Friday, March 4, 2016

Where do I write? by Susan Oleksiw

I stopped for lunch at a favorite coffee shop/restaurant the other day and started thinking all sorts of curmudgeonly thoughts. So instead of gently chiding myself, I decided to share them with you. Herewith my views on where writers write.

One of my favorite coffee shops stands out for a number of reasons—it’s really a pastry shop and probably loses money on the coffee service. It’s also distinct for having fewer tables and chairs than the space could accept. Those who sit there with a cup of coffee and a pastry watch the passersby on the sidewalk outside or lean over a book or magazine. The shop owner keeps a small bookshelf stocked with miscellaneous titles.

This coffee shop is not the usual place for people to claim a spot and go to work on their latest novel, and I rarely see someone with a computer when I go in. There is such a place, a cafe across the street, where students and workers and retirees fill the booths and counters and tables and chairs. It’s also loud.

In the town where I worked for twenty years and still visit regularly for other duties I have three regular spots for a coffee break or leisurely lunch. In each one I can expect to see a computer and someone typing away, or pondering the screen. I have no idea if any of these people are published writers, or even if they are doing creative work. They could be managing their finances, or writing to relatives overseas or playing solitaire. But what I do know is that I have no desire to join them.

Writing for me is work. I don’t mean that it’s hard. (It is that too sometimes.) I mean that I consider it a job. Just as I got dressed every morning and drove to an office and before that sat at my desk and ghost wrote how-to books and edited all manner of printed copy,  now I get dressed every morning, go downstairs to my desk and plunk myself down in front of the screen. I try to figure out how to cover up a murder, but not too well. I want my sleuth to figure it out. Sometimes I dawdle over email or an interesting blog post or even Facebook. But I soon nudge myself away from these temptations and turn to my work in progress. I have a word quota to meet, and plot and character problems to solve. And I can’t solve them if I’m not dealing with them.


I don’t consider myself an aberration. Most of the successful writers I know have learned the art or skill of self-discipline. Writing is not leisure activity, nor is it entertainment. We are not Parisians living in garrets so cold that we can’t remain at home during the day to write and so flee to a heated cafe. Perhaps a small apartment packed with a couple of infants might justify a trek to the local coffee shop, but other than that I am skeptical of writing in public.

There are certain truisms in this business. Writers write. Sometimes we talk about it if asked questions, and sometimes we talk about ourselves as writers if asked even more specific questions. But mostly we write. We think up stories, organize ideas for essays, read and review books, and support other writers. But mostly, we write. At home. Or in an office. Every day.


Lynn Cahoon said...

Thank you.

I've been feeling like I'm doing it wrong. But I LIKE my office. I don't want to get dressed and go to a loud coffee shop. For one reason, I lose the driving time where I could be writing.

I'm skeptical of writer's retreats for the same reasons.

Time to get writing.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Lynn, thank you so much for this comment. I was feeling very curmudgeonly for even thinking dark thoughts about all those folks madly typing away in coffee shops. I didn't mention writers' retreats, but I agree with you there too.

At home I can always turn to writing. Even in the middle of doing the dishes, I can stop and head for my office to capture a new idea.

Thanks for commenting.

Sheri Cobb South said...

Okay, I guess I'm one of those bad guys. I *do* get dressed every day and write--at Starbucks. I used to be a very s-l-o-w writer, thinking I had to wait until my muse decided to put in an appearance before I could write. Then, shortly after moving to Colorado, I met Connie Willis, one of the premier science fiction writers in the world today. We had coffee at a Starbucks in her home town (about 20 miles east of mine). She said she was there just about every day from 8 until 4. Why? Because when she tried to write at home, she was surrounded by other things she "ought" to be doing. So she just got away from all that. It made sense to me, so I started going to a Starbucks near my house.

The difference it made in my output was astounding! Since I started writing in a coffee shop in 2012, I've written six novels and two novellas. The noise usually doesn't bother me (except for one guy with a voice like a foghorn), and occasionally the "people-watching" opportunities spark inspiration for secondary characters. In the meantime, I've picked up a few readers, who now feel they have a stake in my writing career.

So please, please, don't assume those "coffee-shop writers" are less serious or less disciplined than you are. They may just have different methods.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks for posting, Sheri. I'm always glad to have an opposing view, and you've articulated it well. I've always wondered who is out there filling up the coffee shops. Your productivity is impressive. I don't think you're typical but I'm very glad to hear from another perspective.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I know Sheri has a great output. However, I guess I'm reclusive because I have to write on my computer at my desk. This is my special place and I'm at it early every morning. I do spend time on social networking and examining e-mails, but I start writing first and then break to other activities. As you say, Susan, writers write. It's what we need to do. For me other places than home offer too many distractions.

Jan Christensen said...

Hi, Susan. Like you, I have never understood the allure of writing in public. Way to distracting for me, and the trouble of getting to one is also a deterrent. Might try it if I could walk to one. But Sheri's comment gave me pause. I have to wonder if she has a character now with a fog-horn voice. LOL I guess like most things we do, it depends on the individual. The cliche, to each his or her own, comes to mind.

Kathleen Valentine said...

I agree with you. I cannot write in public, I'm too self-conscious plus I get very easily distracted. I have my desk next to a window overlooking an old cemetery. It is very quiet and serene. I get distracted when someone walks their dog in the cemetery so I don't think I could do anything useful in a bustling environment.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jacquie, I have to go straight to my desk in the morning (after breakfast usually), and I check my plan for the day--which scene, posting a review, etc.--and then begin. I try to limit the distractions because I'm at my desk to write. Sheri is certainly an example of self-discipline under difficult circumstances and I'm glad to hear it works for her.

Kan and Kathleen, I would be so distracted in a coffee shop, and self-conscious. When my husband quit working in an office and decided to work at home, I thought I'd never write again if I had to have another person in the house. But I adapted (and so did he).

Thank you all for sharing how you do things.

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Great post Susan. Although I work from home, discipline and structure is definitely a must.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I'm surprised how strongly people feel about their writing places, but I guess I shouldn't be. I didn't mean to imply either that there's anything wrong with taking a computer to a coffee shop. I am merely surprised at the number of people who do so. That's all. Perhaps this is generational. I don't know. But I expect I would miss all those folks if they stayed home with their computers. In a cafe I read and they read and . . . do other things.

But for anyone who is serious about writing, as Pam and others have pointed out, discipline and structure are a must, wherever the work takes place.

Bonnie Tharp said...

While Faulkner says there is no ideal environment to work in we authors do manage to find our place to write. It's different for all of us and if it works - it's special.