Writer in Residence

Writing Alone and Out Loud

By Naseem Hrab

I’ve always wanted to be the type of person who writes in coffee shops. A few years ago, I was visiting a friend in LA and I had one goal: to sit in a coffee shop and write. It felt like the LA thing to do. And it was the LA thing to do—everyone in the shop I went to was working on a screenplay. OMG. SO COOL. I WAS IN HEAVEN … BUT I WASN’T WRITING.

I quickly learned that I can’t write in coffee shops. Not a single word. Between the din of the coffee grinders, the excruciating music selections and listening in on other people’s conversations (“Mom! Which movie should I watch first? Minions or Harry Potter?”), I can’t concentrate. Instead of writing, I end up spending half an hour taking Insta-worthy photos of my cappuccino, eating a croissant and feeling guilty for taking up a table. (I also get worried about having to pee. Do I ask someone to watch my laptop, or should I take it with me to the bathroom? If I take my laptop to the bathroom, should I take my bag? OH GOD.)

In fact, it’s really hard for me to settle down to write in general. When I’m at home, I need to circle my couch eight hundred times like a dog before I sit down. Then I need to watch some warm-up Netflix. Then I feel guilty about watching warm-up Netflix instead of writing, and emotional-eat some coffee ice cream. Then the clock strikes 11:00 p.m. and I start to panic about the fact that I just spent the last three hours watching Netflix. And then I need to constantly refresh Facebook on my laptop and Instagram on my phone, until the clock strikes 11:45 p.m. so that I can start writing.

And when I finally start writing, I begin talking to myself. I’ve found that one of the most useful ways to get your words out is to literally get your words out. Open your mouth and say what you think you want to write down. Does it sound dumb when you say it out loud? If yes, it’ll probably still sound dumb when you write it down. One of my biggest pet peeves is people writing in a manner that doesn’t reflect their speech. OMG. SEE? I JUST DID IT RIGHT THERE. Isn’t that irritating? Let’s try that again … I’ll try saying out loud what I want to write: I hate it when people don’t write the way they talk because it sounds fake. If you really want to capture your distinct voice in your writing, try using your own voice.

A couple of months ago, I read this awesome list of writing tips from internationally renowned fiction writer Etgar Keret, and this one, in particular, really speaks to me: “Make sure you’re all alone in the room when you write. Even if writing in cafés sounds romantic, having other people around you is likely to make you conform, whether you realize it or not. When there’s nobody around, you can talk to yourself or pick your nose without even being aware of it. Writing can be a kind of nose-picking, and when there are people around, the task may become less natural.” 

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.

Naseem Hrab is a writer, a storyteller and a pretty good friend. Her comedy writing has appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Rumpus. Naseem worked as a librarian for a time and now works in children's publishing. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.