Of Writers and Coffee Shops

I find it difficult to write while in a coffee shop.I’ve always struggled to write while sitting in a coffee shop. I’ve tried, but I rarely write anything of quality while in one. I’m distracted by the conversations I overhear. I find myself watching how people interact with each other or developing a curiosity about the work they’re doing.

Listening and watching aren’t bad things; in fact, they’re essential to the writing life. Another person’s conversation or actions often are my gain. They can fuel my writing. They can increase my understanding of human nature. Listening and watching, then, are good, but they sometimes impede the actual act of writing.

If I want to write anything that meets or exceeds my standards, I have to find a solitary place. I may allow a few people to populate that place, but those people usually respect my space. They can’t look over my shoulder. They can’t try to peek at what I’m writing. They have to wait until I’m ready to share my writing with them.

I suppose that could make me seem elitist. I probably seem that way to some people. I don’t intend to be. I don’t mind talking about my writing with people; I welcome questions about my writing process and interests. Such questions usually tell me that that person actually has some interest in me and what I do. I simply struggle to write in the presence of others. I feel as though I’ve been put on display, and it’s excruciating to try to write when I feel that way. It’s one thing to put my writing on display; it’s quite another to put the act of writing on that display.

Of course, nobody at the coffee shop really cares what I’m doing. Other people are there with their laptops or pads of paper and pencils. It’s still not my optimal writing location. I need the quiet. I need the space.

Where do you do your most productive writing? Do you have a favorite spot or two?

This post originally was published in October 2011.

Image: Angie Garrett (CC BY 2.0)


  1. It’s funny – I do my best writing surrounded by those kinds of distractions. I’ve always assumed it’s because I’m the oldest of six and there was always chaos at my house.

    • ginidietrich Hmm. I’m the eldest of three, so slightly less chaos. I typically had my own room, though, and I orchestrated most of my grand characters and plots there. 
      In any case, I’ve learned to work wherever and whenever I can. You do what you have to do, right?

    • ginidietrich My best pal from hs/college would create a huge personality evaluation based on your position in your family! He’s obsessed with birth order.  My mom was oldest of TEN. She’s kind of our unelected CEO.

  2. I don’t write well with distractions, but I like to try. The distractions of a public place give me energy, but it often leads me astray. 
    I do best in a quiet place outside the home. I miss the days of finding a remote corner in the dusty stacks of Alderman Library at UVa. I could crank out some stuff at that place. 

    • barrettrossie Interesting. Libraries were never the best spot if I wanted to write. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a lighting thing. I seem to crave natural light, although I did do a lot of work in the dormitory basement while waiting for my laundry to get done.

  3. I can only write in my office with the door closed 😉 Like you I’m distracted by everything and everyone around me, and the loudest person in the shop usually sits next to me anyway.

    • Craig McBreen That’s not very nice of that person, although I did get to exchange cards with someone like that. She’d forgotten her phone in her car and asked me to look after her things. I guess she deemed me trustworthy. 🙂
      Maybe I’m a bit of a control freak? I like having my own space, knowing where things are, et cetera. I also think it could be related to lighting and the sense of space and, of course, the noise or activity.

  4. I used to require total isolation and silence for writing…then kids came along. Now, I write when I have inspiration and time (two commodities that are always low for me). I wrote this morning’s post at the breakfast table, with my 4 1/2 year old discussing nail polish, hair and what my smoothie looked like…all right in my ear. It was maddening, but it worked.
    I love coffee shops and watching and listening to folks. My husband says I’m a terrible eavesdropper, but I can’t help it. I then craft stories in my mind of what’s going on in the lives of those around me. It’s great fun! 
    Whatever you’re doing, Erin, it’s working! Keep it up!

    • EricaAllison I think eavesdropping is great fun, too. It’s just that their conversations get all mixed into what I’m trying to say, and I end up with a mess. 
      I only have a cat to bother me, so I suppose I live in the lap of writing luxury for now. She’s pretty good about behaving herself. She’ll tuck herself somewhere near, sometimes too near…I’ve stepped on her tail a time or two. In any case, I don’t believe in ideal writing conditions. I think E.B. White has a quote about that. You just do your best to write independent of the circumstances or environment.
      Thanks! I certainly hope so. I hope to contact some companies this weekend before I head to Vegas for my day job next week.

  5. Nice, smart to recycle a timeless post. I’m mixed. I don’t care for others behind my shoulder, looking at my screen – don’t want them to see the hot mess of browsers, apps, junk running. I think it depends on what I write; there are times I want the quiet to focus and get down to business; other times, the ‘distractions’ help either clear my head or inspire me, even if it’s just the change of scenery, the ‘free’ feeling of not being trapped in an office or home. Especially on a pretty, sunny day. FWIW.

    • 3HatsComm I’ve noticed a difference in what I’m writing affecting where I write, too. 
      I totally get the trapped feeling. It’s why I’ll leave the house for a bit then come back. I need to get away from the space and the thoughts dwelling there. Sunny days? Forget about it. Bring on the swings!

  6. I’m the complete opposite. I love writing in bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and especially diners. Almost all of my best stuff has come from those venues.
    I order and set up my iPad II (The Wrath of Kahn), pull out my blue tooth keyboard, and start a new document. All the noise and life happening around me seems to narrow to a distant beacon that politely waits for me to return. Me, I’m in a writing zone, that is filled with special super focus oxygen.
    I can’t explain it, but the chaos all about and my internal “tune out” mechanism seem to juice my writing. I still write at home a bunch, mostly because I can’t afford to eat out that often, but I’m not able to create nearly as quickly.
    Hmmm…now I’m thinking about lunch.

    • ExtremelyAvg That’s amazing. Have you always been like that or was it a developed skill?
      I hear you on the funds front. That was one reason I curtailed meeting business acquaintances at coffee shops in 2011. That, and it’s hard to hear what the other person is saying when the coffee grinder is going non-stop.

  7. I like writing in coffee shops–and with to kids now, I wish I could write away from them more often. It’s nice to feel like a writer, and for some reason, I always feel like one when I’m in public, writing.

  8. I like writing in coffee shops–and with two kids now, I wish I could write away from them more often. It’s nice to feel like a writer, and for some reason, I always feel like one when I’m in public, writing.

    • evelynalauer It is fun to feel like a writer. I like meeting other writers at coffee shops. It makes me wish for the days of pubs and cafes. I guess they still exist, but they seem different somehow.
      I do love how much your boys (All three of them! 🙂 ) are a part of your life and how that unfolds in your writing. Oh, and the wine. I’m not much of a drinker, but I enjoy hearing and learning about the wine.

  9. Erin,
    Early morning hours before my son gets up in the living room. It is the quietest moments of the day. i can have my cup of coffee and just enjoy the silence or listen to my headset with some “quiet” music….either way it is a win/win for me! I write some of my best posts at this time of the day! The only other time and place of the day for me is the opposite end of the day (late night) when he is asleep….lol
    Aaron Brinker aka DadBlunders

    • dadblunders I am such a morning person, too. I love those moments before the world begins its frantic pace. That goes double if you have kids. 🙂

  10. hi, erin.
    i just want to ask about the writer’s perspective.
    if you visit the coffe shop, as writer, what comes to your mind first ?

  11. sharon8825 Besides what size of coffee to get? I don’t know. I rarely visit coffee shops as a writer. I tend to use them as meeting places with friends or business acquaintances.


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