Trashed Notebook

There was a discarded spiral notebook in a trash can outside my building. It lay there, looking quite pristine, except that it was near a greasy burger wrapper and some other unrecognizable food trash. Why would someone throw away a perfectly good notebook? is what I thought first. And then, Hey, I could use that notebook.

I hovered over the trash can, considering.

It occurred to me that the notebook might not be empty. It looked unused from the outside, but there was no way to be sure unless I dug in and opened it up. Someone could have confided their deepest secrets in there, written unsent love letters, scrawled a death threat, composed a poem. I wanted it; I wanted to see.

Then some woman crossed the street, dropped a wad of chewed gum in the trash, and walked off. I left the notebook for someone braver than me. Maybe, by now, someone’s got it cracked open, filled with words. Either that or the dumpster got it. I may have reached a hand in if not for the gum.



E is working under a very important deadline for an exciting project, so I don’t want to disturb him. Poor E doesn’t belong to a writers’ organization where he rents out a desk (and he can’t pretend to be me and use mine). Therefore, he’s working on his project at home. And I must not disturb him. So I am not turning on the TV. If one person is watching TV in our apartment, then everyone is watching TV—there is no way to avoid it.

This life without TV has strange sounds in it. For instance I know that someone above me was just doing the dishes; I can hear the pipes flush their soapsuds down. There is a hush, a shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh out in the airshaft, is that the sound of our city breathing? I can hear the turning of my own head. My swallow. My fingers tapping on these keys.

A life without TV involves conversation. E will read a line from his project aloud, a whole scene. When there is no TV you do things such as make eye contact. You notice things in your apartment that you haven’t looked at in a long while because whenever your eyes were in that direction they were trained on the TV. For instance a photograph. A book you forgot you had and still want to read. Your birthday flowers. Your new toys.

Without TV you don’t know what’s happened in the world. You don’t know who is gay, straight, or taken, who was pitchy tonight, who deserves to be thrown into the pool.

I grew up without television. Either we were living in a house that got no reception, or else we weren’t allowed to watch. Anything beyond Sesame Street or Mister Rogers would rot our brains, you see. And even now, it is when the TV isn’t on to drown out my reality that I see the places where my brain has gone rotten. I am not used to living without commercials. I might lose track of time altogether. I might not know when it is time to get up and brush my teeth.


Why You Should Not Go on Vacation

I took last week off from work and spent all of today regretting it. It is just not a good idea to take “vacation.” Or a sick day. Or, god forbid, a personal day. If I want to keep up, I should probably get a sleeping bag and camp out under my desk. This is what happens when you take a week off (and, note, since the whole office was closed last Monday it was technically only 4 days):

1. You return to three mountains of work in your office. Yes, three. Much of it was due today (and will still be sitting there tomorrow).

2. Your poor employee looks like she might defect if you ever leave her during such a stressful week again. (You should take her out to lunch.)

3. You are unable to tackle the three mountains of work because, while you were gone, the entire email system was prepared for a migration and there was an archiving seminar you missed. Thus, the IT guys who have come from New Jersey to do the migration stare in horror at the 23,000 (!) messages in your inbox and it takes until 7 at night to finish updating.

4. You overhear the IT guys making fun of you in the hallway.

5. They have also told anyone who will listen about your 23,000 (insert obligatory !) messages.

6. You can’t respond to emails (the migration makes using your computer unbearably slow), but you do happen to see the multiple emails saying such-and-such needs to release and where is it and oh right it’s in one of the three mountains in your office.

7. It takes some time to find each thing.

8. Speaking of projects releasing, you notice that design has released projects without showing corrections to copyediting and the projects have to be pulled so you can look at them, thus adding to the first of the three mountains, but it’s a good thing because the copyright years have inexplicably changed from 1984 to 1969 and no one would catch that but you.

9. Which you do, the only catch of the day.

10. Because you are the idiot who never archives her mailbox and has to figure out what to do with the 23,000 messages tomorrow.



My Writing Spot(s)

For some time I’ve wanted to respond to Bloglily‘s call to her readers to share their writing spots. I keep meaning to bring my camera, keep forgetting, so for now let’s do without pictures. You know, maybe it’s better this way, because I don’t think it’s the physical spot that matters so much as the symbolic dedication of time once I’m in it.

I write in two places, depending on if it’s a workday or a weekend. One is public; one is (semi)-private. Neither is at home. You might be surprised that, in the past months, I’ve gotten more done at my public writing spot, even though it’s louder and filled with distractions and I have only a short amount of time to be there. At home, I cannot write at all, probably because the apartment is so small and I don’t have a desk. Here are my spots:

1) My Weekend Writing Spot

I am here now. It is a members-only organization, for which I pay dues. There are a few of these in New York City (probably due to the shoeboxes we live in), and this one may be the oldest. In fact, I’ve been a member since 1999, when it was at another location. I’ve thought of switching, for a change—change can be good, no?—but, really, I am extremely attached. I have a favorite desk. It is against a wall far from the windows, forming a cozy little corner with some semblance of privacy. The chair is fire orange. The desk wide enough for a laptop and spreads of papers on each side—the perfect width. There is a shelf for a lamp, a partition to keep me from staring directly at the other writers, and into which I can pin pictures for inspiration if I want to. In truth, the desk is not private at all. This place can fill up, writers on top of writers on top of writers, to the point of a buzzing hum of industry, but I don’t mind it. I like the sense of productivity all around me. Another thing about this place is that “your” desk isn’t always your desk—you clean it off before you leave, so it’s important not to get too attached to a specific seating arrangement. I keep certain things in my locker, which I set up each time I am here: a box of pens, spoons, sticky notes, staples, chopsticks, whatever I might need; a box of tissues; a notebook; literary journals for a short-story break; a water bottle; a sweater; and my trusty pair of writing slippers.

There is the soothing effect of routine upon coming here: I walk the same series of blocks, sign in, arrange my desk with the items I like out on it, go get coffee, drink it in the communal kitchen while reading, and then I come to the desk itself, slip on the slippers, and begin. There is a quiet I appreciate, one that is peppered with horns honking down in the street below, and keys tapping, and people slurping coffee, and the whir of other nearby hard-drives. There is no talking in the main writing room, which is the best part of being here. I can be in my own world and no one can interrupt me. In the past, when I’ve bumped into people I know here, I’ve become somewhat distracted. I like to be left alone. As advertised, it is an urban writers’ retreat, which for me is not about making new friends or networking or chatting in the kitchen. Also, the addition of free wireless Internet access makes for some easy distraction, and this is something I have to become better about. However, when I’ve had a good day and emerge from this spot into the loud, crowded world below, usually after the sun has gone down, I feel a real sense of completion. Sometimes it takes the entire walk home for me to adjust back to reality. The place leaves with me a slow, solid silence that can last for some time; it is very soothing. I keep the key with me always. I love knowing that at any hour of the day I can go in.


2) My Weekday Writing Spot

I will be here early tomorrow morning. Due to the location of my full-time day job, it wouldn’t make sense for me to go to my real writing spot before work—it’s in the opposite direction, so I’d lose writing time to travel time, a sacrifice I’m not willing to make. I had to figure out a compromise. It was over a year ago that I thought to try Starbucks. Most of them just don’t work for me—the way the tables are situated, the acoustics, the crowd—but there’s one that’s just perfect. My favorite tables (I like to think of them as “desks”) are set against a wall of outlets, away from the line to the register. There is a group of writers and readers who come early mornings—we recognize one another, nod, and keep a respectful distance. The baristas know each of us by our drinks and often have them ready before we reach the head of the line. I try to get in as early as possible. This way, the walk there is quiet. The line is nonexistent. One of my favorite tables is free. I get my drink, put my back against the wall, plug in, and begin. The tables are small, so I have room only for my drink and my laptop, but this is only a problem when I’m referring to a previous draft for revision. (Then I use a chair as an extension to the table.) Because I have to leave at 9:50 LATEST to make it into work, I often find myself with a burst of motivated energy in the short while I’m there. By the time my drink is finished, it’s time to go. The time is precious—it feels stolen from the day—and I want to get out as much as I can from it. I don’t have free wireless access, so my concentration is better. And even when the place crowds up—one day a week there is a mommy’s group with babies in strollers; sometimes there are loud revelers from a drunken night before, often boys dressed as girls, though rarely girls dressed as boys; sometimes people have business meetings at the table just beside me—I am somehow able to write through all of it. There is a sense of urgency, a good solid kick-in-the-butt, and I like it.

If you were there in the Starbucks while I was in the midst of a good paragraph, you might find me staring. I mean nothing by it—I’m just gathering my thoughts. Sometimes I forget I’m out in public at all and type madly, with probably an intensely odd expression on my face. I have no idea what I look like when I’m writing.


Between these two places, I’m able to carve out a spot most days (unless I sleep late, which, I admit, does happen). But, if I could choose my fantasy writing spot, it would be a whole room to myself. No TV set of course, not even a couch (to discourage napping). It would be a small room, the walls perhaps a soothing cobalt blue, and maybe there would be a window out of which I’d have a view of a city street far below, the kind where you look down and the people are like ants under glass, and you’re invisible to them, so they have no idea you’re looking. The yellow cabs will be like little toy cars. And at night the windows across the way will be squares of light, and the sky visible up above, maybe a few stars twinkling. One day, maybe, I’ll have that room. In the meantime, I make do.

More Noise Please

I write this amid pipes banging from the radiator, video-game revelers in the apartment downstairs, a dog barking, and high-heeled pacing above my head. My neighbor just slammed her door again, making the walls shake. Soon a car alarm in the parking garage across the way will go off, as it likes to late at night for my listening pleasure. Or the old woman upstairs will start yelling into the airshaft for “Frank.” (I do not believe there is a Frank.)

I wonder about living outside the city sometimes; I wonder about the state my head would be in if there were quiet. I’ve gotten used to writing amid noise—I stick in my headphones and pump music over it, or sometimes, when I’m deep into a paragraph and nothing could drag me out of it, all surrounding noise takes on a comforting distant din. Quiet is alien. Quiet sort of scares me. And yet if there were perfect quiet right now, I wonder what ideas might worm their way inside my head. My ideas are noisy. Currently I wonder what kind of obsessive compulsive disorders my neighbors may have, and as for the mystery of Frank, I could ponder that late into the night… especially if there’s a car alarm going off to keep me company.

(Post title stolen, of course, from Steven Jesse.) 

Saturday Struggles

I have a proofreading job that I left till the very last minute. I have the first draft of a short story I want to finish. I have a new book I want to read. Who will win this tug-o-war?

JOB: I realize I bore you silly, but I am due Monday morning and you are only on page 68. Are you demented? Pick up your red pencil and comb me for typos. I’ll give you a good one if you look closely enough.

STORY: I feel incomplete. My pages are so… inadequate. Don’t you want to tinker with my sentences some more, don’t you want to fill up my holes? Write me, please. My blank spot on page 10 is quivering with anticipation.

BOOK: I’m good. You don’t know how good yet, but believe me when I tell you: once you start me you won’t be able to put me down. You’ll devour me in one sitting. And, truly, don’t you have time for 115 pages of good prose?

It’s a conundrum.

Birthday Letters

Dear Oral Surgeon About to Extract My Mother’s Teeth This Morning:

You will have your drill in her mouth at the very minute I was born. She called to warn me last night. She is in such pain, and this is the only time her appointment could be scheduled—though she felt bad that it would occur at my “birth moment”—the minute she calls to wish me happy birthday every year. “I’ll be under,” she warned me. “And after, I don’t know if I’ll be able to talk.” My poor mother. This is all made worse, of course, because she doesn’t have dental insurance.

Please be gentle with her. Please treat her well. I see you now, floating near her with the paper mask over your face. You have an amazing woman in your reclining dental chair. Do you realize?

Perhaps you will see this as she drifts to sleep and pull her teeth for free.

—A concerned and loving daughter.

* * *

Dear Radiator:

You woke me at 3 a.m. with your tapping. It was as if a person got stuck behind the wall plaster, in between the bricks, and was trying to get my attention. It sounded like Morse code. In the darkness, I sat up in bed, scowling at the noise that kept me from sleeping, and then it settled upon me: it was now officially February 23rd, my unfortunate birthday. You tapped again. I have lost another year, I thought. You tapped. I want to make the best of the year that’s coming—tap—so I can look back and be proud of what I accomplished—tap—and have no regrets—tap-tap—because this is the year that could change everything. You were quiet. But it could, I protested silently, this could be my year. And then the tapping continued, and we were in agreement in that moment, weren’t we? It could be a good year, perhaps, if I keep trying. Do I hear a tap?


* * *

Dear Mail Carrier,

I’m concerned about what your mail bag may bring me in this afternoon’s delivery. I don’t want to seem weak—though, had you seen my reactions at some of the letters you’ve delivered to my box you would think I am—but my anxiety over today’s possible mail has me wanting to ask a surprising favor…

Would you mind terribly holding onto any rejections? Just slip them to the back of your bag, deliver them tomorrow. I don’t mind the delay; I’d rather it. I always seem to come upon rejections at the most inopportune moments and then my world comes crashing down, and I’m very melodramatic during a crash, and maybe the catastrophes can wait until tomorrow?

This is what I want for my birthday: no nos.

NRS (you know my box)

p.s. If you could pass this same message on to the Google Mail system, I’d appreciate it. I don’t want a catastrophic email today, either.