Two years ago I flew to Budapest to chase an independent study. The goal was to study the longstanding tradition of expatriate writers. To read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Pound. To spend long afternoons in European cafes drinking tiny cups of coffee and big mugs of beer, immersed in creative pursuit and attempting to produce a work worthy of that lofty calling. Or the whole trip may have been a contrived way of writing off a plane ticket as a tuition expense to visit Bekah. Hard to say which, and who says it couldn’t be both? And in the end it was Bex who found the perfect café.
Its name was Budapest Bagel. It doesn’t necessarily sound like the type of place that would inspire epic prose, but I promise, it has as much in common with the local neighborhood branch of Einstein’s as Dunkin’ Donuts has with a cathedral. Walking in it’s all high ceilings, chipped paint, and exposed brick. Budapest Bagel does two things: bagel sandwiches and a full bar. Salvaged from communist block architecture, its layout mimics a weird semi-maze with naked pipes snaking around corners and across the ceiling. Rooms are cordoned off by half walls and pillars and separated by obscure unrelated decorating themes. The room I spend most of my time in is decorated with a series of random photographs, one in particular of a large bear with its face pressed to the camera lens. The rafters are crisscrossed with laundry line from which black and white surfing polaroids hang. The first time I visited Budapest Bagel, Sinatra played. The second, gangsta rap. Budapest Bagel eschews trends in favor of what suits them that day. Their atmosphere is dynamic, creative, and almost revolutionary. In the back room, there’s a tattoo parlor.
But despite the discovery of that wonderful writing venue, I did most of my work in a tiny kitchen at 5 a.m., combating jet lag induced insomnia. I sat on a rather uncomfortable wooden stool about a foot shorter than the counter-to-stool ratio called for. There was (what sounded like) the largest congregation of Budapestian pigeons in all of history aggressively cooing at me from the windowsill, apparently having collectively decided to become some sort of urban rooster and announce the dawn.
When I first read Annie Dillard’s A Writing Life I was drawn to her descriptions of varied writing spaces across the timeline of her career. It made me stop and think about my process and also wonder what hoops I had to jump through to make generous friends in possession of cabins on the Oregon coast. Mostly though, I was fascinated by her idea of having different writing spaces for different times in her life. She created a type of temporary permanence through an adopted routine, abandoned when it was no longer useful. She didn’t get caught up in the superstition of it all, like some baseball player in a batting slump. She made the process work for her instead of working for the process.
Writers need activation energy. I need something to get me over the initial thoughts of distraction, of wanting to do something else, of hunger, of wondering if their might be something better on Instagram. I need to something to motivate me to begin. I am an expert in distraction, and those seemingly insignificant details of the writing process are sometimes enough to end everything before it has the chance to begin.
Perhaps the trick isn’t finding the perfect place, the perfect pen, the perfect aesthetic, the correct combination of elbow patches, pipe smoke, and whiskey. Perhaps the trick is simply to not have a trick. Perhaps the trick is to be adaptable, to understand that life is an imperfect notion, that despite what we strive for, our writing, too, will be imperfect no matter our surroundings, that the sooner we embrace our failure, our imperfect writing can speak a perfect truth out of the chaos, through the chaos, or because of the chaos. Perhaps we need to learn to write anywhere, at any time, about anything and stop making excuses to cover our own fear by blaming a missing pen, a slightly off kilter atmosphere, or a bad hangover. Perhaps, we just simply need to write.
The trick, I think, is being there when it happens.
Matt Medendorp (’14) graduated with a writing degree held together by duct tape and a few trips abroad. Currently he lives in Grand Rapids, works for Chaco, and claims to be producing a book of writing and photography from his time in Alaska.