Writing in Public Places

The past couple of weeks has seen me sitting in various hospitals and doctor’s waiting rooms. The average wait time runs around 30 minutes, though it has run as long as 90 minutes, on occasion. It’s at times like these that I take out my notebook and pen and try to write.

Medical places are not ideal environments in which to be creative, but they’re not the worst either. Generally, you don’t get a lot of interruptions the way you would in an auditorium as you’re waiting for a play to begin, for instance. People squeezing by, making you stand up, drop your popcorn, giving you curious looks as you clutch your notebook to your breast like a Victorian lady and her pearls. The light is better in medical places, too. Usually you have windows and fluorescent lighting, so you can see what you’re doing. On the downside, clinics have hideously uncomfortable chairs, those metal and plastic things that are as welcoming to the backside as Donald Trump would be at James Comey’s retirement party. At least in the theatre you can be assured of a nice soft cushion on which to rest your posterior. While you are dropping your popcorn.

Changing where you write can be inspiring, educational, or frustrating, depending on your personality and the venue you pick. If you’re shy, or if the writing-in-public concept is new to you, you might want to start in a public place where you won’t draw a lot of attention. You’ll still have the stimulation of other people around you, but at a little distance. You don’t want them on top of you, peering over your shoulder, asking dopey questions like, Oh, are you writing? No, sir, I am flying an airplane. Wheeee! I am not a fan of writing as performance art. Entering the inner world of the imagination is tricky enough without bringing spectators along.

You need to select a spot that is not in itself too distracting. The grating outdoors can present a host of annoyances, great and small: weather, insects, sun-glare. Too much stimulation can play havoc with your concentration.

At a push, I can write in cafes. My success here is largely dependent upon the table I get. Near a window so I have the light (important), and people to watch (essential), or, failing that, sitting in a corner where I can face out and watch the world. The advantage here, of course, is you have a table as well as a fairly decent seat (depending on the establishment in question). Also, other than waitresses coming to refill your coffee (it still happens in some places), you don’t get bothered too much.  Well, unless you want to be. Some people love writing in public places because they feel it plants a WRITER! sign on their foreheads. Getting any work done is irrelevant. The real goal is attracting attention and admiration. Good luck with that, sunshine.

For me, working away from home tends to be more a matter of necessity than choice. I don’t want to lose 90 minutes of writing time because I have a hospital appointment, so I bring my notebook with me and try to do as much as I can in the waiting room. Also, over the past few weeks, my neighbours have been either reconstructing their house or building a nuclear reactor in their living room, so it has not been — what’s the word? — Quiet. Sometimes running to the library or the local coffee shop is the only means of escape.

That’s not to say I don’t like to change my venue from time to time. If I’m stuck on a piece of writing, or if the creative flow needs an enema, a change of scene can sometimes get things going again. Some people really love being outdoors, so I’m told, and they see no reason why writing has to be an indoor activity. They may have a point. I like indoors, myself, because that’s where all my books are. And the bathroom. And the teapot. But, hey-ho, to each his own, as the fella said when he kissed the cow.

Different settings offer different rewards and challenges. I have, over the years, written in parks, in gardens, and at bus stop benches. Outdoor writing, of course, means weather. Being something of an indoor pet, I am not a fan of writing in the rain or the cold. I’ve done it, but not happily. So long as you are appropriately dressed and there is some sort of shelter so you don’t get your notebook soggy, you can manage, but I doubt it’s something you’ll embrace.

My favourite establishment for not-at-home writing is the library. It’s climate controlled, quiet (mostly), and there are tables and chairs. There are also reference books and helpful librarians.  There is also the fact that people don’t look askance at anyone who is writing in a library. This is particularly true of university libraries. If you opt to work in your local public library, my one suggestion is make sure there are no events going on during the time you want to write. The book club or the children’s group will do their thing, no matter how important your next great novel may be, and that’s as it should be.

One of my foibles is ambient noise. I really prefer to work in silence, but, failing that, a blur of sounds and voices also works. I can’t work in a complete din so headbanger concerts are out (like that would be an option. Seriously.) But nor do I care for whispers. I get that people are trying to be considerate, but I’d rather just normal-volume talking. With whispers, the human brain will immediately focus on that chatter and stop focusing on the page. Then again, you can get some great story ideas from overheard conversations. Swings and roundabouts.

I also have a fondness for anything watery. The sea, for preference, or lakes, swimming pools (beside, not in), all work for me, though not if there are too many people around. I like babbling brooks and waves crashing on the shore. This is all the right sort of stimulation. Not so much the kids screaming in glee or the teens blocking my light while they stand and snog. Give me a cool, grey day with frothy water any time.

If you do decide to work away from home, you will need supplies. These days, lots of public places have Wi-Fi, so you can bring your laptop and continue working on your novel or short story. I prefer to use a notebook and pen. They’re portable and less showy, but go with whatever works for you. If you’re working in a cafe, you don’t need to worry about snacks and drinks, but you will have to bring your own if you’re planning on a day under a friendly tree somewhere. Of course, libraries won’t be too pleased if you bring in a mug of coffee or a fish sandwich. Make your snacks discreet and ask permission before you turn the study hall into a restaurant. Comfortable clothing is essential, and don’t sniff at wearing a hat. If it keeps the sun out of your eyes and bird poop off your head, you’ll be very glad of it. Good walking shoes, sunglasses, and a few different pens or pencils  will also serve you well.

Try a few different environments before you decide if this is something for you or not. Not every excursion will be a success, but you may happen upon a perfect spot that inspires you. After all, where would Wordsworth be if he hadn’t gone wandering around that field of daffodils?

Hopper Chuck Palahniuk

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About Geri Schear

Geri Schear is an award-winning novelist, author of three Sherlock Holmes and Lady Beatrice books published by MX Publishing. Her short stories have appeared in a number of journals. For further information, see her page at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Geri-Schear/e/B00ORWA3EU
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