In the Presence of Old Friends: How Nostalgia Can Fuel Your Writing

  Brothers in arms forever.

Brothers in arms forever.

By Daniel Ford

It was 2 a.m.

I had a cup of coffee in my hand, a black pug on my lap, and an episode of “The West Wing” was playing on a big screen television. I was flanked on both sides by my best friends from college, Derek and future Writer’s Bone contributor Stevo. Several years have passed since we last lived under the same roof (never mind how many!), but for a couple of hours, it seemed like no time had passed at all. We caught up using the only tools that matter: biting sarcasm, inappropriate inquisition, and nonsensical musings.

The three of us started out living in a much smaller apartment not too far from one of the main entrances of St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y. Those were lean years for all of us. Stevo and I would deposit our meager checks from the jobs we worked off campus at the Bank of America on Jamaica Ave. and then proceed to spend it all at the IHOP right down the street. It was a guaranteed night of gluttony, rent check be damned.

Learning how to be a man and hone your craft at the same time is never easy. Throw in student debt, everyday bills, and New York City, and it’s damn near impossible. Which is why it was so much fun. It was a puzzle I constantly had to solve knowing that I was missing several pieces. There’s a rawness I knew I possessed, but I wasn't quite savvy enough of a human being to polish it fully. In my case, it took a lot of time, horrible life decisions, and these two friends.

  Stevo and I as college freshmen.

Stevo and I as college freshmen.

Since I use several antidotes from our time together in my novel (which is coming soon, I promise), I can’t rundown my favorite moments that helped shape me as a writer. However, it was more their general presences that fueled my creativity. The easiest thing you can do as a writer is surround yourself with people that are smarter than you. Be in that room and acknowledge that those around you know more than you do. I’m not saying that I didn’t have a good fastball, I did, I just knew that these two men were, at times, operating at a higher level than I could have imagined at that point in my life. There were days that I would bring up a topic just to see how they were going to debate each side and how much fir would fly before our landlord came up to check to make sure we were all still alive. Tempers always cooled down. We never went to bed angry. We loved each other too much to stay mad for too long. While maybe we had trouble completely conceding our individual points, we would often reluctantly agree with where the other person was coming from.

I like to think their sarcasm, wit, and intelligence became hardwired into my own being. Thanks to our coffee addiction, I was awake at all hours and wrote a significant amount. A lot of it was crap. I didn’t know what I was doing yet. But I knew what I wanted to do. And I knew how I wanted it to sound. A little out of control. A little brash. A little bold. A little hurtful like a joke that maybe went too far until you thought about how brilliantly it was formed. My dialogue (which is still a work in process) wouldn’t be as strong as it is without those midnight conversations, Double J’s runs, and scotch and cigars in the driveway.

The last time we were all in the same place was Memorial Day barbeque a couple of years ago. There was a large scrum of people there, but there were moments when it was just the three of us. It was like a jazz band getting together after a long absence. We warmed up a bit, and then we were trading riffs back and forth with ease. Stevo’s brother critiquing Derek’s entire event was an added bonus.

It would take a year and our friend Kelly getting married to reunite the trio. Thanks to a pile of traffic on the Cross Island Expressway, Stephanie Schaefer and I were almost late to the ceremony. We didn’t know anyone else in the crowd. I fired off texts trying to find Derek and Stevo. I looked toward the front row and saw the back of two heads that looked familiar. Sure enough, there they were. They instantly made fun of me for tardiness and my Prius rental (Derek would later admonish me for not introducing Stephanie to the bride fast enough).

  Derek and I at a St. John's Baseball event a couple of years ago.

Derek and I at a St. John's Baseball event a couple of years ago.

“You’re not really going to have coffee right now are you?” Stephanie asked as I tucked her in for the night in Derek’s spare bedroom.

“We’re just going to chat like a couple of old wives,” I replied, not really answering the question.

Derek had a full cup of coffee waiting for me when I returned to the living room. It was strong. I drank it. Like the old days, I feel asleep right away despite consuming that fistful of caffeine (the hours of driving in a downpour earlier that day may have counteracted the coffee). There was only one thing left to do in the morning. A visit to our favorite diner in Long Island, N.Y.: Thomas’ Ham and Eggery.

The owner was taking orders at the counter, like always, and didn’t know who Stevo and I were without our much more heralded brother in arms (who, just like old times, had to work). I ordered my standard ham and cheese omelet, which comes in a skillet at this particular establishment, and yet another strong cup of black coffee.

It didn’t take long for Stevo and I to launch into a conversation about television shows, movies, and comic books (much to Stephanie’s chagrin). Plans were made to interview him soon about Godzilla (look forward to that) and meet up again in Boston in the near future.

 Stevo and I in front of our favorite N.Y. diner.

Stevo and I in front of our favorite N.Y. diner.

With my belly full of nostalgia, home fries, and cholesterol, I began the drive home over the Throgsneck Bridge (the same bridge my father had traveled to bring me to St. John’s and New York City more than a decade ago). I was awash in old memories and ready to embrace renewed creativity. My mind was working a little sharper, and the ideas I had been hammering away at looked a little more plausible.

For the last two weeks, Writer’s Bone contributors and some of our favorite authors have provided essential tips for how to get your creative mojo back. I waited to weigh in until my muse settled back in for an extended stay. Here’s my advice:

Talk to old friends. Call them up. Go visit. Have a meal at a diner. Drink a lot of coffee and make fun of each other until tears roll down your eyes. Debate important issues. Disagree on everything except for the mutual respect you have for each other. Reminisce about how foolish you were back in the day. Recall the events and moments that got you to where you are now. And then, to tweak author Scott Cheshire’s advice, write like hell.

Works every time.

Keep writing, everyone.

For more essays, check out our full archive