Tools of the Writing Trade: A Peek Behind the Curtain

Cheryl Leutjen
5 min readAug 18, 2023

The Sausage-Making of it All

Stooped like Quasimodo, I trudge the dusty, uphill trail, mentally listing the reasons why trekking in the heat is a dumb idea. The scorching sun makes every step a strain, but I keep my eye on the prize: the shady picnic area just ahead.

Several of the writers in our meetup have already gathered and none of them appear to be overcome by exertion. We regularly meet in outdoor parks, tolerating the hard benches, biting bugs, and way too much bird poop, all to tease some inspiration from the natural muse. I’m the founder of this merry band of scribblers, so I resist groaning when I finally set down my heavy load on the picnic table. I may be older than most of them, but things could get ugly if anyone starts treating me like their feeble granny.

I do roll my shoulders to shrug off the heft of the pack before the hump becomes permanent. At my age, doing anything for more than a minute risks a permanent wrinkle, ache, limp or scar. When, exactly, this began, I can’t say, but I do recall waking from a simple slumber without reaching for a neck brace.

As I wrangle the backpack beast before me, I snort to realize just how much stuff I haul just to sit at a picnic table at a local park and write for a couple of hours. Not that I’m ever a light traveler — I require supplies just to get myself out of the house for any reason. It’s standard fare, usually: water bottle, ear buds, phone, chargers, GPS route, reusable shopping bag and snacks. Definitely snacks. You never know.

But committing to sitting on a hard bench, in actual weather, risking exposure to any number of pests, requires a kit sufficient to survive an African safari and possibly a trek through the tundra. My picture-perfect Instagram posts conceal the hordes of stuff I require to write in the urban wilds of Los Angeles. I must ward off any possibility of discomfort if I hope to accomplish anything. Even a hang nail can become an excuse to pack it in early and head back to the comfort of home.

So, today, friends, I am sharing the real real. Just how much do I need to write in a park for a couple of hours? Let’s take inventory.

Attire: let’s begin at the foundation (pun intended). Outfit must be durable enough to withstand the worst a city park bench can offer and sufficiently layered to withstand 50-degree temperature fluctuations.

Critical fluids: Coffee with agave and oat milk in a tightly-sealed travel mug — enough to keep me sufficiently caffeinated to focus for at least a 20-minute spurt. Water in a giant ThermoFlask or two, depending on the heat of the day. Lavender-scented water in a spray bottle for a wake-up spritz to ward off dozing off in a sunbeam, which is always a danger. Hence, the caffeine.

Next up, Trusty Blanket. No matter the weather, I tote my soft tartan plaid blanket because it rules out both the “bench too hard” as well as “bench too cold” excuses. It’s also Just-In-Case lifesaving device, in the unlikely event of a Southern California blizzard.

My heather gray backpack bears a “Wild in the Streets” patch which reminds me of a thing I once wrote and, by some miracle, I still like. It gives me hope I can reproduce that rare success. A wildly self-critical writer can dream…

Backpack contains a myriad of (non) essentials, including:

  1. An aging laptop, a mouse and a flimsy excuse for a mouse pad. The creaky old laptop is heavy, but it still works so I can’t in eco-friendly conscience throw it out yet. Such gear prevents any excuses to go home early because of writing-by-hand cramps or stupid touchpad irritations. My frustration tolerance rivals that of toddlers.
  2. Prior paragraph notwithstanding . . a selection of notebooks and no less than 24 colored pen because some lovely revelations require pretty colors to tease them forth.
  3. Fingerless gloves. People differ on what constitutes “cold weather,” but, suffice to say, I am a wimp. My hand warmers help me weather any blustery winter chill — which means a temperature below 50 degrees.
  4. A spray bottle of critter-safe pest repellent forestalls the “I can’t concentrate when I’m being eaten!” excuses.
  5. A travel-sized bottle of hand lotion. Dry, cracked skin, always an issue in our arid climate, has stymied more writing sessions than I care to recall.
  6. Trail mix and a selection of snacks du jour prevent the distraction of a growling stomach — for me and other writers.
  7. A kitchen towel serves as a clean surface for working, averting any distracting concerns about black gum splats, moldy residues, and the ever-present bird poop. The towel also stands ready to mop up accidental coffee spills due to over caffeination.
  8. A blue zippered pouch, AKA Tiny Supply Kit, contains all the other emergency supplies: nail clippers (no more hang nail excuses), a ruler, scissors, eraser & pencil sharpener (but no pencil?), ear buds, extra pens, highlighter, post-its, paper clips, eyeglass cleaning cloth, and crumbs. Lots of crumbs.
  9. Local bird, flower, and tree identification charts, necessary to thwart any “ooh, pretty, let me just Google that…” temptations.
  10. The oracle card du jour, chosen before leaving home, serves as a seed for my daily journal entry — which is how I get my fingers moving.
  11. The Writer’s Block book of prompts eliminates the most crippling excuse of all: “Nothing to write about” after that journal entry is done.

Finally, I lug a heavy purse, which was not inventoried in the interest of time. And interest. Is anyone still reading? This post now feels as compelling as sharing my grocery list. Then I remind myself that far less scintillating topics get millions of likes and shares on TikTok. Does anyone really need a nasal spray tan?

Woops, just triggered my “rabbit hole!” alert. Where were we? Oh, yes. Do I really need all of this to sit on a park bench and write for a couple of hours?

Before you answer, consider this: I’m ten minutes from home.

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Cheryl Leutjen

Teetering on a tightrope between more conscientious living and eco-madness, I write about responding to the challenges of our time with heart, hope, and humor.