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?