Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Writing Mika

Well happy birthday puss! It is Mika's second birthday.

Rather than write a Mikalogue, I thought I'd write instead about the Mikalogues. They're an interesting writing exercise, because they are, in miniature, an experiment in character and voice.

The Mikalogues began as a one-off. I'd already put up a couple of posts to the effect that I was getting a cat, saying not very much about her except that she was new, plus a slightly joky post about her walking on my keyboard which was mostly an excuse to use a photograph I liked to talk about a writing issue, but in which I pretended she was trying to write my novel for me. Such posts were mostly filler, a blog being the literary equivalent of a baby bird's beak, plus an excuse to show off my cute little kitten.

The first Mikalogue, then, was along these lines. It was a newsy post written largely to fill in when I didn't have anything very deep to say about life or literature, in which I complained that the new cat, which we had acquired partly in the hopes she would catch mice, had not in fact caught any - yet was a lively chaser of anything that wasn't a mouse. This being a fairly interesting thing to observe but a dull thing to describe, I decided to liven it up by putting it in dialogue form. Mika at that time was a zany kitten, bounding with energy and highly distractible, so I wrote her voice to sound child-like. I had her refer to herself by name because I'd heard toddlers do the same thing, and gave her a simplified grammar partly to suggest her youth and partly because, well, she was an animal. The Mikalogue personality wasn't particularly worked out. You can see it in embryo form - the grandiosity is not so strong, but the self-absorption and basic friendliness are there; I was trying to express the ridiculousness of a human being expecting an animal to take their concerns at all seriously when the animal has interests of its own.

I didn't plan to follow it up; it was just a comedy rendering of a piece of news. But then Mika actually did catch a couple of mice, and I started feeling a bit guilty that I had represented my pet for the world to see as a hopeless mouser. Since the first post had been amusing to write, I decided to write my update in the same style. Again, it wasn't planned as more than a one-off.

You can see in these first two posts that Mika's voice still wasn't quite settled yet. In the first, she uses the word 'wuv', a rather cutesy contraction that I wouldn't use nowadays since I've established her as grandiose. In the second, crucially, she uses the word 'I', a word I have since excised from her lexicon. In trying to convey a cat's point of view, I came to the conclusion that an animal would have far less self-awareness than a human, and that using the first person would imply too much perspective, too much separation between herself and the world. The modern Mika uses neither 'I' nor 'she' when referring to herself; I find both too human-sounding. She either refers to herself by name or there's simply a blank where a pronoun would otherwise be; as her sentences are somewhat telegraphic anyway - despatches from the Mika-front or headlines on Mika Today - the missing pronouns don't cause a problem. Having her refer to herself constantly by name suggests that she sees herself as a category rather than one individual among many, which seemed to fit with the degree of socialisation a cat displays.

So, I'd written two posts without many plans to write more. Mika's grandiosity was starting to emerge in the second - her habit of referring to herself as 'Mika the mighty' was initially written as a passing mood, the satisfaction of a cat with a mouse in her claws, combined with a desire to apologise to her for what I said about the mice. But the idea of this vainglorious little consciousness rather entertained me. The actual Mika isn't especially vainglorious; she's a creature of impulse like all cats and capable of getting excited, but the giddy self-aggrandisement of her fictional alter ego is mostly projection, an expression of the adoration my husband and I lavish upon her.

Animal consciousness, though, is a subject I found interesting - I researched it a fair bit for In Great Waters - and it seemed to me that a consciousness wired to action rather than reflection was a consciousness with a lot of potential for drama. The idea of carrying on writing Mika tempted me. Especially as character creation is one of the big challenges of writing, but the joky opening posts already seemed to have established the basics of a personality for her.

So I carried on. Being still a kitten and full of antics, Mika was providing plenty of material, even as I was working out her voice. The next post still featured Mika using the first person - 'me' in this case - but I was already drifting away from it, and was only using it as onomatapoeia, as in 'Me out!'

Excited at the game, I ran off a number of posts - including some I never got around to actually posting, largely because I'd committed myself to accompanying each post with a picture and Mika didn't always do whatever it was I was blogging about when I had a camera handy. Some time I'll get around to posting them, probably, but there was enough to go on. The next post featured the first mention of the word 'Mikalogue', and remains one of my favourites: her slightly loopy assumption that rain is a sign the universe is throwing things at her felt like a pleasing expression of a cat's limited ability to form abstract opinions about her place in the scheme of things.

By this time, I was getting confident that people liked them, largely because they were kind enough to say so on the comments. I'd begun wondering whether it would test people's patience, like making them look at three hundred pictures of my baby, but I smoothed it over with comedy and popularity seemed to be coming Mika's way.

(For everyone's convenience, here is the archive before I say more:

The Mikalogues continue - the first to actually be called a Mikalogue, featuring rain

Mikalogue: a new business idea - the first point at which I started anthropomorphising Mika past the daily round of animal activities

An epic Mikalogue - of which more later

Mikalogue: the fighties (the first point at which she refers to herself as Ghenghis Cat, a term I've used since)

The biggest variation, of course, is when I bring in another character. Once, in Mikalogue at home, it was a guest - which is to say a human being - but the other occasions, which remain among my favourites, have involved animals.

All are based on actual events. Two feature a neighbour's cat who, because he has similar markings to Mika but is much sturdier in build, my husband dubbed 'The Tub', an uncharitable name that stuck. (These are they.) Writing another cat was an interesting challenge. I didn't want him to simply be another Mika because that would be dull; however, I didn't want his voice to sound human. The Tub in real life is a somewhat aggressive, alpha-male-ish cat who occasionally hassles Mika but seems less of an issue since she's grown to nearly his size, but as I only encountered him when he picked on my pet, it was difficult to get much of a sense of him. Mika's zooming distractibility is based on reality, but the reality was I didn't like this cat because he bullied my darling, but that it hardly seemed mature to take such resentments out on an innocent cat, never mind a fictional one. He needed a perspective of his own.

Looking at what I knew of him, I knew that he broke into our house to steal food. What kind of person would do that and still consider themselves virtuous - which most people do? I thought about old action movies, Thief-of-Baghdad type stuff, and decided that The Tub would consider himself a kind of swaggering, charming rogue - but a rogue still perfectly capable of getting frightened when approached by a strange human, because he remained, after all, a cat. Everyone is the hero of their own story, so I decided to exaggerate that in the case of The Tub. As Mika refers to herself in the third person, I thought The Tub should too - but I didn't know his name and anyway he wouldn't call himself The Tub. Hence was born a fictional cat who refers to himself as 'our hero' - 'You not gonna hurt our hero?' is still one of my favourite lines, mixing diction as it does - but who also uses complete sentences, as Mika's shorthand was ill-suited to his more mock-heroic style. The Tub will say 'he' where Mika won't say 'she', but like Mika, the word 'I' is too abstract for his vocabulary.

The latest character to enter Mika's fictional life is the wee mouse she dragged in alive, always a grim spectacle. Cats are established in the Mikalogues as grandiose one way or another, but how to write a mouse? The poor little beastie was so utterly dwarfed by every other player in the scene that it seemed wrong to use the same kind of visuals for it; I tried putting its words in a smaller font but Blogger refused to oblige, but I was able to keep the other elements: the absence of capital letters and the sentences that neither begin nor end but drift itallically in and out of the little brain's cloudy consciousness. It seemed to me that, given a brain so small a human could dry-swallow it, mice cannot live in a world of coherent thought; the experience of a mouse must be instead a series of impressions. For this reason, I decided that poetry would be the best way to convey a mouse. I'd already established quotations - in Proofing Mikalogue, Mika quoted 'Burning is no argument', which I'd thought was Rousseau but the Internet suggests is John Reuchlin, so it was already an option. But more than that, poetry is as close as people come to impressionistic writing, and the fact that the mouse thinks in quotations creates a kind of disconnect between its experience, bounded by quotations, and ours, referring more directly to what's happening. 

It also seemed appropriate in the light of Mika's established solipsism. The limits of Mika's consciousness made it feel wrong to have her use the self-aware 'I', but in the even more limited scope of the mouse, any identification of self or other felt wrong. Hence, again, the references back to poetry. Because it thinks in poems, the mouse in a sense thinks in abstractions - but abstractions which are always a direct expression of its experience. Fitting the quotations to the event, the mouse experiences every moment as if it were a universal principle: when your brain is too small to sustain more than one idea at a time, I thought perhaps everything seemed equally universal. The mis-spellings and mispronounciations were added to make the mouse suitably small and grubby, and it remains, I think, one of my best Mikalogues.

Writing from the perspective of my cat has been an interesting lesson. One of the commonest things people tend to say is, 'Oh, you must need a lot of discipline to be a writer!', and it's one of the most disheartening as well. Some writing flows easier than others, but the writing that's always flowed best has been from the characters I've enjoyed.

Creating the fictional Mika was in some ways easier than creating a character from scratch; I had the antics of a real cat to provide me with plot and my task was close enough to biography that writing her personality is as much embroidery as invention. But the real reason why she flows, I think, is that she's simply a joy to write. Her giddy self-glorification, her confused mixture of affection and threats, her unshakeable confidence in her own importance, are all tremendous fun - and writing a fun character is easy. Writing is hard to do well when it's a discipline, but easy to do well when it's a game.

It's always easiest to write a character when I feel I've got a handle on how they'd behave in unlikely situations; it means I've got the feel for them, and Mika's one of those. But as well, my husband recently pointed out to me that she's actually not untypical of my writing as a whole, surprising though this may be.

My novels tend towards the melancholic; often my characters inhabit traps of one kind or another, and they tend to struggle with their own identities in a dangerous world. Sunny, impulsive little Mika isn't one of those. But what all my writing seems to be interested in is alternative states of mind. Lola lives in a world where other people go into an unknowable state every month, and her own state of mind is so bent under circumstances that she edges into unreliable narrator territory; from the distance of a few years, I'd say you could argue that she's a character struggling with undiagnosed depression, though this wasn't a conscious character note. Henry, another of my favourites, inhabits a semi-animal consciousness; Anne struggles to balance a sense of kinship with such animality against her intense spiritual longing. The third book, which I'm still locked in a death-match with, starts to look more interesting the more I introduce alternative states. I like writing about characters who see things off-kilter. Mika, gloriously solipsistic and imperviously bossy, is another such; she's just a comic rendering rather than a serious one.

So, writing the Mikalogues - which I fully intend to keep doing, don't panic - has turned out to be a surprisingly interesting set of lessons. They've taught me that writing the fun stuff can produce work that people like, that off-kilter perspectives interest me in any form, that considering animal consciousness is fascinating even if the results look improvised, and that MIKA IS BEST AND KIT SHOULD NOT PRESUME TO ANALYSE. GIVE KIBBLE AT ONCE OR BITES.


  1. melvet2:10 pm

    Just want to say I *love* the Mikalogues, especially the transition from kitten-Mika to more bossy BA-student-Mika (I'm a science grad. I had to look up "solipsistic").

    Best of luck with Book Three!

  2. I am also a big fan of the Mikalogues, especially since getting my own orange-and-white kitten who resembles young Mika a great deal. Ever since my fiance read over my shoulder and saw her picture ("Is that Daphne? Wait, but, how --"), Mika has also provided a helpful shorthand for when I bug him about having to read Benighted. "You know, the werewolf book by the woman who owns Mika." "Oh, yeah!"

  3. Amaryllis3:42 am

    It's still the 11th here, so not too late to say, Happy Birthday, Mika!

    (And to Kit, yes, I think the Mikalogue-of-horror is my favorite also. I absolutely believed in that poor little mouse, and in the interaction between cat, mouse and humans.)

  4. Happy Official Birthday, Mika.


  5. Redcrow8:10 am

    (Wait a minute, "shamrock"? Um, no.)

    ---Redcrow (not "Shamrock")

  6. Anonymous7:41 pm

    I'd also like to say that I really enjoy the Mikalogues (and so does my Ares ;o) ) I was hoping they might even get published one day with a couple of the lovely Mika pics in nice "present" book form (small, hard cover) and 2 Pounds would go to a charity etc. I know at least 3 people I'd buy them for to give as presents. All of them cat lovers, of course ;o)

  7. roosterfish8:45 pm

    Happy Birthday Mika, and many happy fish treats!

    Thanks for the post, Kit. I enjoyed the insight into the process of how the Mikalogue evolved into its present form.

    Fish treats for all! (If it's okay with Mika, of course, who might want them for herself, as is Her Majesty's privilege and due.)

  8. For some reason, I feel an urge to ask whether Mika knows you're claiming credit for her blog entries.