The Fragility of the Everyday

Last Friday, a regular collapsed in the coffee shop I frequent a couple of times a week.
He sat at his table with his newspaper like usual, and I sat where I normally do if I can—an armchair by the wall tucked out of the way. I had a section of my latest novel project printed out, and I was furiously scribbling away in the margins. It was going to be a good writing day, I could feel it.
That’s when the man collapsed out of his chair and onto the floor. Not an I’ve-fallen-and-can’t-get-up fall, but something worse.
The shop went eerily silent for a second, then I sprung to my feet along with some of the other customers. More seconds burned by as we hovered in a circle around the man in a what-do-we-do stupor. But he wasn’t moving, and he wasn’t conscious.
I tried to use mental telepathy on the barista behind the counter. What should we do? What happens next? Why isn’t anyone calling 911? The barista has the presence of mind to take a sandwich off the grill before getting the manager. For some reason, this impressed me.
If felt like an eternity—though again, it was just seconds—when a strong voice announced: “Everyone, stay calm. I’m a paramedic. If could have a volunteer pair of hands?”
Turns out an off-duty paramedic decided to come to the coffee shop that day, thank goodness. Two people who weren’t me snapped to attention and helped him get the old man into a sitting position to evaluate his condition.
Meanwhile I was shaking. I gathered up my printouts that were scattered all over the floor and collapsed back in my seat. I am no stranger to sickbeds. I’ve had more than my share of death and dying, but still my palms were sweaty and my heart raced as the paramedic and his volunteers tried to get the man to respond to his questions.
It was touch and go for ten minutes. Ten minutes of me thinking this man is going to die here, in this coffee shop, and I will never be able to work here again. Even as these thoughts went through me, I was sickened that that’s all I cared about. Better than thinking about the last time I was in a hospital with a loved one. But still. This was someone I “knew,” someone linked to the fabric of my daily life.
Thankfully, the man came out of it—there was talk it was a stroke, a “cardiac event,” or even a bad reaction to his medicine, but they didn’t know for sure. An ambulance came along with a team of paramedics who were on the clock, and they bundled the man onto a gurney and took him to the ER.
All told, about an hour-long saga where I and the other customers were trapped in the coffee shop as the man was seen to. I just sat there and stared down blindly at my printouts, feeling guilty and scared and upset all for a stranger. Needless to say, I didn’t write that day.
He wasn’t there when I went to the coffee shop on Tuesday, and I didn’t ask the baristas if they knew anything. 
I just hope the next time I go, he’ll be there, at his table with his paper, and I’ll be in my chair, with my printouts, and all will be right in the world.

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Power of Story

I had a very productive writing session at the coffee shop yesterday. It was a nice day so I was able to ride my bike there—a good way to prime the mind. After settling in with my java, I wrote for about three hours. A new WIP. I’m still in the early this-story-is-awesome stage, where the words just pour forth. Always a great feeling.
Towards the middle of my session, after the noonday rush had emptied out and there were just a handful of people left in the café, a woman approached me and said, “Look at you! Still working so hard. What are you studying?”
I kinda blinked up at her in confusion and said I was writing. I was so in the zone I couldn’t come up with anything else. After some awkward chitchat (I write fiction, yes I’m published, no you won’t find my name on a book’s cover) she went back to her table where she was studying for some kind of exam, nursing I think. She was very sweet, but I was unprepared for her questions and felt like an idiot talking to her.
This incident taught me a few things.
  1. I can apparently still pass for a college student.
  2. People project themselves onto others all the time. Because she was a young woman at a coffee shop studying, I must be too.
  3. Your average person equates writers to (printed) books. When I explained I had a couple short stories published, she got a confused look on her face then smiled politely and said “Oh.”
  4. Writing could be seen as a study of the human condition, of ourselves and the world around us, negotiated on the page.
I still got another hour of work done after our talk. That’s the power of a good story, to help you forget the world around you. I could ignore the fact that she didn’t understand all the work that went into my short stories, all the work that still goes into them and my novel projects.
I could just focus on my words, my world, my story. And it was good.

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‘Tis the Season*

*Please note that this will be my last official post until January. Happy holidays!

I love writing in coffee shops. I’ve talked about it before here and here (and maybe elsewhere). There’s a shop in town I really like to go to in the wintertime because they have a bunch of slouchy couches that are set around a gas fireplace with a large bank of windows behind it. So you can drink your hot cocoa, watch the snow fall, and dream. Good stuff.

But when it gets colder, it’s harder to ignore the parts of the real world the sunshine hides.

Given that this particular coffee shop is in the middle of town, people from all walks of life congregate here. Last year, with temperatures in the teens and twenties, sometimes homeless people would come in for a few minutes of warmth and beg for money. Depending on how busy the baristas were, they might even be able to sneak a spot on one of the couches and rest awhile before the baristas chased them out.

One time, I was busy scribbling away in my notebook and happened to look up and catch the eye of a man sitting across from me. He said something I couldn’t make out. He mumbled again, and I realized he was asking me for money. I’m a debit card kind of girl, so even if I wanted to, I had no spare money to give. He was soon kicked out after catching one of the employee’s notice. But that was my picture of poverty. Last year.

This year, it’s already different. Poverty is different.

Last week, as I sat down in a comfy armchair in front of the fire, the guy across from me started chatting  about the weather. Said he was just hanging out after doing errands at the Target across the street. He was nice enough, but he would not shut up. I finally had to stop looking at him and keep my responses to “Mmm-hmms” and “Uh-huhs” until I got my notebook out and got down to work. He did the same thing to another coffee visitor who happened to sit nearby later on in my visit.

That in itself isn’t remarkable. Just a chatterbox making small talk. But then I saw him again a few days later. Wearing the same clothes and nursing a small cup of coffee. He was carrying the same doubled-up Target bags too. The first time I saw his bags, I thought he was just being overprotective about the stuff he bought – after all, plastic bags are notoriously flimsy. But seeing them again, seeing the wear on the outermost bags, I realized they were carrying something far more precious. The extent of his belongings.

Despite appearances, this man was homeless, but still made a point to buy a coffee to “rent” space by the fire for a few hours. To make smalltalk with other patrons as if nothing had changed. I wondered what he did after he left the shop. And I felt bad for cutting him off that day he tried talking to me – even though I do that to anyone who bothers me when I’m in the writing zone.

I realize I have a rather whitebread perspective of the world. But it doesn’t change the fact that my notion of poverty has changed. It is more insidious than ever, striking people who got by just fine in years past. People who never expected to be out on the streets. People with enough pride to legitimately buy a cup of joe to stay warm instead of begging.

It makes me wonder just what poverty will entail in the future, my writerly brain taking inspiration even from this terrible thing.

The worst part is I know this man who habits my coffee shop is not alone. And besides donating food and money to charities, I don’t know how to stop it.

‘Tis the season to be merry, but it’s hard to do when so many people are in trouble this year. My heart goes out to everyone who is struggling, and I sincerely hope all my fellow writers are in a good place right now despite the economy.

My best wishes to you and yours over the holidays.

See you in January.

Learn more: National Alliance to End Homelessness and the Coalition for the Homeless
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Writing against the Wind

Yesterday afternoon, I fought with 25 mph gusts on my way to the coffee shop for some writing and editing time. The morning was crisp and clear, but as soon as I left the house, the winds came a-roaring. I started pedaling anyway, and when I first hit the resistance in the air, I momentarily questioned my resolve to ride the next 3.5 miles in such conditions.

But the sun was shining, and dang it, I was ready to write. So I kept going and had a productive two hours before the breezy ride back—a tailwind this time.

So what’s the point here? Well, I think as beginning and intermediate writers, it can feel like we are writing against wind. There’s so much resistance in our lives that prevents us from just sitting down to write—distractions and that distracting voice in your head. Or if not that, then the shifting currents of the publishing industry, the prevailing attitudes our friends and families have about our efforts, the sheer odds we face of ever getting our work out there.

There are so many reasons to not pick up the pen and write. So when we do, there’s a lot of stuff we have to write through. But we have to keep going, no matter what. We have to keep going and not stop. Until one day, one day when the winds die down, when we reach the top of the hill, and it’s all downhill from there. Smooth sailing.

Sometimes that freedom comes from small victories (positive feedback from readers, story acceptances, or getting an agent). But I also think developing confidence in your craft can get you to that point without all those external factors—the assurance that you are getting better each day you commit to being a writer.

It can be a hard slog, no lie. And some days will be worse than others. But to feel the wind in your hair and know it’s not holding you back but urging you on?

I hope we all reach that place.

Happy writing!
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CP Meet ‘n Greet

While I was traveling last month, I had the unique opportunity to meet one of my critique partners in person.

I was already planning to visit the city where my CP lives to see my friends from grad school between weddings. When I floated the idea of meeting to Anonymeet (after assuring her that I was not some crazy internet stalker, and no, she shouldn’t feel obligated to meet in person if she felt at all uncomfortable), she was happy to make it happen.

Anonymeet approached me way back in October 2010 as a potential critique partner. Since then, we’ve worked through each other’s novels – sharing marked-up drafts, writing tips, and reading recommendations. With the exception of one phone call, all of our communication has been through email and the occasional blog comment.

It’s been a successful partnership. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? But I thought if I didn’t at least try to meet her in person, there might not be another chance right away, since I’m not often in that part of the country.

As the day approached, excitement and the will-she-like-me doubts swamped me in turns. We had a good back-and-forth rapport online. What if I ruined it all in person with a poorly thought-out comment or some other social blunder? I was overthinking it, I know. But that’s what we writers do, right?

I needn’t have worried. Anonymeet picked a wonderful gourmet café near her neighborhood for our meeting. As I swooned over handcrafted desserts and the artisan cheese selection, she told me how she escapes her family each weekend to write at that very café for a few hours. The coffee shops I usually haunt don’t hold a candle to that place. (And I am still jealous.)

As we snacked, we talked about how we got started writing and about our lives offline. It was a happy coincidence that we’re both roughly the same age with similar life experiences – we even started writing seriously later in life (ie, after school and working for a few years although we both had the bug well before then). We talked about our current projects and the upcoming ones that have us excited. I also got a number of good reading recommendations from her since she’s extremely well-read and current with all the latest YA releases. (Be sure you check out the reviews she posts on her blog.)

Intellectually, I know I’m not alone in the struggles we all face writing, but talking with Anonymeet in person made things feel less lonely. She’s a writer too, a peer, someone who has actually read my writing. I know she gets it. And as much as I have come to love and respect the online writing community, there are some things about interpersonal communication that the internet can’t replace. It’s one thing to write something and share it online. It’s another to look into someone’s eyes and say it out loud.

Two-and-a-half hours later, it was all over. Anonymeet had to go back to her family and I had more plans with my friends. But I know I’ll jump at the next chance to spend time with her in person, whenever that may be.

Have you had the opportunity to meet with one of your online writing buddies?
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