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Literary Smackdown

Joëlle Anthony vs. Rabindranath Maharaj: Write in private/write in public

We've teamed up with The Next Chapter to present The Canada Writes Literary Smackdowns, an essay series in which authors sound off on various writing topics. No writers were injured in the making of this series.

Battle Six: If solitude makes for the most fertile writing environment, why do so many people write in coffee shops? Joëlle Anthony has taken solitary writing to an extreme, with a "writing house" built in the woods. Meanwhile, Rabindranath Maharaj can be found typing away at a coffeeshop on any given day. What do you think—are you on Team Joëlle or Team Rabindranath?

Joëlle Anthony: Write in private

The only way to quiet my mind enough to hear my story is to surround myself with silence. When I’m in public, I can’t shut out other conversations. My husband is a musician and we always joke that when we go for a meal together, neither of us say anything the entire time because he’s listening to the restaurant’s music, and I’m stuck on the chatter around me. 
As we leave, he’ll say, “Did you know they had East Indian Christmas carols?” 

And I reply, “What? No. But that blonde by the window just had an operation. I’m not sure what it was for. Either a boob job or she had her appendix removed. Maybe both.”

The idea of writing in public is laughable to me. I can’t even read in a café, let alone ask my imagination to string fresh words together. Everything is a distraction—the arguing couple begs to be eavesdropped upon, the espresso machine whirrs and blurs my mind, the absolute adorableness of the toddler in pink makes me wonder if I should write picture books instead of novels. 

For years I had an office in our house, but my husband works from home too, and quiet time was always a negotiation. We would bargain every morning…if I could have absolute silence until two o’clock, then he could make his phone calls on my snack break from eleven to eleven-fifteen. If I was writing new material, then no music was permissible, but if I planned to edit, he could play his guitar—tunes only though, no songs because the words would make my brain sing along. 

Last summer, we finally realized I would never be the writer I wanted to be, and he would never be the guitar player he aspired to, if I didn’t leave home to write. Or at least vacate the premises for six hours a day. So, I designed an eight-by-twelve cabin with a reading nook, and we hired a builder. In December, I moved my treadmill desk out my new haven, Chateau Joëlle, and here amongst the fir trees, I relish the solitude as well as the silence. No phones, no pets, no internet. Only rain on the skylight. Now the words know where to find me.

Joëlle Anthony lives on a tiny island in British Columbia, where she is a writer and sometimes-actress. Her second novel, The Right and the Real, will be released on May 1. Her debut novel, Restoring Harmony, set in futuristic Canada and Oregon, was long-listed for the Best Fiction for Young Adults 2010, by the American Library Association. 

Rabindranath Maharaj: Write in public

I began writing at a coffee shop in Ajax, Ontario, about fourteen years ago. My children were young and it was difficult to set aside a block of uninterrupted time for writing. The coffee shop I chose was near an old GM plant and the customers had worked there at some time or the other. I soon fell into a group of old-timers whose conversations were frequently about the Canada of their youth. They spoke about the war, the long cold winters, the jobs they did, and about how the place had changed. As an immigrant, this was both fascinating and instructive.

That coffee shop is now closed, and my children no longer live at home. But I continue to write at two coffee shops in Ajax. At a much earlier time this would have seemed impractical. Quite apart from this sort of public writing seeming a bit pretentious, I would have imagined the noise and the constant interruptions to be intolerable. I would have imagined other inconveniences: forgetting my pen or notebook at home, my laptop’s battery running out, disliking the service or the coffee. 

I have a fair idea why, in spite of my earlier fears, I have continued to write away from home. There are fewer temptations to loiter in the coffee shop, and because my time is limited to three or four hours, I find that once I am settled in, the worries of the day fall away. For those few hours, I am free from debt, obligations, and family matters. I am free from the temptations of television, sleep, and magazines. Whenever I try to write at home I am inevitably swamped by the weight on my desk: the stack of papers, the opened books; all the clutter.

Yes, the coffee shop is occasionally noisy. Business folks talk aggressively into their phones and there can be a constant stream of movement. However, the nearby conversation is different from, say, a question or statement from my daughter. Additionally, I believe that the process of distancing myself from the noise forces me to focus more on my writing. After a while, all the sounds fade into the background.

Not all coffee shops are equal. Places that are too cramped, where the tables are set too close together, where food is served, where folks peer into your notebook and ask how the writing is coming along or volunteer their own stories, are all useless. For these reasons, I have never been able to write in Trinidad when I visit.

For me, my coffee shop is a little sanctuary. On my way there, I feel my senses sharpening as I think of a particular scene or character. My mood changes too. I become more reflective; more at peace. And I wouldn’t dream of writing any other way.

Rabindranath Maharaj is the author of five novels and three short story collections. His books have been nominated for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (twice), The Rogers Fiction Prize, and The Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award. His most recent novel, The Amazing Absorbing Boy, won the 2011 City of Toronto Book Award and the 2011 Trillium English Language Fiction Prize. Maharaj was born in Trinidad and now lives in Ajax, Ontario. 

Joëlle Anthony photo credit: Victor Anthony
Rabindranath Maharaj photo credit: Vicky Maharaj

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set count down final date: 11/01/2014
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