The Elephant House Edinburgh

Why Do Writers Love To Write In Coffee Shops?

Since becoming a full-time writer I’ve become a cliché – I love writing in coffee shops. I’ve written in a previous post about my local library being my favourite office away from home, but coffee shops come in as equal favourite.

IT'S A TRADITION

In my defence, I’m continuing to uphold a fine and noble tradition of writers working in coffee shops and cafes, from TS Elliott, Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein and F Scott Fitzgerald to many modern writers. The most famous is J.K. Rowling, who wrote much of her early Harry Potter novels in the Elephant House in Edinburgh.

An urban myth grew up that she wrote there because she couldn’t afford heating in her flat. But she disputed this in a radio interview, saying that walking her baby in her pram to the coffee shop put her to sleep (the baby, not J.K.), which gave her free time to write.

The Elephant House must have a great creative vibe, as Inspector Rebus creator Ian Rankin and The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency author Alexander McCall Smith have also slaved away there. When I was in Edinburgh a few years ago I visited the Elephant House and had a coffee there. I sat in the back room where JK Rowling had sat overlooking Edinburgh Castle and imagined myself in her shoes, scribbling away madly to get as much done before the baby woke up, wrestling the demons in her mind that told her it was crap and no-one would ever publish it. (I am taking a bit of literary licence here, as I have never heard her admit to the demons, but as most writers experience them, especially with their first novels, I think I’m safe in this assumption). May Lord Voldemort cast a curse on me and torture me with snakes if I’m wrong.

THERE ARE MANY THEORIES

Theories abound as to why writers are attracted to coffee shops. One of the main reasons may be visibility. Psychologists say that for a role to be internalized, it has to be observed in public. As writing is a solitary occupation, maybe we writers feel the need to be acknowledged, that we think we’re not real writers unless people see us writing. Or it could just be pure pretension.

The problem with that observation is that it’s so commonplace these days for all types of business people to sit in coffee shops tapping away on their laptops or tablets that unless you have a sign beside you saying ‘Writer at Work,’ no-one else has a clue what you’re writing.

TIP: Try looking up from your work occasionally, staring pensively into the distance as if invoking the Muse, then resume writing furiously as inspiration has suddenly struck you. This, combined with the occasional sigh or creased brow, will signal to other patrons that you’re not just writing an email to Mum or the annual shareholders’ report, but are engaged in an Important Creative Process.

I don’t have a favourite coffee shop – part of the fun is going to a different one each time. The surrounding buzz and chatter provides just the right amount of background noise for me to be able to focus on my work. The big plus is that there are no distractions, (apart from eavesdropping and people watching, but they are part of a writer’s job description) so I can’t put off my writing by doing the washing or taking a nap on the couch.

THERE'S AN APP FOR THAT

For those who still want that same vibe without leaving home, there’s an app called Coffitivity, that provides background coffee shop noise. But not, of course, the ambience – to a coffee shop purist, it’s like serving them instant coffee and trying to convince them it’s the real thing. Unless the app comes with the aroma of fresh coffee beans (high on my list of favourite things) and a barista who makes a full-bodied heart-starter of a cappuccino, I’m not interested.

IT'S FUN AND PRODUCTIVE

There’s also an element of fun in writing in coffee shops – it doesn’t feel like work. Non-fiction author Malcolm Gladwell of The Tipping Point and Blink Fame, long ago eschewed his office in favour of cafes and restaurants. He’s quoted as saying, ‘Writing seems like a fun activity now... it’s more seamlessly integrated into my life and that’s made it much more pleasurable.’

Many writers, myself included, find our productivity is highest when writing in coffee shops, especially when we’re in creative, first draft mode. Psychologists say that when we’re alone in a public space we have a fear of being seen to have no purpose. So we think it’s not acceptable to sit in a coffee shop alone if we’re not doing something - which explains why non-writers who frequent restaurants and cafes alone usually engage in some activity to look busy - check their phones, read a book or magazine etc. If we’re seen to be doing something purposeful, we can’t be accused of loitering and management are less likely to throw us out – even if we’ve been there for two hours and only had one coffee.

THERE'S A TIME LIMIT

And that brings me to the main disadvantage of writing in coffee shops – limited time. Just how long is it acceptable to sit in a coffee shop on the strength of one coffee? It’s not that I’m mean – I’m not able to drink more than one cup of coffee in the space of a few hours. I make it last as long as I can, but one hour is usually my limit. After that, I feel as if I’m overextending my welcome. It does mean that I get a lot of writing done in that hour, but then I have to get up and go elsewhere – usually the library.

I’ve heard of writers spending all day writing in the one coffee shop. I can only assume they eat their lunch there and drink copious amounts of coffee during the day to keep the management on side. One writer I know of turns up to his favourite coffee shop each morning at 7am when they open and is there until 6pm. That’s true dedication for you. Or caffeine addiction.

THIS NOVEL IS SPONSORED BY MY LOCAL CAFE

At the very least, he’d have to offer the proprietor a free, signed copy of his book upon publication. Unless, of course, the coffee shop was sponsoring his novel. Which, come to think of it, is not a bad idea. In return for the privilege of ensconcing myself all day in my local coffee shop with a constant supply of coffee, delicacies and neck rubs, I’d be more than happy to have inscribed on the cover of my next novel ‘Sponsored by The Raw Bean Cafe’ and even the odd ad inside.

The possibilities are endless.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Do you think writers in coffee shops should have an arrow pointing at them that says, 'Pretentious Arty Type?' Should they be entitled to free coffee in exchange for a certain number of words (eg every 1000 words = one large latte with an extra shot), or failing that, tea and sympathy?

Chime in, writers and non-writers alike.

About the Author Robin Storey

Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.

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10 comments
David Vernon says September 14, 2015

Hi Robin, I have never thought about this much before, but your post prompted me to realise that my last 3 short stories were written in a coffee shop. I found your comments about the psychological effect of writing in a public space quite fascinating. I’m struggling through a piece at present and so now I know the answer. See you after my latte, cheers David.

Reply
    Robin Storey says September 14, 2015

    Hi David, hope it works. I find that when I’m struggling, a change of venue often unclogs the process. At the very least there’s coffee!

    Reply
Rohit says December 17, 2015

Great piece. I’ve often wondered the allure of writing in a coffee shop and now I know it’s part mental motivation and part pretentious. I will surly try it nonetheless 🙂 Great tip on the App.

Reply
Liz says July 23, 2016

I am a 16 year old juggler whose objects to juggle are school work and writing. For the latter I usually prefer a quiet nook in the nearby Starbucks (Yes, Starbucks has quiet nooks too) where I write for hours on stretch, as in 1.5 hr max before some employee clears his throat loudly near my nook. It is quiet and the light is just perfect. I absolutely agree with you, the smell of coffee beans in the best part and no stupid app can replace that. The one most tedious hinderance is the droning office worker with his or her colleague talking loudly about sales or whatever(I might even punch him one day). Anyway, nice post.

Reply
    Robin Storey says July 25, 2016

    Hi Liz, yes surrounding noise can be a problem, but I have learnt to zone out to it. Happy juggling and writing, 🙂

    Reply
Bent Mathiesen says March 31, 2017

Sorry, but a Coffee Shop would never be one of my option. My favorite place to work, is in the corner, in front of the screens. Nothing to distract. “Coffee” was the first word I ever said, but it refers to the joy of a fresh brew, freshly made from scratch. The sip of the dark brew – just you, your taste buds – and a wild imagination.

Reply
    Robin Storey says April 1, 2017

    We all have our different favourite places to write. I like going to a coffee shop when I’m in the planning stages of a novel – I take my notebook and pen and scribble away. I’m sure the caffeine kick starts my creativity. 🙂

    Reply
Paulesta Joshi says April 3, 2017

I once read Shakespeare wrote in a pub because candles were expensive and he had better less expensive light there. Now I’m beginning to wonder if it wasn’t for the same reason writers work today in coffee houses. Also, he could observe human behavior in a pub. 🙂 — Suzanne

Reply
    Robin Storey says April 4, 2017

    Oh, yes, I could see myself working in a pub, especially the English ones – they have such a warm, cosy ambience. As long as I rationed myself to one drink!

    Reply
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