This blog post has been published in the North American Review.
Sometimes when I write it feels as if 20 minutes have gone by when in actuality it is 2pm and I’m still in a robe. When I first started writing this unnerved me. After all, I could spend all those hours writing, alone, and in the end have nothing, or very little, to show for my time.
“But the writer in the midst of a story needs to find a way to keep her head there. She can’t just pop out of the cave, have some fun, go dancing, and then pop back in. The work demands our full attention, our deepest concentration.” – Dani Shapiro
I had to learn patience. I had to learn to sit still.
And life was messing with me.
Four years ago Thanksgiving there was a fire in my Brooklyn home. My family had been away on vacation and when we returned all we had was what was in our carry-on luggage.
We moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
That was Move Number One.
On top of moving into a new rental, which needed beds and bedding and curtains and towels and cookware etc; I had to rid my Brooklyn home, where I’d raised 5 children, of all the things that get accumulated over 25 years.
That year, in our new Manhattan rental, construction started on a huge development one block east of us. The townhouse next door to us had a fire and they had to excavate the basement and rebuild. And there was major street construction to the west.
At the time, I’d been working on my novel for years, on and off; but even with the fire, and the move, was just beginning to find some rhythm in the process. Locating the proper workspace became essential. The construction noise was disruptive; every bang and drill and clank upset me because it had taken me a really long time to find my stride, to give myself permission to sit peacefully, and spend time alone. Without that time and space and quiet, I couldn’t write. I tried to avoid the noise and spent a lot of time at Le Pain Quotidien drinking coffee and lemonade, and eating breakfast, and then lunch.
Finally, our Brooklyn home, which we’d renovated, was ready. We moved back in.
Move Number Two.
The next day, no exaggeration, workmen showed up at the house next door to us to demolish the house and begin construction on a new one.
We moved back to Manhattan.
Move Number Three.
We moved to 82nd Street and 3rd Ave. Dogs, left alone all day, barked in the adjacent apartments. The elevators were often out of order; and workmen repaired them outside my bedroom door. And then there were the ground shaking, bomb-like explosions from the 2nd Avenue subway being built a block away.
After a year, we moved again.
Move Number Four.
We moved to 66th street and 3rd Ave. Within a week, construction crews created havoc outside my apartment door. We’d rented in a building that was turning condo and 3 apartments on my floor were to be demolished and completely renovated. I’d asked about construction before moving in, and of course, been lied to. Construction workers started at 8am and worked until 6pm. Saturdays included. The noise was inescapable and relentless.
At the time, my novel was not done, and a literary agent I’d met at a conference requested a full manuscript.
I needed to work.
I figured the buzz of a coffee shop was better than the racket of construction so I started going to Starbucks.
I’m addicted to Starbucks. The coffee, not the place. Waiting in long lines for a cup of coffee while others order time-consuming, difficult to make, coffee shakes and smoothies is annoying. And there is never any place to sit. But I went anyway, because I found that once I got settled in, coffee in hand, I could work well.
One rainy cold day, I found a seat and happily placed my knapsack and umbrella on a chair, my books, folders and computer on the table. I went to the milk station and waited for the woman in front of me to finish up. As she turned, she looked at me and said, “I was going to sit there.” She pointed to the spot where my belongings rested. “I wanted to throw your things on the floor. But I didn’t.”
Was I supposed to thank her?
A teenager who saw the whole incident unfold, circled her temple with her index finger indicating the woman was crazy.
Thinking she definitely was crazy, I offered her my seat. When she refused, I sat down, ready to work.
The woman sitting next to me chatted in a foreign language on her cell phone. Endlessly. And loudly. I couldn’t concentrate. After about 20 minutes I couldn’t take it anymore and I admit, I gave her a dirty look.
“I make a noise?” she asked.
In my younger days, I might’ve backed down. I might’ve left Starbucks. I might’ve said no; but I was determined to work. It was a great personal feat for me when I said, “Yes.”
She didn’t get off the phone but she did turn her body away from me and lowered her voice. It helped.
But Starbucks was no long-term solution.
I rented office space. That was last January and February- you know those freezing snowy wet days, the ones that were the coldest days in New York history. I wished uselessly that I could wake up and write at home like I’d always done because the weather was the worst I’d ever experienced. I’d get to my office miserable, Uggs sopping wet. I’d sit barefooted, toes thawing, wishing I’d brought an extra pair of socks.
Even with all that, I showed up. Everyday. And I did accomplish a lot in that office. I finished the draft.
When construction started on the only not renovated apartment left on our floor and on the apartment above ours, we packed up and left Manhattan.
We moved back to Brooklyn.
Move Number Five.
But here’s the thing:
Gardeners use lawn mowers. Neighbors use power washers and leaf blowers. Garbage trucks go by. Dogs bark. Cars honk. In Florida, there was a tractor on the beach.
I huffed and puffed every time one of these distractions entered my life. I dreamed of a noiseless lawn mower and wondered why a silent leaf blower hadn’t already been invented.
Until I stopped.
And listened to myself.
The noise in my head was louder than any outside noise. Sure, I’d been bombarded with real distractions; but I don’t live in the mountains, or on a lake, so what did I expect?
You’re not going to believe this but the week after Move Number 5, a truck pulled up to the house almost directly across the street from ours. Construction started the next day.
I’ve heard it said that writing is part talent but mostly perseverance. Even though as I write this hammers bang, there will be no Move Number 6. At least for now, I’m not budging.
I put on my noise machine.
I play music.
And then I settle down and let the clank, clank, clank of construction match the clank, clank, clank of my nails hitting the computer keyboard.