Many years ago I was contacted by a crazy man in New Mexico who said that he’d finally tracked down the 12 weirdest writers on planet Earth and wanted them to submit stories for an anthology he had in mind. Apparently, I was one of those 12. He wanted three or four stories from each of us. At the time, I was several months into a nasty case of writer’s block. All my words had flown south for the winter and stayed there for the summer. But, I thought, maybe this was a way to get those words flying home.
Around the same time, my daughter had started working in a coffee shop. Each evening, I dropped by to drive her home, which usually meant waiting around while she cleaned up and cashed out, so I brought along a notebook and pen and started writing weird short stories for the first Twisted Tails anthology. There was something about the atmosphere (and maybe the coffee) that triggered the writer in me and the words started flowing in the notebook.
I wrote 4 short stories and started back on the novel. I didn’t have a laptop at the time, so everything was done in pencil. I don’t recommend this…it’s messy and then you have to put everything into a computer document, which isn’t all that bad with short stories but downright painful with a novel. I finally broke down and bought a laptop when I realized that coffee shops were now the only places where I could write. I needed a cup of java surrounded by a coffee shop to pry the words from my subconscious.
When I tell people where I write, they say things like, “Doesn’t the noise bother you?” “How do you stay focused?” “Boy, are you weird.” And these are the nice things they say.
There’s just something about a coffee shop that says, “You will now write. You will not rush to the kitchen and wash those dinner dishes. You will write. No…stop thinking about vacuuming the floor…you’re in a coffee shop. Just…write.” I don’t have all the distractions of home. I can’t spend an hour installing a new flush on the toilet when I can’t think of what to write next or conceive the words to describe Carla’s red dress in Chapter 2. Sure, I can walk over to the coffee shop’s condiments counter and self-debate the concept of adding honey to my coffee but, after a few tries, I realized that I don’t like anything sweet in my coffee. At home, I would be compelled to stare out the window waiting for the next crow to fly by to make it an even number while Carla’s red dress remained just red.
Noise doesn’t distract me; the need for a distraction distracts me.
Coffee shop noise is relaxing once you get used to it. It fades into the distance like background music and yields to the stampede of words spewing out of my mind. The only noise that bothers me is that loudmouth in every crowd whose voice is almost a yell…and these are the ones who can’t keep their mouth shut, the ones whose eyes are continually darting around the tables, hoping that everyone is dropping what they’re doing and listening to the steady stream of drivel spilling out of their mouths. I have a pair of noise cancellation headphones for situations like this and, if I can still hear them, I beat them to death with the headphones. In a coffee shop, this is called performance art.
One of the big things that helps coax the words out is the acceptance of fate: I’m here to write, gawdamit, and I’m going to write. Almost as soon as I sit down, swig some coffee and open my laptop I’m ready to write. Sometimes it starts slowly and sometimes it jumps the starter pistol. But I’m in a coffee shop and what do I do in a coffee shop? I write. And yes, sometimes it’s crap (well, maybe a lot of the time…we’re talking first draft), but at least I have something I can work with later…or…I have something that’s always going to be crap…but I’m the only one who’s seen it. I guess the key word is routine. Once you get into a coffee shop writing routine, it becomes increasingly easy to just plough into the paragraphs and push the novel ahead a page or two at a time.
But what about people I know? People who see me sitting at my table clacking the keys to beat all hell, pumping out the words in a steady stream of storytelling? Most will pass my table with a quiet hello or “Writing again, are you? That what your doin’?”
“Yep.” Smiling. Ready to use the headphones one way or the other.
But they keep walking and I get back to Carla’s red dress. Pomegranate. Nope. Fire engine. Nope.
It’s the ones who can’t help themselves, the ones who see me and are suddenly driven to make some sort of impression by standing over me and expecting answers to their dumb questions.
“So what’s this one about?”
“It’s a secret.”
“Who’s in it?”
“Can’t tell you.”
“Would you like to see the 156 pictures I took with my iPhone over the weekend?”
But they won’t stop asking questions. They won’t go away. They have me cornered. I have to do something drastic. I say, “Nice talking to you. Gotta get back to it. See you later.” And I bury my entire being into the writing. This almost always does it and I’ve only had to tell two people to fuck off and let me write in all the years I’ve been writing in coffee shops.
And then, of course, there’s the coffee. There’s something about the fragrance and body of coffee (not to mention the caffeine) that commands, “Creativity…stand to attention!” that begins to happen even before the first sip.
I used to drink wine while I wrote poetry. This is why you’ll see very little of my poetry published anywhere. I know people who can’t write prose without wine. I’m not one of them. One sip of wine and I want to write bad, evil poetry. Wine is my prose kryptonite. Coffee is my spinach, especially espresso or German Chocolate Cake. With the exception of espresso, I insert a double whammy of 18% cream into my coffee, a practice that can be bad only if you drink over 10 cups of coffee in an evening, which is why I never drink more than 10 cups of coffee in an evening.
“But wait!” you say. ”Shouldn’t you avoid any coffee after 5 in the evening? I’m sure I read that on the internet.”
Yes…coffee after 5. It can keep you awake for 6 to 8 hours. I generally start writing around 7 and write until around 9. I used to go home and drink a bottle of wine before bed. I don’t recommend this. I did this for 10 years and almost murdered my liver. After my doctor told me to give up writing in coffee shops or “you’re a dead man” I decided to drop the wine and stay up all night.
I don’t know of a solution to this. After a day in the IT industry, I’m tired and unfocused. I need that coffee before diving into my creative wellspring. Otherwise, I’m diving into bath water…used bathwater. Skunky old used bathwater. But I recently did some experimentation and here’s what I found: A double espresso seems to keep me up just half the night. Anything else will keep me awake all night.
Go figure. Maybe this article from Kicking Horse Coffee explains it.