Eric Maisel’s 2005 book, A Writer’s Paris: a guided journey for the creative soul, addresses an all too common experience among struggling writers: finding the time and motivation to write. “At home,” Maisel says, “you can keep yourself busy with the rigors and routines of ordinary life and not quite notice that you aren’t writing. There is always another errand to run, another meal to prepare, another corner of the garden to weed. Time is abundant and easily squandered, and also fleeting and hard to grasp. There is always tomorrow, but never today.”
Washington is full of would-be writers and closet novelists who I’m sure can relate. Anyone who has ever tried to squeeze a writing avocation into the slivers of time between a day (or night) job, family, friends, dry cleaning, groceries, and sleep will understand the fleeting nature of abundant time.
Maisel’s antidote is to go to Paris for an extended sabbatical and write. This may seem like a radical solution to what could be summed up as a simple self-discipline problem. But he is quite serious about it, because Paris is, as he says, “home to the entire intellectual history of the West” and “is the place you go when you mean to put your creative life first…Paris is the place to write.”
Maisel also advocates writing in the public spaces of Paris, for three or four hours a day, because, he writes, for “even for the most productive, published authors, three or four hours of writing is often the maximum.” Write in the cafés a la Hemingway, or in the Louvre, or relaxing in the allees of the Tuileries. Between writing stints, he instructs us to stroll around Paris, taking in the sights and sounds of the city of light, allowing us time to contemplate the larger questions of existence, and maybe find the perfect baguette, too. This is the advice I’m now taking, only I’m doing it right here in Washington.
Washington, believe it or not, compares quite favorably to Paris. While there’s no city on earth quite like Paris, Washington holds its own, a world capital full of energy and creativity. Washington boasts a large population of people from every part of the world, who bring with them their cuisines and world views, infusing Washington with a vitality found in few other places. People from all corners of America flock to Washington as well, whether to further their careers or to attend one of the fine universities within the city. And we can’t overlook local Washingtonians, whose families and traditions and neighborhoods inspired the likes of Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Edward P. Jones, to name just a few. The diverse denizens of Washington make it a cosmopolitan place, not so much a melting pot as a stew pot, rich in culture and thick with ideas.
There are world class museums scattered throughout the city, and embassies that host art shows and concerts. The largest library in the world, the Library of Congress, is a Metro ride away. Wonderful food abounds, from traditional French to soul food to Ethiopian to little places where the cab drivers congregate for lunch. (If cabbies eat there, it’s good food.) Washington has a vibrant theater life, behind only New York and Chicago, and also boasts a world class symphony, opera, and ballet company. Finally, Washington is a wonderfully walkable city, famous for its triangle parks and green squares, its fountained circles and city gardens, its monuments and architecture. Washington, I would argue, has everything to feed a writer’s soul, and his stomach.
Like many other writers I’ve met in Washington, I’ve got a problem of time and motivation. I keep my lap top on a table in my apartment next to a stack of unpaid bills and mail. Next to the table is a chair piled with laundry that needs to be folded, and next to that a stack of unread books has toppled over on the floor. Because writing, by its very nature, is hard, I’ve found it easier to occupy myself with not writing each day after work. I’m not motivated to write in my apartment. But strolling through the mad swirl of happy dogs in Lincoln Park, my spirits rise. Gazing at the city laid out before me from the big window in the Hirshorn Museum or watching the sparrows soar and dive under the great canopy inside the National Building Museum, or simply having a chili dog at Ben’s, and I am positively inspired.
So I’ve taken to writing in different places around the city. One sunny Friday morning in January found me at Murky Coffee near Eastern Market, writing among the cops and law students and hill staffers who filed in and out, buying their morning doses of caffeine. On such days, I’ll eat lunch at the Southwest fish market, buying a sandwich from Captain White’s and eating it with a view of the Washington Channel and the circling gulls. I might find myself under I.M. Pei’s little pyramids at the National Gallery, the tiny, lopsided cousins to the Louvre’s. At a table facing the rushing cascade behind the glass wall that fascinates children who can’t help but try and touch the water, I sip coffee and write. And I’ll stroll the streets of DC, the Hill in all it’s Victorian glory, colonial Georgetown, the European flavor of Upper Dupont, the eclectic energy of Adams Morgan. I’ve tried coffee all over the city, Love Café, Tryst, Open City, Murky, and I’ve got more to try.
My plan seems to be working. I’ve been writing, and, more importantly, I look forward to doing it. I’ve found that I can’t wait until I have more time to write, because I will never have more time than I have right now. And I can’t wait until I’m in the perfect place to write, either. DC may not be Paris, but it’s where I live right now.