by Annabeth Leong
I don’t enjoy writing in coffee shops, though there are times I’ve managed it. They’re too distracting. Interesting people are moving around, conversing about things that make me want to eavesdrop, parading haircuts that inspire my envy. The various machines whirr and swoosh. Baristas call names that make my head snap to attention. My name. The names of ex-lovers. The names of former bosses.
I need to write in places where the background acts like a background. My favorite places are a certain sort of outside. Warm or hot, so I’m not shivering. Isolated enough that I’m not always catching movement out of the corner of my eye. Close enough to where I live that I don’t have to trek a long way.
I tend to gravitate to bleachers in school parks. Maybe part of it is that I’m a huge baseball fan. I relax right away when I clamber up a good set of them, shoes ringing against the well-punished metal.
These days, I do compose entirely by computer sometimes, but I know what to do when I get stuck. Print that shit out and take it to the bleachers. I revised most of Untouched at the bleachers closest to my apartment, soothed by the scents of sunscreen, hot aluminum, and spring grass. I do lots of my initial thinking and outlining there. I sometimes do first drafts, and I often do the first couple of pages of a new project.
When it’s winter, I long for that place. I rack my brain thinking of sunny places that can substitute. There’s an atrium at one of the libraries in Providence that I’ll visit when I’m desperate. Sometimes, if it’s not outright icy, I’ll stick a notebook in my bag and try a nomadic sort of thing, walking to keep myself warm, composing in my head, pausing to write stuff down from time to time.
Most of the time, I use familiar walks and places to relax me enough to overcome the many anxiety-producing aspects of the blank page or blinking cursor. There have been a few times, though, when I tried it the other way, leaning on writing to counteract the enormity of my location.
I once tried to hike Mount Katahdin with my sister, who was just completing a northward hike of the Appalachian trail. The short story is that I wasn’t remotely in shape to keep up with her. After a morning of pushing myself to my mental and physical limits, we were both at our wits’ ends.
I didn’t know how much more I had in me, and I looked ahead and saw several ascents still rising ahead of me. I also knew that the plan was for us to climb down a trail known as “the knife edge.” I deeply questioned the past version of me who thought a trail with a name like that would be a thing I could handle.
She was exhausted and frustrated by putting up with my slowness, which held her back from climbing with the friends she’d made over the course of the trail. Not only that, she was physically dragging me up certain rock faces.
We reached a plateau, and I had a powerful epiphany. There are many cliches about not quitting and never giving up, but I recognized the deeper wisdom of the one about knowing when to hold and when to fold. It was time to fold. I found a spot where my fear of heights didn’t feel too intense, sat down, and told her to go to the top without me. “I’ll be here, and I’ll be fine,” I said. “Just please come back for me because I know I can’t get down by myself.”
In truth, it was scary to watch her disappear into the mist, knowing I’d need a helicopter to get me down if she didn’t come back. I sat alone on the side of the mountain, water bottle propped between my ankles, and I pulled out my notebook and started planning a story.
I’ve never actually written it, though I still have the outline. I was thinking about times when heroism isn’t enough, when it’s time to fold, and I tried to come up with a story reflecting that. More than the story itself, though, I was interested in the act of writing, a lifelong habit that I thought might make this awe-inspiring and terrifying place move into the background so my racing heart could slow.
And it worked. When she came back for me, I was deep into my notebook and able to hike to the bottom.