Write about everything. Write about nothing.

"I've seen you beauty and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil."

- Ernest Hemingway, A Good Cafe on the Place St. Michael
A Moveable Feast

Hemingway famously described finding his muse in a Parisian Cafe nestled in that place between the fifth and sixth arrondissements known as the Place Saint-Michel. There, while writing about Michigan, the woman had appeared and sat herself by the window, growing in significance as his hand moved over pages. 

The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.

Disguised in the romance of Hemingway's adoration towards the mystery woman is an openness to inspiration. A call to the kind of creative curiosity to be found anywhere and everywhere if you look hard enough— if you pay attention to the slight alterations in the fabric of the universe happening consistently.

That Hemingway could somehow write about Michigan, failing to fall for the seduction of Parisian cafes, passersby and streets alike is also a lesson in restraint. As a writer prone to that most endearing of all humanity’s flaws, procrastination, Hemingway's choice to write not about the woman in the cafe who moved him but instead, the cold wintry days of Upper Michigan is the stubborn dedication of an artist to his craft. 

I looked at her and she disturbed me and made me very excited. I wished I could put her in the story, or anywhere, but she had placed herself so she could watch the street and the entry and I knew she was waiting for someone. So I went on writing.

Since discovering Hemingway’s essay, 'A Good Cafe on the Place St. Michael' while writing my way through New Orleans' French Quarter in the spring of 2015, I have made it a ritual to do the opposite of what Hemingway did in that cafe— to write about the things that move me in the moment. Free writing my way through stillness, new places, cities, islands, clinics, buses, and coffee shops. I have filled entire notebooks with little movements I could never have felt if my pen wasn't moving in that moment. 

I free write while waiting at the MP Shah Hospital Clinic for my Yellow Fever vaccine (a prerequisite for entry into South Africa) or awaiting bureaucracy at the Nairobi General Post Office (where mail sometimes takes 3 hours to be located if you forget that palms can be lined with notes for faster service). My exercises in free write are a practice in discovering what’s around me. Much like James Baldwin for whom writing was an exploration of the unknown. 

The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you anyway.
— James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78, Paris Review

The result has been some of the most intimate and terrible writing I have ever done. More than that, it has been a retraining of my creative brain, letting it roam within and without the spaces I move through. Allowing me to discover as I did on the ferry to Robben Island that "there are ferries that take you to the end of the world and others to its beginning," or that at the American consulate in Gigiri, Nairobi there are entire kibandas "filled with anxiety, nervousness, new lives, old loves, plane tickets and belongings wrapped amidst the longings for and of the West."

12:05 pm
July 21, 2016
Java House, Capital Centre

"Write about everything. Write about nothing. Write till your pen bleeds and your mind empties. Write until you are moved, angered, stupefied, mystified. Until there is nothing to do but read it all and discover yourself and everyone else around you in your words. Then, write again. 

To read about writing my way through the French Quarter during the 2015 New Orleans Writing Marathon, visit MnArtists.org