One of my favorite novels of the year has got to be The Bird Sisters. About the fierce bonds of sisterhood and the pull of the past, it's as poetic as it is page-turning. I was delighted that I got to meet the amazing Rebecca Rasmussen at AWP this year. Smart, funny, with a heart the size of Jupiter-that's Rebecca. The Bird Sisters is forthcoming from Crown/Random House in April 2011. Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, The Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in fiction from the Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and daughter and teaches at Fontbonne University.
I asked Rebecca is she'd write something for the blog (I love her writing, and The Bird Sisters just knocked me out.) Thank you, Rebecca!
Why I Write at Starbucks
By Rebecca Rasmussen
I always think I need a desk. My husband and I have lived in more apartments than we can count, from the East Coast to the West Coast to our current apartment in St. Louis, and in each one of these I find a nook—a closet, an attic, an entranceway—to make my own.
My latest nook is not nearly as nice as the others have been. It is an enclosed porch at the back of the apartment. The space is three feet by five feet, the floor is scratched white vinyl, and the walls are red brick, but not in the chic-exposed-brick way, in the man-this-brick-is-ugly way. The ceiling? Dark brown bead board that drips varnish onto my shoulders when St. Louis gets particularly humid. So, say, four months out of the year. There is a nice little spider that lives with me, though. She spins achingly delicate little webs in the corner I’ve given over to her. I call her Fern.
My nook gets unbearably hot in the summer and cold in the winter because it lacks even the slightest layer of pink fiberglass insulation. Either I can see my breath or I can see the sweat ringing its way down my T-shirts. I have a cute bamboo leaning desk from Crate and Barrel that I told my husband I had to buy.
“I’m a writer,” I said. “Writers need desks.”
I have collected a gathering of African Violets and Jades and a plant my daughter grew from a sprouted grapefruit seed she and her father found at breakfast one morning. (We’re all waiting for it to yield grapefruits—each for our own reasons.) I put up gauzy blue curtains to cover the urban sprawl that is our backyard—that sinister field of buzzing transformers that predicts the weather better than any person could or does. When the wires are singing, it’s best not to go outside. Lightning is coming. I put up pictures of birds, from North America, New Guinea, Australia. I mounted my old-fashioned barometer that always says, “Clear skies. Have a nice day.”
I should have been ready to work. And yet, this office, like every other office I have attempted to covert and occupy over the years, goes unused by me, even if the temperature is just right and the transformers are quiet and the light is warm and lovely.
“I’m writing,” I say to myself at home, which means I should be writing, but instead I’m looking for inspiration in the refrigerator, in the cabinets, in the stubborn wrinkles in my daughter’s dresses. I’ll iron before I write at home. I’ll ponder the vacuum. I’ll think Bach or Yo-Yo Ma will solve this distractedness. Then a cup of tea. Yes, nice green tea. Tea cookies? Do spiders get hungry for something sweeter than gnats or flies? Maybe I should Google that. Maybe I should Google the oil spill in the Gulf and watch the robots trying to patch together the future miles beneath the surface of the sea. Maybe it’s all utterly hopeless and I should just take a nap and hope I dream about ice cream cones and spun sugar. Because in a few hours I have to teach the mildly evil literature class and then pick up my daughter from pre-school and then make dinner and then go back to campus and teach the really evil literature class for four and a half hours. Yes, sleep. It’s all so daunting.
I am a mess at home.
All of my artistic friends can’t believe this truth: that I write my novels at Starbucks.
“Couldn’t you at least pick somewhere a little more artsy?” they say. “The Bird Sisters? At an environmentally irresponsible corporation that panders to the crowd mentality? They don’t even recycle? Don’t tell me you use Splenda, too?”
“I recycle my cups at home,” I say meekly. “I just bought a reusable one.”
“It’s just so blah there,” they say.
What they don’t know is that I write at Starbucks precisely because of its blahdom, because I can sit for hours without anyone bothering me, because the walls are always the same color and the straws are always green, because I hear the same music every day—Sinatra, Sinatra, Sinatra, oh wait, is that Streisand sneaking in there, too?—because even the coffee is anonymous and predictable, and there is something comforting about that.
(I’m here now—writing this.)
The outer me makes way for the inner me here in this short-backed chair. I can sit still here. I can think of all things old here, all the things I really love:
yellowed letters, polished sideboards, hope chests and intricate lacework, promises kept and broken, rolling hills and winding rivers. Sentences that glint like the sun in the puddle-ruts of red dirt roads. I can think of Wisconsin and Minnesota, of girlhood, of forest and farm country, of home.
I am more me here than anywhere else.
What I have to do—teach, cook, mother, worry—falls away and I hear the worries of my characters, their hopes, their dreams, and their startling disappointments.
Although there are no birds here, only here can I hear them trilling.