Writing in Public
I recently wrote a book (as yet unpublished) at McDonald’s—but not in one visit. To be truthful, significant portions were also composed at Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Der Wienerschnitzel, Taco Bell, Jack-in-the-Box, and Wendy’s. It’s just easier and more fun in a post-Super-size Me world to say I wrote it at McDonald’s. Really, though, the particular place isn’t the point. The point is that even if I’m not writing for publication, at least I’m writing in close proximity to my public.
By day, and lots of nights, I teach mostly indifferent college students to write essays and read literature (I’m known on campus for my “Grammar Talks,” which have goofy titles like “Mysteries of the Apostrophe” and “The Wonderful World of Commas.”). My coming of age as an academic coincided with the proliferation of the personal computer. As a graduate student, I made the transition to word processing (what a horrible word, really—as if words and sentences were like Velveeta). And I never went back to paper and pen, until a few years ago when I decided I wanted to be a “creative writer.” Suddenly, the keyboard was no place for composition. I needed a pen in my hand like some toddlers need to eat dirt. Then I took my pen and notebook to McDonald’s.
I think we think of writers writing in quiet, isolated, low-fat environments, so it’s not surprising that friends sometimes ask why I write at the golden arches. I usually say, “Free soda re-fills.” But seriously, besides the obvious health benefits, there are a number of practical reasons why I am a fast-food writer. For one thing, where else could I go? The library? No food or drink allowed. One of the giant bookstores? Too much pressure to purchase something. And how about the coffee houses, especially since there is one on every street corner? Well, I don’t drink coffee; I don’t like coffee houses, and I’m not particularly fond of people who frequent them.
My real problem, though, is that I can’t seem to write at home. Home is certainly where the heart is, but it is also where the laundry is, and the pets, and the dishes—not to mention email, the www, and Fox Soccer Channel. When I am home, these things refuse to be ignored. I do not have the ability or discipline to set aside the chores and distractions long enough to focus on my writing. One might think that writing in public would be subject to exponentially more distractions than writing in my home or office. Somehow, though, it is easier to tune out, say, the four foul-mouthed, teen-aged girls (yes, girls) who are sitting now in the next booth than the things I care about. Unbelievably, the girls are congratulating themselves for beating up a classmate. The public isn’t always pretty.
More often, the public distractions entertain me, even inspire me, and give me future material. I frequently run into the special kids from the special school in our neighborhood. I love to watch the “kids” interact with each other and their teachers, and there are certainly days when I think that the guys who wear bicycle helmets all the time might know something the rest of us don’t. I want to believe that I feel more comradeship with the challenged kids than pity for them. They are funny, and I try to be funny. Their teachers, though, remind me that my humor writing, besides being profit-less, is remarkably self-indulgent.
I was writing at Wendy’s one day when a train of three people entered the restaurant through its series of two doors. The first person, a tall man, opened the front door and held it open for the next person, another man, but shorter and rounder. As soon as his friend had control of the first door, the first man went on to the second door, which he opened part-way. He stood there in the doorway a moment, reading a sign that hung from the ceiling near the entrance. When he finished reading, he turned back to the second man, who was holding the door for the third member of the group, an older woman who walked with a walker. The first man said loudly, ‘See I told ya: it’s called a ‘Mandar-ian Chicken Salad.’”
The next man replied, “What?”
“It’s called a Man-dar-ian Chicken Salad.”
“Oh,” his friend said. By this time, the old woman with the walker had reached the threshold of the first door.
“What’s he sayin’?” she asked.
“He says it’s called a Man-dar-ian Chicken Salad.”
“Well get it if it’s what you want,” she offered.
“I’m just sayin’ that’s what you call it. That’s all,” said the man who started the conversation.
The Mandarin Chicken Crew probably won’t read my book if it is ever published. For now, though, they are my public (frankly, they seem more kin to me than my academic brethren), and I will continue to write for them and the other nuts (oddballs, crazies, retirees, lonelies, etc) who spend their days in the shadows of the golden arches.