You Want Fries with That?
I’m 46, author of a few hundred books, articles, and stories, but I’ll never forget the singular exultation when my second grade English teacher, Mrs. Lehan, announced to my class at the school library that I’d won “honorable mention” in the all-county writing contest (for my gritty and groundbreaking 1976 story, “The Magic Key.” It featured my brother, whose character I neglected to cloak with alias or counterfeit traits. He threatened to sue. He was 10). Despite the litigious upshot of my publication debut, I’ve always dreamed not just of “writing,” but of living a writer’s life—of being a writer. But how would I know when I’d arrived?
Proof of this attainment would not come by my name spelled on a spine like all those famous authors who entered my life through Scholastic Scope. It wouldn’t occur the night I gave my first reading, either, delicately biting the temple tip of my eyeglasses while contemplating a query about my “process” or “muses.” No, for me, being a writer meant only one thing: my own private library where I could read and write in perfect sequestration, amid the multicolored manifestations of literary expertise.
Exactly what incited this fetish escapes me, but I blame the movies. Henry Higgins’s exquisitely appointed two-story library in My Fair Lady, replete with spiral staircase. The stunning, storybook reading room in The Music Man—again, the spiral staircase—could the erudite not manage straight stairs? The library depicted in High Society—why I was watching High Society at eight years old also eludes me—represented the epitome of my library dreams: A full bar! Couches! Marble dancefloor for Frank, Bing, and Grace to cavort a couple of numbers between chapters in The Decline of the West. A similarly inclined young bibliophile today might pine after Hogwarts library (not CGI, but Duke Humphrey’s real Oxford space).
So why is it, now that I’ve built a lovely library for my thousands of beloved tomes, a snug retreat with diffuse light and cushy chairs, that I spend 80 percent of my writing time at the sticky boards of Starbucks? Why do I, in the middle of the night, drive half an hour—I live in the country—to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts, diner, Panera Bread, or Ruby Tuesday to write until dawn?
Well, free WiFi’s nice. I can crank streaming music to my Bose all night with no angst about bandwidth bankruptcy. But that’s not the reason. I think that, like most writers, after 40-odd years committed to this solitary art, suffering what Alice Weaver Flaherty cunningly calls “The Midnight Disease,” I maybe seek the succor of the strangers in the night, the idea that others toil, wonder, and wish with me, albeit fleetingly, obliquely. Often, only I and the single midnight-to-4 a.m. associate occupy whatever bright, cookie-cutter construction I call my library. He behind the counter, I at my ad hoc “desk” (real writers know every table next to every electrical outlet at every late night eatery within 50 miles). Like Bartleby’s boss, I find here society and privacy conjoined.
Lately, my compulsion to abscond from my bookish hermitage has reached the level of clinical disorder—bibliophobia? Anxiety of influence? I recently found myself at a McDonald’s from 2 to 6 a.m., writing an article for Psychology Today with my only company a discombobulated long haul trucker double-fisting two large coffees. McDonald’s! The cultural and architectural opposite of my private Alexandria, with nary a table menu to peruse. So no cup of Earl Grey, but a chocolate shake. No Ivanhoe, but a Filet-O-Fish. And, “Yes, please—large fries.”