THE CAT WRITERS CONFERENCE: WINS, LOSSES, AND LESSONS LEARNED
Last night, I wore my mother’s red satin blouse for luck. Well, for luck and because of the fact it was the only thing with bling that still fit. Even without the pandemic, my dress-up days are years behind me, but pajamas just wouldn’t do for the Cat Writers Association Awards Ceremony.
Little did I know when I dragged myself out of bed at 6:30 a.m. yesterday that this one day would have more ups and downs, thrills and spills, sadness and joy than any other of recent memory. It was the final day of the Cat Writers’ Association Conference. The first day had been packed with an amazing set of presenters speaking on the subjects of cat and cat creativity, and this one promised to be the same. But, as with any virtual conference, there turned out to be a few fleas in the fur. I quickly fed the cats, made a cup of coffee, sat down to watch the opening comments, and… nothing!
We could see our pretty past president giving her talk, but no sound! The chat at the side was filled with people like me, frustrated with not being able to hear what she was saying. Then when it seemed the problem wasn’t going to be fixed any time soon, we started posting pictures of our cats. Yes, that’s what cat people do.
I was excitedly looking forward to the first session of the day, a presentation by Sterling “Trapking” Davis, when I noticed I had an email. I opened it, and my heart fell. It was news of the death of one of our most celebrated cat writers, Carole Nelson Douglas. I’d recently met Carole when we were doing some Zoom author panels together. She was vibrant, enthusiastic, and still working hard on a new set of her famous Midnight Louie books. She was due for a major surgery though. She died of a complication from that surgery.
Carole’s passing was a tragic shock, and not just a personal loss, but a loss to CWA. How was the conference going to acknowledge this sad event in the middle of their happy celebration? Thankfully I had my CWA sisters to “talk” to, and we emailed back and forth, sharing our sorrow and loss.
Meanwhile the conference was continuing. The Trapking was up and… still no sound!!
After a while, they managed to get the sound back on, but now, no picture! Just a black screen. Sterling didn’t miss a beat, however. He gave his presentation, answered questions from the chat bar, and put his slideshow in the handouts area where we could download it for later viewing. His talk was absolutely inspirational, and I encourage every cat person, especially those interested in TNR, to look him up. If you have children or enjoy children’s books yourself as I do, check out Sterling’s book, Marvin: Trap King for a Day, where a young boy has the adventure of his life when he rescues a baby kitten from the creek at a neighborhood park and is crowned Trap King for a Day. (No, I’m not getting paid for the shout-out. I just like the book.)
After the Trapking, the next presenters came on with no technical problems, and the conference continued as planned. Keynote Speaker Kate Benjamin of Hauspanther was gracious and inspiring with her “Renew, Reclaim and Reinvent: Staying Relevant & Staying Alive in Changing Times” address. Steve Dale, pet expert, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and well-known public speaker, gave two presentations, a very informative talk on how cats hide their pain (I loved the title: “For Me to Know and For You Never to Find Out.” Doesn’t that just describe cats in pain?), as well as a piece on the EveryCat Health Foundation, formerly the Winn Feline Foundation, who have, for over 50 years, worked tirelessly on cat health research and advanced feline medicine. Did you know this foundation discovered the link between heart problems and taurine deficiency in cats? Established that kittens benefitted from early spay/neutering as opposed to the previously accepted 6 months? Put forth a more efficient treatment for diabetic cats? Have made amazing strides in the treatment of FIP (Feline Infectious Peritonitis), formerly a death sentence to cats? Thank you, Steve Dale and the EveryCat Health Foundation!
The day went quickly. Other sessions on making phone videos, publishing a print book, and jumpstarting creativity culminated with closing statements from our president Paula Gregg. Then, when it was all over, the time had come to get dressed up and ready for the CWA Awards Ceremony.
I was to give a special tribute award to CWA founding member Shirley Rousseau Murphy, something I had spearheaded from the beginning, and I’d also volunteered to help present some of the Muse Medallion awards, which meant I would be on screen twice. I was nervous, tossing around possible items to wear that would look good from the shoulders up. A low neckline would make me look naked, something no one wants to see from a seventy-year-old woman. Patterned fabric would be too busy. My glittery cat ears, a must for the CWA event, were pink, so I needed something that didn’t clash. That’s when I decided upon the red blouse.
It must have been half a century since my mother had worn it, yet she had kept it to the end, and when I inherited her things, I kept it too. I think I remember her wearing it, or maybe it was a photo. Yes, that was the perfect thing for tonight’s exciting yet nerve-wracking event.
I was to present Shirley Murphy with her achievement award at approximately the middle of the ceremony. I had a little speech, on which I’d toiled for the past month. (I can write a 300-page book, but a 3-paragraph announcement baffles me!) The CWA had also purchased a beautiful, engraved crystal vase that I would be displaying. I’d been in communication with Shirley, making sure she had the link to watch the awards, and it looked like everything was set. Then right before the event, she emailed me to say she’d fallen and been taken to hospital—she wouldn’t be able to view the show after all! Thankfully the ceremony was presented on Youtube, so she would be able to view it at another time, but after the heartbreak of Carole’s passing, the thought of this older woman having a debilitating fall was frightening.
Still, the show must go on.
The CWA Awards Ceremony is the culmination of a rigorous contest where the entries that won a Certificate of Excellence in the first round of judging now compete with others for the ultimate prize in each category, the Muse Medallion. There are 92 categories that cover a wide range of cat-themed creativity. I had entered the contest myself, and one of my entries, Cat Winter, my sci-fantasy novel, had received a COE. so now, not only was I going to be on stage presenting awards and hoping I pronounced people’s names right, I was up for a prize of my own!
Long story short, I didn’t win. The award went to another author whom the judges deemed deserved it more. As a judge myself, (not in categories I’ve entered, of course) I respected their judgement, but like all losses, I was disappointed. I still had a chance, however. I’d also entered in some of the special award categories sponsored by various people and businesses. Maybe one of them will have been moved by my work.
After the Muses had been awarded, I gave my tribute to Shirley, not nearly as smoothly as I would have liked in spite of numerous practice runs. I hoped I hadn’t sounded too much like a tomcat howling at the night, but there was no taking it back, and the ceremony moved on to the next event.
Though I had no more part in the remainder of the evening’s show, I was still watching from backstage. I could see myself in a little box in the corner. Did I really look as old and disheveled as it seemed? I was tired. It had been long hours for days and even months to help get this conference happening. I had other obligations as well: the House of Dreams online auction to benefit a little local shelter, a book launch in November with all the promo that comes with it. This was on top of continuing my three ongoing series. Yup, I was tired and planned to rest heartily once the conference was over. I contemplated putting my feet up and taking off my cat ears right there and then—after all, I wasn’t to appear again, but something stayed my hand.
Many of the special awards focus on a single aspect of cats and cat care, such as kitten care, cat safety, relationship with a veterinarian, and rescue. These subjects attract mostly non-fiction entries, but there is one category open to fiction in all forms—the World’s Best Cat Litter-ary Award, offered by World’s Best Cat Litter. I had entered Cat Winter in this category. I was competing with several other entries, and I had no idea what they were—other books? Stories? Articles? Poems? But I held my breath as the winner was announced, the agonizing, “And the winner is…”
It was me! It was my book! As the presenter read the judge’s comments, I was taken aback at how well she’d understood the underlying meaning of this sci-fantasy story where cats save the world.
Since I was backstage, they popped me onscreen. Now I was glad I’d left those cat ears on!
After that, I did put my feet up, proud my book was, if not a Muse winner, still a winner after all. That’s not why I write, but after investing endless hours of work in isolation, the acknowledgement can’t help but be gratifying.
We were nearing the end of the program—only the three special-special awards to go. The Shojai Mentorship award, the David Brim Distinguished Service award, and the CWA President’s Award, an overall top award presented to the best entry among all Muse Medallion winners in the regular contest categories. The two namesake awards are picked from nominations sent in by CWA members. Since I hadn’t mentored anyone, done anything I considered distinguishing, or won a Muse, I expected only to be celebrating the achievements of others.
As one of the Council of Directors, I had voted on the recipient of the Shojai award, so it didn’t come as a surprise when that person won. I hadn’t been asked to vote on the David Brim award, however…
Here is the description from the CWA website: This award is presented in honor of CWA co-founder Michael Brim. It goes to the person who, by word, deed, public communication, and professional excellence, best promotes the ideals, mission, and best interest of the Cat Writers’ Association. The award honors extraordinary achievement and communications excellence. The winner receives his or her name engraved on a permanent commemorative plaque at the offices of the Cat Fanciers’ Association Foundation. It is judged by the CWA Council of Directors.
“And the winner is…”
Suddenly a headshot of me with my cat Tinkerbelle went up on the screen. My first response was disbelief, followed closely by the thought that it must be a mistake. I didn’t deserve it. I hadn’t done anything to earn such a prestigious award.
I’d been nominated by fellow member Leah Alford whose wonderful book, Catwoods, won a Muse Medallion the year before. She had written eloquently of the reasons why I should be given this recognition, citing my cat work with volunteering, fostering, and having a therapy cat, as well as my writing about cats. As I listened to her list of praises, I felt like an imposter. Though everything she said was true, I’d done it, as cat people do, not for applause or acclaim, but for the cats. Even as I write this now, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone would see those works as exceptional.
Again they flashed me on the screen. I tried my best to look like a grateful and surprised recipient. I was a grateful and surprised recipient, but I was in shock. In real life, I’m not very expressive. I’ve often thought if I were arrested for a crime (this is how mystery writers think, BTW) that the police would automatically suspect my guilt because of my default deadpan expression. But I managed a little bow and a smile for the audience. In my mind, I was saying, “I love you all!”
Since I’m on the West Coast, it was still early when the awards ceremony ended, but to me, it felt like midnight. For a little while, a few of us lingered backstage, wishing we could go out for that celebratory drink as we had back in the old days when events were in-person. Then, one by one, we clicked off and went our separate ways in our separate parts of the country.
Suddenly I found myself alone in my office, staring at the screen. I turned off my computer, so done with the internet for the day! As I looked at my reflection in that blank, black square, I saw a tired by happy woman in pink cat ears and a lucky red blouse from my mother.