SCOUT OUT: Tips from Cambridge Authors

Photo courtesy of Longfellow House

The blank page and relentless flashing of Word’s cursor can be a writer’s worst enemies. Gathering inspiration, dealing with writer’s block and finding the perfect place to write are common challenges for many writers. But thankfully, Cambridge is home to impressive historic and contemporary writers, some of whom are willing to share their trade secrets and favorite writing spots in this city.

Before consulting the contemporary guard, I decided to begin my journey of literary enlightenment with some inspiration from the past in the form of beloved Cambridge poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. While Longfellow wasn’t able to answer my questions directly, thanks to the friendly National Parks Service curators at his home and museum on Brattle Street, I discovered that Longfellow spent most of his time writing in his study. More specifically, he enjoyed writing upright at a special standing desk in the southeast corner of the room. As a person who prefers the comfort of a beanbag to the exertion of standing, I assessed that Longfellow’s method would not work for me, though it did give me hope of finding my own approach.

From Longfellow, I then turned to the living. Kevin Birmingham, the author of “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses,” has a get-things-done attitude about writing that probably helped him finish his book about one of the most complicated and controversial novels ever written. Birmingham notes, “If I waited to be inspired, I’d never get anything done.” So, instead of waiting, this writer loves to take walks. “Some ideas arrive when you aren’t looking for them. I suddenly realized how to write the opening paragraphs of my book while walking down Kirkland Street.” Birmingham does most of his writing in cafes around Cambridge. He tries to spend time in places that don’t have internet access so he can focus, and the “steady hum of activity” helps him concentrate. His favorite local places to write are Crema Cafe, 1369 and Bloc 11 Cafe.

The cafe culture of Cambridge seems to offer plenty of spaces for local writers, each finding a favorite spot. Matthew Pearl, author of “The Dante Club” and other literary and historical fiction novels, found the trifecta, a bookstore/cafe/dog-friendly space. “When I had my dogs, who have since passed away, I almost exclusively went to Porter Square Books, one of the few places I’ve ever discovered that is both dog-friendly and has a cafe in it. It was also fun to have a book event at the same place where I wrote parts of the book,” says Pearl.

Poet Populist of Cambridge Lo Galluccio enjoys writing in the Starbucks on Mass Ave., but seeks inspiration elsewhere. And although she owns a laptop, she prefers to write in longhand. For those struggling with writer’s block, Galluccio suggests reading or listening to music, which both “stimulate the mind.” Or if all else fails, a good nap usually helps. Galluccio likes to take a walk around Fresh Pond, and in the summer you may spot her meditating on the City Hall lawn.

Junot Díaz, MIT professor and author of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and “This is How You Lose Her,” looks for good conversation and a great view. For Díaz, the Charles River is “the one place in Cambridge that qualifies as idyllic.” His apartment, where he does most of his writing, overlooks the majestic steeples of Cambridge and he says walking to Rodney’s Bookstore in Central Square helps him clear his mind. However, when he is in dire need for some inspiration, he has a specific solution. “I head to East by Northeast and chop it up with my girl Blayne, the manager extraordinaire. She’s so smart and so real that an hour with her provides all answers.”

My final consultant on this journey, Kristin Cashore, author of the “Graceling Realm” fantasy series, also prescribed a walk on the Charles. “Almost always, my ideas start moving once my body is moving,” says Cashore.

Nearly every author I spoke to mentioned movement and a change in perspective. If this many people agree, there must be some truth to it. It seems that Longfellow’s standing desk was a good first clue. From cafes to riversides, there’s no shortage of spaces to seek inspiration from in Cambridge, but part of the trick seems to be getting out the door, especially for the sedentary contingent like myself. With this knowledge in mind, I have armed myself with a Nike Fuelband to get me out into the world. Maybe it’s just another distraction, or maybe this Fuelband will end up being my “Blayne.”