Mon 14 Dec 2009
Just a few minutes ago, as I was sitting at the window of my local coffee shop, a twenty-something in a Georgetown Law sweatshirt entered, complaining loudly to her friend. “So he texts me saying that he wants to have sex with me and all that,” she says in a brassy tone that can be heard by everyone within thirty feet. “But I knew, in my heart of hearts, that nothing would happen. And nothing did! He chickened out.” Her friend nods in commiseration. Meanwhile, the older lady sitting next to me glances at me and raises her eyebrows, as if to say: “Can you believe she’s discussing this here?”
“But my boyfriend somehow got into my email,” the law student continues, “and he lays into me! I mean, he already cheated on me once, and now I’m the bad guy?” She sounds truly exasperated. Her friend mumbles something comforting. The woman next to me shakes her head. It’s just another day in the coffee shop.
Every day, I walk a mile across Capitol Hill to get here, stand in line behind the men and women in suits, get my cup of coffee, and sit down to write. It’s a rare day that I don’t see one or two other writers also typing at their laptops. And we’ve all heard stories of coffee-fueled writers like J.K. Rowling. Go to your local coffee shop, and I’m sure you’ll see a disheveled man or woman, coffee at hand, alternately typing furiously and staring into space. What is it with writers and coffee shops?
First of all, writers hang out in coffee shops because, well, that’s where writers write. Everybody needs symbols and settings to reinforce their professional identity. Doctors have hospitals, stethoscopes, and snappy white coats. Mechanics have garages and those grease-stained shirts with their name stitched on them. Professors have their office, books, and tweed jackets. And writers? They have coffee shops. Psychologists say that for roles to be internalized, they need to be observed in public. Coffee shops, then, play a vital role in helping writers to feel like writers.
They also help writers to write. Home is where I read, eat, and sleep; it’s a hard place to work. Coffee shops, on the other hand, are perfect. Of course, there’s the coffee (i.e. writing fuel). It tastes good, it keeps you awake, and a fresh cup of coffee is a great reward after a completed chapter. There are also the other customers. They watch me (or at least occasionally glance my way), which prevents me from spending too much time staring off into space or play hearts on my computer. They also give me a chance to talk—not something I get to do a lot as a writer—even if it’s only to say “is this chair taken?” or “a grande coffee, please.” But the best thing about working in a coffee shop is the daily drama, of which the exasperated young lady today is a perfect example.
How often do you get asked “how was work today”? For most people, this is not a difficult question. They can talk about office politics, interminable meetings, the latest project, etc. But what can you say about writing? “I wrote some more today” is not a great conversation starter. That’s where coffee shop drama comes in: it gives me something interesting to talk about when I get home.
Coffee shops are the ultimate public stage for the “human comedy.” Tourists and professionals, the homeless and the wealthy, the young and the old: they all come to coffee shops. I’ve witnessed bitter breakups, complete with thrown coffee. I saw two people meet for the first time after a long cyber-romance, only for the girl to storm out when she learned that her cyber-beau was significantly older than he had let on. I’ve listened to bleary-eyed college students discuss the raging party they had last night, while at the next table over, wrinkled old ladies complained loudly that people these days “just don’t see the glory of Jesus!” I’ve watched a congressman hold forth about farming in Egypt (a great place to grow cotton, apparently), and I’ve seen political consultants trying to sell politicians on the glories of “robo-calling.” And all the time, I sit in my corner and write, occasionally making odd faces to test whether it’s possible to “smile cruelly” or “glare ominously”… and no doubt providing other people with their own coffee shop stories.
So now you know: writers flock to coffee shops for the drama even more than the coffee. Come back next week to learn about why second novels are so often worse than the first one, or the curse of the second novel.