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This is what I tell every struggling writer and art journaler who attends my workshop:

There are only three truths you need to know about yourself to unlock your creativity, as follows:

1. You need to know what kind of writer you are.

2. You need to know who your readers is.

3. You need to figure out your strategy for doing the kind of writing you want to do.

(Last month I spoke at a week-long workshop for gifted high school kids at Hofstra University [here on Long Island], not my usual demographic. I began to tell them my Three Most Important Things You Need to Know and, to lighten the mood of intense expectation [did I mention they were over-achieving, ambitious teenagers?]I joked to them, as if anything I have to say is so dire to their success, You should write this down…and the whole room burst with activity as every kid immediately scrambled for paper and pen. I found this amusing because writing and art are not for prodigies; no matter how many notes those dear dedicated high schoolers took, there is no short cut to putting in the decades of life it takes to fulfill that first hitch: Know what kind of writer you are. The fact that this is so simple to say, and so extremely difficult to know, is why I am usually trying to help people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s with this in my workshops. I did mention to the kids that being a writer takes a long time, but I didn’t dwell on it. Nobody who is 17 years old wants to hear that.)

Any one of these three truths is a jumping off point for a workshop all on its own, which I’ve done by the way. I might get around to putting my seminars on line one day because I need to straighten out a couple of million struggling writers and artists; in the meantime, I want to say that I am challenging myself on Truth Number One these Summer days.

I know what kind of writer I am. I write narrative non-fiction in the form of illustrated travel journals. I’m thrilled to be that kind of writer.

But as I ponder my next book, I want to both expand or deepen that self-definition, the way I did between my first book When Wanderers Cease to Roam and my second one, Le Road Trip.  I have several ideas about what kind of journey I want to take my readers on next, and I spent a few hours on Saturday happily puttering around in my boxes (literally, boxes) of notes for future books.

And then I did what the great Ernest Hemingway used to do when he needed inspiration. I made a huge stonking gin and tonic and sat around watching my cats do cute stuff.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, we must discuss last week’s Catology challenge.

As was pointed out by many astute commentors last week, it’s not easy to tell black cats apart unless you know a bit about their personalities.

So here’s what my black cats were up to this past weekend:

Dudley, if you didn’t know him, looks very cuddly. Except if you get within a foot of him. Then he warns you that he is a cat who has boundaries, and you’re getting too damn close for comfort, and he turns all How to Tame Your Dragon-y:

Timmy is AWOL, which is not unusual. He is the most feral of my cats, a real vagabond, who shows up about twice a week for breakfast. The strange thing is, he’s always let me pet him — he loathes all the other cats but he’s OK with me. Go figure.

I have another Would-Be King Pin in the backyard, a striped cat called Bibs, who alsothinks he’s running the show. He, Dudley, and Blackie do not like each other at all, except for times like this:


This is the Gang of Three. That’s Blackie on the left, with the brownish cast to his coat, and that’s Dudley’s fat ass on the right. (If you haven’t guessed by now, it was Blackie and Dudley on the stone wall last week. Note the familiar body language.) But what you really need to know about Blackie, is that he is very beat up (which is why I didn’t take a close up shot of him — you would all worry that he was deathly ill, maimed, and abused; believe me, he doesn’t wander far from Top Cat Manor these days but his previous battles are written all over his face). When I took him to the vet to be neutered and patched up, the vet took one look at him and exclaimed, “Wow! This cat is a warrior!”

You also need to know that Blackie is very much in love with his lady friend, Candy:

Candy is the ladycat who brought me her three kittens, four Summers ago, with Blackie, and has never left. These two are mated for life, and their love is very evident for anyone to see.

And oh, yeah. Her kittens are all grown up now, but they are part of the Top Cat Manor Tribe, and they also love their mom. I took this picture on Friday evening:

Congratulations to all those Expert Catologists out there: Pinky, Linda Jacks, Laura George, Bunny, Deborah, Carol, Susie, Margaret, Rachel, Janet, Shelley, Michelle, Nadine, and Eileen.

Honorable Mention to: CarolM, Chel, Alexandra, Vickie, Barbara, and Joan.

Your certificates for Superior Achievement in Catology are in the mail.

(And if you had a problem posting your Catology Comment, please let me know by emailng me at vivianswift dot yahoo dot com. I am having a terrible problem with spam again, and your comment might get caught up in my vise-like spam controller– if you contact me, I can make sure you are green-lighted or future musings and contests.)

But my weekend wasn’t all about cats. There was some Blue Jay action, too. I wasn’t even thinking about Blue Jays, either, when I just happened to be standing on my patio (with my camera in my hand). And I looked down, and this is exactly what I saw:

Except in real life, it shone like a beacon (and this is exactly how it looked before I even touched it):

It’s a wing feather, a flight feather; you can tell because the stripes are only on one side.  

Flight feathers are usually asymmetrical, with a narrow leading edge and a wider tail edge. This design provides lift as the feather slices through the air. This feather, however, is not particularly asymmetrical because it’s not on the tip of the Jay’s wing; it’s nearer to the body. It’s an outer wing feather, (again, you can tell because of the stripes — all the under wing feathers are plain grey) and it’s called a covert feather. It doesn’t provide a lot of lift — it smooths the air flow over the the wing.

No, I’m not that kind of writer; I am not writing a book about Blue Jay feathers.

I need a journey, dear readers. I need a journey worth taking you all with me.  Want to go to Scotland? Through another year of days? Through my archive of prized thoughts and possessions?


13 comments to More than you want to know, probably.

  • Mary

    I don’t know how many people are interested in Scotland, but I DO know how many of your readers like cats. ALL OF THEM. I would rush right out to buy a book about cats, and their stories as they spend time in and around Top Cat Manor. Cleveland Amory made a living from telling cat stories. I read a book about a cat in the Public Library – somewhere in the mid-west.

    How you saved Cindy Lou; how Oscar got here; Candy and the babies; Penelope, who finally found a life after the kitchen counter; Whitey, who died; the cat hutch in the yard that you winterized; how the cats found the basement through a tiny hole; how they like the garage roof.

    I’ve been to Scotland four times. Never saw a cat there. Walking around OR in a window.

    They do have a lovely country tho. Might be interesting. Sad history.
    O yes; I remember the stories. I’d buy the book.

  • I’m very excited to receive my Catology certificate! Thanks so much! Your cats are all gorgeous…kind of reminds me of my mom’s brood of 14, yes 14! Some are definite warriors and one, Itty Bit came to her pregnant and had 4 itty bitties! They are two now and really close. It’s so fun to go back home for a visit as there are cats in every room! I vote for Scotland! I’ve spent nearly a month there with my mom and did The West Highland Way in 2009…I would love to read about your experiences there!

  • You know, you could maintain your pattern and alternate books from now on – one close to home, then one far away, etc., thus pleasing both homebodies and armchair travelers. So, how about a world atlas of your backyard (cats, tea, feathers, gin, thrift shop finds, an occasional foray into the neighborhood, including NYC) next, then in the book after that, take us to Scotland… Just thoughts, whatever you choose to write is fine with me.

    Sorry to miss your contest, I’ve been away!

  • Carol

    I want to go I want to go I want to go
    to Scotland
    to a farmhouse in Long Island
    to Manhattan
    to Missoula, Montana
    because I am the kind of READER who wants to to read the kind of WRITING you do!
    (Maybe Penelope can help with some of the work load!)

  • CarolM

    OK I know this is a little odd, but I really wanted to post to Carol, but I guess I post to everyone.

    Why do you want to go to Missoula Montana, are you coming to visit?

  • Carol

    Because our fearless leader, Vivian Swift was born in Missoula, Montana

  • mo

    i’d love to see you do a book of travels across the United States. may seem humdrum, but i love that stuff. maybe a Route 66 kind of book. or Ireland ;)

    i’m a dog person, sorry ….

  • Susie

    Cats at home and/or Scotland.
    With rain? lol

    Most of us love your cat experiences……and I’d love your take on Scotland. I’ll probably never get there and would trust your view. It would be the most like it would really be if I went, does that make sense? You notice the most important, interesting things…..Or Ireland, yes. No cats in Scotland? Where are they?

    Thank you for the extra care in the blue jay feathers tutorial. You COULD write a book about feathers…but not being THAT kind of writer, it would drive you nuts, huh? lol

    Cats/Scotland, that’s my vote. And on-line writing classes (I had to throw that into the pot).

    Ya know, bottom line, whatever you do would be great.

  • My beloved Creamcheese cat is an indoor cat, so I save cat whiskers instead of blue jay feathers. I use them in small art projects. As for your next book, how about Italy? Along with your little philosophic bits and pieces. I love it when you ed-u-cate us, smile.

  • And oh yes — cats! Cats!

  • CarolM

    Jeannie-I beg to differ! I live in Missoula and it has only gone down hill in the last 20 years. I live back and forth between here and WY(job), and I am honestly thinking of giving up my home of so many years to get away from what has become of a nice area……….
    Sorry for the negativity, but I live it every day.

  • Deborah

    I love the stories of the cats, I would love to hear about Scotland (never been there but would love to visit), but the thing that pulled me the most was the “prized thoughts and possessions.” Or, I guess, I found myself thinking I’d like to read about how you consider, but then reject, ideas.

    The part about age & writing made a light go on in my head. I’ve been dormant in terms of writing the last couple of years, but just this last week I found myself making a list of topics & ‘seeing’ how the essays would relate to each other. I think the writing was lying low while I transitioned to older/deeper/wiser. yeah, that’s it!

  • Tracey

    My suggestions:

    Book 1- cats
    Book 2- tea (with research in NYC, Seattle,Victoria, British Columbia)
    Book 3 -Scotland OR Italy

    There are loads of cats in Italy. Venice has an organization named Dingo that provides ferals with nice little houses and food. When I was in Venice in 2007, I bought a Dingo calendar and saw many of the houses in a park in Cannereggio:

    Rome has the famous forum cats. I also went to visit Castle Sant Angelo in the Vatican near sunset and caught a guard opening dozens of cats of cat food for lots of cats. Visit Venice in the fall and do a Venice/cat book.

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