(—and other public places I once wrote to escape violence.)
My life is very different from what it was when I began writing.
While working on my latest novel, Girl Minus X, I often wrote in public spaces—but the choice to do so was a luxury. Some days I wanted a lovely walk, or the peculiar quality of silence only found in endless stacks of books. I have a child at home, so writing outside of the house—whether in the local library or in my campus office—is predicated on a truly loving and egalitarian partner, who supports us both.
I’m lucky now. I know it.
I began writing in public spaces the year after I dropped out of law school, in the early nineties. I’d just moved to a new city and was far away from friends and family. I was living, then, with a young man who was increasingly unpredictable and violent. Home was not a place I could write. Home was a place I survived.
I spent a lot of time, then, wandering the city, a dollar-store journal tucked in my pocket, but if I had an extra dollar or two, I could sit inside the kind of restaurant or cafe that, these days, is a lot more fun to read about on yelp. If the place was on the verge of going bankrupt, existed primarily as a front for drug money, or had a pest-control van parked out front—it promised quiet, and so I’d slip into a dark booth at the back and order a bottomless hot tea, my latest black-and-red dollar store journal open on the table before me.
In places like this, I could almost think.
Back then, my journal entries were highly coded. I wrote enough to hold onto my thoughts—while simultaneously trying to avoid detection. In the margins of my old journals, here and there—I can still find bits of commentary added in a young man’s hand. At the very time I should have been learning to write, my writing was bound up with the demands of survival so, in a way, what I was learning to do wasn’t write so much as code—taking narrative down to the smallest units possible. I wrote then as if words were bread crumbs, and I could hide my thinking in the spaces between.
While small cafes helped me survive my context, they weren’t exactly ideal for writing. I have trouble filtering out conversations and blocking out noise—so the world kept pouring in.
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So, I remember the first time I walked in and saw a library.
I was twenty-one, and there to retrieve a book I needed for class. I’d been going to libraries forever—had been to this one dozens of times— but this was the first time I really saw one. Everywhere around me, people were reading and writing and it was a revelation.
The tiny public library branch, where I’d grown up, had a wall of windows that offered a view of a bus loop and the local mall. No one did much sitting or writing in its walls. But here, in this library, I could see the dreaming heart of the city, filled with spaces for expansive, open thinking, and all around me, in the bodies bent over carols, and in those long rows of books, I could see visible evidence of a long and troubled and exhaustive conversation, always ongoing, and even if what I had to add was written in pen, and rough, and riddled with spelling mistakes, and even if my words were scribbled in a dollar-store journal, somehow, it was in this place I first imagined I could be allowed to enter that conversation.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Anne Stone is the author of four novels, Delible (2007), Hush (1999) and jacks: a gothic gospel (1998), and her newest book, Girl Minus X. She is currently at work on a collection of short fiction. She spent her childhood in Toronto, lived in Montreal, and now makes her home in Vancouver, where she teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Capilano University.