I escaped the July afternoon Oklahoma sun in the basement bar of Brick Street Cafe. An Indigo Girls-inspired duo played on a small riser in the corner, their guitars and voices compacted by the low ceiling, competing with the drunken hum of the heat-fatigued audience. Alternating between sweaty bottles of water and Shiner beer I scribbled down the details of my previous hour, which I’d spent sitting on the scorching sidewalk in front of the Crystal Theater where a young Woody Guthrie and his mother once watched matinees. I wasn’t there for a movie, though. I’d stopped to have an impromptu conversation with a train-hopping busker in Guthrie’s tiny hometown, Okemah, where people were gathered to celebrate the centennial of his birth.
The condensation dripped onto the small notebook as I wrote the details of my time with the busker. Even though I’d already recorded our conversation, technology couldn’t capture the feel of the hot sidewalk on my bare thighs, the smell of a 114-degree afternoon. I had to get those details on paper, fueled by the energy of the duo and the audience, the people sidling up beside me at the bar to order drinks.
I needed that working respite because shortly after I’d find myself running as fast as my fat legs would carry me, gripping a contraband chunk of stone from the foundation of Guthrie’s childhood home against my belly as I made my getaway. I’d write about that from the air-conditioned comfort of my car in a truck stop parking lot.
That’s how I assembled the skeleton of my book’s tenth chapter.
I’ve never been a stay-at-home anything. Marriage and motherhood hadn’t changed that. While I found some writing success in the early 2000s as a mommy blogger, I didn’t feel like I was contributing anything unique in my writing. And with being at home it was far too easy to find things to do other than write—tend to my kid instead of letting her learn some independence, fuss over the latest PTA pseudo-emergency, or fall asleep on the couch from exhaustion and boredom.
I did not thrive in captivity, and neither did my writing. It wasn’t until I took a chance on running all over the U.S. in 2012 for events celebrating Woody Guthrie’s centennial, that I was finally able to do the only thing I had ever wanted to do—write a book. I wrote the first draft while on the move, cranking out chapters on buses, in airports, into the recorder on my iPhone as I drove, from coffeehouses and motel rooms, and at 38,000 feet in the air. I could have the experiences and do the research that I needed for my book, but it would have been easy to let the stories live in my head, diluted by the return to normalcy. I wrote the memoir of my year with Woody Guthrie as it happened, rooted in my journalism background and Woody’s hard-traveling ways. If being on the road worked for him, maybe it would work for me.
There was plenty of time to analyze those experiences and decipher what they meant. Nine years. That’s how long it has taken to form those skeletal chapters into a cohesive manuscript that I love. A manuscript that has been revised at coffeehouses, Airbnbs, writers residencies. I have to get out of my house to write, even if it means slapping words down on a notebook worn out from bouncing around my purse for a year or two. Some of it’s about getting away from the distractions of home. At my favorite coffeehouse, I absorb the energy of the background noise, knowing that I don’t have to keep my ear cocked for someone who needs me. It’s also about unfamiliarity and anonymity. In an airport, I’m not expected to know what’s going on so I can bend my head and give my attention to the page.
I’ve learned how to write at home when necessary—during a pandemic, for example—but I know I’m a better writer when I’m on the road or in the air. Even a few nights in an Airbnb 20 minutes away from my house can be enough of a shift in perspective to knock me out of a writing rut and make me look at the world and my experiences in it with fresh eyes. Especially if, shortly after arriving at that Airbnb a friend who’s dropping off my groceries has his car stolen and I suddenly have the bones for an essay about my city’s gentrification, bones I wouldn’t get from my sleepier neighborhood.
My words aren’t so precious that they require silence and a special chair. They’re raw and new, born with a shriek of exhilaration, not pried out through the glowing filter of memory. There’s nothing worse for my wild words than the lure of the couch, the cat, the kid. Virginia Woolf was right—I do need a room of my own. But it’s one that keeps me alert with unfamiliarity, where I can focus on the writing at hand before the next unexpected moment happens and I need to write about it, too.