A Place to Write

Where would you like to write? I’m not asking where it is that you actually write, or are forced to, if it’s your job. What if you could find, or create a place to make all those words flow even easier?

I asked my writers group about this. One guy liked beaches and wished he could go to the beach every day, sit down on a towel, and let the words flow.

I spent a few years living at the New Jersey shore, within a short walk of the beach. I tried writing there only once, on a warm day with the ocean rolling up to tickle my toes. It was so pleasant that I spent more time staring at the water than what was on the page. Bathroom breaks were…problematic. Then, as shadows lengthened, sand fleas and greenhead flies targeted me for their afternoon snack.

Did I get anything done? Some, but not as much as I wanted. I wrote more, and faster, back in that little room with paper all over the floor, books I hadn’t read, and a window with a view of the neighbor’s house.

Another person in the writers group likes to find a table in the back of a swanky local restaurant, order a drink, and tap away at his laptop until closing time. I would have done that much earlier in my career, had I not been nearly broke most of the time. I would go to restaurants when I got paid. When you write for a living, getting paid is a cause for celebration, and what better place to celebrate, and not write, than a restaurant?

I was reminded of the playwright David Mamet’s collection of essays,  Writing in Restaurants. I wonder if Mamet saved his restaurant receipts and deducted them from his New York city, state and federal taxes as business expenses. Would the words flow just as easily if he got take-out coffee and found a bench on a sunny day in the beautiful park behind the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library?

How about a cafe in Paris? You perch beside a tiny table, with a coffee in a diminutive porcelain cup, or a ruby-hued, far-too-small portion of wine in a long stemmed glass, and you attack paper with a pen, pausing occasionally to glare at the passing boulevardiers, and to savor the fact that, even if your masterpiece is not published, you will always have Paris!

I lived for a month in Paris in a pension on Rue Mouffetard, close to one of the rooming houses where Ernest Hemingway lived with Hadley, his first wife. I wandered down the narrow street as it sloped downward toward the Seine and put myself in a chair in one of the cafes in the Place Contrescarpe. The waiter gave me a look– not another Hemingway!  My coffee was only warm when it arrived. I opened my notebook and I couldn’t write a thing. It was too much fun to watch the tourists, Sorbonne students and the elegant older people moving slow with their dogs pulling at leashes,  sniffing everywhere.

In a biography I learned that the reason Hemingway wrote in cafes was that he could not stand the meanly furnished, unheated hovels he inhabited, he wanted to get away from his wife and his baby, and, he, too, was nearly broke much of the time. He was also a little bit proud of turning writing, which he romanticized as a soul-sapping quest for a “true sentence,” into what appeared to be a leisure activity.

That’s one of the great things about writing: whether you wrestle with each word, or let them gush like blood from a stone, it is that rare endeavor where something really can come from nothing.

Or what seems like nothing. In truth, what comes out is the result of everything that has happened to you (and a lot more that hasn’t!) up to that point. But, to the people who don’t write, and don’t know what you go through in order to write, you’re a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Did Hemingway accomplish much during his Paris sojourn? Absolutely. Did I? Nahhh. About the best I could do was write a letter. I became good at writing long letters. Few answered them.

Now, when I see people slumped on mismatched furniture in American coffee shops, so focused on their phones, laptops, Moleskin notebooks and fancy fountain pens, I can say, “Been there. Done that.”

How about writing on a cruise?  The mystery writer John D. MacDonald and the science fiction grandmaster Robert A. Heinlein liked to write on cruise ships, adopting a monastic seclusion in their cabins until it was time for lunch.

Mystery writer Lawrence Block liked to write while traveling, and some of his stories set outside Manhattan make use of wonderfully banal locations in motels and roadside restaurants. For Block, traveling was also a way of disciplining himself–he gave himself a fixed number of days to be away, and with the promise that he would finish writing the book before he returned.

I have, at times, aspired to become a portable writing machine: take an experience, mix with research, spice with humor, sentiment or cynicism, fuel with strong coffee, tap the keys or push the pencil until it all flows seamlessly to a specified length and–it’s done!

If only it ever was that easy. In order for me to produce anything that matters, I have to put myself in a place that is not the one in which I typically live, in which the distractions of the day, the Internet and a zillion other things you can do that are worth doing but don’t involve writing, are at arm’s length.

And that place can be anywhere.

I write now in a cluttered space with a closet stuffed with old clothes, a stack of books I still haven’t read and no art on the walls. Both windows have views that I can’t see from where I sit, in a swivel chair that rocks back a little.

I have an ancient desktop whose hard drive whirs contentedly inside its dark tower. Outside the tower is an external hard drive that groans when it rouses itself. On the hard drive is a big file of music from my wall-high CD collection, supplemented by a few on-line purchases.

I’m finishing a novel in which music can take you to another world. It’s going slowly, which is okay, because I’m not a writing machine. Every creative act takes its own time and makes its own place.

May we love them all.




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