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Muses (and Mews) about the Muse

By Lesléa Newman

Spalding MFA Writing for Children and Young Adults Faculty

What to do when the muse appears to be on vacation? For this writer, the hardest thing to do is wait for inspiration to strike. I am a “do-er.” I attack life with both hands. So staring out the window, praying for a miracle, writing false starts, eating too many cookies, doing too many loads of laundry, and watching too many cute animal videos on YouTube (all part of the writer’s job) is not easy for me. I am not happy unless I am knee-deep into a writing project. But like all writers, I have dry spells. I never refer to these times as periods of “writer’s block.” Lulls are just part of the natural ups and downs of the writing life. Sometimes I am very productive. Other times, try as I might, I am not. This is something that is difficult, but necessary to accept. As a writer friend of mine says, pointing to her head, “This is a field Sometimes you need to let it lie fallow.”

It was during one of those fallow times when the story that became Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed crept in “on little cat feet” like the fog in Carl Sandburg’s famous poem.

I was sitting in my study, having just finished an hour of writing that went absolutely nowhere. Needless to say, I was not in the best of moods. I glanced down at the coffee table in front of my writing sofa and saw a copy of my synagogue’s monthly newsletter. Needing distraction from my morning’s failed scribbling, I picked it up and turned to the Rabbi’s column. In it, he mentioned a cat who had recently died, and whose obituary had appeared in the New York Times. Now I am a huge cat lover and firmly believe that every cat deserves an obituary in the New York Times. But here was a cat who actually had one. Not only was the cat-lover in me intrigued, but the writer in me (who had already written two feline picture books, The Best Cat in the World, and Cats, Cats, Cats!) was intrigued as well. I read on.

Ketzel was owned by a composer named Moshe Cotel. One day, Ketzel strolled down Mr. Cotel’s piano keyboard. The composer wrote down what he heard and sent it into a competition for piano solos less than sixty seconds long. The piece won an honorable mention! In his column, the rabbi discussed the fact that beautiful and magical moments always surround us, and praised Mr. Cotel for living his life with “Kavanah” (the Hebrew word for awareness and intention). Was this my moment of Kavanah? I decided that it was.

I put down the synagogue’s newsletter and went on line to read Ketzel’s obituary. I also found several newspaper articles about her prize-winning composition, “Piece for Piano: Four Paws” which had been performed all over the world and even garnered Ketzel a royalty check! Next I looked up Moshe Cotel and read all about him and his many accomplishments. I filled my head with as much knowledge as I could. Then I began to write.

The book went through many drafts. At first, I wrote it as a picture book. Then about five drafts later, I expanded it into a chapter book. Then after six more drafts, I sent it to my agent. She sent it to an editor I had worked with before who loved the idea of it but thought it would work best as a picture book. So I rewrote it again (and again and again). Finally the book was accepted. Of course there was more work to do after I received my editor’s notes. Once the book was done, an illustrator was chosen and she got to work.

I started the book in August of 2011 and it was published in October of 2015. What’s a writer to do while waiting for a book to come out and hoping that the muse will reappear? Stare out the window. Pray for a miracle. Write false starts. Eat too many cookies. Do too many loads of wash. Watch too many cute animal videos on YouTube. And pay attention to the beautiful and magical moments surrounding her. One of them is sure to inspire her to write her next book.

What do you do to attract the muse when she seems so far away?

Information about Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed can be found here:

Ketzel’s piano solo, “Piece for Piano: Four Paws” can be heard here:

Lesléa Newman is the author of 70 books for readers of all ages including the poetry collection, I Carry My Mother; the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk; the novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard; and the children’s classic, Heather Has Two Mommies. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, two American Library Association Stonewall Honors, four Pushcart Prize nominations, two Muse Medallions from the Cat Writers Association and two Maxwell Medallions from the Dog Writers Association of America. From 2008-2010, she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, MA. She teaches Writing for Children and Young Adults at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program.


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