Chapters: My Growth as a Writer by Lois Duncan

Lois Duncan is one of my favourite writers and I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned her on my blog yet! It’s time.

Last year I was fired up and researching whether writers I loved had written autobiographies or memoirs, hoping very much that they had, because one is curious about the person behind the magic pages that pulled you in, about their insights on writing and life, the experiences that shaped them, and you’re expecting their memoirs to be as engaging as their fiction. I don’t rush with this, because I’m usually involved in some extensive reading first, especially if the writer has been around a while and achieved a lengthy bibliography. Then there’s some digesting and thinking time after finishing a novel. It’s almost like I need to sit with the characters I met for a while before I move on to words directly from the life of the person who created them.

Chapters: My Growth as a Writer is a gem for many reasons. One of them is that between Lois Duncan’s memories and accounts of her writing, which are all absorbing in their own right, the book is basically an anthology of her riveting short stories (none of which I had read before!). She uses them to illustrate her growth and career, and while each point she makes comes across loud and clear, the stories themselves are a fantastic read, showcasing the incredible talent evident since Lois Duncan’s early years. They contain that unique suspense building up from the everyday experiences we can all relate to that is characteristic of her novels. What will happen? Will it be something bad? are the questions we keep asking ourselves when we read.

Visions of a woman’s life in a 1950s-60s America emerge, as a teenager, a young woman, a wife, a mother. The expectations, the preconceived societal ideas, the sexism, the condescension, the inevitable revolt against attempts, however small, to diminish a creative identity – unfortunately, some of it still exists today. One scene in which Lois Duncan describes her statement that she is a self-employed professional writer, while her conversation partner firmly insists it’s a hobby and not a “real” job is simply priceless.

Just like her novels, this memoir is a reminder that Lois Duncan was so much more than, as often mentioned in news headlines, the author of I Know What You Did Last Summer. She was a gifted writer, an attentive and precise observer and an amazing, engaging storyteller. She drew on and never disregarded her own experiences, more than proving the “Write what you  know” maxim, and she worked hard. She knew how to tap into that which scared us, young and old, what made us laugh in-between and how to grasp a life-changing moment, whether big or small, then put all this into written words.

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Writing in a Café: How to Keep Your Space

Nah, not like that. But it’s an option. It might lead to you being banned from your favourite café, though, so use with caution. Or opt for openly and loudly applying hand sanitizer.

Odds are that there will be people in your café who aren’t there to work, meet up with someone they arranged to see or just enjoy their own company. In fact, they might be looking for the company of others, be it just a chat or something more. This is normal coffee shop/ café culture . After all, you’re a social person as well (most of the time, I’m guessing), and you’re perfectly open to meeting new people, networking, possibly forging a neighborhood familiarity or even a new friendship.

I’m not averse to engaging, because that is also another reason you venture out to work away from the comfort of your home. But I came here with a purpose, so how do I keep the space I need for it?

As already hinted, have a pair of headphones handy. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re listening to music. Or maybe you feel fine without them – also great. But as a woman coming in alone somewhere I’m used to being approached or talked to, even if it’s a short exchange, not necessarily an unwanted one too. If I’m settling down to work on a writing or blogging idea I’ve been carrying around for days, teaching it how to walk on its own before I release it into the world, I need to stay focused. I’ve carved out time for this and I want to make the most of it. Plenty of people still have an inner social brake if they see someone with headphones in. And if not, you have the right to look properly annoyed if you get tapped on the shoulder (depending on the situation and who’s tapping, of course) and have to take out the headphones after all.

Wear comfortable clothing (not PJs, although it’s so tempting – I just imagine it sometimes) that you don’t have to think about once you sit down. Nothing that you need to tuck in or adjust periodically, pull at, maybe a favourite scarf in the event of a draft (so distracting and who wants neck pain after), a signature accessory (I’m that writer/ blogger/ creative person/ everybody look at this thing I got on vacation).

Take a book or notebook (don’t forget the pens!) with you to do something else between typing if you need to pause or think something through, so you still make it clear that you’re occupied. Write some to-do-lists, answer your friend’s text, think about what to give your dad for his birthday, get up and ask the barista about that tea you liked so much. Only if you want to, though. Everyone should be able to stop and stare into space if they wish to.

If you get approached or spoken to, I’m sure you’ll be able to play it by ear. If you don’t want to engage in a longer conversation, there are polite ways of ending it (“I really have to get back to work now”, “Well, thanks for the tip (put headphones back in)”, “Have a nice day (put headphones back in)”, just to name a few). Most people will pick up on social cues or just follow plain good manners. And if you want to continue talking, it’ll happen naturally.

This all goes both ways. If I want to approach someone or ask a question beyond whether I can borrow the sugar, I’ll watch them for a little while first (in a non-creepy way is the obligatory addition to this sentence). There are loads of polite openings that will soften the possible blow of essentially intruding on someone’s bubble of time, and hopefully I’m also socially competent enough to recognize when the interaction is over or if it will continue. Obviously there’s always the option of exchanging contact information and picking up where you left off later, when neither person is deep in answering the muse or working towards a deadline.

I just spotted the jovial middle-aged newspaper reader from yesterday, good that I’m already settled and typing. He’s looking around! Headphones? Mais oui, bien sur! Also one of my neighbours who was very happy when I lent him a stepladder once and enthusiastically attempted to engage me in a subsequent conversation about whether I was Turkish (that was a new one, considering all the stuff I’ve already heard), repeating his name two times, sat down at the table next to mine, despite there being other free ones and me silently asking him not to in my head. However, he didn’t seem to recognize me or simply didn’t want to talk – score! His phone and the pinging noises it was making proved to be more absorbing.

An illustration to all of the above. I looked up on reflex at the person settling at the free table next to me and was pleasantly surprised to see it was an author whose (thrilling and wonderfully written) book signing I had been at fairly recently. We smiled and said hello, chatted a little, then I said I’d let her work in peace. I put my headphones back in, she got her drink, sat down, plugged in her own headphones and began to work. That’s how it’s done.

How to Pick a Café for Writing

Just ask yourself the following questions…

Do they offer carrot muffins with carrot cake frosting? If they do, how do you feel about that? If they don’t, do you have a second-choice and third-choice dessert as a back-up plan? Do you even like dessert? Am I asking too many questions when I was planning to ask only one regarding this subject?

Do they have free Wifi?

Is the location nice? Are you looking for something closer to or farther from home?

What impression do the people sitting in there make? When does it fill up? Are there enough tables?

Maybe do a test run without your laptop first. Are the tables a comfortable height for working? Is there a counter with chairs that’s also comfortable? What do the seats feel like? Is there enough distance between tables, or you’re fine either way? Is there enough light? Do people respect each other’s space? Are there other people in there writing, studying, in headphones etc.? Is it noisy? Some noise is to be expected, like chatting, doors opening and closing, the baristas and waiters doing their jobs, people asking questions and placing orders, equipment etc. Can you tune it out, or you don’t mind?

Is the service friendly? If it isn’t, but you still get what you need and it tastes like it should, does it matter? Maybe it polishes your sarcasm skills, which are not entirely impractical when you might have to deal with other people approaching you (the drama), but more on that later.

All the possible questions asked? Time to pack up your stuff and when your friends ask you what you got up to over the weekend, just say nonchalantly, “Oh, you know, I went off to create a masterpiece that will put an end to all the stupidity in the world once people read it.”

Musings While Writing in a Café

After some saving up I bought my first little laptop. It was a fantastic feeling to be able to take it with me on a trip for the first time and be independent as far as communication with family and friends, blogging and writing were concerned. It was also nice to share it when my sister and I were in Tokyo and type away on it during my trip to Iceland.

Now that I’ve name-dropped a few fancy destinations I loved visiting, let’s get to the topic at hand. Laptops are great for travel, but they are also great when you start writing  outside of home. This has been a bit of a learning process for me, because, surprise, surprise, it took a while for me to catch up on offers besides Starbucks or build up to writing in a café in the first place.

I walked into my chosen café today and stopped to do the usual scan of the perimeter – it’s later in the morning and I’m slightly worried every table will be taken, but I’m in luck. There’s a free one by one of the large floor-length windows. A long couch seat spans the width of the window and three tables are placed alongside it. One is occupied by a girl in headphones who is immersed in her own little laptop – bless her. The next one is free as well, but there’s a newspaper lying on the tabletop, so I leave it and take the table I spotted first. I put my coat down to mark my territory and start deciding on a beverage, when there’s movement to my side and chatting.

A middle-aged man has arrived, smiling and clearly thinking he should say something to everyone nearby. It’s OK – I just don’t want to join! I smile politely, get my drink, sit down and start silently setting up, because he settles down, shifts around in his seat, grunts, says “Well…” at every page turn of his newspaper and I just know that if I don’t plug my headphones in NOW, I’ll lose precious minutes of the morning I’d been looking forward to for several days.

I love writing at home – there are no distractions, even though there can be, but everything is so familiar that it blends seamlessly with my concentration. I can write in my PJs, I can write at the desk, on my bed, on the floor, I don’t have to watch my stuff and the fridge is (usually) stocked. I can take a nap when I need to and I can be as introverted as I like. Obviously this all differs a little depending on your household, but in general it’s true.

BUT, and there is a but, I do need fresh air and people watching, because otherwise the writing won’t be authentic and a change of scene is always invigorating both for concentration and inspiration. Writing in a café also takes you slightly outside of your comfort zone, if you’ve been used to writing at home or enjoy being a homebody, or, rather, it trains you in finding your comfort zone anywhere and making adjustments if something doesn’t feel right. It’s also a good solution until you get that dream writing office with an exit straight into a beautiful garden whenever you need a break…and definitely a good place to dream.

Journals Are…

Therapeutic.

Easy to keep, take with you and store.

Irresistible! The lure of a blank page, a page that belongs only to you.

Available in every single size, design and layout you can think of.

Easy to customize if you’d rather have something individual. Get a plain one and go DIY.

A legitimate excuse to either buy pens in a variety of colours or grab free ones whereever you see them.

A relief for those thinking what to give you for your birthday or Christmas.

Something you can find around the world to bring back with you.

A time capsule.

A source of something to do wherever you may be.

A possible harmless obsession.

Fashionable! Writing has never gone out of style and every day I see at least one adult scribbling away in a notebook.

There for you to put down whatever you want, without judgement, scrutiny or distractions from anyone else.

 

 

Monday Diary: Rise Up Lights and Beauty and the Beast Trailer

Seriously, just try this, and see if you can ever stop thinking about this phrase in a new light (feeble pun!):

As shared on Girl Gone International Facebook

As shared on Girl Gone International Facebook

I first whispered and then just said this out loud to myself, and it works! Burning questions follow this entertaining linguistic trick. Do British people have an easier time switching to “razor blades” in their mind as soon as they hear themselves speak because of their accents? Do American accents still work nonetheless? Do various Aussie accents unwittingly get imitated as a result? If so, are they existing accents? Do we unconsciously try to Australian-ize our pronounciation (without really being able to, except after several episodes of McCleod’s Daughters in my case) as soon as we attempt to rise up lights? And most importantly: what will happen if an Australian simply says “rise up lights”? Life’s profound mysteries.

The internet was not done with us today, nor is it ever. A momentous event has taken place and I’m still fanning myself from excitement. Uploaded seven hours ago as of the time this is being typed and with close to half a million views already, I add my own click(s) to the official full-length movie trailer of Disney’s upcoming live-action version of the animated classic Beauty and the Beast. As soon as I hear those first piano bars from the opening track, despite having heard them thousands of times before, I’m gone.

If the teaser trailer already had me in pieces, this further gem makes me wriggle like an over-excited child and think, “OH MY GOD, this is real!” I can only hope that we will not be disappointed by the movie after the mood both trailers have successfully harnessed, and that Belle didn’t drop that candelabra after her first glimpse of the Beast. If there is one thing I’m certain of, it’s that I can’t imagine anyone other than Emma Watson playing our book-loving, plucky, dreaming heroine in this version.

“I want adventure in the great wide somewhere/ I want it more than I can tell…”

It was a Monday of joyful, thought-provoking discoveries, and with all this talk of the supermoon, which I currently can’t see because of foggy Hamburg conditions, I’m in a witchy mood and will look up scenes with Piper Halliwell from Charmed on YouTube.

 

Sunday Diaries: Brunch Time

McDonald’s in Italy now has a Nutella burger on their menu. That was the first thing I saw in my Instagram feed when I scrolled through it on my phone as usual on Sunday mornings. I just want to ask, why go pay for something you can make just as easily at home, probably spend less money on and which simply seems…weird? I mean, a burger is not something I will always make myself, so I might go somewhere for it, but spreading Nutella on bread has not gone up astronomically in terms of levels of difficulty, I hope, unless I missed something. But hey, marketing, competition, whatever works and if it does make someone happy.

I spread some (non burger patty thick) Nutella on a warm, crisp bread bun myself today and it was deeply satisfying. Due to watching Crazy, Stupid, Love (and some of it was indeed stupid, though some was love because of Steve Carell and Julianne Moore) until late last night, getting up occured somewhat later and I did not have time for what I term as the breakfast before breakfast – eating a bite before getting to your late breakfast or brunch date so you won’t faint on the way. But then a glass of juice must be included and since the café wasn’t far away, I figured I’d manage. It is Sunday in Hamburg, and those who aren’t still asleep after a Saturday night out are most likely making their way to a brunch.

The cafébar Gloria is located in a beautiful street in Hamburg called Bellealliancestraße. Cosy, residential, inviting and with multicolored buildings following each other, it makes for a nice pre-brunch walk in these fresh winter temperatures. The Gloria is red, easy to find and hard to miss. With 20 years of existence behind it, it’s clearly a favorite neighborhood meeting point and I’m excited to try the brunch buffet with my friend. And what a buffet it is. Roughly 15 euro with a glass of champagne or orange juice included for all you can eat – fresh bread, small croissants, fruit, various cheese, butter, jam, potato salad, cooked red beets (Russian roots seal of approval), smoked salmon, just to name a few choices, and very prettily arranged. Almost floor-length windows let in the sunlight of this clear, cold morning, and the atmosphere is relaxed, welcoming, as I listen to the snippets of conversation around me in French, German and English and dig in to my food. The staff is quick, attentive and smiling without seeming stressed. As I lean back and sip my fresh peppermint tea, I think again about how much I enjoy being part of a morning crowd like this, and that I will have to come back, because there is no room for the homemade cheesecake that my friend warmly recommended.

One once again idyllic walk around the glistening Alster river later, and I make lunch for the next day at work, only to discover that I had forgotten to defrost the meat I needed for the dish. But the internet saved me with this trick that actually worked!

One could have made a Nutella burger, but I’ll leave that to the pros.