Friday, March 03, 2006

Café Society

Sartre did it. Hemingway did it. Today, the lovable Miss Rowlings does it. So how about you? Do you do it? That is, do you ever write in cafés?

I do. In fact I love to. You'll find me sitting in one of several locations around town for at least five or six hours every week. I call these places my East Side, Downtown, and Pearl District offices, respectively. The servers know me and they leave me be, so I spend generously on lattes and treats while I'm there for the privilege of owning a table.

On that note, I bring your attention to this interesting article in the Toronto Star:
Café society
You see them holed up in coffee shops across the city: people writing in journals and on laptops.
Feb. 26, 2006. 03:13 AM

She sits at the back of the café with her lined notepad, her books — poems by Billy Collins, Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead — and a look of dreamy possibility.

Where will her thoughts take her today? To the unfortunate man, head drooped in sleep, at a nearby table? To thoughts of love, for she is young, pretty and unattached? To a play she will soon be acting in?

What matters is that Tracy Michailidis writes, three pages every day and often in this café, Alternative Grounds. "I'll write about anything," she says, "anything to get the pond scum off the top of my brain."

She's not alone. Other writers are nearby, as well as couples meeting over their laptops. Since 7 a.m., Marianne Apostolides has been sitting in the front window of the Roncesvalles Ave. café, with its ochre walls and racks of rummage sale mugs, the orderly pages of her novel spread before her.

Across the city, novelists, artists, architects, musicians, playwrights, screenwriters and poets abandon their homes for café society — the whiz and hum of espresso machines, the murmur of conversations, the distraction and inspiration of fellow beings. They plunge into zones of concentration, somehow magically encountering their muse while music — Motown, Cuban revival, Patti Smith, the Pixies — roars around them.”

And apparently this has been going on for a very long time. Back to the article:
Writers have fled to these comforting, strangely freeing public places for centuries. Of course, the cafés most steeped in literary history are in Paris, and it was there that the template for writing in cafés appears to have been set.

Some are places of legend, such as the Le Procope, opened in 1686, where Voltaire and Rousseau were regulars, and where Diderot first conceived of his famous Encyclopédie.

Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises drinking café crème at the Closerie des Lilas. The Café de Flore was associated with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre and other intellectuals of the French resistance, who warmed themselves, smoked, argued and wrote at separate tables during the '40s.

So it seems that some writers enjoy the camaraderie of working with or against (competing with?) other writers. Maybe they enjoy being part of a movement. I don't know. Maybe they simply benefit from each other's enthusiasm and also share insights. I know from my own experience that this can be motivating. But that's not at all why I go to cafés. In fact, I'd rather not speak to anyone while I'm there.

Here the Toronto Star quotes Hemingway:
'Then some fool would stop by the marble-topped table and say, "Hi Hem. What are you trying to do? Write in a café?"

Then, "Your luck had run out and you shut the notebook. This was the worst thing that could happen."'

That's exactly why I like to find my quiet corner and pretty much ignore everyone else. My favorite spots serve exactly that purpose. (It also helps that I'm an unknown.)

So why do I go to coffee shops? Like this article says, I go there “for the movement and sound and liveliness [that I] find there every day.”

I don't ever go there to write prose that will stick. It's where I go when I'm struggling through ideas, answering questions, drawing out ideas, maybe even doing a little character sketching and that sort of thing — what I call pre-writing. This process actually comprises most of my writing, and it's a long and often arduous process. Sometimes it's fun; other times it's numbing. Going to a coffee shop rescues my brain from those worst times, from the dreary solitude and distractions that mount when things aren't going well.

(Note that my office doesn't seem dreary to me at all when I'm writing prose. That's the reward for all the hard work that I've put in up front.)

[Special thanks to Randex for locating this article.]