Tips for writing in a cafe

Seeking refuge in a writing place not your own? JK Rowling did it, Brad Parks does. The trick is to know what you need from your home away from home. In other words, make it work.

Which cafe?

Glamarous cafes where philosophers have written master works? That was me a few weeks ago in Vienna, city of cafe culture. There, the cafes rose to fame and popularity when a heavy handed minister for the Austro-Hungarian Emperor cracked down on talk against the regime. Feared that they were being watched, people gathered in public cafes, where it was difficult to be overheard, and chance meetings were easier to defend than invitations to a home. My life isn’t interesting enough to require clandestine conversations in cafes but I will soak in the atmophere that they enjoyed. Maybe you prefer a cozy coffee nook tucked into your favorite bookstore? Or the local fast food joint where an empty table and a hot cup of coffee does the trick. Use what you have nearby and make it work.

Think noise and activity level

Noise cancelling ear phones can make any place a peaceful refuge. However, don’t ignore the benefit of background noise. That’s what I love about a cafe, the murmur in the background is white noise for me. Just enough to let me feel part of something, while not loud enough to make me look around. Honestly, I like settling into a cafe where I can eavesdrop over my first sips of cappuccino, then focus on my own pages. A place with books is even better, since I can walk around and be inspired. Plus it’s aspirational. (I confess to visiting my own books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble when I work in their cafe. I’ve even sold a few this way.)

Be respectful

Viennese cafe culture means the table is yours for as long as you want. However . . . as with all things, there are limits and expectations. The lunch rush? Order lunch, then linger. Arriving for an afternoon session? Have coffee and a pastry. I use my local Barnes and Noble cafe and make extra sure to also buy books there (in addition to my cappuccino habit). We also vacate when the cafe is full, making sure other customers have their time. Very quickly we learned what peak times to avoid.

Pick your task

I can work on big picture planning, research, the down and dirty first draft, and very specific edits along the lines of “fix this sentence.” I can also work on parts that are completely developed in my mind. I pick tasks that can be accomplished in the time I’ve allotted to my cafe visit. No one wants to have to get up and leave in the middle of writing a scene that is completely flowing.

The benefits?

For some, the cafe is the office away from home. You show up, settle into the favorite chair, and get to work. For me, it’s a place to get away from my desk and still keep working. I see things differently in a different environment. A plot problem vanishes when seen from a different angle. The sentences I’ve marked to rework get a fresh eye. Need to escape the constant demands of family or roommates, find a cafe. You might even add this to your routine on the way to or from work: a half hour with a cup of coffee to get those words on the page.

Alfred Polgar, a brilliant Viennese writer wrote in his 1927 essay “The Theory of Cafe Central” about his favorite haunt: “There are poets and other industrialists whose profitable ideas occur to them only at Cafe Central, constipated types who find the door of relief open to them only there, those who long ago lost their appetite for the erotic and only there regain their hunger, and the greedy whose money-gland produces secretions only there.”

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