Decades ago, while ferreting away at a doctoral thesis, I came across the confession of a writer whose name I cannot remember. ‘I write best,’ she said, ‘when I am in places of low level human activity.’ While the profound metre will barely twitch for most, it was for me a kindred moment.
I have always written most easily in cafes. While I love a good library — the older and grander the better — and the book-lined study is a gift, there is something about the right cafe that ratchets up my creativity, even my concentration. Of course, the wrong cafe is just wrong — the one where the music is too loud, the tables crowded and spaced too greedily together. Or those where lingerers are clearly unwelcome. But the right space is as wonderful as it is rare.
In an essay on writing, the poet and novelist Jay Parini describes his own right places, diners mainly, where for the price of a coffee he has felt the hospitality to spend hours lost in words.
‘What I liked about Lou’s was the distant clatter of dishes, the purr of conversation, and the occasional interruption of a friend. Restaurants provide a kind of white noise, but — unlike real white noise — the sound is human. Noses are blown. People cough. You’re reminded of the world of phlegm and disgestion. And you feel connected. There is also a strange but unmistakable connection between cooking and writing — writing like cooking, is a bringing together of elemental substances for transmutation over a hot flame. It seems fitting that writing and cooking should be going on simultaneously under the same roof.’
‘As people are quick to point out, writing is a desperately lonely activity; although writing in restaurants doesn’t exactly solve that problem, it somewhat softens it. Surrounded by people you don’t necessarily have to interract with, you feel free to concentrate. Once I’m involved in the tactile process of writing — the pleasurable transference of emotions and ideas into language — I find that I don’t really have to worry about concentration. If I can’t concentrate, it means I’m working on the wrong thing or I probably didn’t get enough sleep the night before. Whatever the reason for not writing, I don’t blame the restaurant.’
Another kindred moment.
Jay Parini, ‘Writing in Restaurants’ in A Slice of Life: Contemporary Writers on Food, ed. Bonnie Marranca, New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2003, 57-61.