meet me at the bodega

Journal THAT

a guide to writing

Cynthia Gregory

Journal writing got you down? Does the pen weight fifteen pounds, the paper cut you to ribbons? Does the shifting light hurt your eyes? Are you feeling totally uninspired, pooky? I have good news for you.

This may be the best ever secret weapon nearly guaranteed to make your journaling a pleasurable and inspiring experience. This information is so good it could be considered cheating – except it isn’t. It’s so good it should almost be illegal or sold with a special license. Nevertheless, here it is for you, the solid gold journaling tip of the year: pick up your journal and walk. Directly to the busiest coffee shop you can find. The kind of coffee shop is entirely up to you.

The place itself can be a youthful hipster java cave where a black tee shirt is very nearly the required uniform and where you are soo out of touch with the music, the cultural references, the technology. It can be a very groovy in a retro kind of place where the waitresses wear those polyester pseudo nurse outfits, with crisp white aprons tied in bow in the back and where the donut case is always stocked with powdered sugar sprinkled old fashioneds.  Doesn’t matter.

Once you select your target, enter the writing zone with all the necessary tools and secure a table. So much is negotiable about this drill, but this part is not: you must order enough beverage and/or food to ensure a dependable cover. Your passage on this part of the journaler’s journey requires that you honor your host – the one who provides you with the context of all this rich material – with an offering that reflects appreciation for all the trouble he or she has gone to in order for you have a nice, clean, well-lit writing surface, a place to rest your iced tea, a den peopled with characters to sketch, a platform upon which to balance a snack while you go about your journaling duty.

Here is the question: how can you not find something to write about here? My goodness, there is so much material in this fabulous den it’s almost immoral to shrink from the duty to write. Did you know that in the archetypal studies of fiction, the coffee house, the bar, the watering hole is one of the most holy places in which a plots twist, where complications arise, transactions occur?  The Mos Eisley Cantina, the bar in Star Wars, the Whistle Stop Café in Fried Green Tomatoes, the Tropicana where Ricky Ricardo occasionally allowed Lucy to perform as an outlet for her outrageous talent?  The watering hole is where information is exchanged, a place that urges the hero to fulfill her next mission in the quest. In this context, the watering hole is wherever you choose it to be and the hero is you.

The bodega is like the telegraph office, where lessons are imparted, instructions delivered. By placing yourself squarely in the heart of your local cantina, you are putting yourself smack in the middle of the most strategically magnetic place in which to attract writing material. (I recommend against writing in an actual bar where alcohol is the beverage of choice, for the obvious reason that while it might make good fiction, it makes lousy writing practice).

So here you are in your café; look around. There are so many topics to bounce into and fill all those crisp empty pages. There is food. Check out that menu! There are customers you couldn’t make up on your best, most fecund day. The décor is an encyclopedia of material. The foot traffic going by outside the window is a screenplay waiting to happen. Maybe you’ve got a host of memories stirred up by the smell of grease, fantasies ignited by the sound of a steamer frothing up milk in a pitcher.  Did you waitress your way through college and learn how to balance eight plates on your arms? What is your favorite café experience? Your worst? What about that woman you saw that firm morning in Paris when you finally made it there after so many years of promises to yourself, and found that café in the St. Germain de Pres just blocks away from the Pont Neuf? There she was, sitting in that sidewalk café looking like something out of central casting, with her black sleeveless dress, black, wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, perfect blond chignon, sipping a glass of chardonnay at nine o’clock in the morning, sharing a table with a man who was maybe her nephew, her grandson, her lover? You savored your own cappuccino and croissant with a fabulous mysterious cheese and felt as if in that moment, you were somehow bigger than life.

You see where you can go with this?

So on those days when you know you should be journaling but just can’t find it in you to examine your own life? Get thee to a coffee shop. Let that java jolt seep into your blood and see where it carries you. This may just be the best tip ever. Use it, and then use it again.

32 thoughts on “meet me at the bodega

  1. I have 3 daughters. One had judo class. The other had a cheerleading meeting. I took my notebook into each and people watched. The grand total was backgroudn on 3 potential new characters, a blog post about being involved with your kids mundane stuff, and song lyrics to something that would have been poplular in 1991.

    • Hey Lance,
      The traveling journal is amazing writing practice! I always say I am a voyeur/writer because almost everything I write starts with a journal entry. Thank for joining the conversation.

  2. Great post, I couldn’t agree more. I spent my twenties writing in coffee shops. I loved it. Back then that’s what people did. Now people write on the computers, laptops. I posted a recent story on my blog about a baristra who was driving me bonkers, she was just so rude and wouldn’t stop being rude. So I used my reaction to her and wrote a little character sketch. It was a lot of fun.

  3. Love the reference to Mos Eisley Cantina. And I’m glad to know there are other travelling journalers out there. I’m never anywhere without a small notebook and paper — even if it’s just to write down a prompt. I wish I had more flexibility to get up and go — I know the day will come.

    • I love the prompts. I have journals full of them. Sometimes they take flight, sometimes they dig into the mud. The important thing is the witnessing. The ideas may come around again, but I don’t think they ever return in quite the same way.

  4. What excellent advice to get your pen moving! I had breakfast at the same restaurant for seven years— the folks who worked and ate there taught me how to write dialogue. I learned so much just by being present. Because I was freelance (writing) heavily during that time, having a daily get-out-of-the-house ritual kept me from becoming feral. Ah, thanks for this!

    • You are so welcome. I love the idea of breakfast writing. . .and what better place to eavesdrop for dialog than a cafe? Heck yeah. Anais Nin said that here best ideas came when she was out *living life, not sitting at a desk. I like that.

    • You are so welcome. I love the idea of breakfast writing. . .and what better place to eavesdrop for dialog than a cafe? Heck yeah. Anais Nin said that here best ideas came when she was out *living life, not sitting at a desk. I like that.

      • Anaïs Nin was fabulous with dialogue. Good call!

        I tried to stay out of the most personal stuff— unless the speakers were being especially loud. In which case, I felt as though I had free rein to siphon a little bit of their conversation for my page.

        In addition to all that, I’m now remembering how many strange things people will say in public— to the general public!

        Unfortunately, my favorite restaurant closed. It had been around for 70 years. It took me two years to become a “regular.” (I ate there, daily, for seven years total.) I’ve been looking for a new occasional hang-out spot, but not with any heart.

        Your essay is prompting me to really start poking around my neighborhood and find some place to go with my notebook.

      • I know what you mean about staying out of the clutter that people will generously share in public. Still, sometimes it’s so astonishing, you just can’t help but scoop it up. Anyhow, the neighborhood is calling; there are only two answers. Say yes!

  5. I love your advice. :) This afternoon, after work and the chiropractor, I may just make my way over to a Starbuck’s or similar cafe situation! (It’s an excellent place for fictional inspiration as well. ;) )

    Other good places I’ve found locally: Bookstores, Panera, Earth Fare..

  6. Reblogged this on Hectic November and commented:
    I’ve been re-blogging a lot recently on my main blog, The Lady Expounds. However, I think this falls into a more artistic realm. (I may still post it to TLE, because it’s also related to journaling in general.)

  7. This was a great reminder. I am taking my journal and heading out in the morning to the local diner near me where I am going to sit with a big cup of coffee and a plate of french toast and see what comes out of my pen!

  8. Love this, Cynthia — and you’re a wit, for sure! ;)

    For me, I’d have to say the local wine bar fits the bill (yes, I take that “cantina” option quite literally) complete with an all-star cast of character types and interesting situations.

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