Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Places in the Background

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.


  1. I hope you'll write the story someday, Annabeth, as a counterpoint to this story.

    It's hard to know when to let go, to stop trying because the task we've set ourselves is literally outside of our capabilities. I've always believed perseverance is a powerful virtue, but how do you distinguish courage from foolishness?

    This post also makes me realize how different each one of us is. I could never write in most of the places you describe. The only time I can remember writing outdoors is on the porch of our bungalow in Bali (on my laptop).

    1. "I've always believed perseverance is a powerful virtue, but how do you distinguish courage from foolishness?"

      Exactly. In the case of this mountain, I realized a broken ankle would distinguish it for me but I didn't have to let things get that far.

      And you're so right about people being different. I'm always amazed by how many people seem to like coffee shops as writing locations.

  2. I've never written anything that wasn't done on a computer. Like Lisabet, I can't write with such distractions. I tried writing longhand in Italy one time, and I couldn't even decipher what I'd written. I need to go back and revise as I go. That's not to say that I don't *mentally* write while walking in the woods or driving by myself. Often, I can get the story straight in my head first, then to the machine.

    Your hiking experience sounds like something out of Cheryl Strayed's "Wild".

    Your bit on the baseball park reminds me how sweet it was back in the day, nodding in the SF sun, watching little league from warm concrete bleachers after a shot of junk. Mmmm. Those were the days.

    1. As Lisabet says, it's funny what people perceive as distractions. I find computers terribly distracting (the Internet, for one). One of the reasons I like going outside is there's nothing then but me and the notebook. I've played with gadgets that support that. I have a digital notebook that can be seen in sunlight and can transfer files to one's computer. The only issue then is that you have a PDF of your own handwriting so you still have to retype it...

      And yes, the baseball park. I still get that feeling. I go fairly often to local minor league games.

  3. Being the unsporty chap that I am, I could totally relate to your fear of a trail called 'the knife edge'. Holy crap, it's giving me the shudders just thinking about it. Years ago against my better judgement I went rock climbing with friends. Of course I panicked about 1/4 of the way up, couldn't go any farther up couldn't look down. I was freaking and had to be talked down by a young girl from another group. Talk about humiliation. On the other hand I can write - or jot notes at least just about anywhere. So I guess I'm good for something!

    1. Oh yeah, I can imagine getting stuck exactly that way. It's fun to be brave on paper!

  4. The knife edge between the two peaks of Katahdin is serious stuff, or so I've heard. I was going to say "especially if it's misty," but on second thought misty may be the best way to go, since you can't see as far down. Windy is definitely not the ideal weather. I climbed Katahdin once, very long ago--while I was still in college--but not over the knife edge, and I didn't even get a good look at it, because by the time we got to the top of the main peak it was beginning to rain pretty hard, visibility was poor, and we wanted to get the hell back down as fast as we safely could.

    My mountain climbing days, such as they were, are long past, but mountains do inspire me in some indefinable way. I don't write outdoors--well, I did several years ago, writing the significant core of a story while sitting on a rock above a rushing mountain stream, while my partner fished below a waterfall, but it hasn't worked that way since then. As Daddy X and others have said, I do work out dialogue and phrases and motivations, etc., while Im walking outdoors, but for writing I need the visual and tactile stimulation of my laptop and keyboard.

    1. Serious props to you for climbing Katahdin! The whole place was very serious. One of the hikers traveling with my sister said a big part of the vindication for him was climbing a serious mountain like that with ease (after having been hiking for five months straight).

      I'm glad I didn't actually end up on the knife edge...

  5. Annabeth, I'm glad you survived the mountain climb! Otherwise, you wouldn't be here with us at the Grip. The philosophical question of when to soldier on and when to recognize your limits could be an inspiring topic for us here in the future.

    1. Thank you! I do think that would be a good topic, though it might lead to some depressing questioning about whether a writing career is worth the many struggles...


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