Notes on Writing in Cafes, Writing in Cafe Odéon
I started writing in cafes when I landed in Zurich as a graduate student fresh from four years of undergraduate life at Dartmouth and hungry to learn the craft of writing while studying languages and philosophy at the University, or Uni, as it was called. Cafe Odéon, one of the great cafes of the world, was where I lived for the better part of a year, spewing forth with mad scribblings in my journal, long letters home, random sketches and lots of cartoonish drawings, between sips of black espresso -- bitter enough to pucker my lips and wire my brain. While I wrote, I watched people, students like myself from every country in Europe, and took long, deep drags on nasty Gauloise cigarettes (which were famous for turning one's teeth black in less than a fortnight of inhalation). Zurich was a magical place, indeed, and on my second day of arrival, lost and somewhat disoriented by the local dialect of Züritüütsch, I managed nonetheless to visit the Fluntern cemetery in the hills above the city and pay homage to my mentor who was buried there — the great James Joyce.
Cafe Odéon, as I discovered, is where Joyce happened to write large portions of Ulysses, and where Lenin sat out most of World War I, in exile, gulping coffee while brainstorming plans for the Russian Revolution that followed. My time in Odéon was not quite so glamorous, though I wrote feverishly and often for hours at a time. All of my writing was in longhand, a semi-legible scrawl in long strokes of black pen. You see, I had an obsession about pens, searching endlessly in the shops in Zurich for just the write one to spill out my guts in the many languages I was studying at the Uni. I learned that spontaneity was everything: you had to trust your instincts and your first drafts, without interference from your inner critic. At Dartmouth, I had honed my critic well to write term papers and final exams, but not to write imaginatively or with passion.
Odéon was a precursor to my later days at Starbucks, where I go on occasion now to drink espresso and write fiction, but not in longhand. I work only on a laptop, pounding the keys in an effort to construct a semi-coherent paragraph. Rarely do I pick up a pen, however, except to jot down fragments of ideas and characters and those strange places that come to me in my dreams. But I'm still haunted by memories of Odéon, and those early days of serving my writer's apprenticeship under the watchful eye of my boss, Mr. Joyce. If you'd like to read an excerpt from my novel GROK that's set in Zurich, where the hero of the story goes to visit the tombstone of Joyce and meets a wonderful Englishwoman with whom he falls in love.
The key to good writing, as I discovered, could be summed up in one word: spontaneity. It was all about seizing the moment, capturing the ebb and flow of daily life. I also learned the art of conversation, of extended dialogues with my fellow students, a motley crew from the U.K., France, Germany, every Scandinavian country. I became a polyglot.