Oline is trying to write a column in a coffee shop. It’s not really working for her, she says. She says she writes best at home, alone, in her own kingdom. I understand this, though it’s the exact opposite for me. I don’t think I’ve ever cranked out a single decent sentence in my own house or apartment. Partially it’s because I have the kind of job I can normally leave behind at the office, and so my brain associates home with fun, relaxation, and housework. Mostly it’s because I have a TV, a DVD player, a Wii, an iPhone, and wireless Internet access. I have a lot of distractions. And I love writing, I do. But it’s a kind of work, and my lazy brain will always chose the warm, blue glow of an electronic screen over work, no matter how life-affirming and life-defining it is for me.
I do my best writing anywhere but at home. Unlike Oline, coffee shops are my most common stomping ground. They’re clean, well-lit places specifically designed for people to sit around looking like self-important, anti-social jerks while clacking away at their laptops. I’m writing this right now in a Starbucks across the street from the Old Town School of Music, where Ayako is taking her weekly ukulele lesson (I am bathed in the glow of at least 15 other laptops as you read). I’ve plied my disreputable trade in caffeine dens across this fair city, with varying degrees of success. Filter on Milwaukee and Atomix at Chicago & Damen have given me my best bouts with Kumiko. The Argo Tea in the Theater District looks to have been built inside a giant German glockenspiel, and so is a natural place for writing Mab stories.
But coffee shops have a danger in them, and it’s the one that follows me out of my house. The one built into the very fabric of the machine I use to write. The one I, and you, are using right now. The danger that is currently revolutionizing the art, craft, practice, and business of writing, while also serving as the biggest stumbling block for individual writers since the invention of whiskey.
My favorite coffee shops are then, perversely, the ones that make you pay for the Internet, or at least make you seek it out, like Atomix and Filter, by having a code you have to ask for at the counter. I hear there are coffee shops sprouting in California and New York that are no wireless zones, which sounds wonderful, like opium dens without the opium.
Even so, I think we wanna-be writers and writers are stuck with Internet-infested coffee shops forever. And so, for me at least, the best writing will always be done elsewhere. Far from home, and far from those earth-toned pits reeking of espresso, splattered with capuccino foam, and haunted by the tortured wails of the damned and Norah Jones.
What I really need to write well, and I suspect this is true of many writers, is a place where I have no other options but to write. The best single thing I’ve ever written, in fact, was scribbled down in a notebook in the dead of night on a ferry plowing through the rough, dark waters of the Korean Strait. I suspect sometimes that I will never write anything better than those two pages, but they are part of the novel that broke my heart and may never see the light of day (it was on the same ferry boat ride that ghost children inhabited my cellphone, but that is a story for a different post).
I don’t have access to overnight ferries here in Chicago, but recently I have found a place that is perfect for writing, a place far better than coffee shops or the ferry hulls: Ayako’s office.
Now, Ayako’s office seems like the furthest possible thing from a fiction writing space. It’s the headquarters of a multinational corporate accounting firm. It’s a square, character-less series of cubicle corridors, filing cabinets, and windowless offices. The walls are largely bare, and there is a constant hum of the climate control machinery that sounds like the distant, dying cries of a drowning sperm whale.
But I get more done there than anywhere else. And really, it’s nice space. I get a nice, wide cubicle with a big window looking out over the river and the west side of the city as it rolls away on the endless prairie.
Now that we’re smack in the middle of accounting typhoon known as “tax season,” we’ve been spending a lot of quality time there on the weekends. Ayako says she sometimes feels guilty about dragging me to work on a weekend, but I actually like being there more than she does. Despite what it is, the place has everything a writer needs to actually write: good company, a nice view, free coffee, and restraint.
Since I’m not an employee, I don’t have the wireless access codes (and I have instructed Ayako to never give them to me, no matter how much I beg and bribe while in the throes of Internet withdrawal). Hell, I can’t even leave the building without Ayako since I have to be accompanied by an employee. And since we’re in the Loop on a weekend, even if I did leave the building, I’d be at least three miles from any discernible human activity (your average sand dune in the middle of the Sahara is more lively than Chicago’s Loop on Saturday).
There is no Internet, no TV, no Wii, no distractions. There is nothing but the blank page in front of me. My options are write, or go mad. So, I write, and I write a lot.
So, you can keep your comfy couches, your corporate coffee shops, your trendy cafes, your Left Bank bars. I’ve found my own writing space, the strange and unexpected lair of the muse.