Hattie Clarke loves writing in coffee shops. But what is it about being in the presence of others – strangers, mostly – that inspires us to be creative?
In this great guest article, Hattie explores the joy of writing in public and the magnetic pull between a writer and their favourite caffeine purveyor.
What is it about ordering a cappuccino, sitting down at a slightly sticky coffee table and pulling out a laptop that makes us feel so damn productive? Whether you’re a budding novelist or a student in love with procrastination, our public spaces are suffering from a plague of writers and researchers. ‘Do none of these people
Whether you’re a budding novelist or a student in love with procrastination, our public spaces are suffering from a plague of writers and researchers. ‘Do none of these people have homes?’ I hear you cry, while there is a housing crisis at present, I doubt most of these coffee shop dwellers are suffering from that particular austerity. No for them, it is the age-old desire to seek the outside world when our imaginations are failing to perform.
Have you ever noticed that it almost isn’t acceptable anymore to be in a public space alone, without something to occupy yourself? It is no longer the norm to see someone just sitting drinking their coffee, in the same way that it isn’t likely that you will sit opposite someone on a train who is content just looking out of the window. There are always headphones plumbed into ears, or screens glaring from palms or occasionally books or laptops open in front of them. We have a fear in public space of not having a purpose. So much so that I sometimes get out my book when I’m alone in a cafe even if I have no intention of reading it, but it will satisfy my onlookers and put them at ease that I’m not just one of these weird cafe lurkers they’ve seen on the news. This fear is one of the reasons working in public has become so commonplace in coffee shops across the world. At least if you’re a writer you have reasons other than fear of looking strange for your public writing habit.
In some places it truly is an epidemic – laptops lined up on coffee shop benches, writers looking wistfully out of windows before going up to order another pot of fresh mint tea. Some places attract writers more than others, like they have an internal creative homing device that sends out ‘the vibe’ to any struggling poetic minds in the area. I often end up in a Caffe Nero around the corner from my office that is swarmed with writers every lunchtime – I think we should set up a support group and possibly some slam poetry sessions.
It wasn’t free wifi and laptops that created this urge within us; the need to escape our desks in search of inspiration is a phenomenon that has overwhelmed writers for generations. From the Parisian cafes that drew the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein, to the cafe in Covent Garden where Charles Dickens wrote letters to his family, the inner world of writing has often been performed in the outside world. The Vesuvio Cafe in San Francisco was a place of pilgrimage for Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, whereas Lord Byron preferred a secluded spot in Padua’s Pedrocchi Cafe to nurture those last few verses. Simone de Beauvoir broke gender norms over coffee and eggs at Les Deux Magots.
Writing is such a solitary experience that there is no wonder it is necessary to take in the world outside of your own mind. But, I wonder whether writing in public matters more to our identities as writers than it does to our process?
Psychologists have suggested that being seen by another party (a boss, teacher, etc.) when you’re working gives us an acknowledgement of our commitment to the task in hand and, in turn, leads to a higher level of performance. I think this can be applied to the phenomenon of writing in public.
To be seen to be writing is an acknowledgement of our status as writers, creators and poets.
Defining oneself as a writer when you’re sitting at your kitchen table, reading another rejection email and crying into the fur of a cat that is desperate to get out of your embrace, can be tough. Whereas a short walk to a friendly coffee shop where the staff recognise you (they know those soulful eyes) and setting yourself up for a day’s creation, means that whatever happens you’ve publicly made the effort; others have seen you make the commitment to behave like a writer, therefore you are. The Hawthorne Effect comes into play here, where our awareness of being observed changes the way we behave. Are we more writerly, more committed and more creative knowing someone is watching?
I have a number of regular writing haunts that I work in rather than go home to sensibly work at my desk, where the tea and biscuits are free flowing. But I make the same choice every time. I can’t resist that smell of coffee that has become synonymous with my brain turning on, even if it is a dirty, expensive habit. Another reason for being out in public with your pen ready is for catching those ever fascinating phrases that you only get from a sneaky bit of people watching. Eavesdropping and people watching are part of the draw for the writer in public; they are part of your character work, the discourse of your dialogue and a crucial scene on humanity in your great work. The protagonist of my current creation has the look of a woman I saw through the coffee shop window, she’d stepped out of her office for a cigarette and the way she pulled her her coat around her just gave me an idea for my character’s movement. So some of that pensive, Romantic with a capital R, window staring is occasionally rather useful.
Another reason for being out in public with your pen ready is for catching those ever -fascinating phrases that you only get from a sneaky bit of people watching. Eavesdropping and people watching are part of the draw for the writer in public; they are part of your character work, the discourse of your dialogue and a crucial scene on humanity in your great work. The protagonist of my current creation has the look of a woman I saw through the coffee shop window, she’d stepped out of her office for a cigarette and the way she pulled her her coat around her just gave me an idea for my character’s movement. So some of that pensive, Romantic with a capital R, window staring is occasionally rather useful.
We all know the story of JK Rowling and how The Elephant House in Edinburgh was the incubator and coffee supplier to Harry Potter’s first words. It is the Cinderella story for all of us public writers in training. But in a way, whether you’re going there for warmth, coffee or character work, the reason we dwell in these public spaces is to escape. Are we acting out the function of our readers before we have them, or are we working out who we are and what on earth to write next?
Whatever it is we’re doing, I can promise you, there have been thousands before us and there will be thousands more in the cyber-coffeehouses of the future who will take to the outdoors in pursuit of their story. I wish you luck, and many spiced lattes, in finding yours.
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