Lit Bit: Writing in Public

Some writers will tell you that you should never ever write in a public space. That it’s not conducive to getting work done. That if you write in public, you’re just in love with the idea of being a writer and you want people to notice you sitting there, writing. I call bullshit.

Everyone has a different experience of writing. While some may really benefit from a nice quiet room with no extra sound, no thrum of traffic, no conversations in the background, that kind of silence drives me up a wall. I hate it. I’m a city creature, after all, and the cry of sirens in the night is my lullaby. Quiet is a hindrance to my words, then. There’s also the fact that when I hunker down in a public place, I don’t dick around on the internet like I do in private. My very environment becomes a tool for productivity.

That said, libraries work a bit for me, but their silence is foreboding. The people coming and going don’t take time to bother me, and I love how no one ever expects you to interact. They leave you to sit and write. But you can hear the clock tick itself off the wall. It’s almost painful. Then again, you’re writing on top of a rich book vein, just waiting for you to mine it. There are trade offs.

Cafés are another matter. Coffee is the writer’s friend. There are so many comings and goings. At least, there are during the lunch hour. Here again, no one expects you to interact, or at least they don’t if it’s an American café. But cafés are where writers are supposed to write, and I can almost feel that accusation of wanting to be seen writing anthropomorphizing itself, and sticking me with little guilt pins. Then there’s the peril of jelly splotches. Or the peril of the traffic die-down.

Now, bars are an interesting fish. A good bar, a well-patronized bar, has a liveliness that sings. It hums with activity. The noise is a constant energetic roar, the lights are low, and it’s always easy to bum a light. It’s not true for everyone, but it’s just the place for me to hunker down, sink into the sound and let my pencil walk around its blue-ruled yard. Except…

This also seems to be a rule for bars: anything you do, anything at all, people seem to take as an invitation to talk. Bury yourself in a beer and misery? “Hey, you here by yourself?” Rock out to the band? “Hey, you come here often?” Bend down to tie your shoelace? “Hey, sorry about slapping you like that, but your ass was just asking for it.” Order a hard cider? “Hey, is that girl beer or something? Mind if I get you something stronger?” Whip out your pencil and notebook? “Hey, what are you writing?” When you don’t answer, when you tell them, “Hey, look, I’m busy,” they get grabby.

But for this, the atmosphere would be perfect. It’s a rather large “but” to overcome; it’s awfully hard to write when someone else’s hand has snatched your pencil away, and they’re physically blocking a hasty retreat to the women’s restroom. Now, your mileage on this may vary. Being female-bodied and obviously en-titted, I think my experience might be a bit different from a guy’s. From observation, it seems men are more often left to their own devices in bars. If you are male, cis or trans or simply appear so in drag, and wish to try it out and tell me of it, I’d love an account. That is, if you, like me, need noise to narrow your focus and fiddle with lit.

So what is a writing person to do? As I scribble this, I am sitting at a café, sipping coffee, hiding in a corner, and trying to be unobtrusive. I feel like a cliché. It’s quiet here, and the movie playing in the main room (Superman) clashes with the Golden Earring song whispering from the radio. Only the owner is conversing. It leaves me antsy. But this is what I have to work with, and unless I can come up with better strategies for writing in bars, my options for public scribbling are limited.

3 thoughts on “Lit Bit: Writing in Public”

  1. The only time I ever had a guy get into my personal space in a bar, I just addressed him in a firm, no-nonsense tone. He was too drunk to notice, but the bartender materialized instantly, and I got the attention of the more distant bouncer. Your results have probably varied, but I would never return to a place where a clear-if-subtle alarm signal wasn't recognized and responded to appropriately. Of course, either way your writing would be interrupted.

    Bars are social places, and by going there you send a message that you are available for social interaction. Have you tried to send a contrary message by your appearance? Maybe by finding a guy to sit near you and write, or pretend to write, or dress so as to be seen as an employee.

    What is it about bars and cafès that makes writing there better, and is there a location that has those features without the same downsides?

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  2. The noise and the human activity. Hands down, that's what makes public places work. It shuts down that part of my brain always asking for another task, and shuts it down in a way that's still aware of goings-on, still feeding me inspiration. I don't think there is another place that is free of the interaction downsides.

    I've been considering pantomiming I have no voice and dismissing folk. I'll have to try that out.

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  3. I've written a great many of my recent blog posts on the laptop from the San Francisco Coffee Company nearby; it's in a mall called the Regensburg Arcaden. I initially had to write there out of necessity- no Internet at home for the first few weeks of my residence here- but I've found it to be a pleasurable place to sit and write and people-watch.

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