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Do It: 20 Years of Famous Artists’ Irreverent Instructions for Art Anyone Can Make

“Art is something that you encounter and you know it’s in a different kind of space from the rest of your life, but is directly connected to it.”

One afternoon in 1993, legendary art critic, curator, and interviewer extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist — mind of great wisdom on matters as diverse as the relationship between patterns and chance and the trouble with “curation” itself — sat down in Paris’s Café Select with fellow co-conspirers Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, and the do it project was born: A series of instructional procedures by some of the greatest figures in contemporary art, designed for anyone to follow as a sort of DIY toolkit for creating boundary-expanding art. Over the twenty years that followed, manifestations of the project popped up in exhibitions around the world, from the most underground galleries to the most prestigious museums.

Twenty years later, Obrist is releasing Do It: The Compendium (public library) — a wide-ranging medley of artist instructions spanning performance art, sculpture, urban intervention, philosophical reflection, and even recipes from, contributors like Lawrence Weiner, Louise Bourgeois, Ai Weiwei, Douglas Coupland, David Lynch, and Sol LeWitt. The project, above all, explores art as unbridling of author and authority, art as internationalism, art as a homage and a middle finger to Art. It lives somewhere between Yoko Ono’s instructions for art and life, John Cage’s interpretable notations, and Philip Glass’s notion of authorship as transformation.

Obrist, who considers do it “not a sprint [but] a marathon” and the book a “progress report” on a perpetually open-ended project, writes:

Do it rejects the notion of the original in favor of an open-ended conception of the creation of the work. … No two versions of do it instructions are ever identical when carried out. … The exhibition takes place in the inter-spaces between interpretation and negotiation. … It is important to bear in mind that do it is less concerned with copies, images, or reproductions of artworks, than with human interpretations.

Here is a selection of the contemplative, silly, subversive, profound, playful, and infinitely diverse contributions, stretching our conception of what art is, who should enact it, and how — the essence of Obrist’s gift.

Celebrated architect, educator, and architecture critic Cedric Price adds to The Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook in a 2005 piece titled Gilding the lily part II:


Skin but do not stone a peach. Brush lightly with a weak mixture of clear golden syrup (corn syrup) or melted brown sugar and brandy. Heat more brandy in a soupspoon. Ignite, and pour over the peach. Eat immediately.

A particular favorite of Bucky’s.

Sculptor Nairy Baghramian (2012):

Following Gertrude Stein, every now and then sit with your back on nature.

Many are intently irreverent in the face of the art establishment. Performance artist and invisible media maestro Robert Barry (2012):

Do something unique that only you and no one else in the world can do.

Don’t call it art.

Paris-based self-described “readymade artist” Claire Fontaine (2012):

Whatever you do, do something else.

Lawrence Weiner: A 36” x 36” removal to the lathing or support wall of plaster or wallboard from a wall (1968)

Conceptual art pioneer Lawrence Weiner, regarded as one of the greatest modern artists of our time, in a 1968 piece Cat. #21 and presented in characteristic all-caps:



Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt (2001):

A black not straight line is drawn at approximately the center of the wall horizontally from side to side. Alternate red, yellow, and blue lines are drawn above and below the black line to the top and bottom of the wall.

Some fall at the intersection of the profound and the sentimental. Federico Herrero, in a 2002 piece titled Secret Friend:

Choose a person you like, or that you would like to love, or at least, a person you have good feelings for.

Leave small gifts for him/her in personal places for five days.

During those five days, secretly record in secret conversations with that person. The recording can be for a short time or as long as possible.

Listen to the taping every night before bed.

Louise Bourgeois: Instruction (2002)

French-American artist, sculptor and confessional art founder Louise Bourgeois (2002):

When you are walking, stop and smile at a stranger.

Paul Chan: Instruction (2005)

Artist and publishing provocateur Paul Chan (2005):

When you meet someone new tell them the following:

“Our modern age is characterized by a sadness which calls for a new kind of prophet.

Not the prophets of old who reminded people that they were going to die, but someone who will remind them that they are not dead yet.”

Do not be embarrassed.
Do not be afraid.

(This is a riff on the following passage from the 1912 novel Manalive by G. K. Chesterton: “There should be priests to remind men that they will one day die. I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet. The intellectuals among whom I moved were not even alive enough to fear death. They hadn’t enough blood in them to be cowards. Until a pistol barrel was poked under their very noses they never even knew they had been born. For ages looking up an eternal perspective it might be true that life is a learning to die. But for these little white rats it was just as true that death was their only chance of learning to live.”)

Danish-Icelandic sculptor and large-scale installation mastermind Olafur Eliasson (2002), in a piece titled Physiological Memory:

1) Choose a person, older than yourself, you see frequently — not too often by approx once a week or once a month. Maybe one of your grandparents if they are still alive.

2) Every time you meet the chosen person you press your 2 pointing-fingers firmly against your eyes for 10 to 20 seconds until various colors and patterns arise.

3) Try to note or memorize the patterns and colors in connection with the context and repeat the practice every time you meet the chosen person for a as long as possible, minimum 6 months.

4) After minimum 6 months of this practice you can recall the person, virtually by pressing your eyes for a while. In the midst of the colors and pattern a sense of presence of the chosen person arrives even after the chosen person has died.

Some expose the role of art as a tool of sociopolitical reflection. Italian-American postmodern choreographer and musician Simone Forti (2012):

Think about climate change.

Sit for some moments in dumb grief, dumb knowing, dumb amazement.

Others are decidedly, if subversively, dogmatic, like Ten Commandments for Gilbert and George by graphic art duo Gilbert & George (1995):

I. Thou shalt fight conformism
II. Thou shalt be the messenger of freedoms
III. Thou shalt make use of sex
IV. Thou shalt reinvent life
V. Thou shalt create artificial art
VI. Thou shalt have a sense of purpose
VII. Thou shalt not know exactly what thou doest, but thou shalt do it
VIII. Thou shalt give thy love
IX. Thou shalt grab the soul
X. Thou shalt give something back

Others are unabashedly playful. Conceptual artist Stephen J. Kaltenbach (1969):

Start a rumor.

American artist Ben Kinmond, in a 1997 piece titled The possibilities of trust as a sculpture and the question of value for each participant:

Invite a stranger into your home for breakfast.

Swedish installation and video artist Klara Liden (2012):

LOST — street sign exchange program

Take down a street name sign.
Go to a different city.
Put up the sign in place of another sign.

Austrian artist and “one-minute sculptor” Erwin Wurm (1995):

Put on a pullover — but don’t stick arms or head through the normal openings — squat down and pull the end of the pullover down over your knees and feet.

In this position, endure for 20 seconds.

One of the most irreverent and wonderful contributions, at once charmingly dated for its tech references and timelessly delightful in its spirit, comes from Canadian novelist, design writer, and media commentator Douglas Coupland (2004):


1) Go to an instant print shop run by a multinational company such as Kinko’s.

2) Log onto the internet.

3) Open a blog page account on a blogging site such as It’s free.

4) Give your blog home page a name composed of two relatively unusual nouns such as ducklingspaghetti. There is a reason for this which will come shortly.

5) On another on-screen window go to

6) Select a book that you’ve read many times in your life.

7) Chances are that Amazon has many pages from that book excerpted. Select one page.

8) Go back to your blog page.

9) Transcribe into it the page you selected from Amazon.

10) Post that blog page on the internet.

11) Now go to or or or any Google for a language you don’t speak.

12) On this foreign Google site, search for your blog entry using the name of your blog page. The unusual nouns selected for your page will make it easy for Google to find it.

13) Once your blog page appears, click Google’s translation button. Your page will be translated within a second or two.

14) Print out this page on 8.5 x 11 paper or A4 or whatever is the standardized letter paper dimension for the country you’re in.

15) Return to your blog account.

16) In a new blog entry, paste into it the freshly translated page.

17) Using Google from another country, repeat the above procedure, translating your page from, say, Dutch to French.

18) Print out this ext translation but do it on a differently colored page of letter paper.

19) Continue this process repeatedly, always from one language into another, printing onto a differently colored sheet of paper, until you have used up all colors of paper available at your specific Kinko’s.

20) The final sheet of paper should be in your mother tongue.

21) For final presentation, paste the sheets like a checkerboard onto a wall, in sequence. The proportions of the pasting should be a vertical rectangle as close to 8.5 x 11 or A4 as possible.

In this short video interview, artist and curator Richard Wentworth, one of the original contributors to do it, adds to history’s notable definitions of art and echoes Adrienne Rich with a meditation on the project and its significance:

The point about art is it’s all in its interpretation. Art is something that you encounter and you know it’s in a different kind of space from the rest of your life, but is directly connected to it. … It’s a great privilege to be near art because when you’re near art, you can be another kind of person, and it allows you to think differently about things that you have never done.

Do It: The Compendium, a refined addition to these activity books for grown-ups, is marvelous and endlessly delightful in its entirety.

Thanks, Rachel and Bettina


The Designer Says: The Collected Quips and Wisdom of Famous Graphic Designers

“Everything hangs on something else.”

On the heels of last year’s tiny gem The Architect Says comes The Designer Says: Quotes, Quips, and Words of Wisdom (public library) — a charming, similarly-spirited compendium of more than one hundred beautifully typeset remarks by some of today’s and yesteryear’s most celebrated graphic design minds, including favorites like Saul Bass, Charles Eames, Debbie Millman, Milton Glaser, Louise Fili, Paula Scher, and Maira Kalman.

Saul Bass, revered by many as the greatest graphic designer of all time and little-known children’s book artist, captures the essence of intrinsic motivation blind to extrinsic reinforcement:

I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.

Charles and Ray Eames (Image via Bo Bedre)

Reconstructionist Ray Eames acknowledges the inextricable chain of influence in art and the combinatorial nature of creativity:

Everything hangs on something else.

Charles Eames, man of ample quotable wisdom, reminds us of the usefulness of useless knowledge:

My dream is to have people working on useless projects. These have the germ of new concepts.

Seymour Chwast shares a valuable distinction:

I read once about the concepts of the lateral idea and the vertical idea. If you dig a hole and it’s in the wrong place, digging it deeper isn’t going to help. The lateral idea is when you skip over and dig someplace else.

Legendary curmudgeon and wit Paul Rand, who worked closely with Steve Jobs and who too illustrated some delightful vintage children’s books, echoes Anaïs Nin’s case for making by hand:

It is important to use your hands. This is what distinguishes you from a cow or a computer operator.

Paul Rand (Image via Irish Times)

Celebrated Italian designer Bruno Munari, oracle of Neapolitan hand-gestures, argues that in the mind of the graphic designer, like that of the inventor, creation and curation go hand in hand:

A graphic designer usually makes hundreds of small drawings and then picks one of them.

Information visualization godfather Edward Tufte reminds us of the weight of function over form, integrity over vanity:

If your words aren’t truthful, the finest optically letter-spaced typography won’t help.

Edward Tufte (Image: Sadalit)

Erik Spiekermann echoes Dr. Seuss’s advice to children:


But perhaps most heartening of all are the words of Alan Fletcher, who eloquently articulates the joy of fulfilling work that comes from having found your purpose:

I’d sooner do the same on Monday or Wednesday as I do on a Saturday or Sunday. I don’t divide my life between labor and pleasure.

Pair The Designer Says with the collected wisdom of famous writers on their craft.


Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers

Hemingway, Didion, Baldwin, Fitzgerald, Sontag, Vonnegut, Bradbury, Morrison, Orwell, Le Guin, Woolf, and other titans of literature.

By popular demand, I’ve put together a periodically updated reading list of all the famous advice on writing presented here over the years, featuring words of wisdom from such masters of the craft as Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Henry Miller, Stephen King, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Susan Orlean, Ernest Hemingway, Zadie Smith, and more.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton from our visualization of great writers’ sleep habits vs. literary productivity.

Please enjoy.

  1. Ursula K. Le Guin on Art, Storytelling, and the Power of Language to Transform and Redeem
    “One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience… Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.”
  2. Rachel Carson on Writing and the Loneliness of Creative Work
    “If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in… you will interest other people.”
  3. Jeanette Winterson’s 10 Tips on Writing
    “Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.”
  4. Jennifer Egan on Writing, the Trap of Approval, and the Most Important Discipline for Aspiring Writers
    “You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly… Accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”
  5. T.S. Eliot on Writing: His Warm and Wry Letter of Advice to a Sixteen-Year-Old Girl Aspiring to Become a Writer
    “Don’t write at first for anyone but yourself.”
  6. Anton Chekhov’s 6 Rules for a Great Story

    Mastering the essential complementarity of compassion and total objectivity.
  7. The Only Story in the World: John Steinbeck on Kindness, Good and Evil, the Wellspring of Good Writing
    “Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.”
  8. Zadie Smith on What Writers Can Learn from Some of History’s Greatest Dancers
  9. “Between propriety and joy choose joy.”

  10. The Continuous Thread of Revelation: Eudora Welty on Writing, Time, and Embracing the Nonlinearity of How We Become Who We Are
  11. “Greater than scene… is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.”

  12. The Effortless Effort of Creativity: Jane Hirshfield on Storytelling, the Art of Concentration, and Difficulty as a Consecrating Force of Creative Attention
    “In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.”
  13. Ted Hughes on How to Be a Writer: A Letter of Advice to His 18-Year-Old Daughter
    “The first sign of disintegration — in a writer — is that the writing loses the unique stamp of his/her character, & loses its inner light.”
  14. Colette on Writing, the Blissful Obsessive-Compulsiveness of Creative Work, and Withstanding Naysayers
    “A lack of money, if it be relative, and a lack of comfort can be endured if one is sustained by pride. But not the need to be astounded.”
  15. Auden on Writing, Originality, Self-Criticism, and How to Be a Good Reader
    “It would only be necessary for a writer to secure universal popularity if imagination and intelligence were equally distributed among all men.”
  16. Stephen King: Writing and the Art of “Creative Sleep”:
    “In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.”
  17. Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing
    “If it sounds like writing … rewrite it.”
  18. Michael Lewis: Writing, Money, and the Necessary Self-Delusion of Creativity
    “When you’re trying to create a career as a writer, a little delusional thinking goes a long way.”
  19. Annie Dillard on Writing
    “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.”
  20. Susan Sontag on Writing
    “There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work.”
  21. Ray Bradbury: How List-Making Can Boost Your Creativity
    How to feel your way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of your skull.
  22. Anne Lamott: Writing and Why Perfectionism Kills Creativity
    “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.”
  23. Italo Calvino on Writing: Insights from 40+ Years of His Letters
    “To write well about the elegant world you have to know it and experience it to the depths of your being… what matters is not whether you love it or hate it, but only to be quite clear about your position regarding it.”
  24. Ernest Hemingway : Writing, Knowledge, and the Danger of Ego
    “All bad writers are in love with the epic.”
  25. David Foster Wallace: Writing, Death, and Redemption
    “You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness … has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.”
  26. Isabel Allende: Writing Brings Order to the Chaos of Life
    “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”
  27. Stephen King: The Adverb Is Not Your Friend
    “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”
  28. Malcolm Cowley: The Four Stages of Writing
    “The germ of a story is a new and simple element introduced into an existing situation or mood.”
  29. Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments of Writing
    “Work on one thing at a time until finished.”
  30. Advice on Writing: Collected Wisdom from Modernity’s Greatest Writers
    “Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two. This you cannot do without temperance.”
  31. Kurt Vonnegut: 8 Rules for a Great Story
    “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”
  32. Susan Orlean on Writing
    “You have to simply love writing, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.”
  33. Zadie Smith: 10 Rules of Writing
    “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”
  34. John Steinbeck: 6 Tips on Writing, and a Disclaimer
    “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish.”
  35. F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Secret of Great Writing (1938)
    “Nothing any good isn’t hard.”
  36. E. B. White: Egoism and the Art of the Essay
    “Only a person who is congenially self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays”
  37. E. B. White: Why Brevity Is Not the Gold Standard for Style
    “Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound.”
  38. Ray Bradbury: Creative Purpose in the Face of Rejection
    “The blizzard doesn’t last forever; it just seems so.”
  39. Mary Karr: The Magnetism and Madness of the Written Word
    “Be willing to be a child and be the Lilliputian in the world of Gulliver.”
  40. Kurt Vonnegut: How to Write With Style and the 8 Keys to the Power of the Written Word (1985)
    “The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.”
  41. Ann Patchett: What Now?
    “Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected.”
  42. Mary Gordon: The Joy of Notebooks and Writing by Hand as a Creative Catalyst
    “However thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.”
  43. H. P. Lovecraft: Advice to Aspiring Writers (1920)
    “A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.”
  44. Henry Miller: Reflections on Writing
    “Understanding is not a piercing of the mystery, but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it, through and by it.”
  45. Margaret Atwood: 10 Rules of Writing
    “­Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.”
  46. David Foster Wallace: The Nature of the Fun and Why Writers Write
    “Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable.”
  47. Joy Williams: Why Writers Write
    “A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.”
  48. Joan Didion: Ego, Grammar, and the Impetus to Write
    “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.”
  49. David Ogilvy: 10 No-Bullshit Tips on Writing
    “Never write more than two pages on any subject.”
  50. George Orwell: The Four Motives for Writing (1946)
    “Sheer egoism… Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.”
  51. Ezra Pound: A Few Don’ts for Those Beginning to Write Verse (1913)
    “Consider the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap.”
  52. Ray Bradbury: Storytelling and Human Nature (1963)
    “Man has always been half-monster, half-dreamer.”
  53. Joseph Conrad: Writing and the Role of the Artist (1897)
    “Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off.”
  54. Helen Dunmore: 9 Rules of Writing
    “A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.”
  55. E. B. White: The Role and Responsibility of the Writer (1969)
    “Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”
  56. Jack Kerouac: 30 Beliefs and Techniques for Prose and Life
    “No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge.”
  57. Raymond Chandler on Writing
    “The test of a writer is whether you want to read him again years after he should by the rules be dated.”
  58. Walter Benjamin: The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses
    “The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself.”
  59. 28-Year-Old Susan Sontag on the Four People a Great Writer Must Be
    “A great writer has all 4 — but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2.”
  60. 10 Tips on Writing from Joyce Carol Oates
    “Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.”
  61. Neil Gaiman: 8 Rules of Writing
    “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”
  62. Anaïs Nin: Why Emotional Excess is Essential to Writing and Creativity
    “Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.”
  63. Neil Gaiman’s Advice to Aspiring Writers
    “You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.”
  64. Jorge Luis Borges on Writing: Wisdom from His Most Candid Interviews
    “A writer’s work is the product of laziness.”
  65. Herbert Spencer: The Philosophy of Style, the Economy of Attention, and the Ideal Writer (1852)
    “To have a specific style is to be poor in speech.”
  66. Charles Bukowski on Writing and His Insane Daily Routine
    “Writing is like going to bed with a beautiful woman and afterwards she gets up, goes to her purse and gives me a handful of money.”
  67. Samuel Johnson on Writing and Creative Doggedness
    “Composition is for the most part an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements.”
  68. Edgar Allan Poe: The Joy of Marginalia and What Handwriting Reveals about Character
    “In the marginalia … we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly — boldly — originally — with abandonment — without conceit.”
  69. Kurt Vonnegut: The Writer’s Responsibility, the Limitations of the Brain, and Why the Universe Exists: A Rare 1974 WNYC Interview
    “We have such a young culture that there is an opportunity to contribute wonderful new myths to it, which will be accepted.”
  70. Ernest Hemingway on Not Writing for Free and How to Run a First-Rate Publication
    Find the best writers, pay them to write, and avoid typos at all costs.
  71. How to Be a Writer: Ernest Hemingway’s Advice to Aspiring Authors
    “As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.”
  72. Eudora Welty: The Poetics of Place and Writing as an Explorer’s Map of the Unknown
    “No art ever came out of not risking your neck.”
  73. Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize Interview: Writing, Women, and the Rewards of Storytelling
    “I want my stories to move people … to feel some kind of reward from the writing.”
  74. Samuel Delany: Good Writing vs. Talented Writing
    “Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.”
  75. William Faulkner: Writing, the Purpose of Art, Working in a Brothel, and the Meaning of Life
    “The only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost.”
  76. Anaïs Nin: Writing, the Future of the Novel, and How Keeping a Diary Enhances Creativity: Wisdom from a Rare 1947 Chapbook
    “It is in the movements of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately.”
  77. John Updike: Writing and Death
    “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”
  78. Charles Bukowski Debunks the “Tortured Genius” Myth of Creativity
    “unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut, don’t do it.”
  79. Mary Gaitskill: Why Writers Write and The Six Motives of Creativity
    The art of integrating the ego and the impulse for empathy in a dynamic call and response.
  80. Vladimir Nabokov: Writing, Reading, and the Three Qualities a Great Storyteller Must Have
    “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.”
  81. Joan Didion: Telling Stories, the Economy of Words, Starting Out as a Writer, and Facing Rejection
    “Short stories demand a certain awareness of one’s own intentions, a certain narrowing of the focus.”
  82. Herman Melville’s Daily Routine and Thoughts on the Writing Life
    “A book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism.”
  83. William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech: The Writer as a Booster of the Human Heart
    “The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is … to help man endure by lifting his heart.”
  84. John Updike: Making Money, How to Have a Productive Daily Routine, and the Most Important Things for Aspiring Writers to Know
    “In a country this large and a language even larger … there ought to be a living for somebody who cares and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.”
  85. Susan Sontag : Writing, Routines, Education, and Elitism in a 1992 Recording from the 92Y Archives
    “To make your life being a writer, it’s an auto-slavery … you are both the slave and the task-master.”
  86. Chinua Achebe: The Meaning of Life and the Writer’s Responsibility in Society
    The difference between blind optimism and the urge to improve the world’s imperfection.
  87. Leonard Cohen: Creativity, Hard Work, and Why You Should Never Quit Before You Know What It Is You’re Quitting
    “The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”
  88. Ray Bradbury: What Failure Really Means, Why We Hate Work, and the Importance of Love in Creative Endeavors
    How working for the wrong motives poisons our creativity and warps our ideas of success and failure.
  89. Joyce Carol Oates: What Hemingway’s Early Stories Can Teach Us About Writing and the Defining Quality of Great Art
    On the elusive gift of blending austerity of craft with elasticity of allure.
  90. Willa Cather: Writing Through Troubled Times
    “The test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please.”
  91. Anthony Trollope: Witty and Wise Advice on How to Be a Successful Writer
    “My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”
  92. William Styron: Why Formal Education Is a Waste of Time for Writers
    “For a person whose sole burning ambition is to write — like myself — college is useless beyond the Sophomore year.”
  93. Madeleine L’Engle: Creativity, Censorship, Writing, and the Duty of Children’s Books
    “We find what we are looking for. If we are looking for life and love and openness and growth, we are likely to find them. If we are looking for witchcraft and evil, we’ll likely find them, and we may get taken over by them.”
  94. Saul Bellow: How Writers and Artists Save Us from the “Moronic Inferno” of Our Time
    “The writer cannot make the seas of distraction stand still, but he [or she] can at times come between the madly distracted and the distractions.”
  95. Mary Oliver: The Mystery of the Human Psyche, the Secret of Great Poetry, and How Rhythm Makes Us Come Alive
    “Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter.”
  96. Schopenhauer on Style
    “Truth that is naked is the most beautiful, and the simpler its expression the deeper is the impression it makes.”
  97. Flannery O’Connor: Why the Grotesque Appeals to Us, Plus a Rare Recording of Her Reading
    “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”
  98. Annie Dillard: The Art of the Essay and Narrative Nonfiction vs. Poetry and Short Stories
    “Writers serve as the memory of a people. They chew over our public past.”
  99. C.S. Lewis: The 3 Ways of Writing for Children and the Key to Authenticity in All Writing
    “The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind.”
  100. Nietzsche: 10 Rules for Writers
    “Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.”
  101. William Faulkner: Writing, the Human Dilemma, and Why We Create
    “It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do.”
  102. David Foster Wallace: The Redemptive Power of Reading and the Future of Writing in the Age of Information
    The fun of reading as “an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about.”
  103. Zadie Smith: The Psychology of the Two Types of Writers
    “It’s a feeling of happiness that knocks me clean out of adjectives. I think sometimes that the best reason for writing novels is to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word.”
  104. George Orwell: Writing, How to Counter the Mindless Momentum of Language, and the Four Questions a Great Writer Must Ask Herself
    “By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.”
  105. Italo Calvino: The Art of Quickness, Digression as a Hedge Against Death, and the Key to Great Writing
    “Success consists in felicity of verbal expression, which every so often may result from a quick flash of inspiration but as a rule involves a patient search… for the sentence in which every word is unalterable.”
  106. Ursula K. Le Guin: Where Ideas Come From, the “Secret” of Great Writing, and the Trap of Marketing Your Work
    “All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.”
  107. Gabriel García Márquez on His Unlikely Beginnings as a Writer
    “If you’re going to be a writer you have to be one of the great ones… After all, there are better ways to starve to death.”
  108. Roald Dahl: How Illness Emboldens Creativity: A Moving Letter to His Bedridden Mentor
    “I doubt I would have written a line … unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut.”
  109. Robert Frost: How to Read Intelligently and Write a Great Essay
    “The sidelong glance is what you depend on.”
  110. Lewis Carroll: How to Work Through Difficulty and His Three Tips for Overcoming Creative Block
    “When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on.”
  111. Mark Strand: The Heartbeat of Creative Work and the Artist’s Task to Bear Witness to the Universe
    “It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.”
  112. John Steinbeck: The Diary as a Tool of Discipline, a Hedge Against Self-Doubt, and a Pacemaker for the Heartbeat of Creative Work
    “Just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.”
  113. E.B. White: How to Write for Children and the Writer’s Responsibility to All Audiences
    “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”
  114. Virginia Woolf: Writing and Self-Doubt
    Consolation for those moments when you can’t tell whether you’re “the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”
  115. Cheryl Strayed: Faith, Humility, and the Art of Motherfuckitude
    “Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”
  116. Ann Patchett: Writing and Why Self-Forgiveness Is the Most Important Ingredient of Great Art
    “The ability to forgive oneself … is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.”
  117. Umberto Eco’s Advice to Writers
    “If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will…
  118. Grace Paley: The Value of Not Understanding Everything
    “Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious.”
  119. Jane Kenyon: Some of the Wisest Words to Create and Live By
    “Be a good steward of your gifts.”
  120. Joseph Conrad on Art and What Makes a Great Writer, in a Beautiful Tribute to Henry James
    “All creative art is magic, is evocation of the unseen in forms persuasive, enlightening, familiar and surprising, for the edification of mankind.”
  121. How to Save Your Soul: Willa Cather on Productivity vs. Creativity, Selling Out, and the Life-Changing Advice That Made Her a Writer
    “It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It’s so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase — or the stock exchange.”
  122. Hemingway’s Advice on Writing, Ambition, the Art of Revision, and His Reading List of Essential Books for Aspiring Writers
    “In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better.”
  123. James Baldwin’s Advice on Writing
    “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”
  124. Alison Bechdel on Writing, Therapy, Self-Doubt, and How the Messiness of Life Feeds the Creative Conscience
    “It’s by writing… by stepping back a bit from the real thing to look at it, that we are most present.”
  125. Elizabeth Alexander on Writing, the Ethic of Love, Language as a Vehicle for the Self, and the Inherent Poetry of Personhood
    “You have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others.”
  126. Can Goodness Win? George Saunders on Writing, the Artist’s Task, and the Importance of Living with Opposing Truths
    “See how long you can stay in that space, where both things are true… That’s a great place to try to be.”

Literary Pets: The Cats, Dogs, and Birds Famous Authors Loved

Twain and Bambino, Browning and Flush, Dickens and Grip, Hemingway and Uncle Willie, and more.

The wonderful recent Lost Cat memoir, one of my favorite books of the past few years, reminded me of how central, yet often unsuspected, a role pets have played in famous authors’ lives throughout literary history.

Cats have inspired Joyce’s children’s books, T. S. Eliot’s poetry, Gay Talese’s portrait of New York, and various literary satire, while dogs have fueled centuries of literature, philosophy and psychology, interactive maps, and some of the New Yorker’s finest literature and art. Gathered here are some of literary history’s most moving accounts of famous writers’ love for their pets, culled from a wealth of letters, journals, and biographies.

Bambino, photographed by Mark Twain’s daughter, Jean Clemens (Image: Mark Twain Papers, University of California, Berkeley)

In between dispensing advice to little girls and epistolary snark to audacious grown-ups, Mark Twain grew deeply fond of the cat he had gotten for his daughter Clara during her extended illness. Writing in My Father, Mark Twain, Clara remembers:

In the early autumn Father rented a house on Fifth Avenue, corner of Ninth Street, number 21, where he, Jean, the faithful Katie, and the secretary settled down for the winter. I was taken to a sanatorium for a year. During the first months of my cure I was completely cut off from friends and family, with no one to speak to but the doctor and nurse. I must modify this statement, however, for I had smuggled a black kitten into my bedroom, although it was against the rules of the sanatorium to have any animals in the place. I called the cat Bambino and it was permitted to remain with me until the unfortunate day when it entered one of the patient’s rooms who hated cats. Bambino came near giving the good lady a cataleptic fit, so I was invited to dispose of my pet after that. I made a present of it to Father, knowing he would love it, and he did. A little later I was allowed to receive a limited number of letters, and Father wrote that Bambino was homesick for me and refused all meat and milk, but contradicted his statement a couple of days later saying: “It has been discovered that the reason your cat declines milk and meat and lets on to live by miraculous intervention is, that he catches mice privately.”

One day, however, Bambino disappeared, and Twain took out an ad in the New York American, offering $5 for Bambino’s return and the following description:

Large and intensely black; thick, velvety fur; has a faint fringe of white hair across his chest; not easy to find in ordinary light.

Katy Leary, Twain’s faithful servant, recalls the incident in A Lifetime with Mark Twain:

One night he got kind of gay, when he heard some cats calling from the back fence, so he found a window open and he stole out. We looked high and low but couldn’t find him. Mr. Clemens felt so bad that he advertised in all the papers for him. He offered a reward for anybody that would bring the cat back. My goodness! The people that came bringing cats to that house! A perfect stream! They all wanted to see Mr. Clemens, of course.

Two or three nights after, Katherine heard a cat meowing across the street in General Sickles’ back yard, and there was Bambino — large as life! So she brought him right home. Mr. Clemens was delighted and then he advertised that his cat was found! But the people kept coming just the same with all kinds of cats for him — anything to get a glimpse of Mr. Clemens!

Robert Pole and Tavi

Robert Pole, Anaïs Nin’s “West Coast Husband,” was inseparable from his beloved spaniel named Tavi. A series of letters between the two, found in A Cafe in Space: The Anais Nin Literary Journal, Volume 5, embodies the tender soul-merging that happens when a significant other’s pet comes to move our own hearts with equal might. In early May of 1960, Pole writes:

My Love:

Quel jours! After wrote you from beach took Tavi to McWherter’s today (Monday after school) hoping he could help but fearing he’d want to put him to sleep. He’s having same thing with his mother so was very sympathetic — “Tiger” he called, but Tavi so limp and listless and not like a tiger at all — but Mac gave him another kind of injection (to “feed” the brain) and said lots of cockers have lived through strokes!! Said I could give him a little water after — thank god as the ice bit was really getting me down — also he can have a little ice cream to keep up his strength — so I tore down to get some only to find he didn’t like it — but he does seem little better today and is functioning normally (I take him out and hold him up to wee wee). School is not difficult — I’m just as glad to have him in the car where he can’t hurt himself.

A few days later, Nin responds:

Darling chiquito:

Your letter about Tavi upset me so much I was sad all day. Just before I left I whispered in his ear that he should wait for me and keep well. I had an intuition, and I wrote you about it — I was at Grazilla’s and seeing her dog I worried about Tavi — I know what he means to us, yet darling, old age is so cruel it is better to not be alive — and the Tavi we knew lately was not the real Tavi. He has had much love and care — more than any dog I know. You know, he often wobbled to one side — he must have had a slight stroke before — I hate to think of Tavi being ill when I am not there to console you, to greet you when you come home. I hope perhaps it was a false alarm — and he may be all well now — I thought of you all day. Got your letter in the morning.


Te quiero chiquito — love to Tavi…tell him to wait for me.



But Tavi makes a miraculous recovery and, a short time later, Pole writes:

Tavi has not been swallowed by lion — but is his old impossible self — he now distains [sic] canned food — so I cook pork liver for him — and every day is a holiday — for senior dogs.

Later in May:

Tavi has recovered completely — in fact he has more energy saved up just to plague me with — goes sideways and falls down occasionally but then as you say has been doing that for some time — probably had his first stroke long ago.

By early June:

Tavi brimming with health — he’ll outlive all of us — no problem in his waiting — but he does miss you…

The Faithful Friend: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her cocker spaniel Flush (Artwork: James E McConnell)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was deeply attached to her cocker spaniel, Flush, a gift from her friend Mary Mitford. In 1826, Browning’s first collection of poems, which revealed her passion for Greek politics, caught the attention of a man named Hugh Stuart Boyd, a blind scholar of the Greek language. The two became correspondents and lifelong friends. Nearly two decades later, in March of 1842, Browning wrote in a letter to Boyd, found in The Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Hugh Stuart Boyd:

It was very kind in you to pat Flush’s head in defiance of danger and from pure regard for me. I kissed his head where you had patted it; which association of approximations I consider as an imitation of shaking hands with you and as the next best thing to it. You understand — don’t you? — that Flush is my constant companion, my friend, my amusement, lying with his head on one page of my folios while I read the other. (Not your folios — I respect your books, be sure.) Oh, I dare say, if the truth were known. Flush understands Greek excellently well.

In 1850, having just given birth to her only son at the age of 43, after four miscarriages, Browning writes in a letter to her friend Mr. Westwood:

You can’t think what a good, sweet, curious, imagining child he is. Half the day I do nothing but admire him — there’s the truth. He doesn’t talk yet much, but he gesticulates with extraordinary force of symbol, and makes surprising revelations to us every half-hour or so. Meanwhile Flush loses nothing I assure you. On the contrary, he is hugged and kissed (rather too hard sometimes), and never is permitted to be found fault with by anybody under the new regime. If Flush is scolded, Baby cries as matter of course, and he would do admirably for a “whipping-boy” if that excellent institution were to be revived by Young England and the Tractarians for the benefit of our deteriorated generations.

‘Grip, The Late Mr. Charles Dickens’s Raven’ 1870 print (Image: Free Library of Philadelphia)

Charles Dickens had a beloved pet raven named Grip, who made frequent cameos in the writer’s fiction. In 1841, a few months after swallowing a paint chip, Grip perished. In a letter to his friend Daniel Maclise, found in The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens, Dickens pens a tongue-in-cheek sketch of Raven’s final moments:

Devonshire Terrace
Friday Evening
March The Twelfth 1841

My Dear Maclise

You will be greatly shocked and grieved to hear that the Raven is no more. He expired to-day at a few minutes after twelve o´clock, at noon. He had been ailing for a few days, but we anticipated no serious result, conjecturing that a portion of the white paint he swallowed last summer might be lingering about his vitals. Yesterday afternoon he was taken so much worse that I sent an express for the medical gentleman, who promptly attended and administered a powerful dose of castor oil. Under the influence of this medicine he recovered so far as to be able, at eight o´clock, P.M., to bite Topping [the coachman]. His night was peaceful. This morning, at daybreak, he appeared better, and partook plentifully of some warm gruel, the flavor of which he appeared to relish. Toward eleven o´clock he was so much worse that it was found necessary to muffle the stable knocker. At half-past, or thereabouts, he was heard talking to himself about the horse and Topping´s family, and to add some incoherent expressions which are supposed to have been either a foreboding of his approaching dissolution or some wishes relative to the disposal of his little property, consisting chiefly of half-pence which he has buried in different parts of the garden. On the clock striking twelve he appeared slightly agitated, but he soon recovered, walked twice or thrice along the coach-house, stopped to bark, staggered, exclaimed Halloa old girl! (his favorite expression) and died. He behaved throughout with decent fortitude, equanimity and self-possession. I deeply regret that, being ignorant of his last instructions.… The children seem rather glad of it. He bit their ankles but that was play…

After Grip died, Dickens had him taxidermied. Literary historians believe the bird inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” written shortly after Poe reviewed Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, which features a talkative raven. Grip now lives in the Rare Books Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

E. B. White sitting on the beach with his dog Minnie (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In the spring of 1951, E. B. White was accused by the New York chapter of the ASPCA of not paying dog tax on his beloved canine companion, Minnie. True to his eloquent wit, he responded with this letter of uncommon mischievous charm, found in the anthology Letters of a Nation:

12 April 1951

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
York Avenue and East 92nd Street
New York, 28, NY

Dear Sirs:

I have your letter, undated, saying that I am harboring an unlicensed dog in violation of the law. If by “harboring” you mean getting up two or three times every night to pull Minnie’s blanket up over her, I am harboring a dog all right. The blanket keeps slipping off. I suppose you are wondering by now why I don’t get her a sweater instead. That’s a joke on you. She has a knitted sweater, but she doesn’t like to wear it for sleeping; her legs are so short they work out of a sweater and her toenails get caught in the mesh, and this disturbs her rest. If Minnie doesn’t get her rest, she feels it right away. I do myself, and of course with this night duty of mine, the way the blanket slips and all, I haven’t had any real rest in years. Minnie is twelve.

In spite of what your inspector reported, she has a license. She is licensed in the State of Maine as an unspayed bitch, or what is more commonly called an “unspaded” bitch. She wears her metal license tag but I must say I don’t particularly care for it, as it is in the shape of a hydrant, which seems to me a feeble gag, besides being pointless in the case of a female. It is hard to believe that any state in the Union would circulate a gag like that and make people pay money for it, but Maine is always thinking of something. Maine puts up roadside crosses along the highways to mark the spots where people have lost their lives in motor accidents, so the highways are beginning to take on the appearance of a cemetery, and motoring in Maine has become a solemn experience, when one thinks mostly about death. I was driving along a road near Kittery the other day thinking about death and all of a sudden I heard the spring peepers. That changed me right away and I suddenly thought about life. It was the nicest feeling.

You asked about Minnie’s name, sex, breed, and phone number. She doesn’t answer the phone. She is a dachshund and can’t reach it, but she wouldn’t answer it even if she could, as she has no interest in outside calls. I did have a dachshund once, a male, who was interested in the telephone, and who got a great many calls, but Fred was an exceptional dog (his name was Fred) and I can’t think of anything offhand that he wasn’t interested in. The telephone was only one of a thousand things. He loved life — that is, he loved life if by “life” you mean “trouble,” and of course the phone is almost synonymous with trouble. Minnie loves life, too, but her idea of life is a warm bed, preferably with an electric pad, and a friend in bed with her, and plenty of shut-eye, night and days. She’s almost twelve. I guess I’ve already mentioned that. I got her from Dr. Clarence Little in 1939. He was using dachshunds in his cancer-research experiments (that was before Winchell was running the thing) and he had a couple of extra puppies, so I wheedled Minnie out of him. She later had puppies by her own father, at Dr. Little’s request. What do you think about that for a scandal? I know what Fred thought about it. He was some put out.

Sincerely yours,

E. B. White

Montaigne and his cat

In one of his essays, admonishing against presumption, “our natural and original disease,” Michel de Montaigne pondered the presumed indebtedness in the dynamic between him and his cat:

When I play with my cat who knows whether I do not make her more sport than she makes me? We mutually divert one another with our play. If I have my hour to begin or to refuse, she also has hers.

Raymond Chandler and Taki (Image: Venture Galleries)

The direction of ownership, in fact, is often inverted between cats and their owners. Take, for instance, Raymond Chandler and his beloved, temperamental cat Taki. In a 1948 letter to his friend James Sandoe, found in Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, Chandler lovingly grumbles:

Our cat is growing positively tyrannical. If she finds herself alone anywhere she emits blood curdling yells until somebody comes running. She sleeps on a table in the service porch and now demands to be lifted up and down from it. She gets warm milk about eight o’clock at night and starts yelling for it about 7.30. When she gets it she drinks a little, goes off and sits under a chair, then comes and yells all over again for someone to stand beside her while has another go at the milk. When we have company she looks them over and decides almost instantly if she likes them. If she does she strolls over and plops down on the floor far enough away to make it a chore to pet her. If she doesn’t like them, she sits in the middle of the living room, casts a contemptuous glance around, and proceeds to wash her backside.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in wallpapered room, 1938; photograph by Sir Cecil Beaton (Image: Cecil Beaton Archives, Sotheby’s, London)

Ever since reading Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima, Alice B. Toklas, the love of Gertrude Stein’s life, had always wanted a white poodle. So the couple got one and named him Basket. Basket was succeeded by Basket I and Basket II. The dogs were photographed by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein’s famously faux-titled biography of Toklas and their life together, Stein recounts the story of the first Basket:

We now had our country house, the one we had only seen across the valley and just before leaving we found the white poodle, Basket. He was a little puppy in a little neighborhood dog-show and he had blue eyes, a pink nose and white hair and he jumped up into Gertrude Stein’s arms. A new puppy and a new ford and we went off to our new house and we were thoroughly pleased with all three. Basket although now he is a large unwieldy poodle, still will get up on Gertrude Stein’s lap and stay there. She says that listening to the rhythm of his water-drinking made her recognize the difference between sentences and paragraphs, that paragraphs are emotional and that sentences are not.

Bernard Fay came and stayed with us that summer. Gertrude Stein and he talked out in the garden about everything, about life, and America, and themselves and friendship. They then cemented the friendship that is one of the four permanent friendships of Gertrude Stein’s life. He even tolerated Basket for Gertrude Stein’s sake. Lately Picabia has given us a tiny Mexican dog, we call Byron. Bernard Fay likes Byron for Byron’s own sake. Gertrude Stein teases him and says naturally he likes Byron best because Byron is American while just as naturally she likes Basket best because Basket is a Frenchman.

It was part of Stein and Toklas’s daily routine to brush Basket’s teeth each morning with his own toothbrush.

Hemingway and cat (Image: JFK Library)

Ernest Hemingway, despite his manly bravado, had a soft spot for cats. By 1945, he had amassed 23 of them. His niece writes in the foreword to Hemingway’s Cats: An Illustrated Biography that the author and his fourth wife, Mary, called the cats “purr factories” and “love sponges. On February 22, 1953, one of Hemingway’s cats, Uncle Willie, was hit by a car. Following the accident, Hemingway sent his close friend Gianfranco Ivancich the following distraught and stirring letter, originally featured here last year:

Dear Gianfranco:

Just after I finished writing you and was putting the letter in the envelope Mary came down from the Torre and said, ‘Something terrible has happened to Willie.’ I went out and found Willie with both his right legs broken: one at the hip, the other below the knee. A car must have run over him or somebody hit him with a club. He had come all the way home on the two feet of one side. It was a multiple compound fracture with much dirt in the wound and fragments protruding. But he purred and seemed sure that I could fix it.

I had René get a bowl of milk for him and René held him and caressed him and Willie was drinking the milk while I shot him through the head. I don’t think he could have suffered and the nerves had been crushed so his legs had not begun to really hurt. Monstruo wished to shoot him for me, but I could not delegate the responsibility or leave a chance of Will knowing anybody was killing him…

Have had to shoot people but never anyone I knew and loved for eleven years. Nor anyone that purred with two broken legs.

William S. Burroughs and his cat Ginger in the backyard of his home in Lawrence, Kansas

William S. Burroughs was a tremendous cat-lover– so much so that he cracked his coarse and often icy literary persona to reveal a gentler, warmer side in The Cat Inside. He adored his “psychic companions,” Fletch, Ruski, Spooner, and Calico. Writing in his journal in June of 1997, he captures the near-telepathic minimalism to which communication between pets and their pet-parents is perfected:

Ginger touches me with her old paw when she wants something. She just touched me, and I let her out.

In the final entry of his journal, the very last words he ever penned, Burroughs bequeaths:

Thinking is not enough. Nothing is. There is no final enough of wisdom, experience — any fucking thing. Only thing can resolve conflict is love, like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner, and Calico. Pure love.

Love? What is It?
Most natural painkiller what there is.

Pair with Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology and the indispensable The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.


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