Writing – Isolation or Immersion?

By J.D. Peterson

Visualize for a moment an author working hard on their latest manuscript. A small room with a laptop, late at night. A table lamp scatters sparse yellow rays amid the shadows looming over the desk, highlighting an alarm clock, slowly ticking away the minutes. A profound silence is only disturbed by the echo of the clock and the occasional rustle of papers as the writer refers to handwritten notes, then returns their focus to the blue screen light of the computer.

            We’ve seen it a hundred times on television and in films. Such is the stereotype of the diligent writer. Alone, and quite frequently portrayed as struggling, they hope that this novel will be the one that shines the light of stardom on all their hard work and talent.
            We are all quite familiar with these stereotypes, but do they really portray an accurate picture of the reality of writing? Speaking only for myself I offer a resounding ‘no’. Frequently my writing space is the local café, and I know that’s also true for many of you. Our sentences are punctuated by the noise of the cappuccino machine brewing the next cup of coffee and the squeak of the door as it opens to welcome new customers. Often a sound system is playing the latest music, adding more activity to a room already brimming with a multitude of sounds.
            This is the scene for my creative writing. Background sounds rarely disturb me, unless a favorite tune filters through from the radio. That can be a distraction – and also a springboard for memories. Memories lead to emotions and the essence of times gone by. Emotions lead to words. Words that begin to fill the page at a steady, even pace. Flourishing, descriptive and melodic words that jump to life, born of the images and scenes that tango their way through my memory. Some words are like phantoms, they need to be hunted and drawn out of hiding. Others are more bold and clear, as if they happened yesterday, jumping onto the page with ease.   

Walking down to the train station, I find a gathering crowd waiting for the next arrival. Groups of people stand around, some of whom appear to be families, and some who seem to be workmates; then there are the lone passengers impatiently tapping at their phones. Conversations filter through to me. I overhear hard words between an angry couple, a tersely spoken, “I never want to hear from you again!” Excitement bubbles from a brood of children questioning their harried mother. “Where are we going?” “How long will we be gone?” Each conversation can be the inspiration for a new character, or a new dialogue and may illuminate emotions between existing characters on a developing story. I study the expressions of these people whose identities are unknown to me, and I ask myself how I would write the face that I see. What particular words could I put down on paper to illustrate the emotions that are so clear to me now? The peak of an eyebrow, the curve of a frown, so easy to decipher with the eye, but not so easily translated into specific words.
            The world is filled with locations and people that inspire and encourage new scenes for a writer. So why would I lock myself away in a dark, lonely room, more a prisoner of my craft than the curious novelist that I am?                                            

            I will admit when writing in a café or other public space, I don’t particularly want to be disturbed or to engage in conversation with people. I won’t situate myself in an area where folks frequently ask for directions. I much prefer an out-of-the-way corner seat where I can view the activity like a spectator sport. There, I’m free to pluck a scene or a conversation from the garden of human hustle and bustle, trimming and pruning what I witness to cater and conform to my stories.
            Writing in cafes or other public areas can be a cure for writer’s block, another common stereotypical characteristic bestowed upon authors. With so much activity and colorful people to watch, a person only needs to stay alert to the action for new inspiration. The television news can also inspire, with tales that are often much stranger than any imagination could concoct.
 I’m not immune to writer’s block and sometimes I do write alone in my home. Sometimes there’s comfort just being in my own familiar space. But it’s not a necessary ingredient for my creative endeavors. There’s a rhythm and a flow to the process, and I’ve learned to listen to my inner voice, whispering what I need each day. Sometimes I need to walk away from writing my story and ponder the tale in my mind, unrestricted from the structure of words and sentences. Other times I’ll write free-flowing poetry, and let the words stream through in a way that I can’t do within the confines of a paragraph. Occasionally I’ll paint, or garden or cook a fancy dish, expressing my imagination through a completely different medium. Too soon the editor will return with the ‘inner critic’ in tow, slashing and hacking away at my flaws.
            But for now, I’ll sit in this coffee shop and observe the daily rituals of the neighborhood. The dark, lonely writer’s room will always be there, waiting with a lock and key on the door. Then I can be stereotypical by choice, not by the expectations of others.



Griselda Heppel said…
There’s something liberating about writing in a cafe. No one can get at you except by phone (which you can put on silent), and the hum of conversation, clink of china, whooshing of coffee machine etc creates a walll of sound that for some reason makes the writing flow. Sometimes it can be like this on a long train journey - though if you’re lucky enough to get a table, there’s always the risk of people joining you and striking up a conversation. Some years ago I had a glorious 6 hour stretch to Scotland wrecked by a determined woman chatting up a shy and rather flattered science graduate pinned to the wall next to her the whole way. There’s a story in that I guess - just as you notice in the people around you in stations!

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