Harlan Ellison would occasionally set up a typewriter in the front window of a bookshop and crank out a story on public display for anyone who cared to watch him. The point he was making (other than the self-promotional one) was that writing wasn’t a tortured communion with an other-world of art: it was labour, work, and could happen anywhere, including in public. That’s a paraphrase of Ellison, a man who’s never lacked for his own words, and I apologize for it—he’s well worth reading in his own sentences, particularly the ones in the short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.”
This act of window-writing would still be noticeable, certainly, if it happened in the window of Type Books: someone laptopping a story out against the backdrop of one of Kalpna Patel’s displays would be cause to stop and stare for a few seconds. But a few doors down from Type, in White Squirrel Coffee, there would almost certainly be one or a few people with Final Draft or Word or Scribe open on their computers, doing the everyday sort of writing in public that we barely take notice of, even if writers do sometimes do it explicitly to be noticed.
Writing in public is reassuring. Not quite in the same way that a young man reads a Dostoevsky paperback on the streetcar while glancing up to see if anyone is noticing what he is reading, writers write in cafés to be noticed as writers, as practitioners of what they care about. They also do it to leave the house and feel sane, of course. But public writing, creating a first draft with eyes around you, perhaps drifting onto your screen and seeing the tell-tale layout of a screenplay, allows for a sense of both community and a validation of being someone who makes writing happen—perhaps to the detriment of the writing itself.
Deciding the right moment to let the world in to a draft—whether it’s a story, a script, a novel, or an essay—is perhaps the crucial moment in the life of a piece of writing intended to be public. Letting someone else’s eyes interrogate what you’ve written does two things: it gives another layer of reality to the piece, draws it further into existence, and it makes the piece less your own. That sense of possessiveness over an idea, story, and characters, or even a technique that you’re trying to extend to its fullest manifestation, is a crucial element of starting and finishing a piece. Letting eyes in too early could be a deflating error, a momentum-breaking introduction of doubt and conflicting opinion that could spoil the piece.
This, of course, is a fairly purist notion of solitary art, an idea of writing that seems to leave out the truth of collaboration that improves pieces in workshops and editorial offices. But there is some lasting truth to the idea that the idea has to be shaped into words for a while before it can be effectively communicated to someone who can improve it. Most writers write with a sense of this, and yet they (we) physically open the process of their writing to the public by making it happen in cafés.
The writer’s home desk isn’t necessarily a site of privacy and focus, either—it can be a more intimate form of public than the anonymous landscape of a café, populated with chat windows full of friends and an inbox reminding the writer of matters more financially pressing than the third chapter of his novel about a pirate-turned-Newfoundland-homesteader on the run from his past. The #amwriting hashtag is perhaps the most intriguing example of the departing privacy in the act: a hashtag created to communicate that you are writing, that by its existence actually says that you’re taking a break from writing, even if it is a brief one.
There’s a young man who sometimes comes to a café where I edit and poke at ideas to write beats on his laptop, using a portable piece of equipment and enormous headphones. He headbangs vigorously to the music he’s making as people around him type, talk, and drink coffee, and I wonder if he really is any more of an absolute asshole than the rest of us. The answer is yes, of course he is, but he’s probably also a nice man engaged in making the work he cares about less solitary, and to gain a smaller, daily version of the validation that he ultimately wants from his work: an audience of strange faces thrilled by the final product.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Naben Ruthnum lives in Parkdale, where he writes literary and genre fiction. He also writes criticism, and was last year's Crimewave columnist at the National Post. Naben won the 25th annual Journey Prize for his short story, Cinema Rex, and continues to publish widely.
Ruthnum's essay, CURRY: Eating, Reading and Race, will be published by Coach House Books as part of their Exploded Views Series.