Joanna Tebbs Young
CIRCLES OF COMMUNITY
Life sometimes has a funny way of giving you exactly what you need.
Yesterday I found myself with a few hours to kill in Burlington, and since this column was due, er, yesterday, I went to Barnes and Noble to work on it. Well, that didn’t go so well.
I have a temperamental relationship with coffee shops and cafés. As a freelancer, I am home most of the time because that is where I work best. But occasionally I find I need to get out and mingle with the masses. In other words, head to Speakeasy Café or The Bakery or Northshire Bookstore’s Spiral Press Café or Panera.
One necessary trait of being a writer is the ability to observe. One cannot write successfully about the real world in nonfiction or the world represented in fiction if one doesn’t observe the world and those living in it. I am a keen observer. I watch and listen. Unfortunately, this “skill” has its downside: often I observe to distraction. Unless I am already “in flow” on a piece, heading to a coffee shop to work is the last thing I should do, because work ends up being the last thing I do.
So, yesterday as I sat in the Barnes and Noble café alternating my gaze between coffee-drinking, book-browsing people and the blinking cursor on a (still) blank screen, I noticed someone I thought I recognized. Distinguished-looking in a long coat, he was arranging books on a table and taking photos of them with his phone. I realized who it was. Knowing this person is an avid Twitterer, I looked up his account. Sure enough, there was the picture he had just taken. I tweeted at him. From 100 feet away. What a strange new world this is!
Chris Bohjalian, other than being a prolific author of powerful, important-issue novels, wrote the column “Idyll Banter” for the Burlington Free Press for over twenty years. It was reading the anthology of the same name when it was first published in 2003 that, not being a newspaper reader, alerted me to the fact that “Columnist” was a thing a writer could be — and I wanted to be one.
Chris — over Twitter — invited me to say hello IRL (in real life), which I did. I introduced myself by telling him I had written about him after he came to Rutland to do a reading of “The Guest Room” for the opening of Phoenix Books three years ago. He asked how my writing was going, and I admitted I was here attempting to write my column, which wasn’t going so well (too distracted by watching and tweeting at famous authors). In response, he shared something with me: When you have a regular writing deadline, you are thinking about what you will write all the time. It is on your mind constantly. It becomes your life. As he said this, I thought, well that’s not quite the case for me, otherwise I wouldn’t be struggling to find something to write about today.
But after I returned to my table and laptop, where that cursor was still blinking away waiting for my words, I realized he was right. Almost every waking moment of my life is potential writing material, and I, practically unconsciously, look at the world in that light. “I could write about that. I should write about that. I wonder if I’d be brave enough to write about that. That would make a funny/poignant/interesting piece… etc. etc.” While I may not be actively contemplating this column on a daily basis, my life is dedicated to observing, experiencing, expressing and sharing.
One of my (many) favorite quotes from diarist Anais Nin, is this: “We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection.” What I am “tasting” right now is the irony and full-circle-ness of this writing today: I became a columnist because Chris Bohjalian inspired that desire in me. Five years later, while struggling to pin down my thoughts for a column, Chris appears and re-inspires me, providing himself (unwittingly) as the very writing material I needed. (Thank you, Chris!)
We live in a small state, and this personal interaction most likely wouldn’t have happened in a bigger place. I’m not sure I’d even have had the opportunity to become a columnist in a larger community. It was through the local coffee shop that I met the person who would eventually hire me for this job. (I’ve written before about my belief that coffee shops are the backbone of a creative, connected community.)
We are so fortunate to live here, where it is easier — even for introverted, homebodies like me — to connect with people. No one needs to be anonymous; if they choose, they can reach out and find others to talk to, relate to, resonate with, be helped by, and be inspired by. It is the connection with others which, studies so often show, can make a, sometimes vital, difference in a person’s life.
While I may be primarily an observer, I was reminded once again how important it is also to personally connect. Do things, go places, meet people, learn new things, and this city, this state, makes that easy to do; people, places and activities are accessible. In order to taste life twice, you have to take a first bite (and aren’t coffee shops a great place to get a bite?). Often, happily unexpected things can happen when you do.