I’ve brought my writer’s notebook and Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life with me to the coffee shop this morning.
I flip open the book at random, hoping for an exercise I can do here and now. The first exercise I find–seriously–is called “Observing the Here and Now.”
Go to a cafe. Or go to a park. Or go to a library. Or go down to the river. Write for fifteen minutes at a steady pace without stopping. Describe what’s in front of you. You can describe the whole scene, or just one object.
Don’t write about anything except what you see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. Don’t write your feelings, opinions, or reflections. Write color and shape. Write sound. You might describe the damp air or the hard desk. The taste of coffee. The smell of exhaust fumes. No feelings. No opinions. No thoughts.
These writings connect you to the world, to where you are. The more you do them, the more aware you become. They are pure training in sensory observation; you can also type them and compose them into settings, poems, pieces of essays. They are concrete-word farms.Priscilla Long
Here and now, I’m sitting at the corner table at my favorite coffee shop. This isn’t my favorite table, but somehow it’s the one where I almost always end up sitting. There’s a subtle wobble to the table that I don’t notice at first but that becomes apparent as I keep writing, a slight tilt back and forth, back and forth, as my hand moves across the page. Heat blasts out of the vent above my head right into my face. It creates enough wind that the curled corner of my book rises and falls, and the wispy hairs that escape my Princess Leia buns blow across my face. I brush them away countless times before I remember corona virus! don’t touch your face!
I sit with my back to the wall so that I can face the coffee shop. The woman at the other end of the long bench that spans the whitewashed brick wall has her notebook open on the table, and she is writing furiously, head bent close to the paper. She’s so focused she doesn’t even glance up when new people come in. I look at every newcomer, wanting to be distracted by something interesting that I will have to write. Two men, thirtyish, sit at tables alone, drinking their coffee, typing on their laptops. The only group that I can eavesdrop on sits conveniently beside me. People watching and eavesdropping are the main reasons I love to write in coffee shops.
There is the constant hum of quiet kitchen noise–dishwasher drones, cooks chatter, silverware clanks. The music is so low I can barely hear it, and thank goodness, because first it’s Madonna and then Justin Bieber, then it improves for a bit with Fleetwood Mac and Red Hot Chili Peppers. There’s another sound that I can’t figure out, and then I realize the cooks have their own radio playing different music, and now I hear two songs competing.
My coffee arrives in the thin-sided brown mug that I know won’t retain heat very well. I ask for my coffee extra hot, and it’s still cool enough to begin sipping immediately. The barista has made a heart in the foam, and that’s how I feel about this day. She is a constant bustle, taking orders, making coffee, delivering food, cleaning tables. She has a curious heel-to-toe walk when she’s carrying a latte, foam threatening to slosh over the sides of the cup with every step.
As I watch her make drinks, her movements are all familiar to me–and yet mysterious too. It’s almost like a dance she’s performing with the espresso machine.
I’m calling this a sort of here and now, because my observation skills are seriously out of practice. Again and again, I caught myself adding my feelings, opinions, and reflections. The here and now sent me spinning backwards and forwards through time and memory. Sensory perceptions only, I reminded myself (again and again). It’s harder than it looks.