My Cat, Teaspoon
(Tune in to Writing Wednesdays this Friday and Monday for the continuation of the series “Using Your Real Life in Fiction” — and for more of The Knowledge‘s backstory.)
When we as writers use our real life in fiction, we tend to use real-life personalities too. One of the big ones in The Knowledge is my cat, Teaspoon.
My real-life cat was named Mo. I changed the name for a reason, which I’ll get into below. But first let’s flash back [see Chapter 52 in Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t] to one of the seminal principles of story-telling:
Every character must represent something greater than him- or herself.
And its corollary:
Every character must represent an aspect of the theme.
What, you may be asking, does this have to do with Steve’s cat?
The answer comes back to how a writer views material, whether that material is pure fiction, i.e. totally made-up, or borrowed from real life. In either case, the writer’s first question to him or herself is, “What does this character represent?”
Are you working on a story that has your ex-husband as a character? Your mother? Two buddies you served with in Afghanistan?
You must ask, as a writer, “What do these characters represent? What aspects of the story’s theme do they stand for?”
In The Godfather, every character represents a different aspect of the theme of family/immigrants-in-a-new-land/”criminal”-ethos-as-nobler-than-the-ethos-of-the-greater-society.
Every character in the Corleone family represents a different angle on this complex theme. Vito. Michael. Sonny. Fredo. Connie, Mama, Tom Hagen. Tessio, Clemenza, Luca Brasi.
The characters outside the family do the same. Kay represents the counter-family in terms of Mayflower WASPiness; she represents what Michael and the Corleones can never become. The gangsters in the other Five Families represent a different counter-family—criminals whose code of honor is a few levels beneath that of the Corleones.
But back to my cat, Teaspoon.
I really did have a cat during the period [see Chapter 5] in which The Knowledge takes place. I really did find him on the street as a tiny kitten; he really did travel with me all around the country; he really was an outdoor cat; he really did pad out the rear window of my apartment and down a two-flight staircase to roam around our NY neighborhood every night all night.
And my real cat really did curl up next to my typewriter as I worked, with the typewriter carriage shuttling back and forth over his head.
He would stay in that spot for hours. He became my lucky charm. As long as Teaspoon was there in his spot, I could write like a bandit. One time in California he got sick and had to stay at the vet’s for four days. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t write a word till he got back.
Did I include that last passage because it was cute? Partly. But mainly because it was on-theme.
The theme of The Knowledge is an aspiring writer must overcome his demons of Resistance, i.e., distraction, self-sabotage, and self-betrayal, before he can become a real artist.
Teaspoon represents an aspect of this theme.
He represents this struggling writer’s muse.
An animal, a creature of nature, stands for the unspoiled, instinctive connection to the Source.
I respect Teaspoon because he is his own man. I have no idea where he goes at night. He roams as far afield as Nicolette’s basement apartment, which is six city blocks away. I have no idea how he gets there. He navigates by cat radar …
He has been with me [forever] and has always been true blue. He’s the kind of cat who would lend you money, no questions asked, if he had it.
Remember our two principles regarding characters in fiction:
Every character must represent something greater than him or herself.
Every character must represent some aspect of the theme.
There’s another constellation of characters in The Knowledge—the gangsters Yehuda, Ponytail, and Ivanov.
They represent distraction. The self-sought-out “drama” that keeps our protagonist, Stretch, from doing his work as a writer.
Therefore, if GANGSTERS = DISTRACTION and TEASPOON = MUSE, what must happen in the story?
The gangsters have to kidnap Teaspoon.
(This was actually Shawn’s idea, after I showed him the first draft. Immediately he said, “You gotta have Yehuda kidnap Teaspoon. Teaspoon is Stretch’s muse. Stretch has gotta go all-out to recover his cat. It’s like The Big Lebowski, where the Dude is trying to get his carpet back.”)
A huge part of the story became Stretch trying to get Teaspoon back from the gangsters.
Does this sound crazy? Maybe. But it works.
It works because it’s on-theme.
It works because it’s the story-in-miniature.
The reader gets it, even if only on an unconscious level.
To continue this line of thinking, let’s throw in a third element.
The character of Nicolette in The Knowledge represents a different aspect of the theme. She is, and stands for, a realized artist. She is Stretch’s semi-girlfriend, a painter who has truly found her groove and is a bona fide working, professional artist. She is in touch with her muse and in control of her artistic power.
Nicolette represents what Stretch wishes he could become.
If TEASPOON = MUSE and NICOLETTE = REAL ARTIST, who winds up saving Teaspoon and giving him back to Stretch? [See page 261 in The Knowledge.]
This is the way a writer constructs a story. This is the architecture undergirding the various acts and sequences and scenes.
When you and I use our real lives as raw material for our fiction (and when we thereby recruit real people as characters), we must process these real people the same way a novelist processes purely fictional characters.
We ask ourselves, “What’s the theme? What’s our story about?”
Then: “What aspect of the theme does this character represent?”
Oh yeah, why did I change “Mo” to “Teaspoon?”
Again, to stay on-theme.
I found my cat when he was a tiny kitten, at midnight on a street called Cheyne Walk in London … The kitten was so small I could cup him in one palm and fit him into the breast pocket of my jacket. In England they call this the “teaspoon pocket.” So he became Teaspoon. I slipped him in next to my heart and he curled up and went to sleep.
Key phrase: “next to my heart.”
That’s where an artist’s muse lives.
[Don’t forget, if questions occur to you about this stuff, write ’em in in the Comments section below. I’ll do my best to answer them.]
Loving this series. My question, which I think a lot of writers will have is this…
Do you deliberately think of this stuff re: characters and their thematic roles, before you write your first draft?
Or do you save this analytical/editor thinking for later? And then go back and tighten it all up?
I love this question as I was just having this discussion with a writer on kboards who is struggling with outlines and plotting before writing.
I mentioned you, of course, and she said, “Yes, I follow The Story Grid.” But then she went on to say that she would start writing an outline and get stuck because she does this:
Inciting incident: Man falls in hole. (okay she should stop about here… maybe write a few details but stop).
Instead (and were talking global foolscap stage) she’ll start thinking: Is he tall? Is he a red head? Does he own a cat? Does he drive a jeep? Where did he go to college? You get my point.
I told her to stop this and just quickly write down the seventy-five story points.
Five commandments of story x five commandments of story x three acts = 75 points.
THEN: when you go back and start rough drafting, the details will come out.
Anyway, if anyone is interested the thread is titled, “Does anyone outsource novel research or plotting?”
So, anyway, my thought about your question was kind of counter-intuitive:
Allow the left brain analytical mind into the room to outline.
Allow the muse/creative out to rough draft.
Then go back and forth between the two.
Sometimes the creative brain gets in the way, and I’m not saying we don’t want her there, I’m saying she’s always there…
Get her to shut up for a while because she’ll be observing everything the logical brain does, and later, when you’re tightening up stuff, she’ll speak up and tell you want you need to know.
It’s kind of like being married, I guess.
I think tons of writers get handicaped because they read Steve’s stuff and think that they must figure out the theme and deep meanings in the beginning while they are first figuring out a story.
“Should the main character be an only child? No, maybe a twin? What would that mean? No, how about the eldest of six? No, maybe the youngest of four, and his mother should be an immigrant from France and Chile, and the dad should be a third generation….”
I’ve found if I just do a quick outline, using everything you’ve taught me, then start writing, then worry about the theme and details on the re-writes, I’m vastly better off.
My muse/creative/cat-spirit is always there, running in the background. It’s amazing to me what she tells me later on, as I’m going through stuff:
“Oh, wow,” I often say out-loud to myself when I’m not writing redundant sentences that repeat themselves, “this makes total sense now.”
That Steve is a genius.
My answer, for myself, is both. As the plot/theme clarifies in the writing of the first draft, so too the greater-than-themselves, thematic potentia of the characters emerges, surprising me. It’s just automatic in the first draft. In revision/rewrite, I look for ways to strengthen roles and relationships: certain word choices, or bits of dialogue, description, an extra action here and there. All foreshadowing and weaving because at that point I know now what I knew then. Or I did know then what I know now.
Great question, pard. So good I will answer it (as best I can) in a whole post, or maybe two — and cite YOU for teaching me everything I know!
Great questions Shawn. (thumbs up)
I’m looking forward to reading how Pressfield approaches character and theme development.
When I write, the theme gets written during the process of discovery. (I’m a discovery type writer, I rarely use outlines or storyboards).
I just end up cutting the stuff that doesn’t align with the theme.
I also cut things that “explain” too much, or give “excuses” for what I have to say.
By the end of writing, re-writing, and editing…
I have a solid foundation for theme, and, I feel like I get extra bonus points if the “theme” isn’t mentioned at all throughout the piece…
That way, people can find the themes for themselves.
Thanks for this post and Shawn, thanks for your question. I found myself wondering the same thing and also how much of this is instinctual on the writer’s part?
“He’s the kind of cat who would lend you money, no questions asked, if he had it.”
Reading this post gave me a moment of “WOW!” I’ve been enjoying your series on why we write very much. It’s one of those pointed reminders that appear when the money is bad, or a bad review knocks you on your butt, and shows you again how much you love what you do, and why wouldn’t—couldn’t— choose any other career. My muses were always cats, until Kipper. Kipper was my chocolate lab, my first dog, bought in the hopes that maybe a dog could like a cat person like me (he did). He was my constant companion, and walks with him beside the river brought out the best ideas, solved story problems and kept me focused. Kipper died last spring at age 12, in my arms. The next novel I wrote one particular secondary character that seemed to flow off the pen so easily. Not a dog, but a child thief who can’t speak, and has the ability to understand the needs of those around him, to offer what they needed most without words. I named him Wee Kipper in honour of my lost friend, but I didn’t see the full connection until I read your post today. Our truest muses stay with us, and are reflected in everything we write.
Had to take a breath when you described the theme of The Knowledge in this post. Having read it (and loved it) I’d choose an entirely different theme. Is it possible there are layers or levels of theme in a story? And is it possible theme is is like beauty, in the eyes and experience of the beholder? What a privilege to be able to ask you, Steve!
Another great question, Mia. I haven’t thought about this as much as I should have, but yeah, for sure there are multiple themes in books and movies — and that’s true for “The Knowledge” too. It’s a very interesting subject. If I can get my thoughts straight on it, I’ll do a post or two on it. Thanks for asking!
I am a comic strip writer. It has taken me a few years to own that statement, but there it is, and I stand behind it.
Before I start drawing a story, I know the arc of the story. I know the beginning, middle, end and the inciting incidents. But, when I am actually sketching the story – I consider each page a ‘film shot’ – sometimes twists and turns show up that make the story better, without inherently changing it. Sometimes a character that was meant to be a minor sidebar barges in and becomes pivotal to the central theme.
I just let that develop on the page and have been grateful for it every time.
As a result, I consider my favourite pencils to be my muse. Thanks again for the work you do.
“Cats don’t do guilt.”
I don’t either. Cool website.
Thank you Michael! My writing was complicated by needing to learn to draw…
This piece and others about The Knowledge are The War of Art applied. You have shaken me into reality with this book. I can now see my own resistance and am learning how to deal with it.
I am even thinking about getting a cat!
Keep it coming,
Argh! Spoiler Alert! I’m just at the point where he realizes Teaspoon’s been kidnapped and is convincing folk. I knew of course Nicolette had a bigger role still, but stil…
Good thing I enjoy it so much. By the way, why “Nicolette “? Do you choose all names with the same deliberation Ah, another column!
Wasn’t that a song, “Just a Teaspoonful of sugar…” 🙂
We founded an animal rescue back in 05. An unintended consequence of this is becoming very, very familiar with loss. We have lost 15 of our kids over the past decade, and it can be overwhelming. Grief never becomes routine.
It never occurred to me that our animals are muses. I’ve always considered them Divine Gifts, but not as portals. I like it.
We are again in the fight with cancer with one of our cats. I read about Stretch losing Teaspoon two nights ago, after returning from the vet. I know how Stretch feels. I know the desperation of losing a cat or a dog that has somehow gotten out of our yard. A terrifying helplessness, a single-minded search in the neighborhood while biting back bile.
Love the book, but am worried about Teaspoon. Seriously. My mind has circled back to him a few times in the last couple of days. I guess that is the impact of stories in our lives. We ‘rehearse’ the experiences of others, even fictional, to prepare/empathize/live a fuller life. Thanks again Steve.
Loved The Knowledge so much. I plan to re-read it shortly to note the many geographical concurrences with my own life, and see what they bring up.
I’m curious about any conscious decisions that went into utilizing the city as a character, and not just setting. I’m familiar or very familiar with many of the locations (even, randomly, the Dai Bosatsu Zendo) and the local “tone” of the time, having grown up then. I wonder how the area might have been consciously crafted to reflect theme, and when during the writing process these thoughts might have arisen. I’m so glad you wrote this book. Thanks very much.
Jonathan, the element of NY-in-the-70s that I really focused on was that there was so much crime. Crime is of course a big theme of the story — crimes against others and crimes against ourselves and our own talent. I actually took a trip back to NY last Christmas (I live in L.A. now) just to visit the locations for “The Knowledge” and make sure I had them right. It’s amazing how many of them were gone.
The crime’s gone too. Too bad. It was colorful.
“The crime’s gone too. Too bad. It was colorful.” Just curious. Is this in the realm for “story telling”? In real life crime being gone is not a bad thing, right?
Genius how THE KNOWLEDGE unfolded. A couple of questions I was going to ask were answered when I went to Chapter 52 in NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T. I thought I read in one of Shawn’s WHAT IT TAKES he saying you are the most “read” person he knows.
For THE KNOWLEDGE did you make the Notes like on the cover of THE AUTHENTIC SWING? Does becoming a pro mean there is the “blind faith” the muse will always show up because of doing all “the practice”? When did you know THE KNOWLEDGE was going to be the Title.
I’ve learned so much from Writing Wednesdays and WHAT IT TAKES for my arena. THANK YOU…
Hi. Not commenting specifically on this posting, just wanted to tell you what led me to your website in the first place. It was a quote of yours on my Calm app – can’t remember which one now – while I was meditating.
I was driving a cab in Toronto, in 1974, struggling to be a writer. While this may not be a unique coincidence, it’s interesting to me because you are somewhat in the same generational ballpark as I am, and so in a sense I understand with my heart and soul, some of the things you say. Coming out of an earth-shattering epiphany about myself very recently, I began to research everything from SuperBetter, to hypnosis & meditation and CBT, to listening to and reading people like yourself.
What you have is true wisdom. A person can get all kinds of advice, and I’ve heard it all. But you understand the real struggle and what it takes.
It’s funny, but I get more wisdom from watching a show like Highway Thru Hell, about a bunch of heavy duty tow truck drivers who patrol the Coquihalla Highway in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, than I would from talking to office workers (not to malign any particular class, it’s a generalization), because these guys really work and their philosophy is the passion they have for their work. I can identify with these guys, and taxi drivers (partly because I was one), waiters, street cleaners and janitors, bus drivers, etc. more than I can with, say, more “sophisticated” people. And you get down to that level, Steven (I hope I’m not out of line), where the guts are. And that’s why I listen to you.
Great friggen stuff dude. Thanks for writing this comment
I heard this song the other day and decided it should be part of the soundtrack to The Knowledge:
“I’m writing a novel” by Father John Misty
Another fascinating post, Steve! Of Native American descent and growing up in the wooded mountains, birds and animals became paramount to my writing, whether my book is set in Rome, New Orleans, or Alabama. In my current book, Last Living Love Letter, it is set in Washington DC, Rome, NYC, Fort Payne, Alabama, and other places interwoven into my narrative’s tapestry. The “cat” and what it represents is crucial. My leading characters, married 25 years, name each new cat, descended from the last cat, after famous composers, from Mozart to others. The wife is an musician and at one point says, “We have marked our lives with cats.” Each cat, of course, represent stages in the couple’s own 9 lives, since the novel addresses the people’s evolving rebirths into the maturity of love, spiritual awareness, and artistic success in the worldly sense. Just what one of their cats, in Rome, has to do with an owl that must be killed by my Indian protagonist with a blowgun is another matter, the supernatural becoming strong once the reader has been seduced to care profoundly for my couple in a very “real” and believable world. Keep up the great posts, Steve, and watch out for life’s wayward owls in the Roman night.
Your cat’s name is “Teaspoon?” Really? Best cat name I’ve ever come across. Beats “Pushkin”.
Where can I purchase “The Knowledge”?
Look at the old photo of Steven Pressfield at top of this page. There is a yellow book on the left side at the top of the page. Click on that book and your computer will go to the page where you can purchase a copy of The Knowledge.
I would have had the protag save the cat. Now I know why the True Artist saved the cat.
Steve, is everyone who knows and loves you going just batshit crazy trying to figure out what’s “real life” and what’s “fiction” in “The Knowledge”? (Assuming that’s a valid distinction, which it very well may not be.) Or is that just me?
Steve, we’ve been in touch before (Gates of Fire). Hemingway said (more or less), Writing is Easy. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed. I’ve never been more reminded of that quote than reading The Knowledge. It’s like nothing you’ve ever written before. Thanks for bleeding for it.