In my parents’ library there’s a book collecting the best New Yorker cartoons of the last few decades or so. It was a Christmas gift from years back, and as I was in a phase when I devoured all cartoons everywhere, I breezed through that book in about a week. It says a lot about me that I got as many of the jokes that I did, but one cartoon in particular stood out. It had a man, who was obviously a writer (you could tell by the pen in his hand and the beret on his head), sitting at his desk in front of a blank sheet of paper (itself another dead giveaway). As he looked at the blank page, you could read his thoughts, which went something like this: “Yes… the paper is ready. My pen has fresh ink. The room is warm, and the light is just right. Hmm… Maybe the room is too warm…”
The joke of course is that writing types like me end up being very, very picky about the places where we write. The slightest distraction, or the slightest wrong note could thwart our creativity, make us stumble in our narrative, or even plunge us into full on writers block.
It is and it isn’t true, of course. As writers, we have to contend with all sorts of distractions, and many of us do have certain rituals we perform, certain times of day we block off, or certain places we make our own in order to get the words flowing from our pen or into our keyboard. And these places and these rituals are as individual as the writers themselves. Erin has built a routine these days where she goes into “work” to write. When my carpooling parents come along to take Vivian up to the University of Waterloo’s Early Childhood Education Centre, Erin often goes with them, and spends her morning working at a table in the coffee lounge at St. Jerome’s University. I, on the other hand, have greatly benefitted from Ontario’s Early Years Program, where Vivian and now Nora were granted a couple of hours of play time with kids their age while I retired to the school’s kitchen for coffee and work time while ensconced in iTunes.
But while these places work well for us, we can’t stay in these places forever and, besides, we could sometimes use variety. And so, when we get other chances to step away from our kids for a while (thanks to the generous support of their grandparents), we end up looking for other places to write. But where do we go? I wrote about this subject before, but I’m revisiting it because, of course, the situations have changed, and changed again. When Vivian was an only child, Erin and I slipped into a weekend routine where we’d bundle Vivian into her carseat at roughly around the time she was due for a nap. I would then drive outside the city, usually to a Chapters or Indigo bookstore in a neighbouring city like London or Burlington or Ancaster. In the two hours or so that Vivian slept, Erin would work at the laptop. The beauty of this arrangement is that, when we arrived at the Chapters or Indigo, Vivian would wake up and have a place to play while I stayed at the Starbucks and worked on my own projects.
Now that Vivian has given up her afternoon nap, and now that Nora is around to keep the both of us occupied, this arrangement doesn’t work anymore, and to some extent we’re still adjusting. This is the reason why Erin has, essentially, a writing “office” up at St. Jerome’s University, and why I head into Toronto every couple of months or so.
When Erin and I drove on our writing excursions, it was important that we head out of town. I think this was because the effort this took encouraged us to not waste this opportunity. Similarly, I’ve made great progress on various projects, especially The Night Girl, on my day trips into my old hometown. And maybe the energy of the commuter traffic (note, this only works if I take the train in, rather than drive) transfers itself to the written page in some lamely indescribable way, but I always look forward to these trips, and not just because of the opportunity to spend a few hours away from the kids.
Of course, not every place to write in Toronto is created equal, and not every place fits every project. The Night Girl benefitted from these trips into the city because the story is set in the city, especially in the PATH Network of shopping tunnels between the skyscrapers that I and others refer to as “the Underground City”. Many of the identifiable places in the book are real, including Corned Beef House on Adelaide where Perpetua and Fergus had their breakfasts together.
For Icarus Down, I’ve found that, while there are a number of good places in Toronto to write in, I’ve yet to find a really great place in the city. And thinking about the features that make the good places good, I think I’m in search of certain criteria:
Coffee. Coffee houses are inextricably linked to creativity not just because these places welcome loungers and don’t persecute loiterers (much) so long as you keep your cup filled, but also because they have coffee, which sharpens the mind and keeps you from falling asleep at the keyboard — an important consideration when you’re raising two young kids.
Free wi-fi. This might be a distraction to some writers, and it is one reason why getting out of the house is often more effective in getting my creative juices flowing than writing at home. It’s too easy to excuse web browsing and answering e-mail while you’re at home. If you’ve come all this way out of your house to write, and you waste time surfing, you feel the shame more keenly and often get back to writing. With that potential for distraction reduced, wi-fi becomes an interesting tool, as I’m able to access the Internet for some quick research into various issues which might crop up in my writing. It’s useful to have various astronomy websites at my fingertips while writing Icarus Down, and it saves me having to get up and flip through an encyclopedia.
The problem here is that there are few places I’ve found which offer truly free wi-fi. Starbucks cardholders get two free hours of wi-fi with their daily coffee, but for me that only covers a morning. Many other places charge as much as $10 for a day’s Internet. Tim Horton’s doesn’t offer free wi-fi at all, and the wild open-access signal is getting fewer and farther between as people figure out how to turn on their wireless router’s security features.
The web site Wireless Toronto offers maps of various locations that offer free wi-fi, and Blog TO has done its own search for the best Internet café, but I still notice a dearth of sites in the downtown itself. It would be nice to find something within walking distance of Union Station — although the coffee place at 401 Richmond Street West (at Spadina) offers a good signal with its coffee, on those rare occasions when there’s space at its tables.
An interesting ambiance. This varies from writer to writer. Some people don’t want distractions and would like a secluded seat in the back and not much noise. I like a lot of light, and an opportunity to people-watch. For the longest while, my favourite place to write in Kitchener was the Krispy Kreme outlet at the corner of Ottawa and Strasburg (now, unfortunately, a family restaurant, now that Krispy Kreme has bowed to the superiority of Tim Horton’s), mostly because of its airy interior and the fascinating machine they had to make doughnuts on premises. The last time I was in Toronto, I spent a lot of time at the Tim Horton’s at the corner of Wellington and Scott Street. You would not think of Tim Horton’s as a place to lounge or write as you would, say Starbucks, but I had a seat by the window, nobody bothered me, and I had a good view of passing crowds and, during rush hours, streetcars. To each their own.
Plugs. That Tim Horton’s I described above had none. Enough said.
So, I’ll ask this question again: where do you like to write? What amenities do you need when you write? What rituals do you perform? Feel free to answer in the comments.