Squirrels in the Writing Attic

October 24, 2022 § 1 Comment

By Serena Jayne

A dear friend once shared a concerning problem. She was dealing with squirrels in her attic. While the said squirrels weren’t a euphemism, I couldn’t help but consider my own issues with creativity as a “rodents in the rafters” type of problem. Festering story holes, failing to finish pieces I’d started, the inability to focus on one project at a time, to name a few, could easily be attributed to a plethora of squirrels scuttling about my mental attic.

After reading On Writing, I came to envy Stephen King and his “boys in the basement,” the diligent workers endlessly toiling away in King’s idea factory to make manuscript magic. Instead of mega-productive boys in the basement, however, I was saddled with those damn squirrels which invoked a bit of madness and an itch to engage an exterminator. Little did I know then that the key wasn’t to rid myself of my squirrels, but rather to transform and relocate them.

In the summer of 2018, horror and crime author Paul Tremblay gave the keynote address at the In Your Write Mind conference at Seton Hill University. Tremblay advised the audience to treat their subconscious like a pet. I’ve taken liberties with Tremblay’s sage advice by creating a three-step process to transform one’s subconscious from frustrating foe to furry friend.

Step One: Pick Your Pet. Choose anything from a Komodo dragon to a chimera or something more traditional like a rottweiler or a rabbit. If you like, you can name your pet or imagine them dressed in cute costume or adorned with a fancy collar. Choose your pet wisely. A pet rock or a teacup full of sea monkeys might not be active enough, and a Black Mamba or a T-Rex may be terribly hard to tame. As a feline aficionado, my pet is, of course, a cat.

Step Two: Praise Your Pet. Tremblay specifically mentioned rewarding the pet by spending a little time with whatever idea the pet brings—even if on the surface the idea doesn’t seem viable. My cats have brought me a ponytail holder I’d misplaced and surprised me with a catnip-filled toy in my shoe. But not every gift from your new pet will be a shiny, beautiful idea nugget. Sometimes it’s a critter corpse or a horrible hairball. Hairballs are often a nasty business, but once one of my cats couldn’t bring one up. For hours she tried, wracking her little body and depositing foamy puddles of bile all over the house. Luckily, right before our emergency veterinarian appointment, the kitty succeeded in expelling the terrible trichobezoar. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate hairballs. 

As Ms. Manners would say, it’s the thought that counts. And the fastest way to stop getting gifts is to avoid showing appreciation. So, give each gift a little consideration and attention. Thank your pet and tell them they are a good boy or a good girl, and maybe the next gift will be just the thing to plug a plot hole or make your story into something special.

Remember these gifts are fragile and easily lost. Be on the lookout for gifts in dreams or ones that materialize while performing automatic activities like showering or driving or folding laundry. Consider placing a notebook by your bed or near the shower or in the glove box of your car. The notes app on your phone is also a great place to capture ideas. Give the gift attention as soon as possible to preserve it and keep its connections intact.

Step Three: Pamper Your Pet. Fill your brain with all sorts of stimuli. Go to a museum or peruse art on the internet. Listen to music. May I suggest “Pets” by Porno for Pyros? Watch great movies and television series. Read widely and in multiple genres. Consume content by creators from experiences and cultures different from your own. Explore using experimental forms, different perspectives, types of characters, settings, etcetera in your own work. Look for ways to make art from found objects. Consider creating a sculpture out of one of the hairballs your pet brought. Instead of focusing on the result, enjoy the process of play.

Relocating your pet from the attic to the basement happens naturally. The positive reinforcement your subconscious receives helps it to settle into a place closer to your heart than your head. Imagine your pet curled up by the heater in the darkness instead of being trapped in a stuffy, too bright, cobweb-filled attic.

Your pet may never be trained to produce on demand such as salivating at the sound of a bell like Pavlov’s dog or be as prolific as King’s boys in the basement. However, pets who feel picked, praised, and pampered often provide quality gifts. A kind of serenity can be found cuddled up with the bob-tailed cat in my basement—a serenity that wasn’t possible when I was plagued by squirrels in my attic.


Born under the sun sign of Leo, Serena Jayne is naturally a cat person. Her flash fiction has appeared in The Arcanist, Ghost Parachute, Gone Lawn, Lost Balloon, Shotgun Honey, and other publications. Her short story collection, Necessary Evils, was published by Unnerving Books. She tweets @SJ_Writer.

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