Essays

A Room of Everyone’s Own: The Writer as Public Fixture

By posted at 12:00 pm on April 9, 2012 19

The portmanteau “coffice,” which sounds at first like a cute one-liner, turns out to be so useful for describing contemporary reality that it may, like “staycation,” soon appear in dictionaries. Originating in South Korea in 2010, it refers to a coffee shop employed as one’s office. It’s also a verb: to coffice. Bootstrapping entrepreneurs throw the term around, and though I haven’t heard writers use it yet, I suspect they will soon. Every time I stop into a café in New York City, I see them, ears tethered to computers, faces aglow with laptop light. When I speak of “writers,” of course, I am not discussing crafters of emails or grocery lists. I am thinking of aspiring novelists, creative non-fiction writers, and poets too. “There they are,” I think. “The cofficeurs.” And what I have always been tempted to say to them is: Go home.

Writing in public feels like a performance, but, when we’re dealing with literature, the performance is not what endures. To put it another way: the final outcome is the performance. I can’t help but assume when I see the coffice-bound writer as one who privileges persona over results.

However, when I asked writers I know about their own relationship with public writing (after all, some of my best friends write in coffee shops), I was surprised by the range of answers. One explained to me, on a crowded subway train, that the temptation of Internet pornography was so strong that a public environment helped him avoid autoeroticism, and kept him focused and productive. This did little to assuage my aversion, but I was interested to hear that internal distraction can be just as much an obstacle to writing as external distraction.

Another writer pointed to the brute economic necessity of the coffice. This is a salaried reporter with benefits, required to travel locally, who makes a living posting short compact creative news pieces to a blog with as many as fifteen deadlines a week. Wherever he can grab a moment to write, he does. “Sometimes I need to leave my apartment to get work done, to just change the space.” I pointed out that very few writers are writing a novel because rent is due. His response: “Novelists are exactly the same as reporters. Just take away reality, the galaxy of issues that go along with dealing with actual people and their lives, and deadlines.” Ultimately, he said, “If you’re saying that NYC supports a large number of creative types who end up working in public, yes, you’re correct. Should they shut up (their laptops) and get a job in a cooperative office space, maybe. Me, I’m thrilled Variety [Cafe] has free WiFi.”

A third more casual writer — my partner — suggested that cofficing may be less a decision about process than a conditioned behavior, the byproduct of college culture. Many educated individuals were brought up in dorms, libraries, large classrooms, campus lawns, study halls, dining halls, and community lounges. To think and create in public has become a norm. Indeed, the implied presence of an immense public when working on a computer with Internet access is almost inescapable. Yet this only seems to sustain my view that writing in public is, like many other habits of college students and Internet users, an attention-seeking performance.

cover Is that so wrong? Coffee-house culture was vital to European literature of the last century, Ernest Hemingway , perhaps the patron saint of cofficers, not only wrote in public, but wrote about how he wrote in public (maybe even as he was writing in public). Hemingway was a great talent, but also a showoff who required validation, and in his youth liked to execute his art before an audience between shots of “rum St. James” and eyeing a pretty girl “with a face fresh as a newly minted coin,” as he writes in the first chapter of A Moveable Feast (a text that no doubt helped fuel the trend of Americans writing in cafés).

But writing in seclusion was the true ritual throughout even Hemingway’s life. In his 1954 Nobel Prize Banquet Speech, Hemingway said, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life… For [a writer] does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.” Virginia Woolf, who also knew from solitude, even went as far as to write that a marginalized individual could only contribute quality literature to the world by first having A Room of One’s Own.

These days, many of our most prominent writers seem to have gotten the memo. With the exception of Nathan Englander, who I’m told is a regular at the Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights, there seem to be surprisingly few published writers operating in coffee shops. In my casual research I came across How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors edited by Dan Crowe, wherein famous living writers were asked to comment about their own process. Among the sixty-seven or so contributors, only two writers allude to writing in cafes or coffee shops. Nicholson Baker describes his earplugs as useful “in any loud place,” but does not reference a particular public location. Elif Shafak explains, “I am a nomad… libraries, cafes, streets, trains stations… everywhere can be my writing abode,” but like she said, she’s a nomad. Willy Vlautin writes at a racetrack. From A.M. Homes to ZZ Packer the other 64 prefer solitude from their pre-published days to the present, sometimes referencing objects they keep on their desks or pictures hung on a wall in a private room as things that serve their process.

As these writers know — as Hemingway and Woolf knew — literature is a relationship both with solitude and with the rest of the world, and I suppose what bothers me about the laptop hive of the “coffice” is that it offers neither. So when I see writers hunched over their third refills, maybe I don’t want to say, “go home,” but “stay.” Close your laptop, observe humanity, have a lengthy conversation with a fellow customer or artist, then go home and get the work done.

Image of Ernest Hemingway in London at Dorchester Hotel 1944 via Wikimedia Commons





Share this article

More from the Millions

19 Responses to “A Room of Everyone’s Own: The Writer as Public Fixture”

  1. Eric
    at 1:25 pm on April 9, 2012

    As a “cofficeur”–let’s play that one out as quickly as possible– my rebuttal is simple: if you’re getting work done, the rest of the world can go euphemism. It’s not performative–it’s necessary.

    I’ve always been told, and held as wise advice, to treat writing as much like a 9-5 as possible. As such, I go someplace to write. Sometimes I even put on a tie. I have a hell of a time writing at home because home is where I go to relax, to sleep, to, yeah, fart around on the internet. Just like I am now, before I head to the coffice.

  2. Katherine
    at 3:35 pm on April 9, 2012

    Eric hit this one on the nose. I spend forty hours a week at my desk at work. When I go home, I go to the place where I sleep, eat, watch tv, surf the internet, shower and read. My natural inclination is to do any one of those things before actually buckling down and working on my novel or freelance articles.

    When I put my laptop in its case, grab the bus to the nearest Panera or Starbucks (god help me, I’m not very original when it comes to my sources of caffeine and pastries), sit down and look at a blank screen, something clicks inside my brain and tells me I have to work.

    If that little light doesn’t click on and I want to do something else, I either have to walk around with my laptop or I have to take the bus back home.

    Silly? Yes. Productive? Very. I often find that when I’m the most bored and reluctant to write is when I end up forcing myself to sit there and write out of it and (every once in awhile) surprise myself.

    I see plenty of poseurs and weekend novelists at coffee shops (hey you! Stop stealing the outlet I need to plug in my laptop!). Give us a chance – some of us might come up with something good someday!

  3. Alex
    at 4:10 pm on April 9, 2012

    Nobody uses the word coffice. This article is about the author’s feelings of contempt and superiority (perhaps discomfort, probably insecurity) when visually confronted by thousands of aspiring writers at work.

    I do 99% of my work at home, and occasionally in a coffee shop. I concentrate better at home. But with headphones to block out the noise, I’ve gotten myself into the zone at Starbucks too. I’m not sure it really matters.

  4. Emily
    at 7:05 pm on April 9, 2012

    For me, writing in public isn’t about being seen by others as a writer as it is about being seen by others as a person who exists (and seeing others.) I simply can’t spend the majority of my waking, working life alone. I begin writing projects at home in silence and solitude, and I tend to go to a cafe to do things like editing, proofreading, research, revision, etc. It’s just something I need to do so I don’t go stir-crazy. It’s comforting and revitalizing for me to get out into the world where there are other people, and be reminded that minds besides mine do in fact exist. It’s important and humbling for me to acknowledge that.

    In terms of the idea of “facing eternity, or the lack of it, each day,” that’s what my meditation practice is for.

  5. Karl Kim
    at 8:27 pm on April 9, 2012

    If you can’t work alone, in solitude, then there is a pretty good chance you shouldn’t be a writer. I totally agree with the author of this piece. People who write in public are more interested in being seen as a writer than actually being a writer. I’m not saying that these people don’t write. I’m sure they do. But the scrim of self-consciousness that comes with performing in public is a detriment to the work, not a boon.

  6. Marcus Orlando
    at 8:28 pm on April 9, 2012

    Let he who is without writing sin throw the first pencil.

    There you go. Mention me on one of your blogs you hacks.

  7. sordfite
    at 8:33 pm on April 9, 2012

    I spend enough time outside–I work outside, I cycle every day, I go for long walks–and I have no desire to spend a single minute sitting in a coffee shop, working, surrounded by people and noise and (worst of all to my concentration) children. I write at home behind closed doors, usually late at night, when it is as quiet and solitary as possible. I have always felt writing an extremely private ordeal that others have no business observing. While it is by nature a silent and hidden endeavour I still feel somewhat exposed even with but one other person in the room. Of course, I do keep a great deal of coffee on hand. What I really wonder is how writers can afford to frequent Starbucks et al. considering the going price of a grande latte. The book I’m writing already costs me $10 a day in cigarettes.

  8. Brendan
    at 9:01 pm on April 9, 2012

    Except for a snarky comment by sordfite, no one here has mentioned children. I have a few kids and a fulltime job, so coffee shops and public libraries provide a necessary middle space where I can write. My office is full of distractions (aka the work I’m paid to do) and home is where the kids are. I can’t afford a second office/writers cave, so what’s a guy to do? You go where there’s a table and a chair (which you rent one cup of coffee at a time), you bring headphones, and you go to work.

  9. dan m.
    at 1:00 am on April 10, 2012

    I believed this to be true until I got a job working at home from a computer. My computer is now Where Work Happens—where I have to think about the sports articles I write, in 2000 word bursts, seven days a week. I can’t think there anymore.

    You’ll see me at coffee shops, with a crappy netbook my parents bought and then hated, every so often, now. It’s not an act, and I don’t like coffee, either. It’s because I just got off work, and I’d like to do some actual writing out of the office.

  10. Marcus ORLYus
    at 8:27 am on April 10, 2012

    To each his or her own, of course. But I do such weird shit when I write (palilalia, play-acting and so forth), that I would be quite stunted by self-consciousness if asked to do it public.

  11. Leah
    at 10:17 am on April 10, 2012

    Re: Karl Kim, “People who write in public are more interested in being seen as a writer than actually being a writer.”

    Does this really ring true to anyone else? If I read in public, is it not about reading, but about projecting myself as a reader? Never has it occurred to me that when I write in public I’m projecting the image of being a “writer.”

    The person with a laptop at a coffee shop can be anyone: a student, a person who didn’t pay their Internet bill at home, etc. It’s bizarre to me that someone else would automatically assume that he who writes in a coffee shop is a “writer” or would fashion herself a writer.

  12. Bart King
    at 11:45 am on April 10, 2012

    I recently wrote in a bookstore window for a week. The novel I was working on was projected on a screen behind me; passersby could gawk, read, sneer, or turn a blind eye.

    This was just a cheap publicity stunt, but the exercise was fascinating. One takeaway: It was easier than I thought it would be. If someone “interrupted” me by starting a conversation, I stopped writing. If nobody was interrupting me, I really had no excuse not to write.

  13. elle
    at 12:31 pm on April 10, 2012

    I commend those who can write in public places amidst the noise and distractions. I need silence, so I work from my home desk, but it isn’t a given that I’ll find it there, either.

  14. Shelley
    at 1:16 pm on April 10, 2012

    But we need a clean, well-lighted place.

  15. Joshua
    at 8:06 pm on April 10, 2012

    Starbucks is not for writing. Starbucks is for pretending you are going to buy something and then using the bathroom.

  16. brian
    at 9:51 pm on April 10, 2012

    I find the hum of life happening around me in a public space to be good for my poetry more times than not. I’m less likely to get caught in a loop or block than when I’m at my desk (which is where I do my work as a freelance web developer).

  17. Emily St. J. Mandel
    at 3:34 pm on April 11, 2012

    If I drink coffee in a cafe, is it not about drinking coffee, but about projecting an image of myself as a coffee drinker? I could after all use the coffee maker on my kitchen counter.

    I do 95% of my writing at home. I do the other 5% in cafes, because writing a novel involves spending an awful lot of time shut up in a small room, and look, sometimes it’s just nice to get out of the apartment for a couple hours. I’m not posing as a novelist when I write in cafes; I’m actually writing a novel. I sometimes find that the white noise of cafes can be conducive to writing, and it’s awfully nice to have a steady source of lattes on hand. The work I do in cafes is no less serious than the work I do in my quiet home office. The three novels I’ve published were written both at home and in coffee shops.

  18. Writing in public feels like a performance, but, when we’re dealing with literature, the performance is not what endures | RC Gale
    at 10:03 am on April 12, 2012

    […] Matt Lombardi, apparently fed up with pretentious writers observes: […]

  19. Chris Fletcher
    at 11:56 am on April 19, 2012

    I’ve done many hours of rewriting at Friendly’s. (Also, have to say, at Panera and Starbucks and other places.) – Nicholson Baker

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2011/10/04/nicholson_baker_on_friendly_s_restaurants.html

Post a Response

Comments with unrelated links will be deleted. If you'd like to reach our readers, consider buying an advertisement instead.

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments that do not add to the conversation will be deleted at our discretion.