There’s a place I know in downtown Broadstairs, a quiet little unassuming café called The Old Curiosity Shop with a rich literary past. They have skeletons, not in their closets but in an actual well, that sits at the heart of the café, with (probably) real skeletons, a ton of hopeful coinage and accumulated wishes. A generous multi-faceted, meeting place where the winter clientele, on any given day might include anyone; from bin men to foreign students, ladies who lunch and all-weather dog walkers with their shaky, wet dogs wearing coats of many colours.
Nearly four years ago, struggling to write, I discovered by accident that the words came more easily in a neutral, peopled atmosphere, but the most important thing was that it had to be away from home. It sounds sacrilegious I know, but the truth is home comes with identity baggage and to be authentic in my writing I need to slough off the labels of; wife, mother, grandmother and something even more constraining, the guilt monster who manifests in the form of mental, should be’s, i.e. you should be doing something worthwhile, something you get paid for, or cleaning yes cleaning’s okay because it has an end result, serves a purpose, qualifies time spent, with the added bonus that you can see where you’ve been, instead of being engaged in the useless pursuit of creative writing.
So, I approached Sam, the proprietor of The Old Curiosity Shop to ask if I might, on-a-daily-basis, sit in the corner for hours at a time and write. He not only said yes but welcomed me in, encouraging me to plug my computer in to the café’s electricity supply and reader it was magical! Let me be clear, I’m not saying they have special electricity with creativity inducing properties, but almost immediately I was able to write a sex scene, (I have trouble just writing the words, sex scene so you can imagine how hard it might be to flesh out in words, an imagined one) I had been avoiding for months. Now, leaving my identity at the door, sitting in the steamy, convivial atmosphere, inhaling the scent of excellent coffee, I was able to sit outside myself as my head opened and the words flowed.
At first, I imagined cultivating an aura of froideur, a sense of mystique to prevent unwanted enquiry, the equivalent of hiding your paper with your arm in a school exam, to keep the girl sitting next to you from copying, but that is so not me, I was brought up in a village where you knew and spoke to everyone so I stopped that immediately and thank goodness! Soon I began to put names to faces and through mingling, learned about the lives of the café’s inhabitants and gradually became a part of this very special, shared community with its’ sense of belonging. Now, for a least one special lady I am known as Writer Ruth, a new identity is forming but one I can work with.
People sometimes wonder how I concentrate with all the noise and bustle at busy times, but for me; the voices, the cooking sounds and chair scrapes all coalesce into a wonderful aural tapestry that I drift in and out of as I spend time in my head. Occasionally the sound of a robust debate about for example the effects of; Brexit, gender transitioning or other hot topics, might temporarily drag me away from my Greek island, the setting of my novel, but only ever temporarily, here the call of words is strong.
The only fly in the ointment is having to carry the combined weight of the café’s expectations for me, which are high because J.K. Rowling once wrote a bestseller in one. I realise as I write this, that I can’t blame J.K. Rowling herself, as cursory research shows just what an inspiring advocate of the craft she is, borne out in her considerable personal and financial support. No, it’s her legions of fans who have caused the problem, spinning the myth and embellishing the rags to riches legend. Everyone loves a good story and I can’t bear the disappointment on the faces of the people I have come to care about, when I must answer their tentative enquiries by breaking it to them that I haven’t yet finished my novel, let alone found a publisher. And although I am fully aware of the foolhardiness of trying to birth a book into the current cold light of day, for their sakes and my own, I will die trying.
My thanks to Sam, Jill and all at the Old Curiosity Shop.