Writing in cafés, writing in brothels

by Steve

Man looking out of diner window

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.

Image from the US National Archives, via Flickr