Why I Write in Cafes

A cup of coffee with latte art and a notebook with a pencil

I’ve been writing a lot in cafes recently. Well, mostly one cafe, but I’ve dallied with others.

It’s a nice cafe. It’s located next to a bus stop that has a route to most of the places I want to be, which makes it easy to get there and to leave. The round tables are a bit small for a large laptop and a drink, but you can’t have everything. I drink iced tea, and sometimes I order a grilled cheese sandwich with tomatoes, and the friendly staff have gotten used to my order. The number of customers waxes and wanes with the season and the light and the weather. Sometimes it’s hard to find a pair of empty tables so I can sit with my writing partner, but mostly it’s doable.

I like the art on the walls. It’s not always to my taste, but it’s cool seeing displays of the local artists. If nothing else, it keeps my critical skills for visual art a little more sharpened than they would be otherwise. Do I like that? Yes? No? Why? I wonder what kind of art I’d be producing for the walls if I had continued on the artistic trajectory I was on at eighteen.

I like most of the background noise, including the loud conversations from strangers nearby. I like voices. The music is often not my taste, but only occasionally too annoying to deal with. The worst times I’ve had are when people are having breakdowns in the cafe. A woman sobbed on one of the couches near me for an hour or so, once. I wanted so much to go hug her.

Sometimes someone overhears me and my writing partner talking about writing and wants to talk about writing with us, which is usually okay, unless I’m heavily absorbed in working–in which case I probably wasn’t talking to my writing partner in the first place to attract attention. I like meeting new people.

A long time ago, a prominent SF writer grumbled that people who write in cafes aren’t really writing — it’s more for show than work, he said, a way of playing the writer in public. I think that’s a real phenomenon– I’ve definitely both seen people do that, and probably been the person doing it (at least on days when I just could not get my brain to cooperate).

I don’t mean to belabor the argument from that old post–it’s just that I think of it sometimes when I’m getting more done at a cafe than I can elsewhere. It makes me ponder why the cafe is a useful space for me.

Some of my thoughts about why:

Having a space dedicated to fiction means that I’m less likely to end up doing administrative business.

There are a lot of components to maintaining a writing career, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. When I get overwhelmed, I try to organize things, and I can get caught up just doing administrative work, or other kinds of tasks that seem (or are) urgent, but don’t get the creative work done. Those tasks can be easier to approach because there’s usually a done/not-done state at the end, where writing is long, continuous, and hard to predict.

Having a routine.

Like many other freelancers and self-employed folks, I find that time management can be tricky. It’s easy for days to blend into one another, and slip away before I can manage to get traction. When I was living somewhere without many writers around, that was particularly difficult. Here, where there are masses of artists of all varieties, I have a lot of people that I can meet to work with. Having a set time and place to work, and a set person I’m working with, encourages me to develop habits that make my time more efficient.

I always accomplish something, or prove I can’t.

Because I’m at the cafe with someone else, and we are there with a purpose, I always spend at least some time trying to write. Some days, nothing comes. More often, even if I feel creatively dry, I can scrape up something, whether it’s a bit of editing, a paragraph or two, or the beginning of a story (which I may never finish). On my own I can get depressed over those days when the writing doesn’t work, and it makes me avoidant for a while afterward. With a writing partner, there’s a set time to try again.

Having a writing partner.

When I’m at the cafe, I’m with someone I know well. We can commiserate over failed work attempts, and celebrate the days when words come easily. We often write in timed bursts. If I can’t get anything done in the timed burst — usually thirty or forty-five minutes — then I have a check in time where my partner and I can try to refocus each other, so there’s less possibility of never getting back to work. Writing can be lonely. With a writing partner, you have company (while often still being lonely; that can be the nature of the work).

There’s bustling noise around me.

I’m comforted by having sounds around me. I like the sounds of people particularly. In a cafe, I get to hear people around me in a pleasant buzz that I can tune out well enough to work. Since they’re mostly strangers, I’m less likely to end up distracted than I would be if I were writing with a group of friends.

Having a reason to leave the house.

As an introvert, if I don’t actively find reasons to leave the house, then I’m likely to just sit at home with the cats. (The cats appreciate this.) Writing at the cafe with a partner gives me a time and place where someone expects me. If I don’t go, it inconveniences them. (The cats don’t appreciate this.)

Forming a community connection.

Not only does the cafe get me out of my house, but it also prevents me from spending all my time with my friends at their houses. It forces me to participate, however minorly, in the public life of our city. I meet people I haven’t met before, and see people I’ll never formally meet at all. I get to see slices of the vibrancy around me.

Peer Pressure

This is similar to “having a writing partner,” but there are other ways to accomplish it, like reporting word counts on social media or a message board. I’m accountable to someone, even though it’s informal, and there are no penalties. I can think, “I should work… Lee is working.” And Lee can think (direct quote), “Must set a good example for Rachel.” A little bit of social approval goes a long way.

(This post first appeared on my Patreon. Thank you to all my patrons!)

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