By Larry Burns | Collaborating columnist
I am what is called a regional writer; I am inspired by the flora and fauna, the places and the faces where I live and play.
Because I appreciate the community, I spend time outdoors to recharge my creative energies and find new stories to share. My subjects generally include people, places and events around the Inland Empire. Like many creatives, I usually go back to the same sources of inspiration, looking for renewable resources and reusable materials.
One way for a writer to keep these sources loaded and ready is to approach these places from a new angle. In my current draft manuscript of a sci-fi adventure novel, I play with narrative choices to achieve this end while portraying a mysterious antagonist. To help me pack many stories into a single scene, the narration is split into multiple character perspectives, told in a layered fashion. The result: a scene with more ways to grab and hold the reader’s attention. The action is enriched with several views of the same character.
When I want to do the same thing in real life, I also bring in new storytellers to learn more about a person or place I think I know well. When I write creative nonfiction, that means talking to historians or visiting a research librarian at the Riverside Public Library. Regardless of the setting, I believe writers should invite other storytellers into the conversation.
One of the sources of my creativity is walking. I have always found movement and nature stimulating for new ideas. As a result, several days a week you can find me sabotaging the hilly avenues of Canyon Crest, one of dozens of distinct residential neighborhoods in Riverside. Regularly surveying my neighborhood for several years in a row, characters emerge naturally.
My neighborhood is diverse in terms of flags, landscape choices, and beliefs about where cars are supposed to be parked. I have many good neighbors. I even nominated one for a civic award and he won. Today my inspiration is a cat named Janes.
Janes turned out to be different from other cats, and not just because of her gender-confusing pluralized name. This is what happens when I let my 4 year old daughter name someone else’s pet. One of the first things to know about Janes is that he has the effortless confidence of a cat, but the lust for life of a dog. He has developed a Pavlovian sense of who or what crosses his territory.
He learned the noise of the cart in which my wife and I push our daughter. We usually come across Janes trotting towards us, meowing a greeting about halfway through our walk. The encouragement, the affectionate rubbing of the legs and the nudging of our outstretched hands makes me glad I decided to walk when the easier choice is to stay indoors.
I admit to feeling quite special from Janes’ attention and behavior. Imagine my curiosity when I started hearing other stories of unusual cats in the neighborhood. Turns out Janes is a social butterfly with a whole dance card of friends to meet and greet.
Each of my neighbors called her by a different name: Janes, Tux, Kitty, Oreo, Stache, International Cat of Mystery. It is associated with several addresses and at least one location. We were all talking about the same character. Each of us had a different version of this cat in our imagination. But these stories all culminate in the joyous feeling of being singled out by your friendly neighborhood cat.
After capturing all these feline myths, I had no choice but to research the origin story. I approached the people at the house where we met him most often. Turns out Janes is used to picking her own friends. The cat appeared at my neighbor’s house four years ago. Neither hungry nor scared, he hung around for several days lying on the porch. Naturally, this led to feedings and something sweet to sleep on. But then a girl showed up and claimed the cat. Two weeks later, the cat reappeared. They waited for the girl to come back but she didn’t.
They named the cat Stache because of its distinctive thin black mustache. They love and appreciate its different neighborhood personalities. For them, he is both their pet and everyone else’s tomcat. It avoids some dogs and plays with others using a valid but unknown metric. My Inspirational Cat also gives life lessons on how to make friends and influence people.
Sometimes we spy on Janes away from his normal perch and in those cases he pretends not to know us. It’s okay, I like a story that’s not too easy to remember. I like mysteries, even if I don’t write them myself. I asked a lot of questions while filling in the true stories of my favorite neighborhood cat, but I didn’t confirm if Janes was a boy or a girl. No matter his name or gender, he’s a cool cat.
Larry Burns is a writer and artist who draws inspiration from the heady mix of sights, sounds, people and places of the Inland Empire. His projects examine how humans adapt to rapid cultural and technological change. His most recent non-fiction work with Reedy Press Publishers, Secret Inland Empire, shares the weird, wonderful, and dark people and places that make the Inland Empire special.