I’ve been spending a lot of time in cafes lately.
Not because I want to, even though I do love hanging out at cafes. It’s more out of necessity. With the seemingly endless snow pounding into the city, I haven’t been able to get downtown to my workspace at the Writers’ Room. This has been frustrating, and leads to cabin fever—which is a very real thing. But what makes cabin fever far worse is when your internet stops working.
This predicament has reminded me of exactly how much we are dependent on the internet. I have still been working—drafting a lot of stories and essays, but I’ve had to wait until I’m at a cafe to submit any work. E-mails have to wait too, unless it’s especially urgent, in which case I will carefully type my reply with surgeon-precision from my phone. I can still listen to music, but not the current playlists I’ve been enjoying on Spotify. I’ve been listening to the music library I had curated from high school until I moved to Japan in my mid-twenties. This leaves a lot of my writing unintentionally steeped in a particular brand of sad-and-angry that I used to maintain.
Back when I was 21, still in college but about to graduate and feeling grown but really not grown at all, I was confused and pissed and made friends with my fellow baristas who were in a similar station in life. We blasted music at 6am, and didn’t talk to each other until we were fully caffeinated and halfway through our first round of the Dresden Dolls (we would play the dual albums again, later in the day).
There was something about Amanda Palmer slamming her hands into a piano and scream-singing I’M ON FIRE over and over again that really made sense, at the time.
Then there was the day that I heard a voice from across the counter that sounded like someone I used to know. But when I turned around, she wasn’t there. Her voice would be echoing, but I wasn’t sure which customer the voice belonged to.
The cafe wasn’t very busy, we rarely got new customers. We served the same roster of regulars whose names we didn’t know but we dubbed with nicknames. There was Bluetooth Guy who worked at the garage across the street. And Double Espresso Guy, whose real name I always wished I knew, because he was really nice and we would always talk about books together. There was the woman who took her chai lattes with just a little soy milk. And this lady who came in with painted eyebrows who always ordered quiche and sat in the corner and wrote in her journal and asked for more refills of hot water for her China Green tea. I had no idea that this was the woman who’s music had recently become my life’s soundtrack. Not until my friend pointed out—That’s Amanda Palmer.
Then I was in a sort of awe.
Back then, I was overwhelmed with this desire to have my life be a certain way. All I wanted was to write and to be in a loving relationship, but I had no idea how to make it happen. Both felt impossible. I woke up every morning to this frustration of my life not being that way.
I was more than a problem solver. There were no limits to my ambition. I was that overachiever in high school that Made Things Happen and Got Shit Done—which lended itself well as a Theatre major at a performing arts high school. I finished the homework for my academic classes during the day, and spent my afternoons and evenings working on our productions. And, because my academics didn’t suffer with my workload and I still had energy to spare, I was sent all over the city to do workshops and internships.
I learned how to make it in theatre, and I loved theatre.
I just loved writing a little bit more.
I was taught that theatre is ephemeral. And that’s true. Each time a production of a show is pulled together, it’s different. Each run of the performance is unique. And then you take apart the pieces of the set and use the costumes and props in new plays and the actors move on to different projects—and it’s never the same again. But books are everlasting. You can open a book from your childhood and the characters are still there, they haven’t aged, it’s all the same.
I wanted, so tremendously badly, to be a writer—but I had no idea how to do it.
My boyfriend had a good job and offered take care of our expenses, so I could just write.
He told me not to worry, but I worried.
I worried a lot.
What did it mean about me to depend on my boyfriend?
I couldn’t accept his money. I still woke up in the morning feeling like a failure before I had even started, and my constant meltdowns not only caused him to withdraw his offer to help financially, but his love too.
That’s how I learned to accept a gift.
Now, if someone offers to help, I don’t cause problems.
I say thank you.
Sometimes you have to learn things the hard way.
A lot of these ideas are addressed in Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking, which I recently read. As I was reading it, an article came out that went viral among the literary world about how writers should be more transparent about how they support themselves as they work on their projects. Or rather, how they are supported.
Ron Carlson, when speaking at the Grub Street Muse Conference a couple years ago, addressed this idea. He said—
“The way you make it as a writer in America is to not be ashamed of being supported by your spouse.”
It’s no secret that writing has some associated privilege. I can see it when I go to conferences that cost money, or even free writing events that take time, and the majority of the attendees are wealthy, white, older, retired. People with time and money.
But what I feel the article does not address is the sacrifice. Because, yes, there are people who are privileged, but there are some people (including myself) that have some help but are also getting along and doing their work while also making certain sacrifices.
At the same conference where Ron Carlson spoke, Bret Anthony Johnston said—
“People think writing is an indulgence. It’s not an indulgence. There is a moment when every writer realizes you aren’t going to the movies, you don’t have a high paying job. You realize you are giving up your indulgences to sit alone in a room and try to make sense of 26 letters.”
I get by on a combination of both.
I see the article’s point, but take issue with it’s subtle implication that writing isn’t a real job.
Does it pay well?
Is it easier with the support of a spouse?
Stories are valued in our society, but aside from a select few authors who are revered, the vast majority of us are viewed as dreamers or moochers or people who are deluding themselves into thinking their hobbies are careers. Maybe we should talk with more transparency about how we support our selves and our work, but I think first we need to agree that writing is, in fact, work.
That’s what I think this article misses, and is better captured in Amanda Palmer’s book. We all get by on a combination of earning and asking—writers, doctors, software developers, everyone. Amanda Palmer writes—
“Some of the most powerful, successful, admired people in the world seem, to me, to have something in common: they ask constantly, creatively, compassionately, and gracefully.”
Sometimes you have to ask.
Sometimes you are given a gift.
Sometimes you work your ass off.
And to all of it, you say, Thank you.
It occurred to me, as I’ve been setting up shop in cafes, that life has come around, full circle. I go to a cafe, and interrupt the baristas who are gossiping or talking about art. Maybe, behind my back, they call me Iced Coffee In February lady. Maybe they see me working, and wonder—as I used to wonder—how does she do it?
Between the snow and the lack of internet, I could easily lose myself in frustration.
Or I could watch in awe as more snow falls and keeps falling, and share that awe with a stranger as we smile at each other from across a cafe, and listen to some other young 20-something’s life soundtrack as they talk shit and sling espressos. I can interrupt them, again, for a refill, and say thank you.