Tuesday, July 29, 2008
On Writing In Public
Today I'm breaking my own rule. Worse, I'm in a coffeehouse. For that, alone, I should incur some serious 'douchebag' points. Hey, everyone! Look at me! I'm writing!
Part of it was simple claustrophobia. If I didn't get out of the house, I knew something bad would happen. Part of it, admittedly, was curiosity: what, exactly, is the appeal of writing in public, anyway?
(And part of it is a basic caffeine craving.)
Weirdly enough, the white noise of other people milling around is actually comforting. I discovered something similar, entirely by accident, in my first year of college. I had fallen behind in my laundry, so I had to camp out by the machines for a few hours while I studied. For whatever reason, the white noise of washing machines and dryers actually helped me concentrate. When I mentioned my discovery to a few others in the dorm, some of them reported having discovered the same thing. This came in handy in grad school, when I had to decamp for actual laundromats.
(Tragically, my choice of laundromat reading material seemed to frighten the horses. There's a certain level of nerdiness that goes way beyond 'endearing,' landing somewhere between 'inexplicable' and 'call 911.' )
Airports can have a similar effect, if only for short periods. Something about focusing narrowly on my own thing while the world buzzes loudly around me is actually comforting.
Family sounds don't have the same effect, since they're usually calls to action of one sort or another. Anything abrupt is just out of the question, since it breaks concentration. Some people can use music, but I haven't had very good luck with that; I'm one of those people who turns down the car radio when I'm lost. When I listen to music, I actually listen to it, so I can't focus on anything else terribly demanding. (When I try, the music just registers as annoying, even if it's something I otherwise like.) But coffeehouse noise is unpatterned, indistinct, and utterly indifferent to my presence. In other words, it actually works.
There's also a de facto deadline when writing in public. You're allowed to stick around only as long as your drink holds out. Without deadlines, I just don't produce. (This is part of the appeal of my self-imposed five-day-a-week posting schedule. If I only posted when the spirit moved me, months would go by. Inspiration can't be forced, but it can be encouraged.) Self-imposed deadlines usually do the trick, but there's something about the inarguable fact of coffee cooling to focus the mind.
Coffeehouses have changed from their 90's iteration. Back then, people usually sat in groups, or, if they sat alone, they read 'zines. Now at least two-thirds of the people here are sitting alone, doing whatever they're doing on their laptops. Not a 'zine to be found. Whether that bespeaks greater isolation or a new level of virtual connectedness, I'll leave to the Robert Putnams of the world, but it's noticeable. Even the people sitting in groups are engaged in a sort of parallel play, sitting across from each other, the tops of their screens nearly touching. Where all that noise is coming from, I honestly don't know.
It certainly isn't the typing. I'd bet that most people under thirty have only the vaguest sense of what an electric typewriter sounds like when it's being put through its paces; that sound is a clear and distinct childhood memory. (For the kids out there: back in the paleolithic era, people produced text directly onto paper by hitting keys that would physically collide into the paper. Crude, yes, but it beat quill and ink.) Dad would disappear into the guest room/office, or sometimes the dining room, and I'd hear BANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANG DING! ZWOOP BANGBANGBANG. The sound of a piece of paper being aggressively ripped from the roller signified completion, whether triumphant or otherwise. I couldn't imagine a coffeehouse full of electric typewriters; it would probably violate a local noise ordinance. Fixing typos required 'white out,' a hallucinogen that doubled as a sort of manuscript spackle. It was a different time.
This 'public writing' thing requires far too much time away from home to be sustainable, but I'm beginning to see the appeal.
Wise and worldly readers – where, physically, do you like to write?
Child. I used to take my Smith-Corona portablemanual typewriter with me. Talk about noise. I probably created enough white noise for an navy of people to submerge themselves in.
Oh, and I also turn down the radio when I get lost, or when I get close to a traffic situation.
These days I crank me some DJ Tiesto to work to.
Otherwise? Noise drives me batty.
I've actually written a series ("the Office"--pace Steve Carrell) based on photos of the vantage point from wherever I'm working.
Working in the office was often as others describe working at home, where the noise often has implications that one should be involved in it somehow.
My old boss was very sympathetic to my coffeeshop working; like eyebrows mcgee, he was a former newspaper guy, and said he'd loved that environment!
Sometimes, at my current job, I'll put on actual White Noise to drown out the noise of my cubicle neighbors with something that isn't otherwise distracting. Sometimes I can work to music, sometimes I can't; that seems to vary a lot.
And I too turn down the radio when I'm worried I'm about to be lost, or when I have to give the Mr. detailed driving directions!
There's a strange feeling of bonding which comes with writing in a café.
And bus your table.
Also, I kinda like being surrounded by people, even when I don't know them and have no intention of talking to them, because it makes the work feel less isolating.
I also like working in libraries for the same reasons - libraries are quieter than coffeeshops, but I usually listen to music via headphones while I work anyway. (I'm one of those "work to music" people. If it's music I like, it doesn't matter if it has words or not. If I don't like it, it's really distracting!) The downside to libraries is, of course, no yummy food/drinks!
Oh, and I'm one of those people who'll buy a coffee and sit and work for four hours, so I've never followed the deadline thing (where I go, no one's ever chased out once their drink is done). Although I usually also get lunch, too, so I don't feel bad.
What I cannot do is work with the TV or a movie or the like on - I can ignore sung words, but I can't ignore conversations. (Hence why I use headphones in coffeeshops - I tend to eavesdrop otherwise!)
But what happens when your coffee house goes bad? Sorry for the plug, but see "A Very Grumpy Day":
I usually get a big chunk in and then am too caffeinated to concentrate, so I take a nice walk and head home and voila! I can do another short chunk.
When the weather's good I can do other places like the park or the library or a lunch place instead. Too bad our public library has become a housing center for homeless people. I'm glad they have someplace warm to stay, but they are loud and distracting and sometimes seem threatening.
And thanks for that white noise site!
It's a great anti-procrastination tool, in that you can't get up, wander around, surf the net or generally be unfocussed. Sitting down, you have to do something! My taxes, invoicing, it all happens there.
The one thing I find difficult to do in cafes is to mark (grade) work. For some reason, when I'm trying to tune into the student's work, silence really helps.
One thing: what do people think about the Mac/PC distribution in cafes? My observations is that Macs in cafes take up a greater proportion than the general distribution would indicate. I've had lots of people start conversations over my (2.5 year old) white iBook, but never seen anyone start a conversation "so you have a PC?"
Maybe I am being a bit pretentious, but with this particular pretention comes productivity. In fact maybe it's time I got a bit more productive - off to my favourite cafe - a large airy room with a view over the city to the mountains....much nicer than my small office.
I find it very difficult to write anything - e-mails, blog posts, let alone something more sophisticated these days - and am hoping my mojo comes back when I go back to work. At least it's one thing to look forward to.