Once upon a time, longer ago than I’d care to admit, I attended a writing course at a local college. I was fresh out of university at the time and I was settling in to my first honest-to-god actual job at an online bookshop.
“You’ll never have to buy another book,” I was told during the interview. As you can imagine, I tested this hypothesis thoroughly until the first dot com bubble burst.
Back then, I lived in a shared house with my own room. I even had my own computer, a big unwieldy thing that wheezed when it accessed the internet. It had a heavy CRT monitor that took twenty minutes to warm up and hummed like a microwave once it had.
The first assignment in the writing class was one of those whimsical ones designed to break the ice and warm people up. We were told to write a poem about an animal we identified with. Then we had to read it to the class.
You’ll probably be quite relieved to hear that I don’t remember everything I wrote. What I do remember is that I chose a sloth as the animal, and that the poem included the following couplet:
I would write down what’s in my head,
Were my computer closer to my bed.
These days, I have a laptop, but I still don’t write in bed. The bedroom is Helen’s writing space, not mine.
Being in a relationship with another writer is remarkable and privileged thing. I suspect, during the years we’ve spent together, I’ve learned more about putting pen to paper than any number of college courses could have taught me. Half our conversations seem to be workshopping one thing or another. It goes both ways and it’s weird and lovely and fizzes with a sort of mad, infuriating invention.
Sometimes I wake up in the morning and Helen’s just lying there waiting for me to stir.
“Listen,” she says before I can rub the sleep out of my eyes. “How about if–“
And she’s off. An idea has struck her, a broken bit of a dream that woke her up and suddenly that irritating bit of the story she had been working on makes some kind of sense. She’s not after my opinion, exactly, she’s just saying it out loud, cementing it into something real, testing to see if it flies.
Sometimes I wake and she’s already up. Bedside light on, she’s reading a book about brutalist Communist architecture or Siegfried and Roy or paging through an article about a very specific kind of sentient sludge that might prosper on Mars.
Sometimes she’s already on her laptop.
“Hey,” she says, when I wake up. “Are you going to the cafe today?”
I started writing in cafes when I had a day job. Since I was laid off, I’m now freelance, which on good days means I’m absurdly, stressfully busy and on bad days feels like a word invented by people who don’t want to admit they’re unemployed.
Before that, I worked for various small publishing companies, aid organisations and one online bookshop — office jobs, the sort of which I always swore I’d never settle for, invariably located in awkward parts of town.
I realised early on that the only way I would get time to write anything for myself was to actively put aside time to do so. So, I set my alarm forward an hour and stopped off in a cafe on the way to work each morning.
This way, five days a week, I had one hour a day to write. It worked. I got used to getting up early, used to leaving when the morning was still fresh and brisk, used to getting into work a little bit late and a little bit spent.
In the cafes, I set myself rules. Whatever I write is allowed to be rubbish. If I don’t write anything, that’s okay too. On some days, I can rattle through a thousand words; on others, I can only manage twenty. Sometimes I’ll just revise something I’ve written the day before and on many occasions I’ll just stare at a blank page and that’s fine because I know I’ll be back the next day, same time, same place, and maybe I’ll do better then.
I don’t know if it was because I became invested in this routine — because it started working for me — that I now have difficulties writing at home and I envy those who can.
The house has too many other distractions. There are other things I should be doing and the things I absolutely shouldn’t be doing seem too easy to waylay me. Being freelance means that technically I have the time to write from home — it’s where I do all of my design work after all, and given that the price of all those posh Americanos start to stack up, economically it would be a sound idea. But when I try writing in the house, I feel I should be doing my design work instead, something that will help pay the rent.
Interlude: There was a time, a few years ago, when I did try and write from home. I ignored the cafes and got up early to work in the kitchen instead. For a time, I thought it was going to work. It felt like a stubborn attempt to realign the routine that I realised I had locked myself in to, the same way that I had taught myself to get up early in the first place.
A few months before this experiment, Helen had moved into the shared house I was living in. After a while, she would hear me get up in the morning and she would come down to get a coffee. We’d end up chatting instead and I would get no writing done at all.
One morning, she came down and asked me if I wanted to go on a date. She just came out with it as she was topping up her coffee cup.
You’ll probably be quite relieved to hear that I don’t remember everything I said in reply. What I do remember is that it included the following couplet:
kjhafdkj kjalsdk jf;alskjf a
klajsdhfl kajsdh; kjfas!!!!!!!!!!!
Those who know how I usually ration my use of exclamation marks can probably appreciate how that might sound out loud.
My problem with working in cafes is that I’ve always thought that people who write in cafes are wankers. This is obviously grossly unfair, but it’s a prejudice that, once fostered, needed time and effort to disabuse.
I am now one of those wankers and I’m mostly at peace with it.
I know there are some who will go to the same cafe day in day out, set up their little offices and block an entire table for the mornings with a peculiar sort of pride, but for the longest time, I found the whole thing acutely embarrassing and rather precious. Maybe this is why so many of my stories end up being about the horrors of social awkwardness in public places. They all stem from everyday cafe punters seeing me in the corner, back against the wall so no-one can see I’m trying to write dialogue rather than a business email, crouched and reddening behind my glasses.
I used to have a rule that as soon as the cafe staff knew what I was going to order before I said it out loud; as soon as I became a regular, I had to move to another cafe and never go back there again under any circumstances. In the last town we lived in, I got through eleven cafes that way, so in some ways it’s a good thing we ended up moving or I’d have probably run out.
This complex has mostly passed.
I’ve now resigned myself to returning to the same couple of cafes each morning. I plug in my headphones and put on something wordless and noisy, not to block out the sound of the cafe so much as to augment it. Today, I’m listening to Treetop Drive by Deathprod and Garden of Delete by Oneohtrix Point Never. They’re an unholy racket to a lot of people, I suspect, a weirdly melodic white noise that makes the cafe around me sound as though its glitching.
Even though my time is mostly my own these days, I still find I can only manage an hour or so in the cafe each morning before I feel like I should be somewhere else, doing something else. The pressure to get some work done that will actually pay has a tendency to cloud over everything else and I pack up my things and surrender the table to someone else.
I go for a short walk, try and straighten out whatever it was I was working on, trying to rationalise how and what it was for, and hoping to figure out a hook that will help me get started the following day.
Then, I go home.
On some days, during the holidays or on her writing days, Helen is exactly where she was when I left in the morning. She’s in her office, her computer on her lap, the cup of coffee I brought her that morning now cold on the bedside counter.
She looks up and smiles when I come in.
“Listen,” she says, her eyes bright. “How about if–“
Malcolm Devlin is the author of the critically acclaimed and award nominated short story collection, “You Will Grow Into Them” and many other things. You can track him down here.