Lately, I'm distracted from writing fiction. I've been seeing astounding art, monitoring expenditures, trying to overcome my obsessive, controlling tendencies and visiting and dining and with friends. All crises solved, all questions answered. No sweat. I'm about three-quarters of the way through an outline for a new novel, but I will have to wait until I get back to the quiet solitude of New Mexico to do the actual composition. For now, I focus on the outline, short stories, notes, observations, irritations, enlightenment and the discovery of new, important and mindblowing French literature. An easy, worthwhile compromise.
I haven't found a decent place to write.
That's not true. I write everywhere, but I haven't found a place to set up my computer in a comfortable environment and relax and compose. I can plug in the earphones, turn on the Jazz, drown out the surrounding ambient sounds, but I am usually hemmed in by others. There are forty percent too many people everywhere on earth, even, I'm sure, in the middle of fucking Antarctica. I've taught myself to write in airports, coffee shops, amusement parks and on trains, but trying to write fiction in a crowded room is really challenging.
I often use the library and I have a French library card that gives me a feeling of belonging. When I enter the bibliothèque I present my card to the nice person behind the counter and he assigns me a numbered seat at one of the tables reserved for “travaux”, work or study. There are about ten polished wooden tables and 80 spots, four people to a side, facing each other. Each place has the same amount of room as a tiny table-top in a packed restaurant. A chair, of course, and a lamp. The individually-assigned area is covered by a two foot square of hard leather, similar to the kind that one finds on an antique writing desk. It's pleasant and every effort has been made to create a scholarly and serious atmosphere.
Under the table, nearly impossible to locate, is a plug for the computer. The French outlet is byzantine and complicated and never looks stable or safe. I expect sparks, fire and sewage to spew forth. The first day or two I spent fifteen minutes wrestling with my power cord and eventually had to ask a librarian how to hook it up. She showed me and since then it's been easy. I bend down, scramble around, hit and miss, and finally, et voila, the odd shaped adapter slips into the dangerous foreign outlet. I felt pretty stupid the first few times; doubled over, groping under the table, grunting suspiciously, muttering and swearing in English. Now I see that almost everyone, French, Chinese, American, Italian, has the same trouble when searching for an electrical connection. Confusion. When the architects designed the building in 1590 they didn't consider the future invention of the computer, electricity, the internet, smart phones, email, world wide pornography and Netflix, so the outlets had to be retrofitted into the historical building a few years ago. They've done a good job of hiding the modern essentials from view and everyone soon resolves the question of connectivity.
The library patrons are all very well behaved, too. This is not an American library, which often serves as a toilet for the homeless. I've entered the library in Taos, New Mexico, and mentioned to the staff that it smells like last call at the old Lucky 7 in San Francisco's Tenderloin. No one snores, drinks or talks to themselves in the historical Paris libraries. On the streets, bridges and in doorways, sure, of course, but the library clients are students and scholars. I take sidelong glances at their work and see that the young woman next to me has notebooks full of complex equations on graph paper and she's making entries on a spreadsheet.
An older man, older than me, balding, fat, waddles up and down the aisles, carrying heavy, leather-bound books of maps and charts back to his spot where he stacks them up and searches through them for hours, his head bent and his nose almost touching the open page. He doesn't use a computer, probably has never had an argument with someone about the Mac versus the PC. I envy him.
I travel with a netbook computer; efficient, small, utilitarian. I've had it for about six years and it's been everywhere with me, Asia, Europe, Mexico. It finally shorted out a few weeks ago and I panicked. How can I live without a computer? Right? Jesus.
The first time I traveled to Europe I didn't have a cell phone or a laptop. Everything I owned was in a carryon bag and S and I spent five months on trains and in second class hotels, checking schedules, learning the language. I had to make computations every time I crossed a border to figure out the money.
If I wanted to write, I'd use a lined notebook and fill up pages. It was fun and easy and when I had a long message to send, I'd work it out on the page and then find an internet cafe and email it to my friends. I remember learning to use a pay phone in Italy. I was living in Lucca, outside of Florence, and there was a phone booth across the street from the apartment. I watched Italian people drop in their coins (Lira in those pre-euro times) or insert incomprehensible phone cards, punch a few keys and talk, loudly, to their friends and family. I wanted to do that, so I found a place to buy a phone card, plugged it into the telephone, failed again and again, scolded by the disembodied Italian phone lady, and eventually got through to my friend Jonathan Lucero in the US. We just bullshitted like we usually do, no big conversation, but I felt completely assured and that was the moment that I knew I could solve any problem on my own. I was capable and imaginative. If I could learn to use an Italian pay phone, the sky was the limit.
If I got lost I had to figure out how to read a map. When I couldn't find a place to stay, I walked until I did. Questions were answered without Google, Wikipedia or translation programs. I acquired enough Italian to take care of all my needs. I even made some friends.
I use tech stuff at home and when I travel; I like the convenience and the programs and devices have become integral to my life. I was so freaked when my computer crashed a couple of weeks ago that I bought a new one right away, here, in Paris, in French (l'ordinateur = computer), with a weird French keyboard. (Why the crap would anyone switch the “A” with the “Q” and the “S” with the “Z”? That's just nuts. Where the hell is the “M”? The French use “M”, don't they? How can I write without an “M”?) It's cheap, slow, but I can email, write, and of course, check out maps, find when the Louvre closes, look up movies, bookstores and bus schedules. Amazing, indeed, but I felt, dependent, isolated and deprived when the stupid computer crapped out and I really didn't dig that at all.
I admire the old guy in the Paris bibliothèque, trudging from shelf to shelf, schlepping his giant, antique books around, doing something that he thinks is important, self contained and focused, without distractions.
I'd like to learn to unload the pain-in-the-ass cell phones and computers when I travel and go back to pay phones and writing long hand and using internet coffee shops, which are everywhere. I trust myself to surmount the inevitable difficulties that arise when I'm on the road, away from home. Christ, I've overcome bigger problems than bus schedules in the past twenty years. I don't have GPS on any device I own and here I am, safe, indoors, warm and comfortable. I write about four hundred words a day in my notebook, anyway; I could probably save it up and transcribe it into a computer when I returned home. I think, in the old days, that was called “revising”. What's the hurry?
Still, here I am, at the library, plugged in, typing quietly, navigating this goddamn weird-assed keyboard and I'm elbow to elbow with my table mates and, even though they are polite and quiet, I can feel them exhaling, shifting in their chairs, looking over my shoulder at my work, snickering at my inability to create believable characters and an engaging narrative. I often end up writing these blog posts because much of the time it's all I can manage in this environment and it keeps me occupied. I'm not sure it's real writing.
The old guy at the next table leans forward, breathing hard, his face an inch from a seventeenth century map, analyzing, nodding, scribbling strange words in a battered ledger. He doesn't have any devices other than his brain and his interest in his subject. Nothing to plug in, connect, recharge. I like all my stuff, sure, it's fun and pretty and efficient, but, today, I think my library card is a greater asset.