Coffee, first and foremost, coffee. Writing happens in the early part of the day, before the monotony of daily life and the daily grind and the daily ritual of getting ready for that life and grind begins. Writing doesn’t begin, though, until after cleaning the dog bed used by an incontinent pug and making sure he has his cough pill, his water, his food that he will whine about for an hour until I start hand-feeding him. Coffee involves going downstairs and hopefully the roommates haven’t woken yet. The ideas need to stay in my head, the bits of conversation characters whispered to me as I slept closely guarded and held tight to my chest. Speaking will only open the space, the character’s fears and flights of fancy spilling out in between the mundane Morning’s and How’d you sleep’s. I am curt and short and none-too-friendly if caught pouring coffee, a conversation’s heartbeats playing out in my head, and a roommate jostles in to only ask about my well-being. I am an unfriendly ogre, committed to the relationships in my mind than the friendships in the world. To be a writer is to guard and revere the sanctity of the dawn and writing space like a priest does his confessional.
Coffee in hand, I trudge up the steps to my hotbox of an attic, open the window blinds, and stare out at my new city. I see my surroundings without seeing, my head lost in West Berlin in 1988: a place and time I have never visited but my characters—Hyde, Samantha, Timo, the rest of them—they live there, they experience their lives in this space, and I’ve read and watched enough first-source material to turn those words and voices into somehwat of a facsimile that may ring authentic.
Then, turn on the computer. Wait for the screens to come up and log on. Check my email, check the work email, check the budget, pay the bills, check Instagram to see what friends I’ve met and friends I’ve never met have done in the six or eight or four hours I’ve been asleep for. The New York Times next, especially in this season of debates and presidential race debauchery and the dumpster fire that is American politics. Open up Dabble Writer and read what I wrote the previous day—or was that two days ago? Maybe three? Sip my coffee, sit back in my chair, stare out the window again, think about typing words onto a keyboard. Instead, get up, sit next to the pug on the floor and hold out a handful of kibble, which he eats slowly and noisily, his tiny grunts and groans a syncopating rhythm against the story beats knocking around inside this mind of mine. Playing out the scene, taking one path down to another path, trying to glean some sort of structure or purpose to the scene. Is it necessary? Is it truth or, rather, is it the character’s truth? Do I need to write it? Does the reader need to know it?
Back to the desk, back to the coffee. It’s empty. Back downstairs, hiding like a spy or ninja or some other stealthy metaphor here to get the coffee and back to the attic before I’m taken off-guard, the little bits of plot points spilling out like a shattered gumball machine, me down on the kitchen floor on all fours, scrambling—frantic, crazy, wild-eyed—desperately trying to pick up the broken pieces of dialogue, of scene, of plot. Trudge back upstairs, ask myself for the thousandth time, the millionth time—how many times have I asked it?—do I really want to be a writer? You put yourself through this. Why go through the pain, the unkowning, the absolute hell of writing? she (in my mind, this devilish imp is a siren song, beautiful and deadly) asks, again. And again. And again. Why put yourself through it when you can curl up with a book or read reddit all day?
Upstairs, coffee in hand, I sit down. Headphones on, music fitting to the mood I’m feeling, the scene I must write, the heaviness of the current character. Lately, it’s been Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love album because his music, his presence in East Berlin in 1988, is part of my novel. Listening to it, or any album or music, informs the writing, influences it in ways I am not aware of. Or maybe I listen to no music and instead focus on the sound of rain falling, of thunder rolling, of cars and trucks and people getting in cars and trucks, yelling I love you to their partners or children or their cat Muffy, heading off to their own daily grind. The honks of early morning drivers, the fire truck sirens, the pounding of nails into wood in the next-door neighbor’s house, which is being renovated.
And then, the words start to come, letter building upon letter, word on word, and finally—miraculously, thankfully—sentences and whole paragraphs. The thing that has been playing like a B-rated movie in my head coalesces into shape on the page (or screen, as it actually is). The characters start talking and I ease into their skin like Buffalo Bill, each beat playing off the next. I know these characters, having lived with them in the cramped space of this skull of mine for the past year, but they still surprise me. Hyde with his fear of tight spaces, Timo’s unwavering conviction that eighties punk is the answer to everything, Samantha’s strained relationship with her mother. The characters didn’t tell me this until I started writing. The procrastination, the dawdling, the staring without seeing, the getting a second cup of coffee is all part of the process. Yet it is the act of writing where the magic truly happens.
To be a writer is to be wild and crazy, a roiling sea inside a still presence. To be a writer is to create drama, to envision a world that does not closely resemble your own. To be a writer is to both love and hate the act of putting the things only you can see to words that others can read. The discovery is just like an archaelogist, to dust off an archaic and trite metaphor. I don’t know what I don’t know but finding that bit, undigging it, is just about the closest thing to getting high that I can think of. A turn of phrase, a sentence that takes your breath away, a simile that shows the reader what you see in your mind…well, it can be better than sex, or drugs, or winning the lottery. This is why I write. I endure the scrambling, ambling process of writing in order to feel alive. It’s a rarity, these turns of phrases or sentences that sing, and I put in more hard days than easy ones. It is the love of discovery, of change, of being able to channel so many different personalities than my own—and not be committed for it—that keeps me coming back to this desk, this room, this lone space morning after morning and week after week.
Change, after all, is constant. Except for the act of writing. Every day, sit down, write. That is the writing process.