700 Cats: Why I Write

July 31, 2012 | 11 5 min read

I’m not comfortable with the term “writer.” When asked at a family function involving distant relatives last summer what it is that I do, I responded with, “I’m an office worker.” Which is true. I spend more than forty hours a week working in an office. I also spend more time either writing, or thinking about writing. What I’ve always struggled with, is the question, “Why do I write?” and more deeply, and troubling, “Why do I feel guilty for doing so?”

Maybe this isn’t a common problem. I know many writers who proudly discuss their novels and wouldn’t hesitate to speak back to one of my uncles chomping away on a hot dog with, “I’m a writer, that’s what I do.” But for me, this is painful. Hearing someone discuss her novel, or worse, her current word-count, is torture. I’ve often imagined my unborn son someday reading a copy of my first novel and the embarrassment that will no doubt follow when he pummels me with questions. The poor kid, forced to tell his friends that his father wrote a book about “balloon people.”

My guilt can be broken down into two different categories. Category one is guilt on a big, social level. Writing, by and large, is considered an intellectual pursuit and its non-consumption and seemingly non-active (in a physical sense – you’re just sitting there) goes against current, major cultural norms. Category two is guilt on a smaller, personal level. I know deep down that writing is selfish, stupid, egotistical, and helps no one. When I am writing I am entertaining myself and the surrounding world doesn’t matter.

The personal guilt, which I’ve spent endless hours trying to dig deep into, I believe, stems from my childhood. When I was in my bedroom either playing video games, or reading, or talking to friends on the phone, it was considered “ignoring the family” by my Mother. If I wasn’t in the living room watching television, or merely physically present, I was somehow distancing myself from my family. As I grew older, and began to write, the distance grew (both mentally and physically) and in correlation, more guilt. Even now, 31 years old, living with my wife (who is very supportive of my writing), I sometimes think I hear Mom calling me downstairs to “come and spend time, you only get one family, you know.”

The first category, social guilt, is probably something I shouldn’t care about. And largely, I don’t. But I wouldn’t be honest with myself if I said it didn’t bother me that I’m participating in something that has little to no value in our society. Sure, I’m reaching on this one, but if you’ve published and told a stranger, or distant relative, that you’re a writer (“Yeah, my new story is in Baby Boo Review”), you’ve experienced the blank reaction and know what I’m talking about. We live in a society that doesn’t know how to discuss or get close to something as odd as the modern writer. When I told my relatives at the family function, “I work in an office,” the response was easy – “Oh, I do too. Where do you work?” And boom, off to a conversation.

In my experience, when I’ve told someone “I’m a writer,” the two most common responses are the following:

1) No response, head nod/smile.

2) “I wrote a novel once” or “I have an idea for a book, let me tell you about it.”

On occasion, the person may ask what I’ve written (“Can I get it at Amazon?”) or the dreaded “What are your books about?” but the conversation feels strictly one-sided and I’m often left rambling about how it’s only something I do on the side, not my real job or anything, oh no, that would be crazy. The social level guilt is a kind of “distant-guilt” because 1) No one understands writers and 2) No one outside of writing circles and MFA groups wants to engage in a two hour speculative discussion on what Donald Antrim is working on.

I’m crazy. I’m insane. Those are two thoughts I’ve always had over the course of my brief “writing career.” That what I’m doing, and continue to do, are clinically insane. I’ve read numerous interviews and articles where writers discuss their process, why they write, how it’s as necessary as breathing (No, it isn’t). The best, most comforting advice I’ve ever heard on the “Why I write” question is from a woman named Lynea Lattanzio.

Lynea Lattanzio was featured in a 2011 National Geographic special called “The Lady With 700 Cats.” Lattanzio runs the largest cat refuge in California, and what she said has had a profound impact on me. She said, “I’m not crazy, what I do is crazy.” This is perfect advice for the modern writer and I doubt I’ll ever forget it. Like Lattanzio caring for her 700 cats (cats, I believe, are disliked by a majority of Americans who really, don’t care to understand them) I am caring for my 10 characters in a novel-in-progress, my desire to create interesting and aseptically pleasing sentences, the need to create something. But there’s a larger problem here, a third type of guilt.

I imagine I’ll always deal with some kind of guilt, either personal or social, for writing fiction, but a third type of guilt stems from both of these categories: “What I’m doing isn’t real, it’s fantasy.” I’ve thought this to myself, and I’ve heard people say it – from strangers to family. My answer, or coping mechanism, is that yes, what I’m doing is fantasy, but it’s always a reflection of the real world. I don’t even know if that’s true, it’s just something I tell myself and it sounds good.

So here I am, writing this, full of guilt (but not crazy), and the question still remains, “Why do I write?” I’ve spent years trying to answer this question. My original answer, only several weeks ago while attempting, and failing, to write this essay, was, “because I love it.” I am in love with the act of writing. But this didn’t have much staying power. Love is a fantasy in its own definition. It’s complex and intangible. The answer, the reason I write, is because I’m obsessed with the act of writing. I’m obsessed with taking a blank piece of paper and just putting something on it.

Obsession : a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling; broadly : compelling motivation.

Isn’t that a perfect definition for writing? I couldn’t agree more. I’ve read this definition over and over again. I should have it tattooed on my arm opposite the arm with the cat lady’s quote. It would certainly make family functions easy – I could simply say “I’m a writer” and raise my arms.

Believing that my writing is an obsession helps deal with some of my guilt. Not nearly all of it. If I break down the obsession, there is an even simpler answer to the question of why I write: It’s just something that I do. It’s an act, a performance, on par with mowing the lawn or going for a jog.

My personal guilt motivates. American society doesn’t care about your writing, and hey, that’s perfect. It’s time to get obsessed because no one is watching and beautiful things that don’t matter need to be created.

Image via rikkis_refuge/Flickr

is the author of Light Boxes (PGP 2009; Penguin 2010). His forthcoming novel, Daniel Fights A Hurricane, will be published by Penguin this August. He lives in Albany, New York.


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  2. Shouldn’t we write precisely because writing is selfish? I don’t think that anything worthwhile, or true, in the creative field is possible without the artist first finding their own place in the world (or at least participating in that very active, very daily process of absorbing life’s details and painting a picture in one’s mind of what it all means). If every time I write I am further developing my own unique grasp on the world and the human condition (which I do believe happens when a committed, thoughtful writer focuses on developing his craft) then I am further developing my ability to write something true, something insightful, something that a reader might benefit from.

    Though I empathize with the feelings of guilt that come with being a writer, I don’t believe I can keep being one unless I buy in. That is, unless I push through any illusions of guilt. In this regard, I agree with you that “It’s time to get obsessed because no one is watching and beautiful things that don’t matter need to be created.”

  3. “beautiful things that don’t matter need to be created.” I love that! It is like when the water bill comes and your husband freaks out because you have watered enough to create beautiful flowers that don’t matter…but they do. On that phrase alone I will check out your novel. Thanks Shane.

  4. Shane Jones, are you creating something beautiful which doesn’t matter, or are you creating something beautiful which only matters to you? There’s a difference, I think, based entirely upon the meaning a writer invests in his work. Like you, I too am obsessed, and castigate myself when, after a long day programming, I cannot bring myself to write. I keep at it, however, because there’s a world in my head which means more to me than the real world because it’s of my own creation, and because that world is peopled with characters who sometimes feel more real than the people around me — and they just won’t shut up.

    As I explain to people at work who can’t believe a programmer would also write fiction, I’m not sane. I’m just high functioning.

  5. For me, the most comforting story I ever heard regarding this was by Ta-Nehisi Coates on one of the Longform podcasts he recorded. He essentially said that for a long time he told people he was “trying to be a writer,” and so I’ve been saying the exact same for some time now, until one particularly lovely lady told me “You’re a writer. I’m telling you! Believe me!”

  6. I understand the guilt thing (been there) but I’m afraid you are wrong about it not being as important to you as breathing or you would’ve moved on already. I’m probably wasting my time but – stop wondering why and just get on with it already.

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