Tuesday, July 29, 2008


On Writing In Public

As a rule, I don't write in public. It's too exposed, a little pretentious, and just not me. Besides, when one tries to maintain the fig leaf of a pseudonym, it's probably best not to generate material where just anybody can see you.

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?

"...only the vaguest sense of what an electric typewriter sounds like..."

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.
I love to write in coffee shops-- as long as the music isn't too loud. Seriously, are we the same person? Because I turn down the radio when I get lost too :)
I can grade in a coffee house, read and take notes, but write? No. And I can't write at home for the same reasons you cite. I write in my office, with the door closed, no music, and the phone turned off. That's the only way I can get it done.

Oh, and I also turn down the radio when I get lost, or when I get close to a traffic situation.
At home, with the TV on. Nothing spells white noise like Fox. OK, seriously, CNBC.
Worked in a newspaper office; spent YEARS unable to write or study unless it was ridiculously noisy AND CNN was on constantly in the background. The bing of the older AP servers (on a computer, but back when it actually binged when it sent a new story over the wire) also helped.

These days I crank me some DJ Tiesto to work to.

Otherwise? Noise drives me batty.
Thank you for the paragraph wherein you describe the perils of writing at home! (With nine kids, I get to subject it to some serious multiplication.) The office presents a similar problem: my books keep calling to me from the shelves. My best writing is done in hotel rooms. Alone. Preferably with a nice bottle of Pinot Noir at my elbow.
I do a lot of my writing in the library, in the Islamic section where it is nice and quiet because the only people that study there are Islamic scholars who are incredibly respectful of the whole silence thing. The only other regular in this section of the library is a guy with Tourettes Syndrome who leaves if he starts having verbal tics; I think the mere fact that he's around having tics tends to keep other people away. But I don't mind him, he seems like a perfectly nice fellow. For background noise this area is a book sorting area so you have stackers sorting and stacking pretty regularly, this seems a nice counter point to reading and writing to me.
yeah, it's not so much an appeal as a necessity for me. I literally have no space at home. I have a corner of the couch with my laptop on my lap and a baby batting at the keyboard. My other option is the university library. Not only is parking a nightmare, believe me, the coffeeshop is quieter most of the time and also, you know, not 45 degrees.
I love coffee shops for writing! I can also get a lot done at the library *if* there aren't a lot of noisy people around. Even in the quiet sections, inevitably someone will answer his/her cell phone and start chatting away, abruptly breaking the beautiful quiet. Home? I get much too distracted at home . . .
Coffee shop a block-and-a-half from where I live (the only walking neighborhood, 65/100 at walkscore, in my town). They're independent, roast their own coffee, have free wireless. Writing at home puts me too close to the TV, the fridge, and the garden. Natalie Goldberg, Zen author, in her Writing Down the Bones writing manual, talks about coffeeshops or other public places as good for concentration, likening the "upper mind" to a child who wants attention/distraction, which when supplied by a public place, calms down and lets the deeper mind get the writing done.

I've actually written a series ("the Office"--pace Steve Carrell) based on photos of the vantage point from wherever I'm working.
The thing I miss most about working from "home," which I could do before but can't now, was actually working from the coffeeshop. (I am a webmaster by trade.) I can code, write, plan...everything except design. It is the "white noise" effect, definitely.

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!
Glad you got insight into what makes blogging such a pleasant activity. The sense of placelessness, the coffee aromas, the clear boundaries set for a "writing session"...
There's a strange feeling of bonding which comes with writing in a café.
And bus your table.
I *love* writing at the airport. It often happens on my way to a talk or after a talk, when I'm either desperately trying to finish a paper, or editing based on feedback. It's also handy (although annoying) that most airports charge for Internet, and I'm too cheap to pay for that. So I have a computer, downtime, white noise, and thus some good writing time.
...and I have now moved my S-C portable for the 9th time in 25 years - can't get a ribbon, but won't part with it.
writing where you are most inspired. writers write and in effect it shoudl be about teh process not the space. i find that I write when the moment calls or when that inspiration whizzes by me. I scribble in hopes that my words inspire like I was... Peace. kt
I can't write at home any more - I just distract myself. I love working in coffeeshops - something about having other people around makes me feel a little bit more accountable about my actions, so I get more done (or, I can waste time, but not in the ridiculous ways I do at home: why, look, it's time to pluck my eyebrows! I'm so not doing that in a coffeeshop). Plus, I go to the coffeeshop specifically to work, whereas there are so many different things I do at home, being at home doesn't signal "work" to me.

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!)
I do a good deal of my writing in public, but I don't think that it's as good as when I'm alone. Which isn't very often.

But what happens when your coffee house goes bad? Sorry for the plug, but see "A Very Grumpy Day":

I can see not wanting to blog pseudonymously in public, but I love writing/working outside. It lets me work toward an anticipated break and get things done ---- I usually try to get in a short session at home with the promise that if I finish X or at least draft it I can go the the cafe. Then I get a nice drink as a reward and people watch for a few moments, and then I'm rested for another session.

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.
After reading the many responses, I was surprised I didn't see anyone mention the place where I actually do my best writing: the shower. Can't use a computer or paper in there, so it has to be memorized until it can be recorded, but that is a great place to sort out new ideas into a coherent framework.

And thanks for that white noise site!
I wrote one of my best academic papers once on an airplane. Aside from that bit of craziness, I, too, like the background hum of cafes. I think I like cafés because you can be alone with your thoughts for only so long. There's a silent camaraderie of everyone working at their own table. My local coffeeshop doesn't care if you overstay your drink, so the "working to deadline" angle doesn't really play in.
I do my best writing in cafes - preferably without wireless, or with expensive Wifi, so I'm not distracted into surfing.

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.
Although I am seriously loving my year off, I miss the quiet of the early morning at the office. I was more productive between 7:30 and 9:00 in the morning than I was the rest of the day... something about the silence and solitude just inspired me.

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.
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