Monkey Mind at the Café

October 7, 2020 § 18 Comments

by Rick Brown

The first thing I do is open all of my unfinished Word documents, read a line or two of each piece, declare them irreparably flawed, question my ability to ever write anything worth returning to or completing, and decide instead to take pictures of my table top here at the café. One of them might make a good banner shot for my Facebook page. It has the right touches, after all: The coffee cup casting its shadow on the warm, worn, blond-wood table top. My new, red-covered spiral notebook reflecting the morning sunshine. Art in the commonplace. Some of the best images in the history of visual art depict stuff like this. Maybe I should start a blog for my best cellphone photos. But I digress. Back to writing. Maybe I could start a new piece? I open a new Word document, and, while I’m at it, shoot a pic of the blank screen to document the terror of starting/not starting something new. It will make a good Facebook post about writerly angst. What’s more, people will know that I’m at least trying to get some work done. That matters. Speaking of Facebook, I should probably check it while I have my phone in hand. Who knows who might’ve liked one of my many posts from earlier this morning? Got to keep up on that stuff. Those “likes” are life-affirming. Crap—nothing. A tug of emptiness ensues. Let’s see, what else is going on? Well, I’ve chewed at the skin on my fingertips in the last few minutes, picked at my nails, gulped away the lukewarm dregs of my coffee (not great coffee, by the way, though I like this café and the fact that it’s relatively unpopulated in the early morning). And now that I’ve brought to mind the café, I’m locking on the employees’ conversation. Damn. I’m okay if it’s just an incomprehensible din—like in a crowded restaurant or, more specifically, the student union of my college years (Oh, the stuff I accomplished in that place!)—but if I hear individual voices speaking in English, I have trouble tuning it out. I’m not sure how I’d do in a roomful of people speaking a language I don’t understand, but I’m guessing it would be easier. Comprehension is the rub in this case. Hey, that’s not a bad line. I can use it somewhere. Or not. Sometimes it seems like my whole writing life consists of discovering good lines but never using them. But do I really need to go down that road? No. Forget I brought it up. Now to that blank screen. I’m feeling ready. Okay, they’re still talking, comparing sucky roommate tales. I might have to pack up and head out. Maybe one more shot—just a simple opening sentence to get things flowing. That’s pretty much what Hemingway said is key, right? And he was no slouch. Okay, here goes. Oh wait, a text message…


Rick Brown is a landlord who much prefers to write. He earned a Master of Arts in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, in Louisville, Kentucky. Rick is a founding member of the writers’ blog, Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip), and his short pieces have appeared in Brevity Blog and The Sun. Recently, he completed a book-length nonfiction manuscript, his first, titled, My Own Man: A Memoir of Becoming. He lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

These Days…

July 31, 2019 § 14 Comments

TJWood portraitBy TJ Wood

These days … when 9 p.m. rolls around and you are drained of patience, creativity, focus, the morning spent packing lunches, finding the bike lock key, walking the dog so she doesn’t poop in the house while you’re at work, getting the teenager off to school (without a door slam if you’re lucky), biking to work, answering emails, media inquiries, miscellaneous requests, finally zeroing in on that article you have to finish, getting a draft off for review and now, holy crap it’s 4 pm, where did the day go and you forgot to take stretch breaks, your shoulders hunched and tight from sitting at the damn desk all day and the coffee isn’t strong enough to cut through the mental fog generated by too many simple carbs turning your legs into dimpled, plump marshmallows despite the bike commute that brings you home to find the teen sitting on the couch playing Clash of Clans on his iPad, and you debate a beer or glass of wine while your dear husband prepares carnitas tostadas because the teenager (that doesn’t carry his genes) likes them, and just when you bring plates to the dining room, said teen musters his nasty attitude from thin air, marches off to his room, slams and locks the door, and you sit at the long Indian rosewood table your husband’s parents brought back from Hong Kong more than a half century ago, staring at the food on your plate, appetite evaporated, and you tell your husband of the phone call that afternoon from your daughter, the 28-year-old recovering heroin addict, and that you just don’t know what to do, how much to trust, what to believe, and you deal with the teenager later after he comes from his room to sit alone at the table large enough to fit a dozen at Christmas, devouring two tostadas in his simmering anger that doesn’t crack until bedtime when he confesses that he is still mad you cheated on his dad a decade ago with your now husband and lectures you that “people shouldn’t do that,” a conversation you’ve had several times and will continue to have thanks to a bitter ex-husband who can’t let go of this transgression bigger than any sin anyone has ever committed since humans walked upright, and you sigh in frustration, knowing you won’t win this battle tonight and no amount of discussion is going to help him in the present moment as he marches off to bed in a huff … you glance at the nightstand where notebook and pen wait and think, I have absolutely nothing left in me, what am I supposed to say, how will this memoir ever get written, and you uncap the pen to begin.

TJ Wood is a California-based writer working on a memoir about her journey through her daughter’s heroin addiction and the healing power of nature in the darkest moments. Her creative non-fiction work has appeared in The Rumpus and 100 Word Story. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter.


The Periphery: Preserving Your Writing Time (and Focus)

October 17, 2018 § 6 Comments

lizmBy Liz Matthews

The anatomy of my eyeballs is in trouble and I’ll need laser surgery to widen the canals.

“Don’t look this up on the internet,” my ophthalmologist says to me twice during my initial consult.

“Don’t worry,” I say, “my imagination is worse than the internet.” I don’t tell him that I didn’t even Google ‘what’s the difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist?’ before this appointment. I don’t explain that as a writer, I prefer to linger in this hazy space, on the periphery of truth and fact.

On the same morning that I learn I am among the 10% of the population who has small eyes, I also hear on the radio that in today’s culture, we are distracted every eleven minutes, and that it takes twenty-five minutes to recover from a phone call. No wonder. No wonder when I finally catch up with my college roommate or talk to my sister who lives across the country, I can’t focus afterwards. No wonder when I finally sit down to write, my mind is too crowded with not just to-do-lists, but also conversations, the idea of a full inbox, and voices that say about me, “you don’t really like to text, do you?”

In my writing workshops, I encourage my students to write on the spot about something they know nothing about without using Google. “May I just look something up quickly?” one of them asks. No. It defeats the purpose of the exercise, to imagine what it feels like to be, say, a miner or an opera singer. Now I will also share that it would take some time – more than twenty minutes – to recover from that distraction. If we allow ourselves the opportunity to always be distracted, how can we be creative?

I am in the process of revising a novel that involves a high school student who spends a lot of time in the art studio. I have been trying to get in touch with a woman from my hometown who became an art teacher at our high school. We exchanged a few emails, but didn’t land on a date to get coffee or even talk on the phone. A few weeks later, I run into her at a mutual friend’s party. I tell her that her voicemail is full. Should I email her instead?

“I rarely check my phone or email, but keep trying me.” She is unapologetic, which is unfamiliar and inspiring. She is also a fine artist – a painter – and a mom to two small children. She is not teaching right now so she can spend more time on her art. “Just keep trying my phone. If I’m free, I’ll answer.”

I replay this conversation in my mind for weeks following the party. Here’s a different approach for how to stay focused to make creative work. Even if we sneak in phone calls here and there, we have to take into account the time it takes to process these conversations. We have to allow room for how these external voices will inform our work, will continue to distract us. We can still ensure our family’s safety, still be accessible, without becoming Google or Wikipedia or Alexa – always available to answer questions, to provide small talk responses on text.

At the party where I run into my old high school friend, she says, “I’m curious what you wanted to ask me about teaching art.”

“Just about the classroom, the type of kids who take art these days, the assignments you give. Do any of them have nose rings?”

She explains about the self-portraits she assigns, how the middle school students aren’t mature enough to stare at their reflection for long periods of time, how this assignment is best suited for high school students, who know and understand themselves better. I imagine my sixteen-year-old self, staring at my reflection. The teenager who doesn’t know yet that her eyes are considered small, that her teeth will become crooked again, and that nearly three decades later, she’ll still want to write. I also recognize how useful this anecdote is for the teenage character I’m working on, who is struggling with her identity, how this assignment could showcase some interior monologue as she considers her reflection. I wonder if this exchange would have come across through email – or even over a phone conversation. As we make eye contact, I see this friend as the teenage artist who painted murals in the art store in the center of town. She also always knew what she wanted to be.

I tell my writing students that it’s important to quiet your mind before writing, to take a walk, meditate, wake up early, do whatever you need to do to be open to your creative voice and to silence your judgmental voice. But now I have this to offer – think about what you do before you sit down to write. Think about how you procrastinate. Maybe you shouldn’t make that call until later. Maybe you shouldn’t be so vigilant about cleaning out that inbox. If someone needs to reach you, they will reach you.


Liz Matthews received her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2008. Her writing has been published at The Rumpus, Brain Child, Quality Women’s Fiction, and Town & Country online. She lives in Connecticut with her family, and teaches writing at Westport Writers’ Workshop.




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