Hello everybody, and welcome to the next installment of Just Writers’ Things! Today we’re tackling the topic:
I’m aware this was sent to me jokingly, but I took it as a challenge. How am I going to approach this topic and write about cats?
I racked my brain this past week for an answer, and was bombarded by a flurry of questions: What am I going to write about? How will this be relevant to writers? Is my idea too complicated?
After asking myself these questions, I came to realize that I was lacking something: a prompt.
Prompts Give Way to Beautiful Works
While prompts are standard for essay assignments in academia, they are also crucial for any creative work. Take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for example. One of English literature’s canon novels was created through a writing prompt. One dark and stormy night, Lord Byron challenged his friends to write a ghost story that was better than the ones they had been reading. It was a simple competition to pass the time. Mary didn’t end up writing anything that night, but nights later, the image came to her in a dream and Frankenstein was born.
Whoever wrote “cats” in the topic submission form gave me a challenge, and I thought “Hey, why not take you with me on this journey and show you the ropes?” Today I will show you how I developed a prompt, outlined my answer, and created a work about cats.
Step 1: Find keywords & understand the prompt.
I know this is a little silly. I feel silly. It’s one word, but our site’s blog writers only have the monthly theme to go off of when crafting their posts. Comparatively, academic prompts are multifaceted and more detailed.
Here’s one of my old English essay prompts:
Choose either the passage from Richard III or the passage from The Merchant of Venice. Each is an important speech that has been noted to some degree in class. Write an essay in which you propose and support a clearly formulated argument about the dramatic function of the passage. In drama, speech is action. How can the speech you have chosen be understood as an action? To whom is the action directed? What is the speaker doing in this speech? How does the action that the speech performs function in the development of the play as a whole?
The goal of this prompt was to determine my understanding of the passages and my mastery of the topic.
When given a prompt, a writer’s first step is to identify keywords.
These words may be things you’ve learned. When you create a prompt, they may be things you personally want to focus on. Keywords in the prompt above are “argument,” “dramatic function,” and “action.” I like to paraphrase the prompt into a direct statement to get all my ducks in a row. If I paraphrase the prompt, I create an easy goal to strive toward.
I would paraphrase the prompt in the following way:
Using either the passage from Richard III or the passage from The Merchant of Venice, write an argument about the dramatic function of the passage where you identify the speech as an action, while showing what the action is, who it is toward, and how it functions in the development of the play as a whole.
That’s an academic prompt, but in my case, the only keyword I have is “cats”.
So that got me thinking, what about cats would I like to focus on? What do cats have to do with being a writer, other than the stereotype that we adore cats, and they us? I, personally, am a cat (and dog) lover. I live with two cats and one dog, and they are all family.
Throughout the week, I’ve been thinking about my cats, Pablo and Yuki, and how my relationship with them differs from my dog, Daisy. Pablo and Yuki roam as they please. They are as independent as they come. With Daisy, simply glancing at her is enough for her to run into your arms, begging for treats, and belly-rubs. On the other hand, Pablo’s一and especially Yuki’s一boundaries are clearer. They obey . . . sometimes. They let you pet them . . . sometimes. If I pet Yuki one too many times, she will bite and hiss at me without a second thought.
And from these differences between my pets, ideas started to form.
I brought my blog idea to my friend, a fellow writer, and explained to him that I wanted to take a reader through the process of creating a prompt to an end product. I shared my feelings toward my cats and their clear boundaries, reflecting on how I related to their needs. Then he posed the question: Why do cats symbolize self-love and self-care?
There it was in the blue chat bubble. My prompt.
Step 2: Brainstorm and outline.
One thing I always do when starting an outline is putting the prompt’s main idea first, so I don’t stray from my topic.
Based on what I was thinking, my goal is to write about cats by highlighting their relationship to writers, self-love, and self-care.
Once I’ve localized the main idea, I create bullet points of my thoughts on the topic. I have found that it gives my mind less pressure to do this in the notes of my phone because I know it’s not the final draft—it’s completely separate from the work. If I don’t use my phone, I put everything at the bottom of a Google Docs page. If I get lucky, the outline comes out as The Hamburger Model; I write each paragraph underneath the corresponding bullet point, and delete the bullet points later.
After analyzing what I’ve written, I organize the ideas into an effective order and hope for the best when I start creating. If the stars have aligned, I free-write the draft with reckless abandon.
Combining all of these steps together, here’s what I came up with.
Step 3: Write. (In my case, about cats.)
When I was still in university, I was constantly called “house cat” by friends. I had the tendency to nap everywhere other than my bed. I sunbathed on the couch. I said “no” a lot. And if that isn’t enough . . . my friends caught me playing with a cat toy一so that pretty much sealed it. Yeah. I connect with cats a lot.
Mei-Mei napping in the UCen. Taken by Ignacio Vargas.
Maybe I was a cat in a past life, or maybe I just understand their need to be alone and independent.
They move with a freedom I admire, but they ask for affection when wanted. My sister's cat, Yuki, is a perfect example of this. She has very few people she will lay in the laps of; I am not one of them, and that’s okay. I struggle putting up boundaries for myself, and I struggle when boundaries are put in front of me. I feel unwanted and unlovable, but she reminds me that my feelings about her boundaries are my problem. All I can do is appreciate that she always communicates with me on what she wants. I could do without the biting and scratching, but she’s a cat.
When I first met Yuki, I didn’t like her. I couldn’t play with her because she always hid underneath the desk or the bed when I came around. I didn’t like that she wasn’t naturally nice right off the bat. She loves to be alone and only interacts with you on her time, otherwise, she’ll ice you out.
No petting, unless I say. No playing, unless I want to. No snuggling, unless you have a blanket next to you and make no sudden movements.
Yuki has clear boundaries. She needs patience and understanding. Most importantly, she doesn’t live for others, but for herself. There’s so much I can learn from her behavior, as a person and as an artist. As a person, I shouldn’t focus on being such a people pleaser. I can’t do everything all at once. I’m only human. Yuki seems to have it all figured out. As for an artist, I could use more of that cat-like confidence in my wants and my needs.
Being a writer can be a lonely venture. You’re not sure if the boundaries you make are acceptable. You worry about what others think of your writing. You worry that walking this path less traveled by is going to bite like frost. You write too much. You write too little. You write on a different schedule from the rest of the world. I should know—I’m here writing this last bit at 1 AM on a Sunday. But you’re you. And much like cats, you too deserve to write with fervor and ferocity because it’s what you want to do. You also deserve to take breaks when you want to. Whatever your craft is, your methods and rituals are yours and yours alone.
I think that’s why writers love cats. They teach us that we can create our own boundaries. No drinking tonight, I have to write. No editing, unless I want to. No one reads this, unless I let them. We can all learn from Yuki’s hard boundaries. There are many things out of our control in our lives, but communicating what we want and need is our power. The world will not bend to its knees for us, but we create ones that do. When we write, we share our wants, our fears, our desires with others. We create worlds from nothing. We’re in full control and we can add or subtract whatever we want.
When Neil Gaiman came to UCSB Spring of 2019, I sat in an audience of 800 people as he read this question from a stack of index cards from the crowd:
“If you were a god, which one would you be?”
To which he laughed quietly and said, “Why would I want to be a god? I’m a writer.”
Now It’s Your Turn!
Pick up a prompt from Aaron’s last Writers’ Corner post, 25 Prompts to Inspire Your Creativity, or come up with one on your own! The pen and keyboard are waiting for you.
Let me know if you make anything and put the link in the comments below! I would absolutely love to read your work. If you write on Instagram, tag @thelyfoundation or even me, @mei_mers, in your post!
Remember. You are talented. You are worthy. The pen is yours.
What should I write about next? Let me know here!
About the Author
Mei-Mei is LYF's Executive Assistant, Event Coordinator, and Head Blog Editor. She graduated from UC, Santa Barbara with a B.A. in English and a minor in German. She was the President of UCSB Poets' Club. She has traveled to 12 countries and counting, feeling lucky and cursed as an Army brat. In 2019, she moved for the 9th time from Santa Barbara to Las Vegas, where she put her love for writing, performing, advocating for mental health, and building communities into the Love Yourself Foundation. Thankfully she can choose when she moves now, so you'll see this jack-of-all-trades singing on stage and juggling open mic sign-up sheets, hoping to spread love in all the ways she can.