(Writing) Location, Location

(Or, Why I Can’t Write in Coffee Shops, in a series of confessions)

A Distractions & Subtractions post

There are only two places that I ever do any writing:

  1. On my bed, lying prone, or
  2. Sitting at my dining table

As both of these pieces of furniture are in my apartment, I guess, technically, they count as only one writing place.

Allow me to start again:

There is only one place that I’ll ever do any writing….

This is not to say I’ll only take writing notes at home.  Rather, I’ve done this at work, on transit, on the sidewalk, in the grocery line, on my bike (not while in motion, of course; safety first), and a multitude of other locales.  Indeed, it’s my willingness note-write anywhere (and everywhere) that allows me to write-write anything at all.

But of that write-writing – the actual construction of sentences and paragraphs, foreshadowing and figurative speech – at my humble abode is the only place I can make the magic happen.

Whether I like it or not.

Which I didn’t always….

“Bean” around the neighbourhood

I once had the notion to try writing in coffee shops.  This, to me, seemed a venerable tradition of the written word – to sit in a local café with a #3 pencil in my right hand poised above a Moleskine notebook and a frothy latte at my left, the fact that I haven’t handwritten a story since 2000 and haven’t liked coffee since ever notwithstanding.

I could instead bring along my laptop and drink herbal tea: the main point was that writing in coffee shops would get me out of the house.  It would allow me to be seen by others as the writer that I am, perhaps enabling me to connect with literary peers.

It would even allow me to see more of the neighbourhood, for I live near Vancouver’s trendy Main Street, in the heart of hipster-ville.  If there’s one thing hipsters un-ironically love, it’s coffee.

Main Street is a coffee-drinker’s paradise with a java bar on the corner of every other block.  I’d be able to hit up a different spot every day for at least two weeks.

But alas, my efforts to take my writing on the road were met with bitter failure.  For coffee shops, sadly, contain an excess of that which makes my endeavours to unleash a story quite impossible.

Coffee beans.


The thing they actually have too much of is people.

Bless me Father, for I have sinned

An aside: Where I work, my cubicle is situated such that my back is opposite an internal meeting room that can be used by any of the 50-60 employees from any of the 5-7 departments that share the same floor as my department.

After having held my job for three years, all my office mates have learned that upon entering the meeting room, they must immediately close the door behind them before commencing their discussion or else they’ll receive a nagging request from me to do so.

I have a confession to make.

Confession #1: It’s not my being bothered by the noise of their conversations that drives me to be so pushy about closing the door.

Don’t get me wrong: the noise of their conversations does bother me.  I like to have a quiet environment while I’m trying to work, but I can easily achieve that by turning on my iPod, which I often do.

The reason I need the door shut is because, if they leave it open, I will listen to what they’re talking about.

The stuff that great stories are made of

In my very first Distractions & Subtractions post, I wrote that one of the personality traits that helps optimize me as a writer is the fact that I’m “curious about people’s inner lives”.

Confession #2: This is actually a euphemism for “nosy as sh*t”.

I do like people.  Really, I do.  But a lot of the time, I find what people say and do when they know you’re paying attention to be a tad dull.  This information is always scripted, or at the very least filtered through any number of lenses, not the least of which is how they think their words/actions will be received.

However, what people say/do when they think no one (or no one else) is watching?  I eat that stuff up.  I can’t get enough of it.

I’m totally the type to eavesdrop, peek through keyholes, open medicine cabinets, watch over people’s shoulders while they’re texting on a crowded bus, and peer into my neighbour’s open patio door to see his pet iguana*.  People’s secret lives are just endlessly fascinating to me.  I become transfixed by them.

Which is why the meeting room door needs to be closed immediately.  Which is why I can’t concentrate on writing in coffee shops with so many people around.  Because if there’s a conversation going on that I’m not meant to hear, if I’m actually able to physically hear it, I want to.

Even if it’s personal information of the sort that’s often discussed at work.  Especially if it’s personal information.  Not because I plan to tell anyone else or do anything bad with it.  Merely, because I want to understand what makes people tick.

Secrets make people seem so much more real and relatable.  It’s the stuff that great stories are made of.

I’m known to friends and coworkers both as a listener.  My hearing is one of my strongest senses.  I can pick out whispered words from across the room – I’m drawn to them like a bloodhound on a scent – and I’m very good at piecing together the topic of an overheard conversation with just a few key words.

There are a lot of people and a lot of talking in coffee shops.

Alas, great multitasker I may be, I unfortunately am unable to listen and write/work at the same time.

The sky is not falling, but…

“But your iPod!” some might say.  “You use it to block out noise at work; you can do so at a coffee shop as well.”

Well, yes, but actually, no.  Because…

Confession #3: I am a ~wee~ bit of a paranoid sort of person.

Not in an annoying, persistent, Chicken-Little-the-sky-is-falling-esque sort of way (at least I don’t think so).  Not bomb-shelter paranoid.  And yet, I have more than once spoken the words “When the apocalypse happens” in polite company with a perfectly straight face.

I am the only member of my team at work who attended the free Earthquake Preparedness training seminar, and actually have in my apartment almost all the items experts recommend one stock in case of The Big One – everything except the recommended supply of potable water.  But, I have a Plan for finding water if need be in the meantime.

I don’t actually like the word “paranoid”.  I prefer to think of myself as a “survivalist”, or in my more grandiloquent moments, a “disaster theorist”.

(Note: this tendency of mine to postulate what could go wrong and expect the unexpected is something I’m frequently called upon to employ at work, so you can blame them for giving me positive reinforcement.)

I always make a point of carrying certain “useful” items on my person whenever I leave the house, for example…

  • Band-aids
  • A pocket knife on a cord of “useful” length
  • Painkillers
  • Hard candies
  • A mini flashlight and multi-tool (these latter two are for my bike, but could also be “useful” in non-bicycle situations)

…and am always aware of my surroundings and the potential avenues from which danger could arise.

I just realized I don’t currently carry a source of fire.  I'll have to do something about that.

I just realized I don’t currently carry a source of fire. I’ll have to do something about that.

Because my hearing is so good, I often hear danger before I see it: e.g. squealing car tires; footsteps coming up fast from behind; raised voices; alarms and sirens, even from a long way off.

As such, I don’t like to wear headphones when I’m out of doors or in strange places.

This makes me something of an anomaly in Vancouver – indeed, in many urban centers – where little white earbuds are as ubiquitous as …  as coffee shops. (I sense myself rounding the final arc of a circle here.)

Pretty much the only places I listen to music through headphones are at work and at the gym, an even then, the volume is low enough that I can still hear a bit of what’s going on around me.  You’ll never catch me sitting at the back of a bus and sharing my latest playlist with everyone else, whether they like my taste in tunes or not.

Because I’m too paranoid  cautious to dampen my awareness of my surroundings like that.  Because when shit goes down (note my use of “when” rather than “if”), I want to be able to respond to it immediately.

So no headphones in coffee shops.

The writing Subtraction Hall of Fame

Over the course of writing these Distractions & Subtractions posts, I’ve inadvertently devised a sort of Subtractions Hall of Fame:

  • My most fatal subtraction: Not thinking enough ahead of time about what I’m going to write
  • My oldest subtraction: Not having an outline for my WIP
  • My most preventable subtraction: Halting a writing session at the end of my ideas for a given day

This current subtraction would thus be categorized as the subtraction that bothers me the least.

Since I live alone, there is no disruptive talking; all my reference books are here; I can listen to music through headphones without worry (not that I do; I’ve got awesome Harmon Kardon speakers); I’m already conditioned to work efficiently here, more readily able to enter that altered state that characterizes the writing “zone” for me; and should I grow tired, I can easily take a little nap, especially when I’m already lying on my bed.

As I wrote in a previous post, home really is the best place for me to do my writing.


Confession #4: I sometimes worry about how I look when in public.

Within the throes of the “writing zone” would classify as one of those times.  For all I know, I make asinine faces while I’m writing.

There’s no way I want to subject people to that.  What might they think of me then?

Danger, danger.

*A/N: No, that is not a euphemism.

(Image source #1#2,  #3, and #4)

Coming up next week: a Distractions & Subtractions post for poet/ranter Rule of Stupid


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9 thoughts on “(Writing) Location, Location

  1. What are your opinions on the efficacy of tinfoil hats for blocking govenment mind-control rays?

    Seriously, I’m with you on the coffee-shop thing. Too much stuff going on around to focus. Plus I’d probably feel like a jerk for taking up a table all day to drink two cups of tea. As for the music-listening… no way. I do hand gestures and stage moves, which is not only embarrassing but also makes me drop my laptop.

    As long as you can keep the creativity flowing when you write at home, no need to fix what isn’t broken.


    • Hand gestures and stage moves? Sounds like you may have missed your calling as an orchestral conductor.

      And as for tinfoil hats, of course they work, barring the ongoing debate as to whether the shiny side is meant to be inward or outward.


      • Reynold’s Wrap non-stick is excellent. Non-stick side out! Those rays are like cinnamon buns.

        My hands gestures are stage moves are more of the sassy Aretha Franklin variety.


  2. i like this. I get too itchy and bored sitting in the same place day after day, so i’ll usually do two or three day stints, then move. Currently i’m living at home, so I’ll write in my makeshift office whose fourth wall is a bed-sheet, then go to the local library and spend the rest of the week there. in columbus i was at the coffee shop a lot and i’m pretty sure that if i went to a coffee shop where i actually knew people, i wouldn’t be able to write there. At this certain coffee shop i felt i was just ‘a face in the crowd’ therefore inconspicuous, therefore allowed to safely isolate myself in my own little world. but then i’d get bored there and go write at a library or my apartment or a different coffeeshop. anyway, the wanderlust is curable and someday i’ll have a sweet office with absolutely nothing in it but a desk, four blank walls, paper pencil and a clumsy laptop. cheers!


    • Wanderlust, it sounds like you’re pretty adaptable in your writing environment so long as there’s no one you know to distract you, and that your movements throughout the neighbourhood are well suited to your writing style (or vice versa). For me, I prefer to write in long, uninterrupted blocks of time. So even if I don’t know anyone at a coffee shop, aside from all the external stimuli, the implicit time limit to an acceptable stay in a coffee shop also makes it hard for me to focus. That’s another benefit of writing at home: no one is going to kick me out or hover over me giving dirty looks if I stay around too long.


  3. I prefer writing at home as well (unless I’m attending a particularly boring dinner party!) 😉

    I’m hopeless in restaurants and coffee shops because people think I’m a stalker. I watch the way they eat and all those little idiosyncratic movements and facial tics! And these aren’t the people at my table! I try really hard to listen to what they’re saying, but my hearing isn’t as good as it used to be and sometimes the acoustics of restaurants can be very poor. One of the best places for conversation is in the ladies rest room – I’ve over-heard some absolutely riotous stories in there! 😀


    • You’re totally right about the crazy things overheard in the ladies room. As well, when people are talking on their phones: they often tend to forget that others can hear, and will actually listen. I think that a strong curiosity about people is something all good writers possess. Or at least that’s what I tell myself to try to justify my eavesdropping tendencies. 🙂


  4. I’m currently working as a consultant, which really means I’m self employed and don’t have an office to go to. This is my second stint as a work-at-home consultant. Last time, I had very little trouble staying focused at home. This time, however, I’m really struggling. There aren’t even any real distractions; I’m the only one in the house most of the time and even when I’m not, I have my own quiet little office space. I think the big difference is internet. Last time, I did not have internet access at home and I was crippled by my ancient, slow-as-molasses-in-January laptop. I had to go to the local coffee shop to download or upload any files and check emails. The old computer made it too much of a chore to do anything other than what I absolutely had to do, which was work and look for my next job. Even if I’d had internet access at the house, I would not have been distracted by it. My computer was that bad.

    This time, I have highspeed wireless internet AND a fast, easy to use electronic device (an iPad). It is far too easy to be distracted by email, facebook, twitter, and spur-of-the-moment questions (not work related) to google. I’m finding it much easier to stay focused if I’m at the library or a coffee shop.

    Perhaps its my previous experience doing work on computers at the public library or in coffee shops that makes it easier for me to focus there. At the public library, you only have an hour on the computer so I had to be disciplined and focused to get as much done as possible. I couldn’t (and still can’t) afford more than 1 coffee shop beverage a day, so I couldn’t spend all day at the coffee shop either; I had to get as much done as I could while occasionally sipping a tall iced or chai tea. At home, however, my mind tells me that I have unlimited time. Hence it is ok for me to take an hour to read and reply to a friend’s blog post instead of working 🙂

    My hearing is good … when it comes to bird sounds, that is. Human voices, on the other hand, I’m not as attuned to. I am unable read and listen at the same time, so once I get into my work, I don’t actually hear what people are saying. Their voices become an incomprehensible background noise. (This drives my mother crazy. She will talk to me for several minutes when I’m reading and I won’t hear a thing). There’s nothing wrong with my hearing. If I was not reading I would, like Janna, eavesdrop on every conversation. But if the language centre of my brain is busy processing symbols on a page (i.e., the written word), it doesn’t process spoken words.

    So, thanks to the discipline I developed back in the days when I had to go out to use the internet, and my ability to tune out human voices while reading, I am better off at the library or a cafe.


    • Oh my god, Rhonda, working from home is the worst! Or rather, it’s nice when you actually have an office job and are able to bring work home every so often. Then you get to go to work in your pajama bottoms, and also do your laundry midday while no one else is competing for the washers and dryers. That rocks! But for independently-employed people (or with jobs that otherwise don’t furnish you with office space), working from home takes a lot of discipline. Even for me, and “discipline” is my guiding light. The internet is truly a curse sometimes. I really do unplug my modem every night when I sit down to write. I’d never truly be able to focus, otherwise. Maybe you should try that too if your work doesn’t require you to be constantly looking things up. (Maybe, you can look up and leave open all the pages you need and then unplug it.)

      Human voices are the ultimate distraction for me, for the reasons I mentioned in this post. I wish I was more like you in being able to tune out talking. If I was, it would have prevented past arguments with past roommates regarding their phone and visitor habits while I was trying to sleep.

      Thanks for the comment. Sorry it was at the expense of your work time (well, sorta sorry). 😉


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