On Unexpected Writing Prompts and Easy Thanksgiving Meals for Your Cat
February 17, 2020 § 6 Comments
by Heather Pegas
A late bloomer, I only got serious about writing creatively in my mid-40s. Although I could produce dozens of compelling grant proposals every year, when I sat down to really “write,” I struggled over what to “say.”
This grieved me because in my head I was a writer, a real one. And I can’t say how or when or even why it happened, maybe some stones fell out of the dam, but at a certain point I found my flow. I went to writing class every week, published some essays, and while my work product still wasn’t what anyone would call an outpouring, it became a reliable trickle. Most importantly, the act of writing was no longer a psychic cage-match between woman and self.
I didn’t question this shift because I was grateful. Finally. Inspiration! It really was everywhere.
Before the holidays last year, inspiration struck in a particularly weird way. I got a marketing email from a national pet store chain. Its subject line was “Easy Thanksgiving Meals for Your Cat,” and it was hawking organic turkey pâtés that my cat would not have appreciated. “This is ridiculous,” I thought, preparing to hit Delete.
Then it struck me: This is ridiculous.
I’d been given the easiest writing prompt ever and 45 minutes later, a hilarious new comedic list was birthed into the world, chock full of memorable chestnuts such as “old Post-Its” and “any goddamned thing on the counter.” I shared it with my husband and a few friends, basked in their appreciation, and then sent it off to a daily comedy blog where my work had previously been rejected.
I was hopeful. People love Thanksgiving, I thought. People love lists, and at least within the confines of the internet, people love cats!
A few days later, I received enthusiastic acceptance of Easy Thanksgiving Meals for Your Cat. It would run during the holiday week!
And that is when all the insecurities I had about not being a “real” writer returned. Had it all been too easy? Was it really funny enough? I began to mentally revise my list, and popped off an email to the blog asking how to send edits. Not hearing back, I pasted my revisions into a Gmail. I’d made subtle but important changes, “gizzards” to “giblets,” you see.
I didn’t know if these edits had been received, and by the Sunday before Thanksgiving, was in a state of high anxiety. I went to my WordPress account, desperate to find out something. And there it was, scheduled for publication the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, with a photo of an adorable butterscotch kitten and…the entire second half of the list missing.
Most of the good stuff, all of the best parts, simply not there!
I sat at my computer in disbelief and, gaping at my truncated cat list, my hands began to shake. As any writer can tell you, attachment is a big part of the game. We don’t like to part with words. We may even be neurotic. Moreover, when one is attempting to crack the comedy blog market on the strength of a piece like Easy Thanksgiving Meals for Your Cat, every beat must be perfect.
Needing to know what happened, I looked back into my sent emails and found that Gmail had unceremoniously dumped the back half of my revisions into a “Trimmed Content” section one had to click to see. It was way too easy to miss those three tiny dots that would have delivered the punchline.
So I sent one email containing the full and final Easy Thanksgiving Meals for Your Cat, and a second with my abject apologies. I sat back in my chair to wait and worry, conscious of being a major P.I.T.A. My compulsion to tinker and revise had caused this problem. I hadn’t checked my revision email closely enough. And maybe even now, my emails were making a bad situation worse. But at no point had I been able to help myself.
As a distraction, my husband suggested grocery shopping. “Maybe you can take the time to consider what you’re going to do now that your comedy writing career is over,” he said.
I regarded them mirthlessly, husband and cat, then left to shop for holiday groceries ruminating all the while. And I sat on tenterhooks until the next day when the blog editor confirmed she had fixed the post, and politely but firmly requested I not send edits in that particular way in the future.
Ultimately, my cat list ran to a fairly enthusiastic response and even inspired a problem-free spinoff, Casting Notes for Your Imaginary, All-Feline, Live-Action Nativity Play. In short, it all turned out OK.
But still I’m left to ponder the welling of emotion and woe this episode triggered. Just look at yourself, I think. Brought nearly to your knees, right to the brink of despair…by your cat list. What was that about?
It wasn’t just about helpless aggravation in the face of technological failure or my myriad personal neuroses. There is a shadow side to this thing of being a writer, one that can induce a shocking loss of perspective. Your creation, even the least consequential, can assume Frankensteinian proportions, and if threatened, can consume your ego and your days, causing the deepest anguish.
Maybe this investment is a mark of the “real” writer.
When you’re sitting down to the lonely work, risking failure, hoping to be read and knowing you may never be – when you’re in constant monologue with your own over-eager audience of one – no single word is meaningless. Each choice means so much, possibly too much. And maybe it isn’t outcome that makes the writer, but rather the willingness to go “all in” on this agonizing process. No one else but a “real” writer, I guess, would know the exquisite agitation that comes in preparing to release work to the world.
Heather Pegas is a Los Angeles-based writer whose essays have appeared in The Coil and The Longridge Review. Her cat-inspired work can be found at Little Old Lady Comedy.