My Central Park Office
by Lee Matthew Goldberg
I’m a born and raised New Yorker, used to the city’s grit and urban sprawl, but I retreat most days to Central Park when I’m writing. I have a tree, which perfectly contours my back where I’ve written many of my books. I sit in the grass, take off my shoes and socks, and locate a sense of calm in a city where it’s often hard to find moments of peace. Since office spaces cost a lot of money, and I enjoy leaving my apartment to write so it feels like a job, Central Park becomes the perfect respite to fuel my creativity.
I’m the type of writer who does my best when I leave my body. Where I go sometimes, I do not know, only that I don’t always remember what I’ve written and occasionally enter this state for hours. Nowhere does this happen more than surrounded by nature. I also write in Gramercy Park, Tudor City, Hudson River Park, and in the Rose Main Reading Room in the library during the winter months. Although, one winter I put on gloves and a warm coat and wrote on a bench near the Great Lawn, which I’d never do again. Living in New York City, it’s hard to find quiet and it’s what I crave. I do not think I’d be able to live in the city for as long as I have if not for Central Park.
There are some authors who can poke into a coffee shop and work, but I’m not one of them. Too much chatter would distract me. I don’t need absolute silence, but conversations around me make it hard to focus. The sounds of nature are just enough. From the hours of one in the afternoon until about five, it’s a good bet that if the weather’s nice, you can find me at my tree. I have a few stipulations to working outside. If it’s over ninety degrees I won’t do it (after nearly frying my laptop one summer and searing the hairs on my leg). The same goes for under fifty degrees, except for that one relatively mild winter by the Great Lawn. Obviously, if it’s raining, I can’t get my laptop wet, and if it’s too humid I’ll sweat into the keys. But mostly from April to November, I’m in the grass at my tree, which has been my co-writer for the past thirteen novels and numerous screenplays. Right now, I’m at my tree and it’s chilly for an early fall afternoon; but I’m bundled up in a sweater and toasty enough. Behind me a well-worn path provides the white noise of runners and bikers sailing past. In front, stands a circle of trees that gives an effect of closing off the rest of Manhattan. I can see the elegant Fifth Avenue apartments winking between the trees’ arms, but the racket of the city is kept at bay. There are no sirens, no car alarms. Birds chirp, I’ve even seen a hawk perched behind a thicket of leaves, and I’m transported to a forest setting with animals other than the standard city pigeons and squirrels. Sometimes the enclave is populated with those having picnics, or reading a book, but it’s rarely overcrowded or loud.
My tree has long and sturdy branches that offer an ideal mix of shade and sun. I usually get here by noon and have lunch, go over my outline for what I’m working on and the scenes I’ll tackle that day. I don’t have Internet on my computer, except on my cell for research and any emails that need to be answered. A successful day means getting at least five pages done. Often, I write ten pages when I’m really in the thick of a book. A few times I’ve even written fifteen. And while I’m prolific at the library too, I’ve never written fifteen pages there. New York City can be a hard place to think. Beyond its own non-stop clamor, the limitless possibilities and various things to do can make it hard to focus. In the park, I rarely have that problem.
As professions go, a novelist is a pretty solitary one. The majority of the day gets spent alone in my head, which is why I don’t often write from home. I’m an extroverted introvert, and while I need time in my head, I crave people as well. Central Park is perfect for this. I have a few haunts in the park when the grass by my tree starts to wilt around September, or when someone else decides to use its trunk as support. I’ll write on the benches by the Great Lawn like I did one winter. I’ll write in this fenced-in grassy spot by Belvedere Castle. I’ll go to Sheep’s Meadow, which also has a few trees with good back support or fencing that suffices. But none hold a candle to my tree.
When I’m really in the throes of a project, I will be able to leave my body. It’s hard to explain, but I’ve read other writers who’ve described a similar experience. I’ll enter my book, either as an observer if it’s written in third person, or a participant if it’s written in first person. Sometimes I’m gone for hours and when I’m zapped back, the sun has moved across the sky and there may even be a chill in the air, which I hadn’t noticed. No place but Central Park allows me to leave my body as easily.
For hundreds of years, writers have advocated the appeal and necessity of nature. Sir Walter Scott gardened to distance his mind from debt. Henry David Thoreau moved to a cabin to separate himself from the world. George Bernard Shaw crafted Pygmalion and Saint Joan in a small but modern writer’s shed situated on a home-built turntable that rotated to catch the sun’s rays in winter and the shade in the summer. Virginia Woolf lived on an overgrown plot of land that was turned into garden rooms and an orchard, featuring it heavily in her work. Annie Dillard won the 1975 nonfiction Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, raising questions about the horrors and beauties of nature while sitting on a sycamore log overlooking the creek.
Even though New York seems more crowded than ever due to luxury skyscrapers shooting up one after the other, between 1821 and 1855, it nearly quadrupled in population. As the city began expanding further north up Manhattan, citizens began flocking to the few open spaces, mostly cemeteries, to get a break from the noise and pollution in search of fresh air. In 1857, the state appointed Central Park Commission held a landscape design contest. Frederick Law Olmstead and his partner won. His design included a mix of his social consciousness and his belief in egalitarian ideals. He argued that the common green space must always be equally available to all citizens and could never become privatized. The need for public parks was a necessity so people wouldn’t have to use cemeteries as an escape. I can’t imagine what the city would be like without miles of a park as a refuge.
While I’m walking in the streets or taking the subway, I’ve often thought of the Ezra Pound poem “In the Station of Metro” which states, “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet black bough.” At the time, Ezra Pound was in a funk and saw everyone in the Metro station as ghosts sliding by, but then they managed to morph into petals. Instead of the faceless apparitions he usually noticed; the crowd became something beautiful. It’s easy to keep your head down, avoiding the traffic and crowded streets, but also missing the myriad sights the city has to offer.
Reconnecting with nature allows me a break from the grind, and often on my walk home, after I’ve processed the day’s work, I’m able to look up and take in all of the city—a mad, wonderful place that I’ve always made my home.
Image: Ashima Munjal/Unsplash