Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rebecca Rasmussen talks about The Bird Sisters and Writing at Starbucks

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.


larramiefg said...

So young, so wise, so heartfelt and soulful. Rebecca, you're a wonder!

Jessica McCann said...

What a lovely post, Rebecca. I love that you write at Starbucks! I work from home as a full-time writer, so I have full-blown office with filing cabinets, bookshelves, big-old desk. The works. When I'm in here, I tell myself the laundry in the other room doesn't matter. The dirty dishes in the sink can wait. The couch doesn't need me for support. Most days it works. But some days I just have to get out and get a change of scenery -- the park, the library, the food court at the mall (and maybe now Starbucks). We all have to find out space where, as you so beautifully said, we can hear our birds trilling. I'm so happy you found your space. :)

Jessica McCann
Author of the novel All Different Kinds of Free

Melissa Crytzer Fry said...

Wow. I think you might have explained what MY issue is re: the distractedness of home office writing! Sadly, I'm 45 miles from the nearest Starbucks, so that isn't going to happen any time soon. :-)

When I had my own separate, detached office in the back yard in Phoenix (a guest house built to be my full-time office when guests weren't visiting), I could not be deterred. Now that we're in one big open loft space with NO walls, it is ULTRA difficult for me to stay on task - kitchen is in plain view, living room in line of vision, French doors sporting beautiful mountains are in front of my desk, bed is only two steps away! And then there's that Google thing you mention!

What I am going to start trying is "outdoors with the laptop" (though I suspect, given my draw to nature, that this, too, will be distracting. ha ha). Some day I might find my "Starbucks." Then there will be no stopping me :-).

Such a wonderful post. Thanks for sharing your writing process with us.

Jen Erickson said...

This is Rebecca-tastic. I can just see you milling around your apartment and then setting off to Starbucks with a small smile playing around your mouth-lost in your prose and whimsy. Raising my spicy chai to you with a weather-worn Wisconsin hand!

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

Thank you so much everyone for the lovely comments! I can't tell you how much your support has meant to me over the past months and continues to mean to me. You are all the reason this process has been wonderful, and I am grateful to you every day :)

billie said...

Rebecca, this is so funny - I just happened onto your post here - I wrote an oddly similar one yesterday over at November Hill. Love this so much! I wrote claire-obscure in The Third Place, a funky coffee house that for some odd reason allowed me to filter out the world and get to the story. I especially love your last line. How wonderful!

Robby said...

I will shamelessly admit that I love Starbucks, and am steadfast in this love. Maybe I am slightly shameful. But I must read this Bird Sisters book, and soon.

Amy said...

wow. I loved this. Thank you.

Becca said...

Boy, this was so much fun to read - almost as good as sitting down at Starbucks and having one of their ubiquitous coffees with you :)

Women who work at home are always pulled by the siren sound of the home-life. little girls with wrinkled dresses, dirty dishes on the counter, overflowing dustbins, unopened mail. I can understand why you need a place free of all that.

I believe a rather well known novelist once wrote a famous essay about that very thing...A Room of Ones Own.

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