Natalie Goldberg states in her book, Writing Down the Bones, that it is essential for a writer to have a relationship with a coffee shop. The picture of the writer sitting in a coffee shop penning the next bestseller is ubiquitous. In fact, sitting here in a coffee shop, I can see at least two other people writing – one on her laptop and one in a notebook. The laptop woman is not answering her emails – I peeked as I walked by to make sure. The notebook man is not likely doing his shopping list as he just now, so carefully, placed his notebook and pen into his well-worn leather satchel. So, three writers in this tiny coffee shop, including me. But, why?
The lure of the coffee shop is so strong that now there’s an app for that. “Coffitivity.com” can help create the atmosphere of a coffee shop wherever you are – just add coffee and a laptop to the familiar buzzy noises! Is that the key to writing success?
My husband and I have a suburban up and down bungalow and my downstairs office gives me more than enough room for a long charcoal-coloured desk built from a length of kitchen countertop, two walls of bookcases, a large file cabinet and a seldom-used reading chair draped with a hand crocheted throw. Add coffee in a bright ceramic mug, turn on Coffitivity.com, and presto, my office is a coffee shop! But is it? Does an actual coffee shop give you some additional magic ingredient that a writer needs? And if so, what is it?
Perhaps the attraction of the coffee shop is just plain company. Writing can be a lonely pursuit, so why not do it cheek to jowl with others in pursuit of caffeine? Some attribute the lure to research – if you sit, sip and listen to people talking, you can get more real about writing dialogue. Though this feels a tiny bit invasive to me.
My productivity increases when I work to a deadline so giving myself a certain amount of time in a coffee shop or a caffeine limit works for me. But the convenient timing of mid-morning snack rolling into lunch can enable the guiltless reworking of a chapter or two.
At home, the commute from office up to my kitchen is not the same as walking to a counter. First off, I have to make the tea or coffee myself. While I am waiting for the beans to grind or the water to boil, I inevitably start wiping down the top of the stove with specialised cream cleaner. I can lose an hour just going for one coffee. In the coffee shop, all I have to do is order my coffee and someone calls me when it is ready!
There is something romantic, European even, about writing in a coffee shop. Ordering a French press or latte evokes a tiny café on the Champs Elysee faster than you can order the flight tickets over the internet. Adventure without leaving your neighbourhood!
Writers live in a world of their own making. I don’t leave my home in the morning by car, bus or rail so I don’t have “commute time” to read online blog sites on my tablet, listen to an audio book or peruse an article in a writing magazine. My daily commute is only a staircase long. Five minutes if I move slowly. When I descend to my office, it feels like going to work. I have an anxiety to produce plans for a course I’m going to teach, answer emails, research writing opportunities, cover large poster paper with mind maps in anticipation of my new book or post helpful hints on my Facebook author site.
But experience has taught me that anxiety to produce may result in work that is less creative. I need to take the time to refresh my ideas or to disengage my brain from “produce mode.” That is when I need to find a place and time to read all the things I would have read had I had a job that gave me “commute time.”
If my creative pipe has been plugged for too long, a “vacation” from my office may be the plunger needed to clear it and get the creative juices flowing. The coffee shop is the cheapest and fastest mini-retreat available. No guilt incurred if I run to the coffee shop for an hour or so with my writing magazines (some new ones and some I haven’t opened for the three months since publication), and happily spend the next hour highlighting, folding down the corners of pages I have to go back to and jotting down ideas in my notebook. By taking myself out of my office, the ideas come.
But in the end, though I love to write in coffee shops, the lure still eludes me. Does the pungent smell of burnt coffee beans in the air spark the creative urge? Is it the freedom to play hooky from the “work office,” or the luxury of knowing someone else will brew that perfect cup of energy booster for me? When I enter any coffee shop, do I re-live a long-ago morning when I sat and drank my brew near Haight Ashbury? Or subconsciously reminisce about a coffee shop I frequented in the City of London?
Is there a magic ingredient or is it simply a myth? Is it any of these things or none? Do I need to know? Or just get down to it in the coffee shop?
Karen E. Lee grew up in rural Southern Ontario, Canada, and is a retired clinical psychologist and management consultant. She has lived in Canada, England, and Hawaii. She received an undergraduate degree in 1970 in anthropology, worked in exploration geology in Toronto and Calgary, and in 1991 became a chartered psychologist in Alberta.
She moved to England in 1995, where she lived and worked as an independent management consultant for ten years. Her consulting work and general interest have taken her to many different countries: the British Isles, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the Czech republic, Greece, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, Turkey, Peru, Nigeria, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Today, she helps her husband, Bill, in his jewelry business, volunteers for political concerns, and is on the board of Peer Support Services for Abused Women (PSSAW). She and her husband live in Calgary, Alberta.
You can buy her memoir HERE