Last weekend readers were treated to? assaulted by? a whole string of posts from me, and the reason was simple: I was back where I write best, in a land happily lacking in chain restaurants and box stores, in San Francisco. I made a point during that visit to save some time out for just sitting with the notebook or sitting with the portable keyboard to generate some remembrance of the trip on paper or in cloud, the best kind of souvenir in my estimation, next to photos (and I don’t tend to overload on photos, either, as many of them start to look alike after a while).
Does setting matter to a writer? I know that when I lived in San Francisco I had a more difficult time staying disciplined; even before the departure became evident, I behaved as if my days there were numbered, and even if I had a had a blank book and a well-inked pen with me I didn’t do much writing outside of group work or unemployment. There was that, and the haunting factor of truth in Hemingway’s statement that you tend to write better of a place once you’re not in it: he wrote better of Paris in Michigan, and better of Michigan in Paris. You would think with this philosophy that it would be a piece of cake to write a baseball novel set in San Francisco while living in northern San Diego County, but in actuality it’s on par with dealing with pain sober instead of dealing with pain drunk. The pain may still be there in San Francisco, but it’s dulled by the City around me, and I can set it aside there and sit in a cafe that can only be found in one place, where I’m sitting, instead of six places in five square miles, like a Starbucks.
Sooner or later, though, reality dictates that I have to return to the desert of chain coffee and Costco, and that reality means I try to bring back experimentation with me. In my immediate vicinity there are two cafes of a somewhat independent nature, and I tried them to write in. They suck. I realize that’s not the lyrical or articulate way to get my point across, but the statement sums up my disappointment best: Starbucks is better than they are. All businesses here in Carlsbad are used to making the West Coast palatable for the average foreigner or Midwesterner, so any art attempted at their tables is strange and disconcerting, and then there’s the vibe that the cafe gives off, one of being Starbucks but charging more because it’s not Starbucks. (I should note that there are establishments in Encinitas or the village of Carlsbad that would be suitable, but I’m nowhere near these areas and some of them house the closeted crazy…and yes, I’m aware of how that reads next to a trip to the Tenderloin in San Francisco.)
So, I save money and heartache and went back to Starbucks this morning. Finding regulars helps, especially regulars who read paper newspapers (the audacity!), or the artist that I’m lucky to see from time to time who brings in a top-bound spiral sketchpad the size of a cafe table and a toolbox covered with cartoon icons full of oil pastels and draws like we are in the Haight all morning. He must be the oldest hipster alive or Diebenkorn reincarnated, but he’s here in Carlsbad at what I call the Legoland/Costco Starbucks and I’m not picky–I’ll take him. I scratch out baseball randomness and he draws in green. But he doesn’t come every weekend day so I have to make my own magic most days.
There is another option, one that doesn’t have jump-up-and-down appeal for me but I am considering anyway, and that’s to write in the neighboring park. I say “neighboring” pretty liberally; in order to get there by foot or car you have to drive about 3 miles around suburban sprawl, even though it’s right behind our condominium complex. (Carlsbad insists on environmentalism in some pretty convoluted ways, very few of which involve decent mass transit to offset car travel.) But that’s my exercise for a vocation where I’m sitting on my butt for most of the creative process, and the walk helps me generate ideas. The visits wouldn’t cost money like a cafe, and they would be outside in the fresh air, sitting at a concrete picnic table, listening to parents of children’s sports cheering them on. It’s not a bad park. It’s a mind-shift, though. No thick, ceramic cup of cappuccino, no biscotti…instead a recycled metal water bottle and the occasional possibility of a snake or seagull poop drop. Zadie Smith admonishes us that there is no writer’s lifestyle, and it’s just a matter of moving from the caffeine addiction (which, yes, isn’t good for me anyway) to a water and trail mix addiction, blended with sunscreen application. It’s just that shift. Can you write anywhere, Jo? Or do you need the set design of A Movable Feast to make it happen?