I did something the other day I have never done: I wrote in a coffee shop. Or, rather, I tried to write. And after trying, I’ve determined one thing: those sitting in Starbucks, tapping away happily on their laptop at one of those little round tables, are likely writing fiction.
Don’t tell me you’re not, because I know you are. And I know because you don’t have your table cluttered with all the assorted crap that we non-fiction writers carry around with us. Frankly, I’m jealous— because it looks like you’re having fun sitting there, legs crossed, a cup of Arabian Mocha Java steaming at your right hand, putting the finishing touches on your novel. Further, you probably had to do little advance planning—you likely said to yourself, “I think I’ll go do a bit of writing at Starbucks,” picked up your laptop, and off you went.
As I said, I’m jealous.
For non-fiction writers, it’s tougher to be that spontaneous. Case in point: the other night, I knew I was going to have about 90 minutes to kill while waiting for my daughter to finish up at volleyball practice. So I decided I would take that opportunity to drive to the nearby coffee shop, set up my laptop, and do some writing while I waited.
That decision, however, took a bit of advance planning. Unless I’m writing my own memoirs (which I’m not), where I have the bulk of information stored up in my head, I need to have my notes handy. Even if I’m just tinkering with a small part of a chapter, I have be sure I’m getting everything right—and if I get stuck, I can’t devise some clever plot twist to move things along, or introduce a new character to antagonize my hero. So I need my notes. At the moment, I’m working out of a black binder that has all the photocopies of articles, notes, and interviews I need. Into the shoulder bag it went.
Second, I always keep a yellow journal next to me where I write down research questions that occur to me as I write. This is different than my black notebook, which holds the research itself; this is the book where I write down things like, “Double check events for May 1956. Does the quote from John Smith really explain what happened? CHECK.” Exciting stuff like that. Anyway, that goes into the shoulder bag, too.
Throw in the one or two books I’m also currently using in my research, and the shoulder bag I tossed into the back seat last night weighed about thirty pounds. So much for spontaneously visiting a coffee shop. It was more like Edmund Hilary preparing for Everest.
Anyway, when I finally did make it to Starbucks, it was clear I had waaaay too much stuff to sit at one of those little round tables in the front window. Instead, I chose the one long table they had—the one that’s reserved for wheelchairs, statutorily making me a cad–and spread out my notebook, journal, laptop, and obligatory cup of coffee. I had officially made a mess.
It was then that I decided I won’t be writing in coffee shops or other public places. I’m better off cluttering up my space at home, spreading notebooks across every level surface, sticking Post It notes on walls and tables, and having the books I need immediately on hand. Perhaps that has more to do with the way that I work than the way other non-fiction writers work—but I would bet, at the very least, most of us are more comfortable having our notes on hand rather than winging away without them.
But for those of you who are sitting there winging away: I’m officially envious of your workspace. And I’m all but certain you’re writing fiction.
I’d be willing to bet most of the people with the clear tables and the coffee and laptop are programming, writing inconsequential essays/reports, or most likely of all are hanging out on twitter.
I agree with the final assumption in the above comment. For what it’s worth, I’ve found that the easiest way for me to write is to take my laptop and sit on the floor, surrounding myself in a semi-circle of books and notes. No coffee necessary.
Clearly, you’re a holdover of an analog era. Notes in a black binder? Research questions on a yellow pad? BOOKS? Made of paper? If you’d just keep all that stuff on your computer, you’d be set.