The protagonist in my first novel, Monkeys on the Bed, is a cartoonist who can only create in mall food courts. In Just the Facts, my forthcoming novel, the main character, a newspaper reporter, loves to write up her notes at her favorite Dunkin’ Donuts store. In all honesty, my books are only loosely autobiographical; much more exciting things happen to my heroines. Yet, I too write better away from the house.
It started when my two sons were young. Even though they were in school a full day, I felt I needed to go somewhere to escape phone calls, loads of laundry, or dust balls calling my name. I enjoyed my 15-minute “commute” to work at the local Barnes and Noble, the car ride providing a chance to ready myself for the task ahead. Once I arrived, I loved the sense of anonymous community, and the knowledge that no one could reach me. (This was before cell phones.)
Even now, long after my kids have left the nest (i.e., much less laundry), I still find myself working in bookstore cafes, parks, Dunkin’ Donuts franchises (the most conducive have single tables in vertical rows) and, yes, mall food courts. In retro fashion, I write new material longhand on legal pads. It has something to do with the feel of the pen, and all those blank lines. Less lonely – and better coffee than I make at home.
For me, writing by hand is a valuable part of the creative process. Once I have several pages (always with plenty of asterisks and cross-outs), I need a day at home to input into my laptop. I could take my laptop on location, but for some reason I find I need to do this phase at home. And while I don’t look forward to this part – I want to be out in the world! – the inputting serves as a first rewrite. Typing up what I’ve scribbled, I am spurred to develop, revise, expand. In the old days, this used to happen when you retyped pages to correct too many errors. The problem with computer-generated paragraphs is that they look beautiful; it is harder to be critical of those sentences than the ones I am typing all over again. Similarly, reading sentences aloud reveals problems that may be overlooked when evaluating pristine type on a screen.
Once my inputting day at home is over, I am on the run again (hooray!), my tote bag filled with all the essentials, including scissors and scotch tape (to manually cut and paste). My mom is astonished that I can write in public spaces. “You used to tell me I was breathing too loud when you were trying to concentrate,” she claims. Well, I’ve changed. This does not mean that I can write with loud music blaring, or people speaking at full volume. Frequently, I need to leave one setting and commute to another, and even a third, during the course of a day’s work. And this is true even when I’ve been writing in a perfectly hospitable environment, because moving around yields other benefits. While taking time out to relocate, my ideas evolve further.
It occurs to me that I am not running from place to place just to capture my thoughts. Sometimes I am running from my thoughts and even from myself. Sometimes it is painful to sit still and feel everything one thinks. I can manage it for about an hour and a half, but then I need a break.
People say they envy me because I could work in my pajamas if I wished. Well, here’s the thing: I love to be in my pajamas. Whenever possible, I don my pajamas before sunset. But I never write fiction in my PJs; rather, I need to be respectably dressed, including socks and shoes. In my pajamas, I can only write journal entries. Fully dressed at Dunkin’ Donuts, I can get to work.