Is This the End of Writing in Cafés?
On the Appeal of Lingering During (and After) a Pandemic
Full disclosure: I may not be the right person to answer the question posed in this headline. After all, I wrote my first novel almost entirely from bed. In fact, I am writing this essay from bed now. Like Edith Wharton, Colette, and Proust, I am more creative when reclined, and when comfortable, and when alone. This is only to say, I don’t write in public spaces. Public spaces are the opposite of my bed.
But plenty of writers swear by them. The café, in particular, has long been a popular place to write; so popular that it has acquired a thick air of nostalgia and romance that threatens to obscure its actual value. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir famously used Paris’s Café de Flore as their home office; as Sartre explained, “We settled there: from nine o’clock in the morning to noon, we worked there, we went to lunch, at two o’clock we came back and we talked with friends that we met until eight o’clock. We received the people we had arranged to meet, it may seem strange, but we were at Flore at home.”
Ah, the romance! The intrigue! The promise that you won’t actually have to write all day because your friends will stop by! It’s largely due to the legacy of these Parisian literary cafés that writing the Next Great Whatever novel while you sip espresso in your local is so much a part of the fantasy of Being a Writer—an ideal that is, like most ideals, watery at best. As Rosalie Knecht wrote in her essay about this subject and its stylistic connection to the Anthropologie catalogue:
The writer spends hours in cafes, working and drinking, because the cafes are heated and the apartment is not. The aesthetic of this fantasy is permanently frozen in the first half of the 20th century, in the cities (and occasionally the beach resorts near cities) of Europe and the United States. The reason the fantasy writer lifestyle is set in such a particular time and place is that the interwar and postwar American writers who went to Europe for cheap rents have exerted a massive influence on the American idea of what literature is. Who casts a longer shadow across American fiction and curricula than Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin?
Because of the particulars of the time, as Knecht points out, these were all writers who could afford to hang out in cafés all day and get a couple of hours of writing time in when there was a lull, and not have other jobs. Alas, for most of us, that time has long passed.
Still, the early-20th century expats don’t have a monopoly on writing in cafés. There plenty of more contemporary examples: Jo Nesbø, Malcolm Gladwell, everyone in your MFA. And whether it’s because of the pedigree or the ubiquity or both, writing in cafés gets a bad—read: pretentious, performative, unserious—rap. “The problem with writing in coffee shops is that everyone hates the kind of people who write in coffee shops—especially the kind of people who write in coffee shops,” explained Gladwell, who writes in coffee shops. “You see the guy in the corner hunched over his laptop and you think (forgetting, for the moment, that you are also hunched over a laptop): ‘For chrissake, get an office.’”
The astoundingly prolific Harlan Ellison also did some of his work in public: he famously wrote short stories in the windows of bookstores—partly as a promotional stunt, although he produced at least one award winning story this way, but also to demystify the idea of the Writer.
“I do it because I think particularly in this country people are so distanced from literature, the way it’s taught in schools, that they think that people who write are magicians on a mountaintop somewhere,” he explained in 1981. “And I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s so much illiteracy in this country. So by doing it in public, I show people it’s a job … like being a plumber or an electrician.”
Despite Ellison’s efforts, the romantic idea persists. The “literary café” is an entire tourism industry. Or at least it used to be.
The Covid-19 pandemic has stripped everyday life of many of its public spaces, especially the indoor ones. It’s profoundly changed how we live, and how we move around in the world—and whether the change is permanent or temporary or somewhere in between has yet to be determined. For now what’s emerging, at least for those Americans who take this national health crisis seriously, is a traumatic re-evaluation of our needs. Before the pandemic, I relied on my yoga studio, my gym, my laundromat. I relied on restaurants and bars. I relied on the subway. I would have called all of these things essential. And yet, as time goes on, for the most part, I’m realizing that they aren’t. Not really. I can do yoga in my bedroom. I can do laundry in my bathtub. I can run outside. I can talk to my friends on the phone instead of having a drink with them. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not better. But it has forced me to realize which habits, and which rituals are true necessities—and which are luxuries.
I wonder which the café will turn out to be, for the writers who use them.
I expect it will depend on the writers in question. One obvious problem that comes up with the loss of free or cheap public spaces to sit and write—and this includes cafés as well as libraries and train station lobbies and wherever else one might scribble—is that it further narrows the already narrow field of who can, practically, write. The publishing industry already struggles with elitism and a lack of diversity; I worry that if cafés become unsafe in the long term, it will exacerbate the issue. Knecht invoked the image of the frozen writer’s garret as part of our romantic ideal of the literary life, but while the pervasive story that J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in a local café because she couldn’t afford the heat in her flat turns out to be a rumor, it’s not hard to imagine something similar being true for plenty of writers—who cannot afford a room of their own, literally or figuratively, and therefore have taken up writing in public places to get a little functional solitude. Or, consider parents in New York City apartments. Or people who live in cramped circumstances, sharing too little space with too many others. They might appreciate somewhere to go.
Increased personal household costs are another possible hardship brought on by the pandemic in general, of course. Right now, many people are stuck at home in the middle of the summer, paying for constant air conditioning; one writer I know, used to going into the office during the week and doing personal work in bars on the weekend, cracked and bought an air conditioner for the first time. If you’ve lost your job, and even if you haven’t, a high electricity bill can make a big difference.
Even for those lucky writers who have space and time at home and aren’t worried about their bills, the café can be a practical writing tool. Some writers need background noise in order to focus. I know one writer who drafts her bestsellers with the television on. I know one writer who can’t write without pants on. (Obviously I do not have this issue.) I know plenty of writers who get ideas from sitting around and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. Or maybe I just think I do—it’s one of the things they make you do in Creative Writing 101.
Even the social aspect, so beloved by the Hemingways and the de Beauvoirs of our literary imagination, may not be entirely without productive merit. The poet and novelist Brittany Cavallaro told me that for years she had a standing weekly writing date with another poet, Jacques J. Rancourt, in a local café in Madison, Wisconsin. “Jacques and I would catch up and talk shop for the first half hour, and after that it was game on,” she told me.
We had the next two hours to write a poem. Nothing has ever really spurred me on like the sound of someone else writing something—there’s a great sense of camaraderie, of competition, of work being done. Once we each had a draft, we’d switch laptops, and we’d edit each other’s work right there. After a few years, we could convincingly forge a poem in the other’s voice, and sometimes to get ourselves going, that’s exactly what we did. Every poem in my first collection, Girl-King, was one that Jacques saw and fixed up first.
Cavallaro also pointed out the pleasure in the routine—”it was wonderful to have that sense of practice, of punching the clock, of . . . having to get dressed and go somewhere.” That somewhere being expressly not her house. “As a woman writer, I think I’m socialized to consider any time at home to be one in which I could be washing dishes,” she said. “Or doing laundry. Or taking five minutes to grab a rag and clean the baseboard in the bathroom. I have a hard time escaping the daily straightforward demands of being a person in the world, and unless I physically remove myself from them, I can putter away a day without getting a single sentence written. Lockdown has made that doubly difficult. But it’s a privilege to have the time to write at all, and I’m trying to retrain myself to thrive in these new circumstances.”
I also talked to Rancourt, who told me that, for him, writing was “all about keeping rituals”—rituals it has been difficult to recreate at home. “Similar to how some writers use a playlist to get into a zone or a headspace, writing in my “lucky spot” [in a café] can turn on a creative switch in my brain much faster for me, just by the sake of being there, whereas otherwise I’d be easily distracted at home.”
And though writing is often solitary, having other people around can actually help the process. “Part of the reason I like writing in public spaces is the accountability I feel,” Rancourt said. “Although no one actually cares or pays any attention to what I’m doing, I feel this added outside pressure to buckle down and not goof off on social media out of fear that others will “judge” me (my Catholic compulsions).”
But it’s already strange—or at least it already feels like a luxury—to think of strangers like this: as passive writing aids, as opposed to possible virus bombs. And the notion of lingering in a public space—especially one as small and enclosed as my own favorite café—for any reason makes me instantly anxious.
At this point, even after the pandemic is over, I really can’t imagine going back to a cramped café simply to perform writing, or to indulge my romantic notions of Being a Writer—vaccine or no, there’s no erasing our new knowledge of all the germs we spew on one another. But I can imagine taking the risk if that was truly the place where I wrote best, or if the ritual of going out was the only thing that would get the work done. So maybe one tiny side effect of the pandemic will be a de-romanticization of the café for writers. For those who were only in it for the performance aspect, or for the idea of writing in cafés—or on train station benches, or in the park—it might indeed be the end. For the rest, I can only hope it won’t be. I hope that those who decide the public space is a necessity for their writing practice will go back—and, as a plus, if they do, there will probably be a lot more table space for them.