The Write Environment
Walk into a coffeeshop and you will likely find someone writing. She has a laptop or notebook in front of her and maybe an empty mug. She stares at the screen or the page, perhaps wearing earbuds. She writes slowly at times, madly at others, or simply stares off into space now and again while others silently judge her.
She’s probably writing a book, they think, with aspirations of becoming an author.
The coffee-goers move through the line and sit around her, spending what it would cost to buy an eBook on a fancy drink, or spending what it would cost for a paperback on a fancy drink and overpriced food, or spending what it would cost for a nice hardcover on food and drink for family and/or friends.
Meanwhile, the woman writes or doesn’t write. She is there to create something from nothing using her imagination and life experiences. And she goes about this with or without plans to someday share her work with the rest of the world, and that’s if others consider spending money on books. She gets up sometimes for a restroom break or for refills. She stretches and moves around, because even in a constrained environment change is necessary.
Like this woman and many others, I have written a half-million or more words in coffeeshops around the world, along with editing countless manuscripts, and have probably spent more money in those places than I have earned with books over the last twenty-something years, which is beside the point.
The coffeeshop can be an ideal place to create: quiet at times, busy at others, the environment and its people constantly changing, which is important for all creators. Yet this is only one place a writer may find themselves writing.
If the environment doesn’t work, another might. A coffeeshop may not be the ideal place to spark creativity for some, but maybe a silent corner in a room will do, or an office, or outdoors, or any place with stimuli.
An Ever-Changing Workspace
While in Costa Rica, along with occasionally writing in coffee shops, I often swing in a hammock with a laptop or with a moleskin notebook and pen. In the mornings and throughout the day, the seemingly endless song of parrots, toucans, macaws, oropendolas, hummingbirds, and other colorful birds surround me, along with calls of howler monkeys or the occasional and adorable cry of a baby sloth.
Words start, then stop, then start again, depending on distractions.
When the sun later descends, the sounds change to nightbirds, frogs, owls, and cicadas. There is constant noise because the jungle is never quiet and often blanketed by a downpour. In the rainforest, the environment is fluid, and more times than not this becomes the ideal workspace . . . for me. But this is not the place for all creators.
Sometimes the writing or editing happens indoors, either at a desk or on a couch or while seated in a chair, and sometimes while upright in bed. And when not at home, the writing / editing might happen en la playa under a canopy in front of a turquoise Caribbean Sea with its mesmerizing ebb and flow of waves against black sand. Words flow there, but not always.
There are ideal environments in which a writer can write, but they are not always the right place, which is important to consider when searching for a workspace.
Also keep in mind that too much change can easily distract a writer, the words slowing — or stopping entirely — while taking in ones surroundings and all the senses stirring within it.
The key is to constantly adapt.
The Right Setting
Before Costa Rica, I lived in California and worked primarily from home. I did my work on a laptop on a fold-down desk (attached to the wall because of space limitations) while sitting uncomfortably in a chair. I would get up throughout the day to stretch and move around, and for coffee or food, always constrained. Cabin fever, to a certain extent.
To keep from going insane, or “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” according to Einstein, or so it’s attributed, I would switch from bedroom to kitchen to living room, or would work outside, depending on weather. I was stuck in this environment called “home” but adapted because writing and editing was a necessary form of supplemental income at this point in my life, along with editing and designing books for various publishers.
I was a stay-at-home bonus dad at the time (we never liked the term stepdad), so there were always distractions of helping the children manage schoolwork since the pandemic forced everyone to at-home education. This was my setting as a creator.
Setting is both a time and a place, and so sometimes I found a change of the clock helpful. I wrote at night, long after everyone went to bed, or got up early before the house came to life. And on days when the kids were with their biological father, I often worked out of coffeeshops for a change of setting, running into other writers among the coffee aficionados.
And there, I was silently judged . . .
He’s probably writing a book, with aspirations of becoming an author.
“What are you working on?” or “Are you writing a screenplay or book or something?” Nearly every single time I worked away from home, I was asked questions like these while deep in an imaginative state. The distractions (unwanted changes in environment) would pull me out of the groove with a look of confusion as my mind slipped back to reality — a creative groove that sometimes took an hour or longer to get there. The words flowing, then suddenly not.
Interrupting a writer writing is similar to interrupting a reader reading. One moment they are immersed in another world and a question like, “What are you reading?” instantly destroys the magic. “What are you writing?” destroys magic in the making, like shaking a person awake out of a dream.
After answering questions (plural, for their are always follow-up questions when asked about writing or working on anything book related), it would take another refill of coffee and a long period of time to slip back into the creative groove. The words would flow again, if lucky, and then . . .
“What’s it about?” or “Where do you get your ideas?” or “I’ve always wanted to write a book.”
I quickly learned that wearing earbuds — whether in use or not — would deter most from interrupting the creative process, although I still found myself pulling them out to answer questions.
Letting the Words Flow
What happens when a writer finds the perfect workspace and the words refuse to flow? Is it writer’s block, impostor syndrome? It could be any number of things: worry, anxiety, fatigue, not enough or too much stimuli, or maybe an under- or over-distracted mind. When this happens, a change in environment might be needed.
If I ever find myself at a loss for words, I go for a walk, exercise, or do yardwork, but always do so while keeping the stalled project in focus. This is a type of pre-writing, a way of opening the mind and brainstorming. Exercise releases endorphins that help with creativity, and increased blood flow and physical exertion fuels original / abstract thought. A little movement can quickly reenergize a writer and help words flow once again.
Not writing is a necessary part of writing, which is coming up with the words before they go on the page, and the time it takes for thoughts to become written words varies. A simple change in environment can either shorten or lengthen that time, and a little moving around can help fill plot holes and spark new ideas.
The next time you find yourself in a coffeeshop — whether the writer or the curious coffee-goer — and you see someone staring off into the distance, they are most likely in the zone, in their own personal pre-writing groove, so let them be there for a while without the distraction.
Michael Bailey is a Senior Editor at Manuscripts, LLC. He is a recipient and eight-time nominee of the Bram Stoker Award, a four-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and a multiple recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award, along with over thirty independent publishing accolades. He has written, edited, and published many books. His latest is Righting Writing, a nonfiction narrative about dedication to the craft. He is also the screenwriter for Madness and Writers: The Untold Truth, a creative documentary series about writers. Find him online at nettirw.com, or on social media @nettirw.