Picture the inside of a Starbucks — what do you see?
I’m willing to bet you see at least a few people hunched over laptop computers typing away furiously. While some might be students and others might be entrepreneurs, a few of them are likely writers. In fact, if you're reading this post, I bet you've been one of them.
A coffee shop: the writer’s office. It’s almost a cliche, but there is some truth to it, and for good reason.
Most writers know the story of how J.K. Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book in a coffee shop in Edinburgh (it's called The Elephant House and in fact, I've put in a few writing sessions myself there, many years ago). Did the "writer in the coffee shop" stereotype originate there? Perhaps the popularity of it did. I'd certainly be curious to know if anyone's ever looked into a correlation between the spread of J.K. Rowling's success story and the sudden prevalence of writers going to coffee shops to work on their novel.
But I think, inspiration aside, it's about a lot more than wanting to emulate the formula of someone else's success. J.K. Rowling, in choosing to lay the foundation stones of her career through going to that coffee shop to write, channeled something universal, a phenomenon behind what defines a great writing space.
Breaking the cycle of isolation
Writing is a very solitary pursuit. Unless you go out, you’re usually sitting at a laptop or desktop computer in the corner of some room of your house or apartment, with no one around you except perhaps a cat that’s asleep next to your keyboard. After all, when we write, we need as little distraction as possible.
Sometimes the silence can be deafening and draining, though, and in order to break it, we think of where we can go to work in a more public setting. Or maybe that cat who should be sleeping next to the laptop has a habit of sleeping on the keyboard (such is life with my cat, Wizard, and my one true source of writer's block).
There's many places you could go. A university study hall. A library. Heck, you could even go to a restaurant if you make sure you tip the server and agree to feature them as a character in your book. But the coffee shop usually trumps all these options for many reasons.
On one hand, there's the susurrus of random chatter, a dull drone that makes you feel like you're in the middle of a busy town square in the middle ages, an artisan perfecting your work while the busy world encircles you. The best thing about this drone is occasionally you might pick up conversation and, being a writer, you know the rule about how you should always be listening to how people talk and filing away in your mental archive some further notes on the nuances of dialogue.
But maybe you hate background noise when you're writing, or maybe the conversation closest to your table is loud and annoying and is slowly making your WIP evolve into Act 5 of a Shakespeare tragedy. Thankfully, there's headphones, and, in the age of ubiquitous internet and YouTube, there's music and sound samples of endless variety available to give you the perfect writing mood for your writing session. In that case, being in a coffee shop lets you simply enjoy that you are out among people.
Whether it's every time you write, or once in a while, the appeal of the coffee shop helps writers break outside the cycle of isolation.
Beyond coffee shops: writing is not always solitary
But do we really need to write in coffee shops? In my mind, there's a lot more to J.K. Rowling's successful completion of Harry Potter than escaping to that coffee shop to get her pages written, and to get there, we need to dig a bit deeper.
While many writers do like to write in coffee shops, there are just as many who cannot write anywhere except for their sacred space, wherever that might be, in isolation. In fact, I know some writers who do not feel isolated at all while working from the space at home or some other isolated office they have defined as their writing space. Stephen King, in his book On Writing advocates for the necessity of writers treating their writing space as sacred and has a special place in home for it. He's even symbolized the importance of his space by how his desk supports a corner where two walls meet — since "life does not support art, it's the other way around."
I have an office and as far as I'm concerned, whether I'm writing at home or writing at a coffee shop, my writing space is not physical at all. When I truly enter my writing space, it happens after the specific location has allowed me to filter out the world (and I've spent a long time experimenting to determine best conditions for that); see, my writing space is not part of this world, it's some abstract corner of my mind which only opens its door when I shut the world out and decide I am committed 100% to the given story before me. You can ask anyone who's tried to get my attention when I'm in a focused writing block — I startle as dramatically as someone who's just been woken from a dream by a bucket of cold water over the head. (And they will also tell you about the glare that follows...)
Regardless of where I write, when my 2-hour timer comes on, I write and, on the best of days, I enter that place and delight in every moment of it. On the worst of days, I experience the writer's equivalent of airplane turbulence. However, I've found both with practice, persistence, and perseverance — the willingness to sit through a hurricane of I just can't write I just can't write I just can't write and prove the voice in those winds wrong — well, I can write no matter what, and the storytelling that comes out is the same regardless. After all, it's coming from the same place; it just depends on how good a job I'm doing of keeping the door open and hauling the story out effectively.
All right, if I haven't proved that I'm a quirky writer (maybe that I'm just plain nuts) then I hope at the least this demonstrates that really, writers don't need to write in coffee shops. And, returning to the example of J.K. Rowling, I think she would have written Harry Potter on a street corner if that's what it took to get the story out (though I'm sure got there much sooner, and in a much happier state, thanks to the comforts of The Elephant House).
Wherever you write, write with your whole heart and you won't fail
Does it matter if you're in the attic with a long, vanilla-scented candle burning on the top of your Great Aunt June's china cabinet, with the lighting dimmed to 30% and all your notes laid out correctly around the keyboard? Or if you write in a cold room like Hemingway, early when you're uncomfortable and your mind is quieter and less critical? (The topic of when we write is something I'll be exploring in a future blog post.)
In my opinion, the answer is it depends. All of these very specific conditions for the right writing session are emanations of a specific inner belief about what it means to write. Do you believe that your ability to write or not write depends on external situations and thus is subjected to your circumstances? Or do you believe that your ability to write is wholly dependent on your own willingness to write, no matter what your circumstances? If you lean toward the latter, as many writers do (myself included), then really, where you write doesn't matter at all, just so long as there are no obstructions getting in the way of your ability to focus.
I'm not saying that it's wrong to believe in a sense of magic in your writing space (heck, keep in mind I'm the guy who, above, just outlined how my writing space is not based in the physical world), but it's important to realize that regardless of where you write, that magic comes from within you, not your writing space. It's a manifestation of your will to be the shaman who goes into the Story World and brings forth Story. The importance of finding an appropriate writing space then is more pragmatic, based on learning what spots will keep you grounded in the Story World, as efficiently as possible, so you can channel as much Story as possible.