I once complained that the only reason I wasn’t a really great cook was because I had a small kitchen. When I found a house with a large kitchen, my cooking didn’t get much better. Instead of space, I learned, culinary skills took practice. Now, in my galley kitchen, I make meals I’m proud of and revel in the efficiency of having everything I need close at hand. Along with skills, good cooks learn to appreciate the space they’re in.
So it is with the habit of writing. If only I had my laptop with me on this vacation, I’d say to myself, then I’d be writing every day. I’d imagine cool dawns, me alone on the deck with my thoughts and my trusty machine, pounding out ideas and words as quickly as they could take shape. The reality was that lugging that old laptop seemed impractical, and, besides, who has time for sitting and writing on vacation?
So it was a half-hearted experiment in writing that brought me one rainy morning to a coffee shop in Montour Falls, New York, a tiny town graced by a waterfall, a diner, a thrift shop, and a coffee gourmand. I wandered in with a few hours to kill and treated myself to a latte. I asked if I could stay and write and was offered the run of the place.
I wrote on a yellow legal pad I had in my bag and then on the back of my manuscript pages when the paper ran out. I wrote without editing, every word, every dangling thought, every whisper of an idea. I wrote with pink pen because that was all I had. I asked myself questions and answered them. I did not think about my reader or who might take issue with what I had to say or the sometimes uncomfortable truth that comes out in a stream of consciousness. I wrote until I finally looked up and the proprietress asked me to keep an eye on things while she ran to the storeroom.
When it was time to go, I was elated. I had done it, defied my own excuses and written without having all the fancy tools and space I thought I needed. I packed up my work and treated myself to a homemade cookie before floating out the door.
When I read what I had written a few days later, in the familiar surroundings of my home office, I thought it was garbage – whiny, self-centered, boring. Maybe it was the pink ink on yellow paper, but it looked and felt flat to me. Deflated, I typed it up anyway and sent it to Carolyn because, frankly, I had nothing else to show for my efforts that week.
When we met that Wednesday, Carolyn started by telling me that that piece of writing – the preface to my book, it turns out – was the best writing she had seen from me. She specifically wanted to know how I tapped into being so authentic and vulnerable, how I came to be able to speak my truth. When I told her the story of the coffee shop, we were both stunned. I joked that maybe the little gem didn’t exist in reality, like a Shangri-La, and if I went back it wouldn’t be there. But we both knew the magic wasn’t in the physical space at all, but in the mental space it allowed me to claim. In throwing off the shackles of if-only, I had found what is.
Leah and Carolyn