Sunday, November 2

Where to Write During NaNoWriMo

Image: Think, Write a Book
I haven't posted anything here in forever (literally forever), so I'm going to do a slight redirect and use this space to comment on another writing-related topic: NaNoWriMo. That's right I'm undertaking yet another novel this year. I've succeeded twice in prior years, though I've participated for several (some users insist that attempting at all is a success).

The first big thing that every writing advice book and website and list of authors' quotes will impress upon the would-be writer is that you just have to sit down and do it. Just write. Write freely, doesn't matter if it's bad: in fact, I believe it's Anne Lamott who advocated "the shitty first draft". Vulgarity aside, the core truth here refers to a fascinating psychological principle in which adults have a difficult time allowing themselves to make mistakes. Even with a first draft, even with a barely conceived storyline, many adults feel they have to get this right on the first try. This belief turns into a nearly insurmountable hurdle that can even cause the writer to abandon their project altogether.
I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was, too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.
—Katherine Mansfield

The second big thing is setting up the writer's environment, and that's actually what I wanted to get into before I was derailed by the urgency of actually doing the process. See how precarious this is?

So you can create a writer's den right where you live, simply by closing the door, hanging a few choice portraits or postcards, and lighting a couple candles... so long as everyone else in your household respects your isolation. The first time I attempted NaNoWriMo, my wife was so excited and supportive she visited me with little snacks and drinks every 15 minutes, despite my single request to please, love of my life, let me be left alone for a couple hours.

Or you can leave the house/apartment and go write in a local library or coffee shop. I live just south of Uptown in Minneapolis and there are several arenas for writing I'm going to document here. Pick out your writer's outfit, pack up your laptop and notebooks, and head on out for a literary adventure.

The homey neighborhood coffeeshop Dunn Bros. on Hennepin at 34th St. is no good: it's quite busy and boisterous. It attracts people who play music loudly (on accident or not) as well as... very colorful characters. Depending on whom the barista is, the musical selection coming over the PA is either to your liking or abhorrent to your taste. I went there last night, hoping to get two hours of writing in (after checking their hours on their website), and was kicked out an hour early. They changed their hours about a month ago, an employee told me before going into the other room to complain about me loudly, as every night this week without fail he's had to explain that to someone. I omitted apologizing to him directly for the inconvenience, but hopefully my never returning there in the future will go some way toward suitable penance.

But there's Canteen (formerly Urban bean), another local coffeeshop (Minneapolis is foggy with them) with huge silent rooms and lots of electrical outlets. The music selection is usually ambient or singer/songwriter so it's rarely disruptive. The staff are amiable and though the patrons can run the gamut, usually there's no one more bothersome than an excitable white girl on her iPhone, and that, only for a few minutes. It's best late at night, as they close at 11 p.m. and the place is nearly empty.

Four blocks east of me is Bull Run Coffee, which recently more than doubled its size by appropriating the space of a yoga studio. Now their original square footage, which resembled a galley kitchen, appears to be an asterisk to the main floor. Still, they close at 9 p.m. and if you show up two hours prior, there is no competition for electrical outlets and their musical selection may be blocked out by over-the-ear headphones, such as I favor.
Spyhouse is also a location where I've gone writing, several times in the past. The demographic is pretty hipsterish, and this plus the convenient location mean that it's generally crowded. Few things are as discouraging as walking into a place to do some serious writing, and there's nowhere to sit: each four-person booth or table is occupied by one single person, someone staring blankly at a smartphone or just taking up space with a cold, empty cup and nothing else, just to be seen there. But I was able to finagle a seat in a comfortable lounger, next to an outlet. They offer their own Wi-Fi, too, which enables me to block out everyone with Noisli on my headphones, writing to my heart's content.

Among my local coffee shops, Bull Run is the only one that recognizes and promotes NaNoWriMo: on the front door is a window cling greeting writers, and inside you can list your word count on a leaderboard. Playing along, I've written my name up there and am tracking my progress each time I go there. I've tried to talk to Canteen about the same thing but they couldn't grasp what I was suggesting: simply acknowledge that writers are doing this and welcome them to your venue as a conducive writing spot. No discounts, no parties, no infrastructure, just flag their attention and offer them a place to sit. Well, Bull Run gets it and Canteen doesn't, which is a loss because Canteen's open two hours later—I tried to write there last night (Nov. 8) but business was so slow they closed an hour early. Would it be worth their while to stay open for even four writers?

I did manage to check out a local library: the newly renovated Walker Library is a gorgeous building lined with huge glass panels, inside and out. Inside, I indicate, because it would've been nice to appropriate a private room for writing, as all the soft furniture and most of the desks were occupied. Instead, there was a group of several adults in one glass chamber, and no matter where I sat I could hear a woman in a brunette bob yapping excitedly to her colleagues. Not exactly soundproofed, that room, but I chose a table with four electrical outlets stemming in the center, and my Monoprice headphones (high quality, low price) ably blocked out the world. I favor Noisli in times like these, blending a cocktail of Night, Forest and Campfire sounds to mute the world around me and enable my concentration. The library closed at 8 p.m., so I migrated to Dunn Bros. for 45 more minutes of writing, then wrapped up my genius inspiration at home for another hour.

And when I found Canteen was closing early, I instead walked a little further to Pizza Luce, the Uptown location. My greeter found a booth with an electrical outlet and I set up my laptop (they do provide Wi-Fi). Ordering a small pizza and a good beer is a little more expensive than buying a cocoa as entrance fee to sit down for an hour, but I was cozy as hell and they're open way later than 11 p.m., so I got a lot of writing done. Think about a small restaurant for a writing location, when you're looking around.

Likewise, I scoped out Republic in Calhoun Square, a taphouse and restaurant. Today (Nov. 9) was their two-year anniversary, so their entire beer menu featured MN-exclusive breweries, which was a nice treat. The interior is kind of evocative, with exposed brickwork and understated iron chandeliers, which could be a nurturing visual cue for writers looking for a little displacement or escapism while they create. They offer Wi-Fi but their signal's weak in certain parts of the bar: I could only find one set of outlets, so bring a laptop with a strong battery. Again, setting up camp in a restaurant means buying food or nursing a beer while you write for an hour or two, but coming in on a slow Sunday afternoon means you won't be fighting for seating or feel pressured to vacate your real estate.

The trick, I'm finding, is to get your playtime in early (30 minutes of engrossing creative work, anything from crochet to Minecraft) and trek out to a coffeeshop or library at least two hours before they close, remembering to bring your headphones. That seems to be the best key to success. Scope the place out so you can follow their weekly cycle: some places are spacious and empty on weekend nights, others fill up after lunch and seating is impossible. Or you can find a great location, only to lose it two weeks into writing when a local writers' group decides they like it too.

So get your creative playtime in, write from 15 minutes to a few hours. Afterward, you need another 30 minutes of walking around to let the creative particulate settle down in your head, spine and corpus. That seems to be the cycle most advice articles and books promote.

Coffeeshops and libraries are the most obvious choices, if you can't write in your own living quarters, but each has their own limitations. Some shops play crappy music at high volume; some libraries have limited areas for you to bring your own laptop and set up at. Cast about and discover your own resources. Maybe you can set up camp at a mall with free Wi-Fi. Perhaps there's a restaurant that doesn't mind you lingering for a couple hours if you nibble at an appetizer and they're not crowded. Find somewhere atmospheric and conducive to your comfort level, if all you want is to be left more or less alone while you brainstorm and hack out your first draft.

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