Writing in Real Life

The man at the counter at Starbucks did not have the kind of face you would recognize. He was all straight lines, droopy eyes, neatly combed brown hair. Most people could have turned away from him and been unable to describe him. They would have mistaken three other people for him without walking half a block. Robin had never seen him before, but she recognized him. At least, she thought she did. She thought she had seen his forgettable face before, but she didn’t know where.

After she bought her coffee she settled in the corner with her laptop. She had a weekly tradition of coming to Starbucks to write. It got her out of the narrow office that held her most of the time. Her husband knew she was in there by the clacking of the keyboard and her mumbles. She didn’t emerge often. He had occasionally sidled in, afraid to bother her but worried, only to find her sagging in sleep with her head tucked into the crook of her arm. On Tuesdays she stayed at Starbucks for hours, letting herself be distracted by the hipsters and businessmen around her, half-listening to the conversations about lovers and deadlines. It was buzzing and busy in all the ways that her office was not, papered in drafts and stained with the rings of many a mug.

The woman waiting in line for the restroom wore an expression of perpetual boredom and impatience, her thin lips pressed together. Robin’s gaze rested on her. The woman looked like somebody, but she was not sure who. Bored, thin lips, blond bob, chewed fingernails– “oh my God,” Robin said aloud to her laptop screen, “It’s Cara Selman.” Cara Selman’s name was hidden in the lines of text on Robin’s screen. She had just walked into the scene where Doug was leaning closer to his secretary, and Robin hadn’t decided yet what she was going to do. Cara was sort of loosely based off of Robin’s sister-in-law, but she was trying to make the difference imperceptible enough that she wouldn’t get in trouble with her brother for it when the book came out. The woman waiting for the bathroom to open was still there, studying her nails, and Robin turned her eyes away.

That was where she knew the dull man in line. He was Doug. Of course he was Doug. He was probably off now with his mocha nonfat latte to flirt with his secretary all day, because Robin was toying with the idea of making him a bit of a slacker at the office. He wasn’t her favorite character in this book, but she thought she might be able to do something with him if Cara got really angry. Judging from her expression as she stood glaring at the “Occupied” sign on the restroom door, the woman needed something to get worked up about. Robin thought that possibly Cara liked plunging herself and her husband into high-flown dramatics more than she actually liked her husband.

An old man sitting at the counter by the window turned and bent down, creaking, to pick up his newspaper. As he straightened his eyes met Robin’s and sent a spasm of electricity down her spine. Mr. Hilgood was at Starbucks too. He didn’t look happy. His jaw was tight and his hands shook. The wrinkles trailing from the corners of his eyes deepened when he clenched his teeth just the way she had imagined them to do. Robin’s stomach dropped. Last week she had written him into the doctor’s office and she knew that he had gotten some bad news. She didn’t think he was going to tell his wife, who was going to find it all out too late. Poor thing, Robin thought. She ached for the old man stooping to pick his paper up from the floor where it had fallen. He was a lovely man, and he was never going to get the chance to make amends with his children.

The Starbucks was too full of people who had, before, only populated her mind. Susan might show up, and Robin didn’t think she could bear that. She packed away her computer, her hands clumsy, and nearly dropped her bag as she stood. The smell of coffee was starting to make her feel light-headed. As she blundered toward the door, she knocked into Mr. Hilgood’s chair. Robin ordered her eyes downcast, away from his face. “I’m sorry,” she said to his shoulder, and then she left.

Mute Fear

He has too many words to say and write and think and they’re pressing and building – and he’s so afraid that he’ll forget how to unstopper them and let them spill out and fall, slip sinuous and puddle in a pool that sinks into the soft weave beneath what holds something together, himself or something else. He’s afraid they’ll stay there, and he won’t be able to let them out. He’s afraid to live quietly. He’s afraid of being alone, and he’s afraid that people are alone, and thinking of it makes him slide apart. He’s afraid he’ll forget the words he needs to say before they slip out, before he slides apart or together or holds himself fast with forgotten threads of memory laced with tears and grief and still bound tight. He’s afraid to speak.

Coffeeshop Stories

Eva sipped her coffee. It was just cooling to lukewarm. The curls of steam had fallen like limp ribbons and the bitterness was tepid on her tongue. She was still holding the pen in her right hand, clicking the retractable tip in and out, in and out. The two women at the table behind her were animated. Their voices rushed along, clattering together.

“I know, but then at the end –”

“When he did, and then it could all have been, I don’t know –”

“Like a dream or something, the whole thing made up –”

“Brilliant, right?”

They paused, presumably to sip their drinks. Eva leaned over her notepad and scribbled a few words. Talking, conversations, television, vampires? She scratched at the letters idly, and then noticed her pen wasn’t writing. She’d clicked it without noticing, and she jabbed the button again. Then she looked at the pad, focusing on it. Time to really write something, get a head start on this story, maybe sketch in an outline. Anything, really. The women began to talk again.

“So have you heard from Charlotte?”

“Yeah, actually, she just called me a couple days ago. You know she broke up with, um, what’s his name?”

“No way, really? I thought they were going to stay together forever. She was so crazy about him.”

“Oh well, I guess. She’ll do better next time.”

“That doesn’t help now, though. She must be crushed. Poor thing.”

Eva clicked her pen again and wrote, Breakups. Gossip. Friendship. Two friends discuss the life of a third. Are they concerned? Just gossiping? Do we learn more about the friends or about the subject of their conversation?

That seemed like a good start. It was an interesting idea. She took another sip of her cooling coffee and made a face. She didn’t love it to begin with, but when the heat masked the taste she didn’t mind so much. When it was barely warm she couldn’t fool herself that she was drinking coffee for anything but the caffeine. She stood and walked a few steps to toss her cup into the trash. When she sat back down, she picked up her pen and click-click-clicked. She had to really concentrate.

“Anyway, we should hang out and watch something. Have you been watching anything good lately?”

“A few things. I have ideas. What are you in the mood for?”

“Huh. Well, nothing too sad. Nothing dark, not today. Not romance either. Something funny, or maybe an action sort of thing. How’s that sound?”

“Let me think about it.”

They kept talking, but Eva stopped listening for  a moment. She wrote more words. Movies. Escapism. Grief. Pretending.

She would go soon. She wasn’t getting any work done here, not really. Click-click-click. The page looked so empty with just her lists and half-broken sentences down one side of it. Absently, Eva doodled a flower in the corner. That cheered the paper up a little bit. Maybe she could get a little farther with the story once she got home and thought about it some.

The women at the table behind her were talking still. One said, in a lowered voice, “God, that clicking is really annoying. Is that her pen? Maybe we should go.”

“No,” said the other. “I think she’s leaving. Look, she’s getting her stuff. She was here with a notepad. I wonder what she’s writing about?”

A Writer’s Block Conspiracy Theory

“Something’s strange about this,” she said. Mike only glanced up for a moment at the sound of her voice, lowered to library volume. Natalie was curled in the corner with her computer heating her thighs and a niggling sense of discontent worrying at her mind. “Really,” she insisted. “There’s something odd going on every time I try to write.”

Lenovo ThinkPad X200s

Lenovo ThinkPad X200s (Photo credit: Ronald HN Tan)

Mike sighed and shut his laptop. “Have you written anything?” Natalie turned her screen so he could see the glowing white page, blank and pure and hopelessly frustrating. He leaned back and opened his computer again, and said, “Well what do you want me to do about? Just write something already.”

“No,” she said. “That’s the thing. I’ve been trying to and I can’t. I wrote an idea down during class, but I open up Letters and it’s just gone. Vanished. I can talk okay and I can scribble something in my notebook, but as soon as the damn program’s up on my computer my thoughts just scramble and, I don’t know, I feel like I’m losing all the inspiration or ideas or whatever that I might ever have had to begin with.”

Mike frowned. “Okay,” he said. “Let me see. You know what, close it and I’m going to do some research. I’ll meet you here tonight, okay? You go take a nap or something, you look totally drained.”

Natalie nodded and gathered her things. When she said goodbye to Mike he was already absorbed in the computer on his lap, tapping and clicking furiously. He was a rather gifted hacker, she knew, and eventually he would worm his way into something interesting, if not helpful.

She did take a nap, and woke up feeling refreshed. When she left her dorm the sun had dropped beneath the horizon, leaving the sky a pallid grey and the campus doused in blue shadow. She stopped for a sandwich and then found Mike in the library, still in the same chair. He didn’t look up when she walked toward him, only tearing his gaze from the screen when she gently shook his shoulder. He said, “Hey, Natalie. I found something.”

She raised her eyebrows at him, suddenly dubious. “Yeah? Anything useful?”

Mike grinned. “Yep. Very. Look – ” He pulled her over beside him so that she could peer over his shoulder at a bewildering array of windows and tabs piled atop one another. “I got into the email of one of the project designers of the word processing programs. Namely Letters, of course. Look at this.” He double-clicked a file entitled ‘The WriterBlock® Project,’ which sprang open at the second page.

Mike began to read. “This project shall be kept in confidence between the committee assigned to dealing with the COMPANY’s Inspiration® program. The specifics of the effect of the word processor LETTERS shall be discussed here and kept strictly confidential.” There was a space at the bottom of the page here for a signature, and Mike scrolled past it to the middle of the next page and kept reading, his voice tight and controlled. “LETTERS is designed to implement the WriterBlock® method, in which the blank page induces a sudden and severe lack of enthusiasm, inspiration, and original thought in the mind of the participant or USER. The USER will therefore lose any and all motivation and ideas, necessitating his/her concentration and the prolonged use of the LETTERS program. The LETTERS program will then, by implementing the WriterBlock® technique, begin to siphon the USER’s creative energies through the computer, using wireless internet to carry those energies back to the COMPANY HQ, where it will be used in further projects. These energies become the property of the COMPANY. This technique and its use are highly classified, as is the entirety of the WriterBlock® project.” Mike stopped reading and looked up at Natalie, his eyes glowing with excitement. She stared back at him, struggling with a vague sense of horror and disgust.

“They do this on purpose?” Her voices sounded high and too loud to her own ears. A guy sitting across the aisle of shelves glanced up and scowled at the two of them, so she continued more quietly. “I can’t believe it. I mean, it doesn’t even make sense.”

“There’s more,” said Mike. “I could read you about loads of other stuff. This is a really developed project that seems to have started with the first computers. There’s tons of documents about it once you find the right people. I mean, for a company that’s so sure it wants all this crap to be secret, its executives and people never seem to clear out their inboxes.”

Natalie nodded, numb. She sank into the other chair and pulled out her computer, ignoring Mike starting to talk again across from her. He seemed very excited about all this. Letters was still up on her screen, and she raised her eyes to the white page. As Mike chattered, she let her fingers rest on the keyboard. She stared blankly forward, the unease and anger that clamored in her mind slowly fading away to nothing.

True Fictions

David wished that he could change things. He thought he could, sometimes. That’s what being creative is; writing is making a world happen with the imprint of ink on paper. In the little spidery lines where the black bleeds and snakes through the white, you can lean in close and see the beginning, the seeds of what is happening with each word.

There was a city, he wrote. He wrote and built its skyscrapers and its glistening towers, the windows that shimmered in the sun and the sunset that paled behind the neon glow of the stores and restaurants, cafes and tattoo parlors. With each letter he typed, it took shape, and the people began to stroll down the sidewalks. A couple, interlaced arms and somber clothes, ambled past him. A harried businesswoman skittered down the steps to the subway station on the corner. A tall man with a green mohawk and a glinting artillery laced through his face and ears slumped against a wall with a cigarette. At the end of the block, a sandwich board advertised “Free Booze!” in teetering chalk handwriting.

David looked down the street, and saw Mark saunting along on the sidewalk toward him. Mark was his main character; his fingers flashed across the paper, pen scratching, and Mark paused. He stood hesitating amongst the swarm of people and checked his watch, frowned, and then kept walking. David stayed still now, watching him, pen hanging in the air. So many things could happen now. Mark hadn’t heard from Trudy in a long time. Maybe he would do something with that.

Mark stopped again outside an alley as the pen scrawled. There was a mugger advancing on a teenaged girl, whose eyes fixed on Mark as he peered in.

David scribbled, then pressed his pen to the paper. A spot of black grew and widened under the point as he pondered. It could go in that direction, too. He looked at the girl, frozen with eyes round and frightened, and at Mark, leaning forward as if he were going to tip over. He wasn’t going to hear from Trudy again, David decided. That was in keeping with how he wrote, anyway. Early on, he had tried to write her into his stories. He had tried to write love as it was, as he experienced it, and he had tried to make her come alive with words. That was a long time ago. He never tried to write romance any longer. Everything else, he could paint and detail with words, but not love. It was just never very convincing.

Computer Confession

The screen stared back at him, stark and bright. The words stood out, in black careful shapes, and glared at him. Just the curve and dip of each letter looked like betrayal.

He knew he loved her. He was sure. He typed it with slow, deliberate strokes: “I know I love her.”

The screen agreed with him, letters scrolling onto the page. It was two lines down from the paragraph he’d finished five minutes before, of which the last line read, “it’s just that when I leave and she stays I don’t think I’ll be sad.”

The cursor blinked at him, accusing. On and off, the thin black line disappeared and flashed on again, daring him to write more. To say something he knew he’d regret. That was ridiculous, he told himself. He wasn’t going to regret typing something on a screen where she would never see it.

When he highlighted the whole thing with a couple taps on the keyboard, the letters lit white on the black background. He stared, rereading what he’d written. His eyes traced over the word again, catching on a few. “Tired,” “love,” “pointless,” “sandwich.”

He hit the arrows and watched the cursor flare on and off again at the start of a new line, dark against the white and then gone. Leaning forward, he wrote, “Maybe we weren’t meant to be. Except of course I don’t believe in that crap. I just want to know if what I can have with someone I haven’t even met yet might be better. Maybe.”

It looked silly to him. Now that he’d typed it out, the words seemed shallow and empty. They unfolded in his head again, though, and he sighed. The thoughts that had been prickling at his restless mind were now spelled out on his computer screen, in a jumble of awkward sentences, but that didn’t banish them from his head. They were still itching, thoughts that he wanted to crush and paint over until he couldn’t see anything but the bumps where they used to be. Instead, the color melted off and they still stood there, as if bold and black pressed against the gritty white of his skull. Try as he might, they wouldn’t go away.

“Maybe it’ll get better. Maybe this is just a phase, sort of like a I don’t know this is stupid. Maybe I’m just being stupid and then later when we’re together even longer then maybe I’ll love her again like I did before and maybe it will stay that time.”

Every time his finger fell on a letter he wanted to wince, and he looked at the sentences he’d just typed like children who were promising they wouldn’t take an extra cookie. He bit his lip, and heaved a breath. Then with another rapid poke at the keyboard he highlighted all the text again and looked at it shining from the darkness that contained it. His hand hovered over the delete button – he just wanted it all to go away. He let his finger drop and watched the words vanish, leaving a clean bright page in its place, pure and beautiful. It was perfect.