.

So, for those of us too concerned about the audience, it makes sense to take a step back and think of the earlier stages of a draft as akin to a diary, meant for our eyes only. Some people like to share early drafts with critique partners and writer’s groups, scene by scene, and I’m sure there are benefits to this method. For me, though, the anxiety would be too much. The time for sharing is later. Words flow more easily when the only ones familiar with my newest projects are my cats; they can’t read, but they’re far more useful with the rodents than I am.

*The Villette-along continues; check out the discussion on Twitter (#villettealong) and the Vol. I Wrap-Ups:

Covered in Flour

Too Fond

I'm Nangi, Pambu's Sister
I’m Nangi, Pambu’s Sister


  1. Cute cats! And I can totally relate. I’m someone who will tinker with scenes until they are polished rather than getting a whole story out and revising as a separate process. I do finally have a trusted critique partner who I can share chunks with as I write without the pressure of having it be “perfect” in order to get feedback on other aspects, but that was a long time coming.

    1. Thanks! Pambu and Nangi are such sweethearts. They spend a lot of time by my side while I’m reading and writing.

      I’m glad to hear you’ve found an ideal critique partner! No one read my manuscript until it was finished. It’s out to readers now, but I think they will probably be too cautious in their criticism.

  2. Good advice! I’ve actually been struggling with this lately, to the extent that it was what my last post was about. I’m always looking for new ways to approach this hurdle- so thanks! 🙂

  3. Since I am not a writer, I don’t get writer’s block. Even in grad school words flowed easily. If I had to pay more attention to them maybe it would be different. I am far too nonchalant with writing, but do get a block with art. I bet you are right it is based on perfection and possible failure. Not being a cat person, I never looked at them as a stress reliever or a being to sit and talk with them. Dogs yes… Interesting you mentioned attorneys. I always thought of them brimming with confidence in their ability to woo the jury.

    1. You’re not a writer of novels, but you are a writer of a thoughtful garden blog and that type of writing seems to come very naturally to you. Yeah, cats aren’t a stress reliever or companion for everyone (my husband isn’t a cat person either). My cats are very loving, but I’ll admit that they’re not always stress relieving for me either (it’s like I have five children in this house sometimes!). Still, I do typically have one or both of them around as I write, whether it’s a blog post, a part of my WIP, or a memo, and they’re very good at keeping the mouse population in check.

        1. Have a wonderful time! I’m a little envious that you’ll get to spend tomorrow in such a lovely place. It’s election day in PA, and I’ll be spending the entire day at the polls (because it’s a primary with lower voter turnout, I’ll probably end up getting a lot of reading done). How long are you in town?

          1. Until Saturday. My friend Carolyn, the one with the nursery I mentioned previously, also noted it is election day. As a former attorney, she is very involved but not sitting at the polls, just being part of the voting process.

  4. I thought it was funny that in the scene where she is locked in the attic, rehearsing, there actually ARE rats present (as well as cockroaches, which she is more frightened of, so maybe you have a point about people being less afraid of rats). Nice analogy, anyway. 🙂

    1. That’s true! I thought Lucy’s reaction to being locked in the attic was quite surprising. She just accepted it and practiced her part. I would’ve been kicking and screaming to get out of that vermin-infested place!

  5. I know someone who posts her in-progress m/m on her blog a chapter at a time. I don’t know how she can do that. I also don’t understand how she then gets it edited and formatted and sells it–and she sells many! I only share WIPs with one person, and then only after I’m well into the story. I hate to admit it, but I’m terribly insecure about my work.

    1. I’m very impressed by people who can post segments of their WIPs without letting the reaction get in the way of progress. I imagine some of those posts get no reaction at all–does the author take it personally? I’m much more like you are (and I also hate to admit it!). As you know, I have read a few of your books, and you are a good writer. You have no reason to be insecure!

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