I was sitting in a well-known coffee chain this week (the one that sells red velvet cake), drinking an americano and trying to write, but the inevitable happened and I was distracted by the conversations going on around me. This is an occupational hazard for anyone with a caffeine addiction and fascination for other people’s lives (or just plain nosy), and much as I tried to concentrate I ended up listening in (while pretending to work).
There were a couple on my left discussing the contents of an arts newsletter and covering a range of topics including theatre and film; to my right was a woman tapping away on her laptop, pausing occasionally to think and compose; and at 2 o’clock across the way were a couple of shambling blokes deep in conversation over a book one had given the other. The book was A Cassandra at Westminster by Donald McIntosh Johnson, which I’ve since discovered is an obscure political memoir.
As you can gather I was so interested in these conversations that I didn’t get my own work done, but regardless I still love it when these distractions happen. As a writer I’m used to hiding away in a room, closing myself off to focus on what I can draw from my subconscious. But when you surface and take the time to look around, listen and explore, magical things can happen. Ok, so this time the only thing it prompted was a rather whimsical blog post, but I’m also thinking there’s intrigue in those two blokes and their book, ripe for a radio play maybe, and what was the subtext of the couple having their arty meeting?
Whether you actually get your work done or end up getting inspired by the things going on around you, cafés and restaurants can be rich places for creativity. They are full of people after all, a mishmash of past lives and motivations with potential for simmering conflict that can spark a multitude of ideas. But being creative in cafés isn’t all plain sailing, so here’s some practical advice:—
1. Busy is best. This might seem counter-intuitive but if you really want to get work done the general hubbub and clatter will wash over you. If there’s only one couple in the corner talking about the operation Mr Harrington the cat needs to remove a septic claw, that’s all you’ll be able to think about.
2. Choose your seating with care. If you’re anything like me you easily become abandoned in the act of creation and won’t notice how long you’ve been sitting there. Wooden chairs are the devil’s seating.
3. Don’t overdo the coffee. Or the bacon sandwiches. Or the red velvet cake. It becomes expensive and bad for your health. You also don’t want to be one of those annoying customers that can make a latte last two hours. The staff have a business to run, so respect their space. Peppermint tea is a cheaper and healthier alternative once you’ve jacked up on the caffeine.
4. Be selective about who you trust. All these liquids will mean the inevitable trip to the loo, so what do you do about your laptop and/or other working materials? I have variously asked other trustworthy-looking customers to keep an eye on my things (particularly if they have their own laptop, they understand the dilemma), or ask one of the serving staff. Both pose obvious dangers but the alternative is packing up all your stuff and taking it with you. Sometimes the alternative is the safest.
5. Consider alfresco. In this beautiful hot weather, look for a café with a courtyard, a canopy and a cool breeze. A little honeysuckle trailing up the walls is good too.
And finally, enjoy the feeling of wellbeing when you leave. You’ve contributed to the local economy and come away with something new, whether it’s a piece of writing, a selection of sketches, or even just the kernel of a new idea. Two blokes bonding (or falling out) over a book maybe…