I like to sit outside when I write and I prefer to write on paper, with a mechanical pencil. The pencil I use is one I’ve had for 20 years. In fact, the model is so old, the manufacturer no longer makes it. It’s one of those writing implements that holds two ballpoint pens and a mechanical pencil all in one. I have blue and red ink in mine, but I always seem to just use the pencil. Every once in a while I’ll use ink in my notebook, but before long, I’m back to pencil.
I’m not sure why I prefer writing with graphite as I never erase anything; I’ll cross things out, but never remove them from the page. Long ago, I discovered that I can’t write on my computer. Fingers tapping keys are too detached from the letters that show up on the screen. Also, once you delete something it’s gone—it doesn’t linger, half-hidden, so you can later reconsider the idea. Beyond that, I need the feeling of paper under my hand and the micro-vibrations of the 0.7mm lead as it forms my thoughts on the page.
That’s mostly what I write—my thoughts. I write whatever pops into my mind onto a page in my little, black, Moleskine notebook. I do this in the morning. I tend to wake up early. I’ll make a cup of coffee and sit on our balcony when the weather is warm, while my wife, Silvia, continues to sleep. I live in Italy, so when I say a “cup of coffee” I really mean a thimbleful, that’s about half the size of the free sample any coffee shop in the US would give you of their newest blend. But I digress.
To tell you what’s in my notebook would bore you. Most of the time, like I said earlier, I just write what pops into my head. Typically, that means general observations of life, flashes from the past that are triggered by something I see or hear outside. Dreams I had the night before, if I can remember them. My thoughts are personal in nature and I imagine very few are profound outside of the context of my own life. But I like to write down what I’m thinking. Doing so gives my thoughts a life of sorts. Gets them out of the house, so to speak. And sometimes they even get to play with each other. That is, when I review past pages, reading my old thoughts, they will connect with others—older ones from days or weeks before or newer ones I just wrote, or even thoughts still in my head. Sometimes I surprise myself with the connections I make, or, maybe it’s more accurate to say I’m surprised by the connections I recognize.
Every once in a while, I’ll write a short story. In fact, I recently wrote one for a writing competition with a $20,000 grand prize. I had fun with that! It was about a guy who found this thumb-drive that looked like a book. He connected it to his phone, and it opened a portal of sorts to the future. It was just a web browser, but the web sites it showed were from the future. He used it to pick a winning Powerball lottery ticket and won $670,000,000. I had fun both writing and editing that story. The contest had a 2,000-word limit and my story tallied up 1,994. I was just about to submit it when I read ALL the entry requirements. That’s when I saw that the main character in the story needed to find $20,000. “Ah, I get it—like the prize,” I thought to myself. Not the first time I didn’t read all the directions to something I was doing. Probably not the last, either.
I considered just changing what the main character did to gain the money, and to just reduce the amount to the required $20,000. But that didn’t work for me. It just didn’t seem believable that someone who finds a window into the future would only net $20,000 out of the deal! Well, it was still fun working on it—so there’s that. And who knows, maybe there will be another contest some time where the main character can find more money. In that case, I’ll be ready!
I’ve been writing down my thoughts for decades and thus, I have a collection of notebooks. Most are black, but not all. When I first started writing, I would get notebooks this images on the covers—something that looked inspiring, or a quote from someone famous. But I found those covers too suggestive—they would block the flow or subtly get me to start every thought from the same point. I eventually landed on black notebooks—neutral territory from which to start. Silvia gave me my first Moleskine as a gift, and it suited me. Now that’s all I use.
I moved to Italy a couple of years ago, so I’ve had a lot of things to write about—lots of new environmental prompts. Everything is so different here compared to the US. I love the challenge of navigating all these new experiences, not to mention the language. One of the funny things about the language, is that when I’m out and hear someone speaking English, my ears pick it up immediately.
In fact, two days ago, I was at a little café down the street. It’s called Happy Bar—not THE Happy Bar, or IL Happy Bar, just Happy Bar. In Italy, a bar is where you go to get a coffee. You can get a glass of wine or something stronger there, too, if you want. But their main business is coffee—espresso. Anyway, I was there, drinking a cappuccino and writing in my notebook. A few tables away from me was a young-looking guy talking to someone on his wireless ear buds—in English. He wasn’t speaking overly loudly, but like I said, my ears picked out the language over the chatter of cups and spoons on saucers at the bar.
He seemed distressed. I didn’t catch everything, but he seemed to be saying he needed more time, and he knew he was given an advance and owed them something. He stopped talking and sighed as he checked his watch. He glanced over at me and in a sympathetic tone, I asked “tough day already?” He seemed surprised I spoke English, but after a beat he said, “Very tough.”
He hunched over his coffee. I hadn’t seen Rosalba, the owner, bring it to him, but I could tell it was a Caffè Americano. Italy is the land of pizza, pasta and coffee. Caffè (that’s Italian for coffee) gets the country moving each morning. There are dozens of variations, but they are all espresso-based. Here, you don’t order an espresso—you just order un caffè. A “double shot” is a caffè lungo, or just a lungo. A caffè Americano has two tell-tale features. The first is that it comes in a larger cup, the size used for a cappuccino. The second is that it comes with a little pot of hot water on the side. Essentially, a caffè Americano is a shot of espresso with added hot water—but they can’t bring themselves to water down the rich espresso, so they make you ruin it.
As he sipped his coffee, he kept glancing over at my little notebook. Sometimes he out-and-out stared at it. I was just about to inquire about his interest when he asked me if it was a notebook. I chuckled saying yes and explained how I jotted down my thoughts every morning. “I’m not sure why I bother, but at this point it’s just a habit.”
“So you aren’t a writer? You don’t write stories or anything like that?” he asked, with the sound of lost hope in his voice.
“No, not really,” I said. I thought about telling him about the story I had written for that competition, but it didn’t seem worth the trouble.
He shifted in his chair to face me without needing to contort his neck and explained to me that he was a writer. He had written a few screenplays for a small Italian movie production company. Two of his screenplays had been optioned by the company and one was actually made into a movie that came out in 2018—not a blockbuster, but it made a couple of million euros. Six months ago, it turns out, he took a $100,000 dollar advance on another screenplay and it was due at the end of the week—he had two days to produce something and he’s been completely out of ideas since cashing the advance check.
“The problem is that I’ve been spending the advance,” he explained, and continued, “I either have to deliver a treatment or give back the $100,000 on Friday, or I’m in trouble. Not ‘break my knees’ trouble—it’s not like that. But still, I don’t have the cash to give back and I don’t have a story.”
I shifted in my chair a bit and patted my notebook. “I do have one story in here,” I said. “I don’t know if it’s in the form of a movie treatment, but I could tell you the gist.” His eyes lit up. “Dude, if you tell me the story and I think it will get me through this…” he stammered. “I’ve got about $25,000 of that advance left. If I can use the story,” after a pause, “I’ll give you twenty grand.”
I looked at him without saying anything. I must have had a suspicious look on my face—and I’ll admit, I was skeptical—because he grabbed the newspaper someone had left on the table next to his and held it up to his face. “Here, give me your notebook and take a photo. You’ll have proof that I read your story—so if you see it in a movie without me paying, you can sue me! But seriously, if it’s something I can use I’ll give you the $20,000. Let me read it now and I’ll tell you. Do you have an Italian bank account? If I can use the story you can watch me send you the money.” He was begging me at this point.
I handed him my notebook and he lifted it, and the newspaper, up to his face. He nodded as if to say, ‘go on, take the photo,’ and I did. I then showed him the beginning of the story and he started reading. “Let me know if you can’t read my chicken scratch,” I said, but he didn’t look up or even acknowledge I had said anything.
Ten minutes later he pulled out his phone, smiling, and with relief in his voice, said “Give me your IBAN.” I sent him a text with the wire transfer number of my Italian bank account. I heard the ping—he got my text. A minute later, I got one from my bank—Bonifico in ingresso USD 20,000 (€ 16,501)—the money had been transferred.
“I can’t believe it. You’ve saved my ass! Can I get pictures of the pages?” I was tempted to give him the whole book. I mean he had just given me $20,000. But I had other thoughts in there, so I just said “Sure,” and handed it back to him. As he took photos of my story, paid for his caffè Americano and bought us each a caffè corretto—literally, corrected coffee—a shot of espresso with a splash of grappa. We celebrated and he left.
I picked up my book and noticed he had put his business card inside with a note “Stay in touch!” I put the card in the little pouch on the inside back cover and went to buy my wife some flowers.