Why I Write at the Mall

My dog Faith was the ideal writing partner. A spitz of a certain age, she would sit on the couch beside me, requesting deferential scruff and tummy pets every so often—and the rest of the time, quietly surveying her territory from a nearby recliner. Whenever I got stuck on an idea, we'd take a long walk together, which is another way of saying that we took a lot of long walks together. It was symbiosis at its best.

Unfortunately, Faith passed away soon after I began work on "Exile.” Thenceforth, my writing partner became a goblin moppet Shih-Tzu named Higgins, who proved an amiable enough companion—lending moral support during my half-assed morning workout, my impromptu "Fatal Vows" marathons, and my meandering drives down the highways of Union county.

But Higgins also had an aversion to productivity, specifically mine: the moment that I flipped a laptop open, he considered it his duty to make me close it again. A warning would be delivered in the form of a whimper; if unheeded, this would be followed by a bark; and if the first bark went ignored, heaven help your ears. Theories abound why my dog chose this particular hill to play dead on. Had he identified the laptop as the chief competitor for his attention? Possibly, and we all know dogs can be territorial. But another possibility is that he sensed my distaste for writing, and was just being protective—like the dog in the first card of the Major Arcana, trying to get the attention of the Fool before he wanders off a cliff.

Whatever his motivation, I soon realized that I would have to get out of range of Higgins if I had any hope of writing my game. So every weekend, whenever a stretch of time presented itself, I would leave him with my husband (whose own professional goals have yet to fall prey to canine disruption), and head to the place where I wound up doing most of my writing on this game: the mall.

* * *

In the region of Jersey where I was living, there were almost too many malls to choose from. We had Short Hills, with its high-end stores and bulwark-like parking lot; Menlo Park, with its Nordstrom straight out of "Myst"; sprawling Woodbridge, which had so many entrances that I used to mistake it for two different malls; and even Willowbrook, which my sister and I affectionately called "the boyfriend mall," because shh!, we each used to date guys who lived near it.

It’s important to note that none of these malls could be described as "dead." Sure, IRL shopping has taken a hit in recent years, but the venues I frequented were packed with people, unironically doing what “nobody does anymore.” It seems retail’s fall from grace as the only show in town has had at least one unexpected benefit for the mall: people are less likely to go there out of obligation these days, and more likely to go because they actually want to.

Which brings me to the first reason why the mall proved such an ideal writing spot: being a person who is highly susceptible to the moods of the people around me, writing at a crowded mall tricked me into thinking I was having fun. Surrounded by folks who were shopping, eating liquid nitro ice cream puffs, and otherwise promenading, it became easy to forget that I was the only guy in visual range who was spending his afternoon arranging words on a screen. And whenever I got tired of pushing prose uphill, a walk through the mall was close at hand to clear my mind.

It was also refreshing to write in an environment that was explicitly not designed for reflective work. I had tried writing at Starbucks for a couple weeks—but that chain presents itself as a serious place to conduct serious business, actively catering to folks who have professional work to do, and even though I’m technically a professional (I guess?) I eventually felt like I couldn’t live up to its midcentury modern lines.

Contrast this with the mall, where nobody has anything to prove—and where nobody is expecting you to prove anything to them. At the mall, you are supposed to shop, eat, and maybe catch a 3D movie. If you happen to write a novel or design a game while you’re in the midst of these tasks, more power to you, but nobody’s twiddling their thumbs in expectation. Creative endeavor is strictly extra credit.

* * *

The mall also provides cognitive hobbyists with a helpful way to game their brains toward writing, namely the Dave & Busters Method.

For the uninitiated: Dave & Busters is a video arcade that has grown into an American mall staple thanks to its “drunk parent positive” policies, but its underlying business model should be familiar to anyone who has been to Chuck E. Cheese: you play games for tickets, trade those tickets for prizes, and leave with a jumbo pencil that feels like a trophy (even though you know full well you could have just bought it at the discount store).

At the mall, this same winning mix of existentialism and materialism can be applied to your writing, much the same way Dave & Busters applies it to Skee Ball. First, you set a writing goal, ideally one that you won’t achieve in a single afternoon. Second, you find some purchase at the mall that’s worth working toward, ideally something dumb enough that you feel a bit guilty for wanting it in the first place. Third, you use the object’s presence in the mall to bait yourself into getting some real work done. The prize in question doesn’t need to be expensive, it just needs to be something you actually want, and probably something you would never have let yourself have otherwise. If you are willing to hold off on getting it for long enough to hit your goal, this method works wonders. What’s more, whatever you wind up buying winds up feeling like it’s the fricking Pulitzer.

Me, I decided to limit my “prizes” to clothing. Having absolutely no fashion sense, every single clothing purchase would require so much research that I could string myself along for weeks with a single pair of skinny jeans.

But reader, let me tell you: when I finally got them? They felt like emo victory.

* * *

Perhaps the best thing about the mall, at the end of the day, was the way it reminded me what was outside the mall, whenever it was time to go.

When nearing the end of an afternoon’s work, I’d inevitably catch sight of something that made me think of home, and my tiny belligerent pal Higgins. Sometimes it would be an ad for pet food, sometimes it would be a poster for the latest movie about a doomed fictional dog, one time it was even the Easter Bunny. (HE HAS HIGGINS’S EYES, I TELL YOU!)

Whatever the trigger had been, once I started thinking about Higgins, I knew the jig was up. He may have been the reason I had to write at the mall in the first place, but he was always the reason I left.

I like to think that he’d appreciate the irony, but he probably wouldn’t, because let’s face it: this sentence sounds too much like writing, and Higgins hates the stuff.