What to do there and why it’s good for you
A guest post by Shaun Levin
Writing outdoors and away from our desks helps deepen our experience of the world, expand our range as writers, and takes us out of our comfort zone. Sometimes I feel that writing anywhere but at home is where I work best. For the past ten years or so I’ve been writing about painters while sitting in parks, art galleries, waiting rooms, cemeteries, on mountains or on trains. Not just in cafés.
Not everyone agrees on the virtues of public writing. A while back, Geoff Dyer took a dig at writing in public places. “In the early 1990s,” he said, “I went to live in Paris. The usual writerly reasons: back then, if you were caught writing in a pub in England, you could get your head kicked in, whereas in Paris, dans les cafés . . . Since then I’ve developed an aversion to writing in public. I now think it should be done only in private, like any other lavatorial activity.” On the whole, I like what Geoff Dyer has to say. When I was first starting out as a writer, Geoff Dyer said something nice to me, the kind of thing an established writer says to a new writer that fortifies the new writer’s faith in their own work.
Since then, I’ve based quite a chunk of my writing and teaching careers, and the Writing Maps I make, on writing in public. I like the art of psychogeography more than I like the word itself, and this definition of psychogeography is one I like in particular: “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities . . . just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape.” I want to suggest a few places to write in – places I’ve written in, that have inspired me and sent me off in surprising directions.
So with a nod to Geoff Dyer, I begin with:
L is for Lavatory
What to do there: Look, listen, inhale. Note down 12 details. Then tell the story of a character stuck in a toilet cubicle as they recount a series of events from the present or the past. They could be in the toilets in a departure lounge, at home, a cubicle in the gents at the theatre, a portable toilet at a music festival. Any lavatory will do. A section of Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet is set in the ladies on a campus in Mexico City. “I am in the women’s bathroom in the faculty building and I can see the future,” says Auxilio Lacouture.
Why it’s good for you: Unusual spaces inspire unusual perspectives, which in turn create unique ways of telling a story. To paraphrase Zora Neale Hurston, you don’t have to go there to know there, but it helps to be in certain places to build up a precise vocabulary for naming sensory details.
L is also for: Library, Laboratory, Lobby, Laundromat.
M is for Market
What to do there: Find a market. Pick a colour and write about everything you come across in that colour. Call the piece “20 Greens/Blues [insert colour of choice] in One Hour.” Write about smells and textures. Write about memories. Research three of the items to add details that are new to you. Read Lydia Davis’ story “20 Sculptures in One Hour.” Do a similar exercise for a character. Write down no less than 20 different items.
Why it’s good for you: Practice noticing things and the memories and thoughts they evoke. Pushes you to write more than you think you can.
M is also for: Mall, Mountain, Music Festival, Mosque, Museum.
N is for Nursery (Plants)
What to do there: Choose a plant and write about it. Write about where it sits and what’s next to it. Write about this plant as you would about a new pet you’re about to take home. Ask yourself: What will it be like when it grows? How well will you take care of it? Who else will care for it? Take it home and keep a regular diary about its development.
Why it’s good for you: Have projects on the go that don’t have a known outcome. Starting a blog with a particular focus – baking, mountain climbing, chronic illness, dating – builds up material for a possible book or some short stories.
N is also for: Nursery School, News-stand, Night Bus, Nail Bar.
O is for Opera
What to do there: Sit somewhere you won’t disturb people while you write in your notebook. Tell the story of what is happening on stage. Write about the scenery, the music, the lights. For added value, write in the first person from the point of view of one of the characters, or even several of the characters.
Why it’s good for you: Get used to writing dramatically. Build up a repertoire of retellings of existing stories: folktales, Shakespearean dramas, religious texts.
O is also for: Observatory, Operating Theatre.
P is for Pub
What to do there: Watch people. Write about couples, groups and people sitting on their own. Write about each person until you find someone you want to keep writing about. Push yourself to write until you feel you’ve said everything you want to say. Write because you really want to know what you have to say about this person or couple. Write until you discover something that surprises you.
Why it’s good for you: Stories are everywhere. Some are false starts, others are goldmines. Stay in one place and write until an entire story is done. At least the first draft of it. When your pen is on the scent, be a bloodhound. Keep writing.
P is also for: Public Transport, Prison, Pet Shop, Photo Booth.
Q is for Quay
What to do there: Write about movement. Sit and watch the world go by. Notice the differences between land and water and sky. If you don’t have a quay, a jetty will do, or a harbour, or a river bank. Tell the story of a character who transforms when they move from one element to the other and how this transformation impacts on their life, their relationships, and their daily routines. This could be your own story. For inspiration, watch Le Grand Bleu.
Why it’s good for you: Gets you to think about the drama that happens on the level of place, two very different places side by side, and the tension between them.
Q is also for: Quarry.
R is for Ring (Boxing, Bull)
What to do there: Write about the fight, the battle, the rivalry, the contest. Put into words what the “players” are doing with their hands and feet. Focus on the body. Use the duration of the fight as the framework to your story. Write about what separates the fight from the audience. Riff on the word “ring”: wedding rings, bells that ring, drug rings. What insight does riffing give you into the fight itself. For less violent options, try the tennis/basketball/netball court. Riff on the word “court”.
Why it’s good for you: Being there gives you an understanding you just can’t get from watching the YouTube clip. Yes, this is writing and the imagination is usually enough, but sometimes “you got tuh go there tuh know there.”
R is also for: Radio Station, Riverbank, Rink (Ice), Ring (Circus).
S is for Sports Stadium
What to do there: Arrive early. Write about the place filling up. Write about the thrill of being in a crowd at a sports game about to begin. Write about different roles people have in that setting. For added effect, write in the first person plural in the voice of the crowd,: “We…”. End your story just as the whistle blows, or the players run onto the field, or the national anthem is sung. For guidance, read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” You could combine this with the previous exercise, R is for Ring.
Why it’s good for you: Practice making the build-up to action the main action of the story. Gets you to question where the real drama of a story lies.
S is also for: Swimming Pool, Synagogue, Ship, Spa.
T is for Temple
What to do there: Find a quiet spot. Places of prayer are not always tranquil. You could go in between prayer times when the church or mosque or temple is emptier and calmer; you’ll also draw less attention to yourself. Write about memories of prayer, your own or a character’s. Invent a reason for them being in the house of prater at this point in their life. What do they need to resolve? Write about textures, light, the sounds and smells.
Why it’s good for you: Places evoke memories and memories are stories, or at least a part of a bigger story.
T is also for: Tattoo Parlour, Tent, Theatre.
U is for Underground
What to do there: Spend some time on the Underground, or Subway, or Metro and focus on the people and situations you notice. Find evidence for the following: discovery, delight, amusement, envy, ambition, solidarity, longing, loss, vulnerability, anxiety, isolation. This could work just as well on a train, a bus, a ferry or a plane.
Why it’s good for you: Teaches you to go out into the world as a writer with a mission. Gets you to look for stories in the faces and actions of people outside your familiar world.
U is also for: University Campus.
V is for Veld (or Vast Open Spaces)
What to do there: Go out into nature. A forest, the woods, the veld, your local park. Anywhere where there is grass and shrubs will do. The painter David Hockney said: “To get something fresh you have to go back to nature . . . You can’t be tired of nature. It is just our way of looking at it that we are tired of. So get a new way of looking at it.” Write and meditate until you get a new way of looking at nature. If you’ve never hugged a tree, now’s the time.
Why it’s good for you: Helps you get a new way of looking at nature.
V is also for: Vintage Clothing Shop, Vet.
W is for Waiting Room
What to do there: As in a lot of these writing strategies, the purpose is to observe people in various non-domestic settings. You could find a waiting room to sit in for this exercise, or do it next time you’re waiting to see a doctor, a dentist, or the headmaster. Waiting rooms can be mind-numbing places – waiting in general is a suspended state – so invent stories to liven up your wait. Tell the story of a romance initiated in a waiting room. Start with the words: “This is how they met . . .” Be as schmaltzy or as catastrophic as you can.
Why it’s good for you: Practice using tedium as a starting point for creativity. “I’m bored!” is the hunger for an engrossing narrative.
W is also for: Woods, Waterway, Wall.
X is for X-Rated Stuff
What to do there: Go to a sex shop. Record snippets of conversation. Make lists of items in the shop and who buys what. Buy something and write about how it becomes part of your life. Imagine the lives of two people who work there or who are regular visitors. Write about the profound differences in their personal lives. Tell the story of how their two worlds eventually intersect outside this setting.
Why it’s good for you: Be naughty. Be shocking. Be disruptive. Write stuff that makes you a bit uncomfortable.
X is also for: X-Ray lab.
Y is for Youth Hostel
What to do there: Share a room with strangers, the write about that experience. Write about the ways people negotiate personal space, what is shared and what is not, and how backpackers and staff interact. Write about the long-term and short-term guests, and about how the hostel fits into the surrounding area.
Why it’s good for you: Could be useful research for writing scenes about army barracks, prison, homeless shelters, school dorms or anywhere strangers share sleeping quarters.
Y is also for: Yacht.
Z is for Zoo
What to do there: If, for whatever reason, you can’t manage a zoo, go somewhere with animals: a pet shop, an animal sanctuary. Write briefly about 12 different animals. Use this exercise to explore bigger themes, too: freedom, captivity, “true nature”, memory, etc. Craft what you have written into a zuhitsu.
Why it’s good for you: Explore randomness and juxtapositions. Discover new literary forms.
Z is also for: Zzz (Well-Earned),
The A-to-K of places to write in will come out later this year. Scenes from the forthcoming attraction include: Amusement Park, Beauty Salon, Cemetery and Department Store. Suggestions welcome in the comments below.
Shaun Levin is the author of Seven Sweet Things, A Year of Two Summers, and Snapshots of the Boy, amongst other works. He has taught writing for twenty years, and run workshops in public spaces as well as in more conventional educational settings. He recently published the first three notebooks in The Writing Notebooks series. See more at shaunlevin.com and writingmaps.com.