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Like many a-holes in New York, I do most of my writing in coffee shops.   My husband is one of those who finds this behavior reprehensible, although naturally being his faultless mate I am exempt from such damning judgment (I think).  And I do understand how silly it seems to a civilian – “Let me get this straight – you need to ‘concentrate’ on your ‘writing’ so you go to a public place where there will be Belle and Sebastian blasting, cheesedicks flirting with baristas, and dozens of other ‘writers’ working on their own laptops?”  The implication being that of course if you were really serious about the work, and not just with showing off to the world that you’re “writing” a “novel,” you would be sequestered at home, occasionally crumpling up pieces of paper and hurling them into the trash the way tortured writers always do in their generously cast biopics.  But who has paper anymore?  And for that matter, who in New York has a decent workspace at home?

I used to, actually.  There was a tiny room in our apartment with a window, ideally situated with a view of a cardinal-stocked tree, for poety feelings, and beyond, the bustling avenue, for nosiness purposes.  I always had a clean desk.  I would wake each morning and tap away at my laptop, a piping cup of coffee and the sunrise my only distractions.  The muse stopped by every day at 6 am to gently massage my shoulders and whisper encouraging inspirations into my ear.  I thought people who wrote in cafes were a-holes.  Then I had a child.

Guess what’s in that adorable little room now?  A crib and a changing table and a bookshelf full of my main reading material for the present, including such scintillating titles as “Baby Colors” and “Baby Animals.”  Guess what’s on my desk, wedged into another room now?  A huge stack of finger paintings.  At least someone’s getting work done.

But since I still harbor a crazy dream of publishing – okay, let’s for now say finishing – another novel, and since every time she sees a computer turned on Harper screams, “Skype! Skype!,” each weekend morning I leave her with my husband and tote my uncool PC notebook to my local coffee shop.  I have adapted to this strange new world.  I enter the café and scan for good tables, or, if there are too many other a-holes around seeking caffeiney inspiration, a quiet-looking person to join or bully.  My battery is fully charged, and I scoff at the losers who search around for an outlet.  They turn them off on weekends, suckers!  I pay my $4 table charge, I mean, buy a drink, and get down to business.

Now, maybe because my writing hours are so hard-won these days, or maybe just because I’m sort of a misanthropic jerk at heart, there are countless ways in which the other people at the café can offend me.  I feel there are (or should be) certain rules for coffeeshops of the laptoppy variety.  I mean, when I’m taking my toddler somewhere for a snack I don’t go to a café that I know is one of those quiet places where people are trying to work.  So I feel justified in shooting death-looks to people who bring noisy wee folk to my particular coffeeshop, which is usually, even on weekends, a quiet, keyboard-clacking sort of place.

Here are a few of the other quiet-coffeeshop-etiquette infractions that I feel should probably be punishable by death, or at least dirty looks:

1)      Skyping.  What the hell.  This, definitely please do at home.  I would feel awkward answering my cellphone in a coffeeshop.  I mean, how can you not feel like a huge, noisy, horrible a-hole as you scream your verbal excrement at your pixilated friends in a public place?  For the love of all that is holy, get real friends and meet them at the coffeeshop to whisper over cappuccinos, or skype at home.  Please.

2)      Unmuted computers.  Excuse me.  I know we are in a public place, and I know it’s not the library, but why on earth wouldn’t a person mute his or her computer?  The other day I sat beside a lady (she was checking in on her Pheonix online university classes, for real) whose computer made screeching, delayed “click” noises with every keystroke and curser click.  If one of these people visits a website with music we are all doomed.  Execrable.

3)      Friendliness.  Okay, I may be in the minority here, but I’m really actually not at the coffeeshop to slyly befriend fellow self-employed freelancers or loner aspiring screenwriters.  I’m actually here because the alternative is banishing my family to the playground for three hours at a time in 20-degree weather.  I mean, our apartment barely has doors.  Other than actually spending my invisible money to get a desk at one of those nifty writer’s collectives, this is my only option, and I really want to get this stupid novel revised.  Sometimes I’m even actually paying a babysitter.  So please, friendly people, go away.  Me no likey small talk.

I dream that someday I will have a proper office again, like maybe an adorable hut sequestered in a bowery garden.  I would also settle for a room with that impossible luxury, a door.  Didn’t someone once write something about “rooms of one’s own” or something of the sort?  But for now, that room of my own happens to be occupied by 20 or 30 other click-clacking a-holes, and I would appreciate it if they would at least stop clearing their throats.  I mean, honestly.

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Amy Shearn AMY SHEARN is the author of the novel How Far Is the Ocean from Here. She lives in Brooklyn with a husband, a baby, and a dog. Visit her online at amyshearn.com.

20 Responses to “Shhh…I’m trying to write.”

  1. Amy, this is my favorite post of the day. Why? Because I do this too. Only, I have it easy. Bakersfield is not nearly a metropolis. I can go down to the local swanky Padre Hotel (The only local downtown swanky hotel) and sit in their cool-ass cafe/coffee shop and not see one other writer. Most weekdays hardly anyone is in there and it’s got a cool vibe and half the time I get free mochas. And they have free wifi. Why do I write all of this? Probably because if I told anybody else on Earth they would say, “So, um, why do you go someplace to write? Who does that in Bakersfield?”

    Yeah, screw the noisy, weird, overly talkative types who interrupt. I say come on over to the Padre.

    • Amy Shearn says:

      I want to go to that hotel! Sounds awesome.
      Even if I had a million suitable rooms at home, I admit that I would probably still venture out to write sometimes. The problem is that at home there are so many darn distractions — books and chores and dogs and such. In grad school (when I had way too much time on my hands) I would mill around the apartment going, “Well I need to write but first I need to bake some bread and then clean up and then…”
      Easier to buckle down at work when you’re somewhere where there’s nothing else to do.
      Unless people distract you!
      Then, even worse! And your home is no cleaner!
      So, a crap shoot.

      • Sometimes it’s just impossible to write at home. I never used to need an atmosphere. Maybe it’s an age thing? I don’t know. Not saying you’re old. Just talking about me… lol.

  2. I am a seasonal agoraphobic. This morning it was 23 degrees below zero and I wanted to leave the house to write somewhere else since the revisions that are currently on my desk apparently do NOT want to be written at home. But I will not leave the house today because I cannot bear to put on all the layers necessary for me to leave….
    On public skyping: last weekend I was in a coffee shop in Princeton late — trying to get enough caffeine in my body for the drive home to New York. I was slumped in a chair by a glassed in room that said it was a community space for meetings. There was only one person in there.. a young woman… probably college aged.. her computer open in front of her… the glowing apple faced me so I could see her face. She had flirt face: flushed and giggling and fluttering fingers flipping and twirling hair. Then I see her start to unwind the scarf from her neck and she drops it on the table in a flourish. Then she’s fiddling with the buttons at her collar and as her fingers wander down I realize she is actually unbuttoning her shirt to flash a bit of lacy bra. Okay, I was tired, and I probably should have stopped staring,but honestly we were in a COFFEE SHOP. Of course our eyes meet and she looked at me like I was the biggest creep ever and I grabbed my coffee and hustled out of there and yes… now I got her back cause I wrote about it in the TNB comments. ( yeah, right)
    I’ve missed you Amy! Glad to see you back here!

  3. I go to a place with really loud music which kind of drowns all those other distractions out. And keeps the wee ones away. And I just posted a cafe piece too. Mmmm. Yours is hilariously observed.

  4. Judy Prince says:

    We need to move you to a rural area, Amy. Human beings need some peace. Writers need peace. We need space. We’re not hamsters running on squeaky wheels in a cage.

    Yes, I know that *every* experience can be culled for our writing…..but there’s a limit beyond which we should pull back, examine options—-and get the hell to a place that gives us what we want.

    Not so easy, you say? Indeed, you’re correct. Little kiddies (our own) spell the death of privacy and leisure hours. Crowds make us want to duck our heads into invisibility. Noises make us twitch and tremble and grow agitated. Our contented soul dries up somewhere between the 8,000 distractive movements others make around us and the 16,000 items on our To Do list that stalk our minds.

    A week of vacating would be fine. Or even a weekend of vacating. That is, of “leaving it all behind” and transporting oneself to an environment of peace.

    Yaddo, the writers’ place of peace, named by the founders’ son? Not a conferencey place where writers compete, but a restful haven.

    A week at a Quaker retreat?

    A weekend at a little B&B?

    The children’s park—-your husband with the kids, and you sitting on a bench writing, looking at your lovey dovies as they enjoy the splashing dolphins in the big pool?

    One weekend a month when the grandparents babysit the kiddies (and your husband)?

    I loved your essay, Amy. You grooved and sizzled and wiggled your words creatively. This paragraph particularly struck me, but the entire writing spoke both humourously and poignantly:

    “Okay, I may be in the minority here, but I’m really actually not at the coffeeshop to slyly befriend fellow self-employed freelancers or loner aspiring screenwriters. I’m actually here because the alternative is banishing my family to the playground for three hours at a time in 20-degree weather. I mean, our apartment barely has doors. Other than actually spending my invisible money to get a desk at one of those nifty writer’s collectives, this is my only option, and I really want to get this stupid novel revised. Sometimes I’m even actually paying a babysitter. So please, friendly people, go away. Me no likey small talk.”

    • Amy Shearn says:

      Ah, sounds nice. Please arrange my week at Yaddo, post haste. It should be spring, and I would prefer some singy-but-not-TOO-singy birds to be placed outside the window, and somehow for it not to be creepy-country-quiet at night which would prevent me from sleeping due to terror of sneaky mountain men and such.
      I will start packing bags and drafting toddler-care-instructions for my husband.
      Thanks!

      • Amy Shearn says:

        Oh my god, even just thinking about it made me miss my family so much! I don’t think I’m ready for a writing retreat. I’ve never been apart from my daughter for more than maybe 5 hours!

        In a few years though. Then I’m sure I’ll be ready.

        Honestly, I would settle for an hour a day. Maybe with a white noise machine, some houseplants, and a pet canary I can make it work?

      • Judy Prince says:

        No prob, Amy.

        From Yaddo’s official website, relevant Application Instructions for Literature:

        LITERATURE

        Fiction, nonfiction, drama, libretto: PDF, no more than 10,000 words, consisting of a short story, a one-act play or a portion of a novel, play or other work, accompanied by a synopsis only if necessary.

        Poetry: PDF, 10 short poems or appropriate excerpts of a longer poem.

        Translation: PDF meeting the requirements for the form of the original work.
        Artists working in languages other than English should submit work samples in both the original and English translations.

        ———————————-

        Some FAQ info re Yaddo (pronounced like “shadow” by one of the founders Spencer and Katrina’s young daughter trying to pronounce the name of the nearby favourite Shadow Inn):

        FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

        Is Yaddo open year-round?

        Except for the month of September, Yaddo is open throughout the year, including the winter holiday season. During the “large season” from mid-May through Labor Day, up to 34 artists are in residence at any time; in the “small season” approximately 15 guests at a time can be accommodated.

        How is the working day structured?

        Traditionally, Yaddo has reserved the periods between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., and again after 10 p.m., as “quiet hours” for artists to work without interruption. During this period there should be no interference with the working time of fellow guests and no studio visits without direct invitation. The same policy applies to outside visitors, who may come after 4 p.m. (though they cannot be accommodated at dinner) and may stay until 10 p.m., when they must leave.

        Does Yaddo offer any other programs?

        Yaddo has no programs other than the residency program. Unlike many organizations that provide residencies for artists, Yaddo does not arrange or encourage workshops, readings, recitals, performances, exhibitions or other such activities.

        Does Yaddo offer barrier free access?

        Though the main buildings at Yaddo were built around the turn of the century, improvements in accessibility have been made in recent years. There are year-round, wheelchair-accessible bedrooms, bathrooms and studios (including the darkroom). In addition, the dining room, the Yaddo Author’s Library, the Video room and Internet room are now barrier free.

        Does Yaddo provide room and board?

        Each artist has a private bedroom in one of several buildings on the estate. Linens are provided, and laundry facilities are available. As for meals, breakfast and dinner are taken communally, while lunch is packed for each artist to carry away. Although the kitchen cannot offer meals for special diets, vegetarian alternatives are provided.

        Does Yaddo provide supplies?

        Other than the specialized equipment provided in the photo, printmaking and welding studios, Yaddo does not provide supplies or equipment for professional work, such as stationery, computers, printers, paper, typewriters, paint, or power tools. Saratoga Springs has an art supply store, and Yaddo office staff members can refer artists to computer rental agencies.

        Does each artist have a studio?

        Each guest is assigned a private studio. For visual artists, there are studios for painting and drawing, printmaking, sculpture and welding, as well as a black and white darkroom. Because the studios vary in size, it is important that visual artists make clear the dimensions of the work they propose to do. There is no equipment for editing film or video. Composers’ studios are equipped with pianos. Choreographers may request portable mirrors, barres, and marley. Some of the larger bedrooms serve as both living and working space for writers. Appropriate table space is supplied for writers using computers.

        Does Yaddo accommodate family or pets?
        Because Yaddo is a working community of professional artists, accommodations cannot be made for family members or friends of invited guests, for either overnight stays or meals. Except for seeing-eye dogs, pets may not accompany artists.

        Can Yaddo accommodate special medical needs?

        Applicants to Yaddo should be aware that there are no medical facilities or medical personnel on site. Applicants with special medical needs should contact the Program Director before applying. Complete medical care facilities, including a local, full-service hospital, excellent day clinics, and a regional trauma center, are all located within driving distance from Yaddo. Yaddo does not provide insurance for medical needs.

        What can artists do when they’re not working?

        Since Yaddo is a working community, it offers no formal social activities. There are winding roads and paths through the woods. There is a tennis court, a swimming pool, a pool table, a ping-pong table and a supply of bicycles to be shared by guests. Yaddo maintains several small libraries, including one of books by Yaddo authors. A Yaddo car leaves for downtown Saratoga Springs late each weekday afternoon and returns an hour later. Off the grounds, Saratoga Springs offers many amenities. Guests may borrow books from the excellent public library and the library at nearby Skidmore College. For a fee, they may use the athletic facilities at the YMCA or a local private gym.

        What other policies are important to know?

        The use or possession of drugs prohibited by law is prohibited at Yaddo. The Corporation of Yaddo reserves the right to end a guest’s visit when responsible officials judge it necessary to do so for the good of the community.

        If I am unable to accept my invitation, may I defer my residency?

        If satisfactory alternate dates cannot be arranged, you will need to reapply. Residencies may not be deferred beyond the eligibility period established by the deadline under which you applied.”

  5. Matt says:

    I don’t do much writing in coffee shops. Mostly because I don’t have some hip, nice laptop, just an old-fashioned notebook made out of environmentally-friendly paper, and you would not believe the dirty looks I get for sitting there, scribbling in it with a pencil. Like, who is this Cro-Magnon who just started scribbling on the walls? We isn’t he with the tech-saavy modern age?

    Jerks.

    • Amy Shearn says:

      Old-fashioned notebook…I don’t understand. Like you mean a really old PC? This “pencil” of which you speak…you mean a wireless mouse? I’m sorry, sir, but your comment makes no sense. I’m going to report it to TNB authorities.

  6. Jessica Blau says:

    Yes, yes, yes, I’m all with you! I, too, write in a coffee shop. The noise of the cafe is like white noise, I like it. And there are no domestic distractions in the cafe, no phone calls to make, no answering the phone, no moving the clothes from the washer to the dryer, no meeting the mailman at the door and sorting through the envelopes, no chatting with my husband who has an office on the third floor, no chatting with the people coming in and out of the house to go to his office on the third floor. The cafe is WAY MORE PEACEFUL for me! Also, I “compete” with other writers in the cafe, forcing myself not to stop writing until the somewhat famous writer sitting in the corner stops. It’s a good way to force myself to SIT.

  7. Jessica Blau says:

    Oh, Amy, I just looked at your bio and see that you’re in Brooklyn. Come to the reading at BookCourt on Tuesday the 1st at 7:00. I’ll be there, Susan Henderson will be there, Greg Olear will be there and we’re hoping Robin Antalek, too. ALL TNB writers and readers will celebrated if they show up!

  8. Erika Rae says:

    “Guess what’s on my desk, wedged into another room now? A huge stack of finger paintings. At least someone’s getting work done.”

    Heh. My kids, too, are outpacing me for productivity by a landslide. Hilarious post. I feel your pain.

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