Description: The Cat’s Meow

Part of the secret of absorbing fiction is to make it vivid. After all, you’re more likely to remember that you’re just watching a TV programme if you see it on a black and white portable instead of a wide-screen colour TV. As writers, we don’t have colours and screens to work with, we only have words. And words or phrases the reader has seen a million times before get like scratched and faded cine-film — all the zing has gone. The first person to call jealousy, “the green-eyed monster” was a genius — William Shakespeare. He must have got a really clear image into the minds of his 17th century listeners. But now it’s about as fresh as fish kept out of the fridge for a week.

The first step towards vivid descriptions is close observation. If you don’t look at it for yourself you’ll reach for clichés. As George Orwell put it, some writing is stuff full of clichés, “tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” What a lovely bit of fresh writing!

It’s OK to fill your first draft with clichéd descriptions, just as long as you fix it on the rewrite. That’s the stage at which I wind up jiggling rum bottles on their bases to get a description of the noise. (I settled for thwunker-wunker.)

What’s all this got to do with cats? Everyone knows they go “meow”, right?

Not if you’re listening.

A cat’s hello is more like, “Mmrrrrrrtt! on a rising note, usually while they run towards you with their tail straight up. And then they stand on their hind legs to head-butt you as high as they can reach.

When they want you to produce their dinner or open a door, they go, “Me! Me! Me! Me! Me” until you do it. When they stand with one hind paw on your foot, they’re really begging.

If you accidentally stand on their tail, they say, “MurrrrOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWW!” at top volume. And when you lift your clumsy foot, they’re off so fast it’s a wonder there’s no sonic boom.

Tom cats arguing over a queen or territory sound like something between a police siren and a scream.

In fact the one clichéd noise which is at all accurate is the purr, but there are no pauses: “RrrrrrrRrrrrrrRrrrrrrRrrrrr.” Of course, they usually do this while they’re on your lap. If they’re really happy, they scratch and knead your thighs into mincemeat and drool all over you. This is what small kittens do to their mother as they suckled, so it’s a great complement really.

I’ve lived with cats for about eighteen years, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard one say “meow.”

© Sheila Crosby 2005

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