As you do a thing for fifteen years, you load that activity with feelings and images. I am putting together a series of reflections on what the word writing brings to my mind. I’ll stamp the headline of these posts with “Writing Is” to make them easy to spot and to give them a suitably farty air.
For me, writing is sitting in the window of a cafe and watching the world go by.
I don’t think I’ve written a book in fewer than a dozen places. Even Kevin the Vampire, which is a mere 12k words and only took a few weeks to write, was worked on in three different cities. But the image which “writing” brings to mind is big chain coffee shop on the corner of Delancey and Allen in lower Manhattan. Writing smells of bergamot because I picture myself drinking Earl Grey there, although I probably drank green tea just as often. Never coffee, because when I got out of college it was impossible to find a decent cup anywhere you wanted to sit and work for a few hours. The baristas would smile nervously at me while they poured the hot water, often until the cup overflowed and they scalded their fingers. Then they would apologize for making me watch them disfigure themselves. I told myself this kept happening because they either suspected I was someone important or feared I was a dangerous hobo.
I was neither, but I liked to think I was kinda both.
Delancey is a huge street because it handles the traffic for the Williamsburg Bridge, and during rush hour the police post someone to manage the flow. Important New York City music venues are nearby, and so is the Tenement Museum. Bars and exclusive nightclubs, restaurant supply shops, clothing stores where they haul everything out into the street like a flea market. The homeless shelter. It probably doesn’t make any sense if you haven’t seen it.
The coffee shop had African-inspired (commercial) art on the wall, and it was one of those places I never knew whether to consider part of Chinatown. School children came in during the week, and international tourists on the weekend. A bike was chained out front, the kind that makes deliveries, and a meter maid was usually giving someone a ticket. A nearby shop both made signs and sold take-out.
I got off the 5 train from the Bronx at Union Square and walked passed two local stops to get here. I passed the art school at Cooper Union and the Bluestocking book store where a whole section was devoted to domestic abuse. The air and exercise would help me process whatever novel I had read on the train. Most of the walk I felt sick because I didn’t know what I would work on that day. I enjoyed the nausea for the same reason people like roller coasters.
I’d pull up into the seat by the window because the tables would be occupied. Afternoon would turn into evening in a haze, especially on rainy days. I’d come with a stack of printer paper hole-punched into a binder. And I’d just sit there.
It was a kind of meditation where you might say you’re letting the world in, or else you’re permitting all your experiences and feeling catch up with you. While this happens, descriptions of places appear on the paper in front of you, or characters interact, or plot lines take shape. It’s a passive process. You’ve already done the work, all you are required to do is have the discipline to be still while it happens.
I once read the biggest cliche in fiction is to open a novel at a window. Offhand I can’t think of a single one that starts this way, but it makes sense this would happen, because for every writer there is a window, a still image of the wide living world from which they draw to create the story that follows.
Someone out there believes it is tedious to remind the reader of this, but in my experience most need to encounter a thing many times before they notice it—only on the fortieth iteration do they notice the first thirty-nine! So I’m telling you now, so in twenty years you’ll remember: when you read a novel, a good one at the very least, you are reading very many hours of quiet, of patience, of rain and goddamn weather. You are smelling the bergamot. Because this is the place the images coalesce, where the characters come to life, where the comedy and tragedy unfold.