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Tongue-Tied Poet; Writing Spaces

October 8, 2010 | by

Dear Lorin,

I am giving my first ever “real” poetry reading in a few weeks. Whenever I go to readings, the writers are charming and chatty and tell stories in between selections of their work. How do you do that? I am not at all confident in my ability to improvise witty remarks in front of an audience. It’s nerve-wracking enough reading the poems! —Tongue-tied

Dear Tongue-tied,

It’s not your job to be ingratiating. Leave that to lounge singers. I find it embarrassing when a poet tries to be liked, or explain what he or she was thinking when she wrote blah-blah-blah. Patter is just a distraction—an apology.

My advice: Memorize the poems you plan to read. Anything spoken by heart commands attention. Bring the poems with you, so you can consult them if need be—but really, the way to win an audience over is to get up there, say your poems in a loud, clear voice, face out. Then say thank-you and get off stage.

You’ll kill.

Dear editors of The Paris Review:

I find it difficult to focus on writing when I'm working from home. Do you have any recommendations for spots in New York to haul your laptop to? I’m looking for a place that inspires literary greatness, like the Rose Reading Room, but with later hours. Or maybe some advice on how to handle distractions at home?

Best, Helen

Dear Helen,

The Rose Reading Room is one of my favorites, too. Here is a list of writers’ spaces, some with late hours. I can't vouch for any of them, but I did use to get work done in the back room at Cafe Pick-Me-Up, on Avenue A, and at Housing Works, in Soho. Another strategy—if, like me, you’re shy about using a laptop in public—is to leave the computer at home: Print out whatever it is you’re working on, triple-spaced, and take the typescript and a notebook to a dive bar with loud music. (That way you won't overhear anybody talking.) When I lived in a crowded apartment on Elizabeth Street, I did extensive edits and wrote long memos in the back room at Botanica, on Houston. I suspect you could do the same at the Holiday Lounge, on St. Marks—really anywhere that isn’t very friendly.

Also, in my experience earplugs are underrated. The trick (they don't say this on the package) is to lick your fingers and twist the plugs into thin little cones before you insert them. It sounds kind of gross, but it works.

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  1. Sharanya | October 8, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Any responses for the last part of Helen’s questions? “Or maybe some advice on how to handle distractions at home?”
    Not all of us live in New York, but many of us do have to work from home and deal with it!

  2. Lorin Stein | October 8, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    Sorry, I was thinking of earplugs for home. Another trick–one that I use when visiting my parents, for example–is to put on an old record I know by heart. The last time I translated a book it was to Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire. No one can describe the Wailers as white noise, but the songs are so familiar they had that effect. They kept me from hearing the football game upstairs, or either parent talking to the cats.

    The truth is, it is very hard to find quiet public spaces now. Whence your local Starbucks. (I can’t work in Starbucks. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, it fills me with despair. Something to do with the enforced Newspeak of calling a “small” a “tall”? or being made to talk fake Italian?)

    The poet Joe Wenderroth wrote a whole collection in Wendy’s, if the poems are to be believed. When I have to work in a foreign city, I look for the nearest branch library. Nowadays, though, many of these have reduced hours. And in lots of them the “library-like atmosphere” enforced on an Amtrak Quiet Car seems to be a thing of the past. I’ve never had the chutzpah to do this, but it has occurred to me that one could dress up, walk determinedly into a large hotel, and sit in the comfiest armchair in the lobby–explaining, if anyone asks, that you’re killing a few hours before an appointment. You might get free WiFi thrown into the bargain …

    I’ll be grateful if readers have better ideas of their own.

  3. Paul R. | October 8, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    A broom closet. With earplugs ~and~ blinders.

  4. Sharanya | October 9, 2010 at 10:47 am

    Ooh yes – the music on loop one is excellent. I do that quite often myself, though I’d never really thought about why.

    One thing I recently discovered – and this was probably always incredibly obvious to many people, sorry – is that it’s important to have your computer in one room, and sleep in another. I had the luxury of doing that for a few weeks while a family member was abroad, and it did wonders for my mind – it helped me focus on reading books for instance, rather than constantly being online. Part of it was surely to do with the physical separation itself, but there’s definitely something to be said for the psychic space the notion of an office empowers the writer with.

  5. Kelley | October 12, 2010 at 12:28 am

    “You just have to sit your ass in the chair and do it.”

    So many beautiful, intelligent, and interesting things have been said on the writing process, and yet this is the only advice that has ever really helped me. Thanks to Laurie Lawlor, children’s book author, my former fiction professor and total bad ass.

    Everyone has some little tick or trick, but when it comes down to it, our inability to focus may be more of an unwillingness to focus (more so than we’d like to admit). Get away from the internet, leave your phone in the other room, and don’t listen to anything that’s going aid your fantasy life and not aid your writing. Be honest with yourself about what you need to do to write, not where you need to go to do it. You’ll figure it out.


  6. Rwana Y. | October 19, 2010 at 9:07 am

    interesting … but….

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