It is the murmur of voices and of machines, the pushing and pulling of nobs, the cry of a child with an oversized and overpriced sweet roll, the ticking silence of portable electronic devices. At once you know you are in a desert of subtle oil, of steaming water and milk, of the bitter, leathery smell of perhaps a warmer place far from here.
When I think of the modern writer sitting at her typewriter—yes, that mechanical instrument of modernities past, but stay with me—I imagine the environment as a sort of loft or attic, wood walls, a certain vacant, perhaps expectant feel to the ambience. Ironically, a scene from a fiction.
But what if the modern writer is using a laptop? Why, she’s in a coffee shop.
Of course she is. It’s the quintessential modern space. If you’re a writer, don’t lie to me and tell me you’ve never at least tried to go writing in a café.
The picture fits well. There’s a sort of romantic ideal to the image of the writer tucked away in a café corner sipping her brew and watching, occasionally, the others around her, perhaps even incorporating their quirks and idiosyncratic ways, their caricatures, onto the page before her—in touch with the rhythm of humanity, its cravings and public privacies.
In fact, I’d say there’s a certain mythos surrounding these sorts of populated spaces when it comes to creativity. And while we can all picture the artist, of whatever medium, sitting in a café (or a bar or tavern—a drinking place), sipping something eccentric in a sort of Zen trance away from her work, I would argue that for our image of the writer, we associate her presence in the café with actual creative productivity.
“Writing in Cafes: A Personal History”
A short while ago I encountered this essay by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and I found myself excited to explore the topic of writing in cafes, since I certainly have attempted my fair share of the exercise. Reading the essay was as much coming home as it was leaving it; the vocabulary of this story—the mythos of the public scriptural space—was something I already possessed.
In the essay, Wurgaft gives his personal experience writing in cafes and various other public spaces, meditating on such examples as Hemingway (who reportedly was “like a charging rhino when he wrote” in cafes—probably fueled by…not coffee). While he’s at it, the essay goes into some interesting history of coffeehouses in Modern Europe and their part in the cultural evaluation of attention and work ethic. Interesting stuff—highly recommend it.
So, Wurgaft argues that “part of the thrill of being in public spaces lies in chance and openness, in giving up perfect control over one’s surroundings.” I’d have to agree. There’s a tension—perhaps a culturally-embedded one—between creative activity as orderly, regimented, processual, and creative activity as chaotic, anarchic, spontaneous. As Wurgaft suggests, we feel in public scriptural spaces that anything could happen—including great writing. And it’s not just coffee houses. Wurgaft also mentions “transitional spaces” like hotel lobbies or train stations that are no less public and literarily associated with mental wandering.
But of course we know it doesn’t exactly work this way. As Wurgaft says, “there will be good and bad writing days in hotel lobbies and good and bad days in cafés.”
But, he says, “the transitional spaces have the feel of freedom, the mind swept up with the movement of arrivals and departures. Sometimes stillness frees the mind, sometimes kinetic energy.”
And yet the productivity myth remains strong. The café is, in our imagination, where the writer is presently working, or at least entering the psycho-spiritual zone of the muse.
Having spent considerable time writing (or…attempting to write) in cafes, I find interesting the tension between the space’s scriptural/social/attentional demands. There’s this beautiful passage at the end of Wurgaft’s essay, which reads thus:
“To write in [coffeehouses], to embrace the play of attention and distraction, is to travel at modernity’s pace while making very few physical movements, and to contemplate a quintessentially modern struggle over the meaning of our time, our experience. It means hoping that attention, either toward our writing, toward our neighbors, or toward ourselves, might thicken time and slow it for us. And it means contemplating all this not alone, not in silence, but in a social space full of constrained chaos, full of all kinds of desires, including the desire to write our days.”
First of all, there’s this “play of attention and distraction,” which, if you’ve ever gone to write at a café, you know about. It’s really hard to write in one of these places because there’s so much sensual data being thrown at you. You may be sitting still, hands poised over the keyboard, but the world, this microcosm of middle-class charm is shuffling, murmuring, grinding, even roaring, shouting, laughing all around you. (That’s why such authors as Stephen King instruct writers to choose a dark, sealed-off space to write. No distractions, which implies if not requires some degree of planning and regimentation—the opposite of play.)
This dynamic is inevitable. As Wurgaft says, to write in coffeehouses is to contemplate modernity and “thicken time” by playing with attention in this fundamentally social and—if you’re there during business hours—populated space.
I am very much tempted to embrace Wurgaft’s conclusion, to “embrace the play,” as he puts it, of this dynamic environment. But I’m not so sure it’s possible.
Possible, that is, to write and not be in some way absolutely alone.
“Writing is something you do alone.”
Author John Green has said, “Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.”
If we limit our definition of writing to something done only by the product’s author—so, writing as someone dictates would be something different—then there is no way to write that is not at least in the moment of the act equivalent to an intellectual separation from all other people. The writer in this way is the sole subject, a solipsist of sorts: All exists in the mind of the writer until the writing act has stopped.
In other words, the writer is alone.
In the Wikipedia article titled “Collaborative writing,” there is a list of strategies for approaching a writing project with multiple authors. Lowry et al. is cited as proposing five methods:
1) Single-author writing, when one team member writes as representative for the group,
2) Sequential single writing, when one group member writes at a time,
3) Parallel writing, when multiple writers write separate assigned parts of a document,
4) Reactive writing, when all write at the same time and react to each other’s contributions as they’re made, and
5) Mixed mode, combining two or more of the above.
I would argue that all these methods are by necessity limited by the subjectivity of each discrete author. One writer writes one thing at a time, the product of one authorship, of a single, unique subject. Even in the reactive strategy, when all are writing at the same time, each author is intellectually separate from the others as he or she writes. In some way, there is no way for one of them to directly engage with another while the latter’s writing act is in progress, for even then the former must wait to see what each new letter is, what each new word becomes, how each idea emerges in real time.
And thus we build a paradox: Why go to a public space like the café to be alone?
Maybe because of the café’s mythical nature, and hence the social capital assigned to the participation in that mythos. The public scriptural space is ascribed cultural significance as long as the café is narrativized as an incubator of creative energy, even a catalyst of productivity. We imagine as well as reproduce images and stories of famous thinkers and artists and writers in these public spaces and conflate their productivity with those images. We writers want to be great, and we also want to appear great. We take selfies of ourselves at cafes, ostensibly writing or studying or otherwise producing through the cultural vehicle of the café.
(And this applies to other professions, too. We’re probably all familiar with the trope of the business person rushing through a coffee shop—albeit in a more transitional way—to “get stuff done.”)
It’s possible to do all this unconsciously, just like many public performances. But in our own minds, it may be less about the selfie and more about the self. For me, I create or even achieve a certain self-image by writing in a café. I participate in the mythos of the public scriptural space, and thereby identify myself with it, along with its characters. I’m playing a different sort of game; I’m playing a different sort of act.
Does it help me write? Well, like anything, there are good and bad writing days.
What other spaces, be they transitional, liminal, public or private, do you treat this way?
Jedd Cole is a professional writer, editor and author of short speculative fiction. He maintains the Electric Didact blog as well as performs other writerly and non-writerly things.