Writing & Coffee Shops

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Nine

Coffee Shops


So you’re busy writing your book now (remember back when we conquered that first blank page? God, we were so young then! So full of life!) and this means you’re drawn to visiting coffee shops. Inexorably drawn, perhaps, like a sailor to a siren’s haunting song, or a late night drunk to Taco Bell. You’ll be sitting at home, staring at your computer, your typewriter, your ink pot and feather writing quill, trying to figure out what comes next, why you’re even bothering to write anything at all since we all die someday, and suddenly you’ll feel an overwhelming urge to get the break out of the house and sprint into the street. Humanity! you’ll cry. I need to rejoin humanity!

And then before you know it you’re wedged into a tiny coffee shop table somewhere, surreptitiously eyeing the crowd around you as they type away on their laptops, wondering who the fuck all these people think THEY are and WHAT IN THE HELL are THEY writing.

But is this healthy?

Is this truly the ideal writing environment?


I used to be pretty jaded when it comes to writing in coffee shops. I came of age in the 1990s and saw Starbucks rise up and swallow the world whole. I watched Friends and wondered how they always grabbed the same comfy couch to themselves at Central Perk. I’d drive to Mankato, MN (we didn’t have a coffee shop in my hometown until long after I’d skipped town) and visit the new Barnes & Noble with its built-in Starbucks and sniff around nervously, a wide-eyed creature of the prairie who hadn’t developed a taste for coffee yet, much less knew what the hell went into making a cappuccino (turns out it’s espresso, hot milk, and steamed milk foam). Suddenly this very adult thing, this coffee, seemed inextricably bound up in reading books! And here I’d been reading books all my life without it like a fool!

Around this same period of time laptop computing became a thing. Our family bought a Gateway laptop sometime in the mid-nineties and it seemed real freaky. You carried it around in this big padded satchel, it weighed about ten pounds, and its battery lasted maybe twenty minutes. But it was a computer! A computer you could carry around with you and write on!

Still, I abstained from using the laptop. I didn’t like the tiny keyboard and the smaller screen. I’d already written a novel on a PC and I was hooked. I was a natural born office writer, happily typing away behind a closed door, avoiding my homework and chores and everything else as much as possible. I held this stance through college and into my late twenties. I believed serious writers wrote only at home and that everyone I saw clacking away at a coffee shop was there more to be seen working than actually accomplishing work.[1]

Then, one day, my friend gave me his old laptop and I took it for a spin. By now I was a fan of coffee[2] and a frequenter of coffee shops and so here I was, plugging into the matrix, and it was okay. If I listened to music and had a little space to breathe I could write a page or two, though it felt like the going was slower than at home, in my home office, where my cat and bed were always at hand if I felt an urge for a restorative collapse. Since that first laptop, I’ve upgraded to a newer much more enticing model (which I use for free through my day job) and I have to admit—it is cool sometimes, to be sitting in a coffee shop when the writing zone overcomes you and the coffee is tasty and you’re listening to some groovy tunes and everybody else seems to bent toward good work all around you, like you’re all part of some laptop team typing toward a better tomorrow.

I try to do my part to be a good coffee shop patron. I don’t talk on my cell phone (nobody ever calls me anyway). I introduce myself to baristas I see frequently and address them by name. I leave a tip. When I set up shop at a table, I try to pick whatever angle is least “staring at somebody one foot away from me”. I make sure my laptop is fully charged before I leave the house because I hate being that power cord outlet person: the beady, hungry gaze that accompanies searching for an electrical outlet, the interrupting of strangers to help you plug your power cord in.[3] We’ve reached a point in computing when a decent laptop battery lasts three or four hours. That’s enough time out in the general public for me and definitely enough coffee—three or four hours is long enough to make my appearance in the world, to remind everyone of my physical presence and reconnect to society in some primal way I don’t quite understand.

Yes, there is something attractive about the communal nature of the coffee shop, the clatter and hum of the surrounding environs. Websites and apps exist which provide artificially generated coffee shop background noise for anybody who can’t make it out to a real shop (a site called Coffitivity offers you choices like “Morning Murmur”, “Lunchtime Lounge”, or “University Undertones”). While I still am not fully sold on the coffee shop as an ideal environment for generating new material I do find it very useful for providing a comfortable environment for line editing printed manuscript pages (when I edit at home my cat is drawn to sprawling across loose paper with fiendish determination) and the coffee shop is still an ideal spot for reading, especially during the brief yet glorious patio season in Minnesota, when we all peel back our fifteen layers of winter clothing and look around us with grateful surprise, caffeine coursing through our veins. I like to rotate between the same five or six local shops, passing through each while making as small a ripple as possible, the phantom writer on his journey north.

[1] I still partially believe this, though I’ll admit some writers do show up at the coffee shop to pound out pages. I’ll head out to my neighborhood coffee shops here in St. Paul at two on a weekday afternoon and every table is filled with laptop people, like the coffee shop has been transformed into a grownup study hall. Every one of my favorite shops, which I used to love for being so empty, is now packed on a daily basis. I don’t even try on Sundays anymore.

[2] If you never want to sleep again, may I suggest ordering a triple Café Cubano. I’m also a fan of spicy Mexican mochas.

[3] Recently I was sitting in this big overstuffed leather chair in a coffee shop. The chair was wedged between a gas fireplace and the wall. A college girl with that hungry power cord look in her eyes interrupted me while I was working to ask if I could check for an outlet behind the chair. I had to get up and decamp and pull the heavy chair away from the wall and lo and behold, way out of sight was an outlet in an unlikely location. I was amazed it was there at all and when I asked the college girl how she’d guessed an outlet would be there in the first place she said it was just a hunch, which in retrospect I decided was disingenuous of her since obviously this must have been her home turf shop and she’d used the outlet before. Don’t think I didn’t figure your nefarious scheme out, polite and friendly college girl!

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