In Sarah Bruni’s impeccably titled debut novel, The Night Gwen Stacy Died, a drifting 17-year-old girl colludes in her “abduction” by a near-stranger who calls himself Peter Parker. The two flee to Chicago, embarking on both a surreal love story and a heroic attempt to demystify one of Parker’s strange visions. Here’s Bruni on where she does and doesn’t write:
I used to pretend I could write in cafés. I’d pack up my laptop in whatever city I happened to be living in, walk/bike/drive across town, and install myself at a table in one of these public spaces. I worked behind the counter serving coffee in enough cafés throughout my twenties where I saw other people in postures that appeared productive, so I sometimes reasoned I could expect the same of myself. But unlike all those who seem to have no problem imagining their tables as sovereign territories, remote and isolated, I have never felt this way. In the close quarters most cafés in urban areas offer, I am an eavesdropper, my eyes wander, I get approached, and—despite being an introvert in nearly every other facet of my life—I will strike up conversations with strangers. After years of failed forays in writing outside my apartment, I wonder if I was so easily distracted because, at the time, nearly every activity in my life was singularly focused on the act of writing. Pursuits like this can be suffocating for those who never look away.
When I started drafting my first novel, The Night Gwen Stacy Died, from the detritus of a failed short story collection, I had already reconciled myself to this unfortunate aspect of my work ethic. Perhaps it was convenient then that I was living in Montevideo, Uruguay, a place where absolutely no one would consider going to a café to work. Cafés in this capital city are social spaces without an electrical outlet in sight—places to talk, drink, discuss, read, but never a place to bring a laptop. After stringing together a decade of odd jobs to support my writing habit, I had moved to Montevideo to work with a local nonprofit while creating a makeshift writing residency for myself; I went with the dual aims of writing and not writing. Of detaching myself from the familiar—in a city where I knew no one—enough to actually get work done. And of spending my time focusing on goals that did not entail spending every waking second writing, thinking about writing, worrying about writing, etc. This worked surprisingly well.
I lived with two young Uruguayan architects, women with a seemingly endless resolve of patience early in my residence for communicating with me in our Spanish-speaking home. I used my rented room in their apartment as my writing workspace and the rest of the apartment, the city, its streets, cafés, bars, etc. as anything but that. If I was in a public space, I was talking, teaching, meeting people, negotiating the city by bus and bicycle, going to films, dancing, or trying to keep up with my friends’ rapid-fire conversations. If I was in my room, I was holed away writing with the full command of my native language. It felt intoxicating at the time to have such a vast range of options available on the page—such control—when communication in every other aspect of my life was restricted by my slowly growing vocabulary. There was a division of language and function of place in my life in Montevideo that made it one of my most prolific periods as a writer. I left with the first 200 pages of a novel manuscript complete.
I’ve since tried to replicate this model that worked for me in small ways. I live in Brooklyn now; I finished my novel here, so this must have worked to some extent. In over-crowded New York City, where it seems everyone has a favorite public library, café, studio space, or park to work in, I continue to write at home. In my apartment I work at a large table. When I’m sitting at that table, I’m writing; when I stand up from that table, I do my best to turn it off. Writers can have a difficult time feeling like we’re not always working in some way—our brains are always actively pushing through some problem in a story. The best thing I’ve learned to do is set aside a private space where I allow myself to be completely consumed by the interior worlds I’m creating. That lets me do a better job of living in the real world when I’m not: listening to other people, picking up other interests, considering problems that are bigger than craft or plot or character on a daily basis. And as far as cafés go, I’m still an eavesdropper.