Writing in cafés, writing in brothels
There was a fascinating interview with the author Lee Rourke published today. One response is worth quoting at length:
“I feel sick when I walk into a café in London for my ‘flat white’ and everyone sitting around the cramped, ill-fitting tables are writing into their iBooks, shoulders hunched, wide-eyed and bursting with studied irony and indifference. I hate it. This ‘creative’ lifestyle misses the point, I feel. Since when did we all have to show everyone we are ‘creative’ individuals? Why is everyone flagrantly writing in cafés? One of the many reasons we moved out of London (apart from the cost of living) to live by the sea was to be away from this proliferation of ‘creative’ living/environment. Out here, where we live, no one writes, or if they do it’s done in the privacy of rooms. There are no public displays of ‘creativity’. The other week I was in a pub discretely writing in my notepad when the barperson asked me what I was doing. “Writing,” I said. “Writing?” she replied. “Phew, I thought you were an inspector from the brewery”. You see, she’d never seen anyone actually writing in her pub, you know ‘creatively’ writing. She looked at me as if to say: what they hell are you writing for? I found this immediately refreshing.”
After reading that I saw someone on Twitter link to the Paris Review interview with William Faulkner from 1956. Again, a passage worth quoting at length:
“Art is not concerned with environment either; it doesn’t care where it is. If you mean me, the best job that was ever offered to me was to become a landlord in a brothel. In my opinion it’s the perfect milieu for an artist to work in. It gives him perfect economic freedom; he’s free of fear and hunger; he has a roof over his head and nothing whatever to do except keep a few simple accounts and to go once every month and pay off the local police. The place is quiet during the morning hours, which is the best time of the day to work. There’s enough social life in the evening, if he wishes to participate, to keep him from being bored; it gives him a certain standing in his society; he has nothing to do because the madam keeps the books; all the inmates of the house are females and would defer to him and call him “sir.” All the bootleggers in the neighborhood would call him “sir.” And he could call the police by their first names.
So the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost. All the wrong environment will do is run his blood pressure up; he will spend more time being frustrated or outraged. My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.”
How many writers are now ‘writers’ – a pose, rather than a vocation, a calling, a compulsion? I’m a little torn, as I’m far too easily annoyed by the cool kids in the cafés, nursing their flat whites in the glow of their iMacs. I have an unheathly and irrational Apple aversion anyway, but it certainly gets worse when I can’t find a seat to eat my lunch. I’m no fun when I’m hungry.
However, I’m also a fool for the romantic notion of the struggling artist alone in his/her room, fighting off the cold and the dark, crafting a masterpiece about the world whilst being at remove from it. Or if they are not removed, they are doing something more exciting than frequenting coffee shops. I can’t see anyone writing a modern-day A Movable Feast that involves the protagonist sitting in a Starbucks all day tapping away at their laptop, gulping down caramel macchiatos.
These may just be my prejudices. Perhaps the café writer is able to articulate the struggles and dramas of daily life as they sit amongst it, they can observe it as they write. Perhaps the tortured soul sitting alone in his/her room is missing the bigger picture, maybe their isolation will lead to little more than solipsism. Maybe the tortured soul inhabiting the dark underbelly of modern life is missing the simple stuff that is still worth writing about. It doesn’t have to all be about extremes.
Or maybe I should stop with my attempts at even-handedness. Public ‘writing’ doesn’t feel right. From a purely practical perspective, decent writing requires time, patience, peace and quiet. I don’t see cafés as the ideal environments for this. I’m also incredibly wary of people actively promoting and presenting themselves as ‘writers’ in such a setting – it feels presumptuous and crude. I suspect that anyone who spends any amount of time crafting themselves a ‘writing’ persona is not spending enough time on the task at hand.
This is not to say that I see myself as above them. Far from it. I bet they still produce more words per week than I ever manage. They probably produce more worthwhile work than me too. Yet, I’m not convinced that they are producing any great works of literature, and I doubt I’ll be reading their output in the future. In some way, I do hope I’m proved wrong. Although I’m sure it would irk me no end to find out a great new book that articulated the Story Of Our Lives In The Modern Age was written on an iMac in a funky café.
Of course, the ‘solitary writer’ is just as much of a pose too. It just happens to be a pose I’m more susceptible to. Maybe I like, or need, my writers to fit a certain bill as well as write certain words on a page. Or maybe I just appreciate the ‘solitary writer’ more as they don’t infiltrate my day-to-day life reminding me that I should be writing more, and they don’t take up valuable space when all I want is to sit down with my overpriced caffeinated drink.
Or maybe I should worry less about other writers, and get on with the writing. Alone, of course.
The coffee shop where I used to live is my favorite place in the world. I’d spend entire weekends there talking with the regulars–the psychedelic fish artist, the minister and his homosexual son, the lady who always brought her computer for tech advice, the old man who only talked to me about Greek tragedies, the tourists who thought the town would be bigger, the woman with schizophrenia who thought I was hitting on her. I’d follow the ebbs and flows of the owner’s love life, the baristas’ art projects, and the happenings of the cultish secretive group who met in an adjoining room (this secret group has an amazing story, but probably not best told in a comment). The shop is for sale now. If it wasn’t so expensive, I’d love to buy it.
Anyway, there’d be writers every now and then. I was annoyed at first because I wasn’t sure if I should keep my voice down. Then I got over that, and they annoyed me because the shop almost felt like its own microsociety, where everyone has a perspective and a part to play, and it felt egotistical for the writers to withdraw from the scene and not take part.
But eventually I became okay with the writers. because they were part of the scene, too. It has to be difficult, maybe impossible, to create something meaningful in a noisy scene. The creative process may be part of the reason they came to the coffee shop, but it can’t be all of it. I never feel like it’s fair to dismiss someone as “image conscious,” because we’re all image conscious. I think maybe what happened is they saw the liveliness and “realness” of the coffee shop and wanted to engage with it or feed off of it somehow. Which makes sense, because the coffee shop was lively and real. But the mistake they made was that you can’t just be a ghost in the room. You can’t just feed off a scene because by your very presence, you are part of the scene and helping mold the present moment.
Am I describing this well? In my head I’m thinking of those scenes in many 20something independent dramedy films where the protagonist is standing almost motionless looking at the audience while the supporting players zip by in lightning speeds around him. It’s like the director is trying to say that the world is moving along without noticing our protagonist, who we’re supposed to feel for. Those scenes are wrong, though, because as much as people would like to think they are overlooked spectators, it doesn’t work that way. People have to move in relation to where you’re sitting, or notice your eyes, or want to ask you if you’ve ever been approached by the lady with schizophrenia, or wonder what you think you’re going to accomplish with a moleskine notebook in a noisy coffee shop, and whether they should keep their voices down to let you work.
To me, that’s why writing alone makes the most sense. In your own room, with nobody else around, you essentially can become a ghost, allowing a story to shape itself with as little outside static as possible.
Anyway, sorry for the long comment. I got tired of tossing cards into my hat, but it’s calling to me again. Great post. Cheers!
Thanks for the long and thoughtful comment Mike. You’ve certainly clarified some of the points I was trying to make. That coffee shop sounds amazing, and it does seem like there is more to be gained from engaging in that environment than being the ‘ghost’. While I think writers have to be ‘ghosts’ to at least some extent, to be removed enough to observe and notice the details others miss, I do worry that a complete detachment can lead to a rather two-dimensional and/or self-centred view of life. If you are purely a spectator, do you just end up at the centre of every story? Can you understand people purely through observation, or are you just more likely to just colour them with your own perceptions and prejudices? I also suspect that writers that engage with the world and then retreat to their room are able to utilise more perspective and distance to actually write something meaningful – they can pick and choose the good bits rather than be caught in the moment where everything seems valuable, when that isn’t necessarily the case.
I think it’s impossible for the author to take themselves completely out of a story. I had a friend once who asked me to proofread a draft of his novel. He swore that he didn’t actually “write” the novel; that the words just came through him from the universe. I didn’t see it, because the neuroses and conflicts in the subtext were uncannily like the ones that he was going through. It felt less like he was communing with the universe than he tore through a rough draft and didn’t feel like editing it.
So I think I think when I’m thinking of a ghost-like detachment, I’m hoping for a more omniscient approach. It’s okay for the author to insert his or her perspective into a work, but the author needs to reflect on how his or her perspective might influence or be influence by others. It’s like the author should try to hover above the characters, almost to where even if the story is from a first person point of view, the author looks at the scene from an omniscient perspective. If you don’t get that detachment, the finished product isn’t going to be fiction so much as an op-ed piece.
I’ve been thinking all of this over, and it has been making my head hurt a little! I think I’m with you with your take on the ‘ghost’. I run a mile from really obviously autobiographical writing, but I do like writers who write from their own personal experience. Perhaps there is something in there about needing a writer who can empathise and relate to others’ experiences and not just their own, or perhaps it is just down to good writing and bad writing.