A Cup of Coffee and a Dream

If you are serious about becoming a writer, something you absolutely have to do is cultivate a relationship with a coffee shop.

Here’s advice from Natalie Goldberg, author of the classic book Writing Down the Bones:

Go hungry so you will want to eat….Also if you are taking up a table for a few hours, leave more than the ordinary tip. The waitress makes money on table turnover, and you are staying longer than your turn. Do not show up at lunch or dinner when they are the most crowded. Go at the end of rush hour when the waitress will be glad to see you, because she is very tired and knows you won’t order a lot and don’t expect fast service.

(How times change! Back in 1986, when Goldberg published Writing Down the Bones, it was still ok to say “waitress” instead of “server.”)

What hasn’t changed is the soundness of Goldberg’s advice. Remember J.K. Rowling? She wrote much of the first Harry Potter book in the Elephant House coffee shop in Edinburgh. She had an advantage: Her brother-in-law was the owner. But she also was on to something.

I did much of the prewriting for both my doctoral dissertation and my book about George Bernard Shaw in a very crowded, very noisy coffee shop. It was not at all conducive to concentration, and I remember that I read the first chapter of Michael Ryan’s Marxism and Deconstruction – for example at least twenty times before I thoroughly understood it.

Twenty times? Any sensible person would say that was an inefficient way to go about it. Any sensible person who’s not a serious writer, that is. Here’s the point: I don’t think I would have read Marxism and Deconstruction over and over without that coffee shop. It’s a dense and difficult book, and even in the best of conditions I would have had to read it over and over before I could make sense of it.

Writing can be tedious and frustrating. It’s great to be talented, but talent alone won’t keep you going. What separates the amateurs from the pros is persistence. And that’s where a friendly server, frequent refills, and some lively background noise can be a lifesaver.

“Lively background noise” probably doesn’t sound like a prescription for sustained critical thinking. But look at it this way: You’ll learn how to concentrate. And relaxing in pleasant surroundings works much better for writing than lonely boredom.

Still another advantage is that it’s easy to get into a writing routine. I looked forward to lingering over my cup of coffee every evening (not to mention escaping from all the yucky tasks waiting to be done at home).

That evening ritual gave me an incentive to sort the notes I was working on, pack everything up, and head for the coffee shop to work.

One more advantage: It’s fun to tell curious onlookers that you’re that most exotic of creatures – a writer.

cup of coffee

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