Why I Write in Cafés

John Scalzi is one of my favorite bloggers, like, ever. He’s intelligent, witty, relevant, and damn funny; his blog is one of the few that I try to read every day. Back in 2004 on Whatever, John gave some wholly unsolicited writing advice, but it was point #5 that especially caught my attention:

5. You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, You Know.

I mean, Christ, people. All that tapping and leaning back thoughtfully in your chair with a mug of whatever while you pretend to edit your latest masterpiece. You couldn’t be more obvious if you had a garish, flashing neon sign over your head that said “Looking For Sex.” Go home, why don’t you. Just go.

Admittedly if everyone followed my advice the entire economy of Park Slope would implode. But look, do you want to write, or do you want to get laid? No, don’t answer that. Anyway, if you really want to impress the hot whomevers, you’ll bring your bound galleys to the coffeeshop to edit. That’ll make the laptop tappers look like pathetic chumps. We’re talking hot libidinous mammal sex for days.

John has since given much more writing advice, and generously compiled it into a stellar book called, appropriately, You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop; I’ve got a first edition copy on my bookshelf (the hardcover is sold out, but the ebook is available), squeezed between Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Alabaster and Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends. However, I diverge from John on this particular point, much as I appreciate the sentiment, in large part because of the anecdotal reason that I do my best writing in cafés.

Totoro in the foamOf course, anecdotal evidence doesn’t hold up in an argument, but that’s the thing: I’m not actually arguing with John here. I’ve seen firsthand and personally known people who perform the exact poseur mating dance as he describes above. However, it’s not true in my case, and here’s why.

I’ve written before about being introverted, and this especially comes into play with information input. If there are too many things going on around me — too many visual distractions, too many loud sounds, smells that are too strong, etc. — my natural reaction is to remove myself from the overstimulated environment; an extreme version of this is that if there is a loud argument going on, or someone is having a temper tantrum (no matter how old they might be), I want to run away and shut myself into the bathroom. That, or I go into a weird sort of fugue state that can only be described as drawing inward. So, too much stimulation means I can’t concentrate on writing, and with a two-year-old running throughout the apartment at all times of the day singing at the top of her voice, this usually means I can’t write at home. (I exaggerate, although not by much.)

But I also can’t go somewhere too quiet. If I hole up at the library, or if I try to work at home with no one around (which, paradoxically, I am doing right this second as I type this), I get antsy from loneliness, and, perhaps not ironically, lack of stimulation. (Right now, it helps that I’m listening to Franz Ferdinand quite loudly on my sound system.) I discovered this acutely at college, during trips to the university library stacks, or just studying in my dorm room when no one else was around. This is also why I very likely would be ill-suited toward working in a solitary writing cabin, which seems to be the dream for so many other writers. I can’t be overstimulated in order to concentrate, but I need just a little stimulation to keep myself awake and on task.

A café provides that perfect middle ground. As long as it’s not too crowded or noisy, I can appreciate the other people sitting at their tables, drinking their lattes, eating their artisanal sandwiches, having quiet conversations. I still plug in my ear buds so that I can choose music that will fade into the background as white noise, but the sound level is never too much to overcome my focus. But the best part is that no one else there gives a shit about me, and I’m largely left alone, which is important in maintaining that focus, the only exceptions being the respectful staff who are either trained in or are instinctually keen on minimizing their intrusions. Interruptions are death to the creative process, as explained by John Cleese thusly:

This entire video is fascinating and brilliant, and I recommend it to anyone working in any creative endeavor. Cleese gets thoroughly into the psychology of creativity and the idea that we all have two modes when it comes to working: closed and open. “Closed” helps us when we know what we’re doing, and we just need to buckle down and finish it. “Open” is necessary for looking at many facets of a problem, or of coming up with several approaches to a joke, or of wondering what will happen in the next chapter. Both are important, but “open” is absolutely necessary to creativity, and one of the ways Cleese suggests to attain this open state is to give yourself enough time and space so that you can work without interruption; he suggests a quiet space, for a duration of about an hour and a half.

That hour and a half (at least) is also necessary because, as he states, and I can back this up with my own experience, most of us cannot just sit and let our minds calm down and get to work on that creative project straight away. It takes almost a half hour of worrying about bills, and thinking about that dentist appointment next week, and remembering to email that friend who wants to get together, and pondering what exactly your spouse meant by a certain comment during an argument earlier that morning, before your brain can settle down and you can focus on the work in front of you. For me, it’s usually between 20 and 30 minutes, but then I’m (hopefully) in the zone and can write fairly solidly (depending on my word rate for any given day) for up to two hours before my ass falls asleep and I need to get up and stretch.

So with all due respect to John Scalzi, I’m not concerned with impressing anyone or prowling for sex partners when I take my MacBook to a café. It’s honestly the most conducive environment for me to get my creative work done. Long may such a home away from home exist.

I’ll end this entry with a caffeinated linkdump, of all my favorite cafés in which I was given a cozy and comfortable atmosphere in return for the purchase of legalized stimulants:

In Raleigh, NC: Cup A Joe at Mission Valley, Café Helios on Glenwood Avenue, Neomonde on Beryl Road, Global Village on Hillsborough Street, and The Irregardless Café on West Morgan Street.

In Singapore: Brew 1819 Café at Temasek Tower (owned by my friend and former colleague Huang Si Jian and her husband), 40 Hands Coffee in Tiong Bahru, The Coffee Bean & Teaf Leaf at the Singapore Post Centre, and Pacific Coffee Company at the Red Dot Design Museum.


Filed under Introversion, Writing

9 responses to “Why I Write in Cafés

  1. As an entrepreneur working from home I relate to the need for a space that has other people around with a little background noise. Sometimes working from home can be SO quiet. On days I need to really focus it’s great, but I do get bored from time to time.

    • Back in February, my wife and daughter were in Hong Kong for a week to visit my wife’s family there, and the apartment was so quiet that I was going stir crazy for company. I couldn’t get ANY work done until I forced myself to stop moping around and head out to the nearby café.

  2. Very good points! It’s also quite handy for avoiding housework, which, if you are alone in your house, often becomes “a thing which must be done.” Of course, I’m a 35-year-old mom, so I think that probably opts me out of the cafe literary pick-up crowd anyway.

  3. I agree. When the members of my writing group meet, it’s almost always at a coffee shop. We only do it, at most, once a week, but the change of scenery helps us focus, and we get the added bonus of bouncing ideas off one another or having people to hold us accountable for checking Twitter when we said we had to buckle down.

    I don’t often do that all by myself, because I feel too self-conscious, but it’s a great way to spark some motivation.

    • I wish I was able to do that writing group type of meeting, but I’m so far away from my writer friends that it’s just not possible anymore. While I was at Clarion, several of us did just that on a regular basis, and I loved it; we all knew why we were there, and so we didn’t chat, but it was good to be in the presence of friends while writing.

      And yes, you need to be held accountable for your writing time. Beyond that first 20 or 30 minutes, if I’m still messing around on Twitter, I chastise myself for wasting time. There’s a Mac app called Freedom that I use sometimes, which cuts off internet access for a specified time, and can only be canceled by rebooting the laptop.

      • We’re often more distracted than we should be, but we’ve gotten better about getting focused and staying there.

        It’s really nice, having a writing group. I lucked out, having so many writers at about the same level as me in my immediate area. I met most of them through NaNo, though none of us did NaNoWriMo last year.

  4. yuenkitmun

    George Gallo was supposed to have written the script for Midnight Run in a restaurant. Unfortunately I did a web search and couldn’t find any confirmation.

  5. Pingback: Writing in Cafés | Itchy Fingers

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