Because I am someone who writes I spend a lot of time on my own. Consequently, I sometimes get into strange states of mind. That’s my job. My states of mind may well be a lot stranger if it were not for the existence of cafes. I do a lot of writing in cafes and a lot of thinking. Cafes suit me because I can be both in the public arena and concealed within myself at the same time. I’m an inveterate and obsessive observer of others, just as I tend to be an inveterate and obsessive observer of myself.
I always sit in the corner. This is so my enemies can’t shoot me from behind. The Bank cafe used to be an actual bank, and the Blue Knob cafe is located on the verandah of a community art gallery in the lee of the mountain known locally as Blue Knob. Blue Knob is famous for once being the abode of a woman the local Widjyabal people call a ‘witch’, who trained up the Clever Men and then tested them by throwing them off the cliff at Blue Knob to see if they could fly.
I actually have other weekday and weekend cafes as well, but they are satellites to the solid gravitational surfaces of The Bank and Blue Knob. Blue Knob Cafe is a great example of community activism. With a little bit of government money a small group of people, mostly women, have transformed a tiny neglected country hall into a vibrant gallery, artist’s workshop, cafe, market space and general community hangout.
Of course, neither Blue Knob or The Bank are perfect. That is because my perfect cafe would have a large genoa armchair only I could use with an adjacent bookshelf, several animals, a fireplace, and a forest outside. And it would also be called The Cafe of Lost Souls and have the world’s greatest secondhand bookshop next door. Still, Blue Knob cafe comes pretty close.
I have a nice enough study at home, but I don’t often use it. In fact I hardly ever use it. My ‘study’ is a bag which I take everywhere with me, even if I go into town for some milk. The bag contains my writing life. That life is composed of a changing series of notebooks, three in-progress manuscripts, whatever odd work of fiction I’m currently trying obsessively to deconstruct, a small tablet-laptop, a fountain pen and a bottle of ink. It’s like having a magic bag with a bag of magic tricks inside it.
My magic bag also contains some bandages and a lot of bandaids. That’s because when I was in Melbourne last year, I accidentally sliced open my hand with a knife. I patched up the wound with a few bandaids but it kept leaking when I was out and about the CBD. Not wanting to leave bloody handprints everywhere I went, I patched it more thoroughly with a bandage in a chemist in Swanston Street. I still keep bandaids and an unused bandage in my bag. It’s a nice metaphor. If writers aren’t bandaging wounds then what are they doing? Bandages and bandaids are also just practically useful – once you start carrying them with you it’s amazing how often they seem to be needed.
Anyway, sometimes writing at home can be an unproductive thing. I feel like I’m sitting inside my own head, which is not helpful. It’s also a fine habit to learn to write in public. Now whenever I sit in any cafe I automatically get out my notebooks. In fact whenever I sit down anywhere they come out: airports, park benches, waiting rooms, trams, car parks, roadside breakdowns.
Writers have always been solitary types tormenting themselves with creative struggle. If writers have often been considered mad that’s probably because a sure way to send one’s self mad is to lock yourself in a room and talk aloud. Writers are secretive, churning through the contents of their souls in search of an image and a sentence, making up stories about imaginary people or about drunks or elves or angels in chook pens or post-apocalyptic nightmares or child autistic savants or depressed detectives. There could be a lot of reasons for this, and some of them are as creepy as we might expect of people who lock themselves in their rooms and mutter.
The writer Junot Diaz said that when he writes he is really only talking to six people who are all friends of his. I know what he means. I write for, at last count, five people, so perhaps Diaz has more friends than me. If I get any more than five Facebook ‘likes’ at the end of an Overland post I’m always very surprised.
The advice that writers love to give each other is frequently toxic and stupid, as I’ve written before. Many years ago when I was nineteen or twenty, a friend of mine looked around the house where I was living – then inhabited by several junkies, a cat, a killer lesbian punk band, my girlfriend and me – and said, ‘How come no-one ever writes books about the people I know?’ I’ve never forgotten that. When I write, I just write the things that my friends might want to read.
Writing in public about personal things seems to alter the space around you. It’s as if the oddness of the universe, which is usually contained inside the writer’s mind where it emerges as dragons or deranged lovers or people lost in time, starts to leak out in unpredictable ways.
A few months ago I was sitting in The Bank cafe writing. On the wall above me was a large poster for a circus of the 1960s. It was a lurid orange and yellow. Massive letters with the circus’ name rose out of a sunset. A couple of tiny elephants like mice trumpeted to each other. A man in a tux sat on a white horse and doffed a top hat.
A tall angular man, who looked like as though his limbs were made of rubber, stopped in front of my table and regarded the poster. He frowned, crossed his arms and caught my eye. He began to mime in an elaborate series of gestures that seemed to indicate he had been a circus acrobat. He imitated a clown, a circus strongman, a woman on a horse, the ringmaster, all with the most extravagant demonstrations of affect. He told the silent story of a tightrope walker falling from the wire because of her broken heart. He mimed resignation and acceptance, and stalked out of the cafe as though on spring-loaded heels. No-one else in the cafe seemed to have noticed his performance at all. After he left I wondered if he had even existed.
And then just last week, a woman passed by my table at Blue Knob cafe and saw me writing in my notebook. She commented on my fountain pen and then casting a critical eye over my handwriting guessed both my age and where I was born. She said she had taught handwriting for many years in schools. I learned that I had probably started out being taught Modern Cursive and then had to switch to Modified Italic, hence my messed-up spiky handwriting that struggles to maintain any kind of structural integrity.
After she left I returned to my notebook. An accordion struck up in the art gallery adjacent to the cafe, where a man with the look of a melancholy eighteenth-century seaman, as though he’d just disembarked from Jack Aubrey’s HMS Surprise, sat perched on a low stool and played slow, off-kilter reels in return for free cappuccinos.
Shortly after, the table next to mine was occupied by people whose preschool-aged children I had taught a decade ago. Listening to them talk bitterly about their angry problem teenagers, it seemed to me that they wished more than anything that their children could have remained five years old, when the future was still unwritten and possibility was something that was always on their side. Somewhere in one of the notebooks I had with me, I’d copied down something that John Lee Hooker once said in an interview:
You don’t even want to think about what you come through, because sometimes it brings you down thinking about the hard times, the rough times, what happened to you over the years. There’s a lot of misery, hatred, disappointment … all that. I hate to talk about it … but it’s there … There’s so many things I regret, I can’t put my hand on it.
I felt so sad that I gathered up my notebooks and left. The accordionist had packed up and gone, but there was a band outside among the market stalls floating their way through Radiohead’s spooky ‘Fake Plastic Trees’.
And if unpredictable sequences of events such as these can be considered a kind of weird metaphysical leaking of the writer’s inner life, the states that he or she is already intensely familiar with and those that he or she prefers not to know and yet is deeply curious about, what are the effects on the writer who writes alone in his or her room? After being so intensely absorbed in a page of writing, do we then enter some dissociative or altered state when we leave it? Is there some kind of in-between state a writer has to work through to be able to leave the page and re-enter the quotidian world of their surroundings; the kitchen with the day’s washing up, the emails we don’t want to reply to, the bedroom with the person lying in our bed who now seems so odd, so alien to our thoughts that we have to fabricate a kind of persona that will allow us to find a contiguous match with the relationship we have found ourselves inhabiting with them?
Does this process of writing, where we attempt to speak of the unspeakable, somehow make apparent a truth we have been too frightened to acknowledge? And if we put off sitting down to write, could it be because there is some state trying to make itself visible, something that would restructure our life in unimaginable ways?
The Nigerian American writer Teju Cole wrote a novel in which he described the ophthalmic condition that produces a dead spot in one’s vision, and used this as a metaphor for all the ways we develop blind spots in our lives. Two months later he was struck almost blind by this very same condition.
The Lebanese writer Elias Khoury said that whatever takes place in the writing affects the writer. ‘Poets,’ writes William Empson in Versions of Pastoral, ‘tend to make in their lives a situation they have already written about.’ In the introduction to her novel Mr Fortune’s Maggot, Sylvia Townsend Warner said that when she finished writing it she was in an ‘advanced state of hallucination’.
It has begun to seem to me that the writing of prose or poetry is usually a highly marginal activity, possibly dangerous to oneself, and while being written for others or on behalf of others, excludes others in its making. It is economically unproductive and does not lend itself to a utilitarian discourse. It is like the disruptive gift, the event that sits outside the process of material exchange. One cannot repay a gift. It is not possible to do so without seeking to impose some kind of fascist stricture on something which is largely ungovernable.
Inasmuch as I’m a writer of anything, I’m a writer of chance. I like to write and I have no program. I have lots of projects lying around, all unfinished (how could they ever be complete) and my favourite thing to do is to have a whole day to myself, and having finished my morning chores, sit in my favourite chair, or cafe, or by the side of the road, or on a park bench, in fact anywhere will do, and write the day away without any real planning or intention.
I don’t actually know anything about writing. Obviously, you say. But it’s the truth, I think. I just don’t. I don’t know what writing is, how to carry it out or what is happening while I’m doing it. It just happens to be the best way that I have found to be able to think in unpredictable ways about certain things, some of them also unpredictable.
What writing is, or what I think it is, seems to change all the time so that it’s often hard to know from one day to the next what space I’m inhabiting. I’m forever soaking in the bath of my own solitude, trying to grab an extremely slippery bar of soap that seems to have some inscrutable message scrawled on it that I can never decipher.
And yet, the only gift no-one can give you is time. I write in corners because I have to, in the backs of cafes, sitting on the Pacific Highway in forty-degree heat waiting for the car radiator to stop boiling, on the footpath waiting for a late friend, sitting on a cliff top looking out over the ocean toward purple clouds, each time trying to catch myself unawares, stitching together unforeseen moments, looking for the interstices between what should have happened and what did, locating in the moments of boredom and dismay a glimpse of my own face, one nearly unrecognisable.