That Woman Who Writes

March 2, 2010 | 9 6 min read

I’m always seeking places to write.  Never at home—laundry piles, dishes in the sink, MOM emblazoned on my forehead.  Although problematic, coffeehouses and libraries are a mainstay.  Inevitably, I’ll be thick into my work when someone I know will come up behind me, “Hey, hi!  What’cha doin’?”  Depending on a combination of fluctuating circumstances—a scale that includes politeness, how the writing is coming, and how well I know the person—my reaction will be to glare until I’m left alone, drop everything and chat, or, more likely, a response somewhere in between the continuum of these two extremes.

For a while, I used a private conference room at my local library, partitioned like an office.  The conference room’s intended purpose was for gatherings—conferences—and I was politely asked to stop, even when it wasn’t signed out, and just sat there, vacant, begging to be used.  Apparently, the various voices in my head do not constitute a group.

I’m a nervous writer.  I drink coffee and subsequently get thirsty and drink water.  I chew gum—packs and packs, studding the wastebasket with my spit-out wads.  I read my work out loud, again and again (I imagine one might hear a light mumble coming from my direction).  There are frequent trips to the bathroom (coffee and water).  I have to haul my writing materials—computer, notebooks, etc.—with me, so that they won’t get stolen.  Or else I take on the Bathroom Sprint—going as fast as I can, returning in a light sweat.

Also, I attract unusual people.  Possibly they sniff in me some sort of kindred spirit.  I’ve had many a stranger choose—with vacant spaces everywhere—to sit right next to me, and strike up conversations with openers such as, “My aunt who passed away sixteen years ago still speaks to me through my shoe.”  In this case, I looked down, studied his soiled sneaker, laces undone.  Later, the same man (I recognized his shoe) was in a stall of the ladies restroom when I did my Bathroom Sprint, his feet turned toward the toilet, flushing it over and over again.

For a long while, I wrote at a particularly grungy coffeehouse (now out of business) where no one knew me, until I became such a regular that it was impossible for me not to be known.  The place was long and corridor-like, dark, and with a perpetually robust disinfectant stench that did nothing to dissuade the cockroach population, especially in the graffiti-filled, coin-operated bathroom.

In the daytime—school hours—when I wrote, the coffeehouse was pretty much deserted, except for a throng of ditching teenagers, varying in ages from junior high to high school, heartbreakingly young and drugged out.  I wrote at a table near a ratty couch.  A completely ignored placard sat on the coffee table, warning the patrons not to sleep or display affection on that couch, and reminding them of the two-dollar minimum purchase requirement.

There were bursts of excitement, as when the truancy officer made his regular appearances, a thrum vibrating beforehand (I never figured out how the teenagers knew he was coming).  The teens would disappear quickly, much like the cockroaches when I turned on the light in the bathroom (sometimes a cockroach scurrying right across my shoe).  Slowly, the teens would come back, one by one, a bit wary, looking over their shoulders.

One sleepy afternoon, a man entered, walked halfway in, and shouted, “Fuck you!  Fuck you; fuck you; fuck you all!”  And then he left, and no one seemed alarmed, so I went back to my writing.

I became known as “that woman who writes”—the patrons and employees showing me new tattoos, telling me about their breakups and fights and hangovers, and complaining about the “dickhead” who owned the coffeehouse.  One of my favorites, a purple-haired, eyeliner and mascara wearing boy of thirteen, asked me one afternoon if I would name a character after him, and I agreed: thus, the son in my story “Castaways” became Anthony.  Another time, two young women—regulars who had spoken with me a few times before—became enthralled with a sweaty man who entered the coffeehouse in an agitated state; he told them he’d just ran from the cops after stealing a car and leaving it abandoned at the side of the freeway.  He had a neck tattoo and spoke in a hushed tone.  As they began to leave the coffeehouse—the young women following behind him—one of the girls turned and shot me a wistful look, and I couldn’t help calling out, “Be careful!” to which I received a small sad smile from her and a full on glare from the man.

The coffee was awful (yet I developed a taste for it), the bagels and muffins stale, and the music selection limited.  I remember a two-week span where every time I set up my computer to work, an extended live version of Lynyrd Skynard’s “Free Bird” came on.  (I chose to take this as a good sign.)

An elderly street woman named Esther made daily visits, coming in with a shopping cart filled with baby dolls.  She had more wrinkles than any person I’ve ever seen, and she usually wore a baseball cap with Winnie the Pooh on the bill, sticking his paw in a pot of honey.

We developed a ritual: Esther would pretend to sneak up on me, and even though I could hear her cart rattling, I’d pretend to be surprised when she yelled out, “Boo!”  Our conversations were strange, perfunctory, a bit aggressive, and I always gave her a dollar bill.  Large and shuffling, she’d make her way out, but not before yelling at the teenagers (“Don’t you dare look at me, you fucking miserable little pieces of shit!”), whom she hated, although I never witnessed them antagonizing her; afterwards, they’d stare at each other and laugh, but they always seemed a little startled.

The coffeehouse owner’s father, a pink-faced man with thick glasses that made him goggle-eyed, reverentially approached me one morning and asked if I’d read a “biographical novel” written by a woman friend of his.  I read the first chapter, a mess of nostalgia, and I realized his devotion to the work was more a testament to his pining for the woman who wrote it than anything else, and that if given an opportunity, he would talk about her with me for hours and hours.  After that, every time he entered, I tensed, wanting to avoid him.

One of the most dramatic boons to my writing life came when two businessmen offered me private places to work, rent-free—one a conference room used only on occasion by lawyers for arbitration purposes, the other an office in the same building.  I’d been their server for more than 10 years, working as a waitress at a high-end restaurant.  They became art patrons, in a sense.  I told them that I’d thank them in the acknowledgments of my book if I ever got published, and I did.

Both office space and conference room reeked of business and productivity, and the secretaries—who for a long time eyed me skeptically—had to work, so I worked.  No Internet-surfing.  I didn’t have a key, so often I’d arrive early and wait on the couch in the small hallway for one of the secretaries.

A perfect writing day: Conference room or office space open, no one there, meaning I don’t have to say hello or good morning to anyone, and can immediately immerse myself in a writing trance.  I leave without notice, without the explosive shock of small talk, to pick up my boys from school.

Of course, once I got to my kids’ school, the transition from solitary writer to fully engaged member of the human species and Mother was often a rocky transition—with the noise and tumult of children, the swarm of mothers and teachers and life all around me—though most of the conflict took place in the confines of my head.

I’ll never forget when one of my businessmen patrons opened the office door where I was working, poked his head inside, and said, “Can I get you a coffee?”  I declined, uncomfortable with the role reversal, having served him for so many years.  Both insisted I call them by their first names—but I never quite got the hang of that either.

More than anything, the conference room and office space amplified my desire for private quiet writing places, and my next writing space was a friend’s house, while she was away at her nine to five job.  When she moved, an email went out, enlisting the help of friends, and I found another place, which is where I sit writing this.

My current art patron is a successful lawyer.  Her daughters recently left for college, leaving the house empty and quiet.  My one job is to keep her Jack Russell Terrier, Joey, company, because he’s an empty nester dog.

Joey is deathly afraid of lightning, and he has barking tantrums whenever gardeners are near.  But otherwise he’s a peach, and we get along famously.  Sometimes, as a break from an intense bout of writing, or a distressing vacuous pit of non-writing, Joey and I will engage in a strenuous match of tug of war with his favorite towel.

Someday I hope to have a place of my own, like my writer friend—a simple shed-like studio assembled in her backyard, book-laden, and with a small bed for naps.  Until then, I have writer studio lust, and I’ll continue to seek places to work.

Image credit: Dushan Hanuska

is the author of The Little Brother. She is also the author of the novels The Peerless Four and This Vacant Paradise, a 2011 New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her story collection, Drift, was a finalist for the California Book Award and the Story Prize and was selected as one of the best books of 2009 by The San Francisco Chronicle.