I am going old school for this blog post. I am writing it by hand first, composing it in our neighborhood Caribou Coffee, without connecting to wi-fi.
Our neighborhood Caribou has a long wooden table with a dozen chairs around it. The table sits in front of a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s great for people who come in alone. We can all just plunk down at an open chair, share the table with ease. My favorite thing is to face the windows at the tail-end of the lunch hour when this place is kind of empty. Today, two other people, both with laptops, share the table with me.
I seldom work in coffeehouses anymore. A long time ago, when I was a devotee of Natalie Goldberg and whatever my grad school instructors said, I would sit in coffeehouses and compose long essays, poetry, awful short stories. I didn’t own a laptop. I would meet my writing friends there, we would do writing exercises in our spiral notebooks with our fast-writing pens, then read them to each other. I miss this, miss being where there are other people. I am surprised to realize I have missed the feel of pen in hand, paper beneath my fingertips, the smooth flow of black ink. My computer has become both brainstorm and revision station in addition to the day-to-day editorial work I do.
Sitting at a long communal table in front of huge windows, minus the tappity-tap of computer keys, reminds me of when I was a kid and I thought the greatest thing about writing was this: filling pages in a notebook by my quiet self. Being a writer is so much more than that, so full of assorted tasks that go with the writing itself. The basics are hard to return to since that requires ignoring the Facebook posts, tweets, LinkedIn posts, and Instagram photos, as well as the constant flow of email that washes through each day like a digital river. When I’m staying somewhere without wi-fi, I feel utterly unmoored. And yet, here I am, relishing that what’s in front of me is very much not a screen.
I know there is a lot of talk about how technology has changed us. There are ample words of caution about addiction to technology, often in relation to parenting screen-tethered teens. But I’m aware today of how technology, which I happen to love, has also increased my appreciation of moments like this. There needs to be more conversation about this: the gift of renewed embrace of things like communal tables, fresh-brewed coffee, pens that fit our hands as if designed just for us, the sounds of soft music from coffeehouse speakers. The sense of gratitude when one does walk away from the computer because the difference between an existence in front of a screen and one away from it is stark. The understanding that we can choose how to spend our time and technology is a tool, not a definition of existence.
When I was at the AWP conference in Minneapolis last month, I noticed a mixture of use of laptops and tablets versus pens to paper for those who took notes. There were plenty of paper notebooks on sale at the book fair. There were dozens of free pens and pencils offered by various vendors. And I noticed an interesting hybrid tool for writers, one that tried to embrace both old and new technology: the Hemingwrite. The Hemingwrite is a digital typewriter that offers a wi-fi connection to save documents to the cloud. It looks like an electric typewriter, but is quieter. Someone has understood the luxury of working away from the computer. I tried typing on the prototype Hemingwrite that was available at AWP. It took me back to my high school days when I used the ancient typewriter my parents owned, a manual beast in army green that weighed a ton and whose keys I sometimes got my fingers stuck between. The Hemingwrite strikes me as a nice balance between old and new, between connected and not. I could see myself using one.
Here, at Caribou, I am the only person using pen and paper. There is one guy reading an actual newspaper. Ah, I kind of miss that, too; our newspaper subscription is digital. Saves paper. Saves money. But, sometimes, I like to get the paper version on Sunday mornings, have that newspaper rustle to accompany my coffee.
Maybe this is part of my version of spring fever: the need to use my hands, be in natural light, hear the voices of others. I love being part of this world. The walls in my office feel a little tight of late. Here, I watch the sky become hazy. Clouds are moving in on the strong winds that have been blowing since early this morning. I notice the leaves popping open on the young trees at the edge of the parking lot. Four young people have just left Snuffy’s, the hamburger place next door. Their brightly-dyed hair blows in the wind.
And so do my thoughts.