“It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write.”
I have yet to read as engrossing a tale about writing in a coffee shop as Ernest Hemingway’s “A Good Café on the Place St-Michel,” the first story in A Moveable Feast, all about his time as a broke young writer in Paris from 1921-26.
As soon as I finished it, I flipped back to the beginning to read it over again. (It’s four and a quarter pages long and reads like a blog post.)
My imagination was instantly captured by his description of a bad café and then the good one. Of the frigid Paris weather that made his hotel room-writing den unbearable. Of the pretty girl he stared at as he descended into writing at the café. Of the dozen oysters and cold white wine he celebrated with when his short story was complete.
It’s a little different from how I write in coffee shops. Allow me to follow Hemingway’s lead.
“It was a nearby Starbucks, warm and cleanish and overstaffed by under qualified baristas, and I draped my denim jacket on a chair and pulled my laptop out of its plush envelope and then ordered and hoped my birthday gift card still had enough cash on it for a soy chai tea latte. The barista called my name as I was trying to connect to their spotty wifi and I started to think about starting to write.”
For me, the coffee shop is rife with distraction. Between hauling my work from home to the coffee shop and arranging things just so, I’m my own distraction. Walking there is sometimes enough to shake me out of a writing funk when my own willpower can’t handle the task. But lately, I’ve realized working in a coffee shop isn’t a fit for me. I don’t spend nearly as much time working in a café as I used to.
The first time I worked in a café, I was a 17-year-old barista whose entire coffee experience consisted of Tim Hortons Iced Capps. My mornings started when I let myself in at 5:40 a.m. The fragrance of coffee immediately sunk in to my clothes and hair. At 6 a.m., I unlocked the door for customers who were sometimes queued. Then my game began.
I liked to guess at what each customer was up to for the day. (I did the same when I worked at a smoothie shop and an indie bar. It’s irresistible.) I could tell who needed to catch their train: they ordered a latte, which required a few minutes to make. Their order was the same even when they were running late. As they waited, they alternated glancing out the window at the train station and staring at my hands on the warming aluminum mug while I steamed their milk.
There were customers who came in at the same time every morning and stayed huddled for hours around their chosen table. Some of them ordered small to-stay cups of black coffee and argued with other regulars. Since I was 17, I didn’t know that some people were unemployed or self-employed or just didn’t start work at 9 a.m. I always assumed the lingerers were retired or unemployable. The latter title I usually applied to the arguers and anyone who wore denim on denim.
Then there were the writers. I didn’t know they were writers. I still don’t know for sure that they were writers, but I’d like to think they were.
They had open laptops and bought one of our floury, oversized pastries 45 minutes after ordering their first drip coffee. We weren’t busy in the morning so I didn’t think it was a big deal that they only spent $3.25 to monopolize a table for hours.
Years later, I learned there were covert writers at my coffee shop, too. For the covert writers, the coffee shop was not a cheap office with useful white noise. It was better than that. The coffee shop was a place with a sunny patio where you could drink hot coffee with any of the fixings for a toonie while you tossed around ideas with a fellow writer.
That’s what I want to use the coffee shop for now. I’m learning to do the hard work at home, to peel myself away from distraction and ignore the dishes.
Lucky for us writers, writing doesn’t just happen while you’re torturing the typewriter. I may not be able to order oysters and cold wine at my local café, but there’s nothing stopping me from slinging ideas.