TOO LONELY TO WRITE ALONE

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

You’re looking at my office/work-space.  I’ve been writing at the Novel Café for over twenty years.  I’ve written most of ten screenplays and two novels there.  Recently the Novel Café went through an ownership change, and it is now called 212 Pier. 

I’m an extrovert.  But I’m also an introvert.  And that probably wouldn’t make sense if I weren’t a Gemini. 

Writing is a solitary profession.  We’re inside our heads when we write.  It’s lonely.  And I simply cannot face it alone.

So I surround myself with people and noises and music and chaos, and I manage to filter it all out into the blur of background noise as I write.  And when I get stuck or frustrated or stalled I look up and see the faces of my friends hard at work, since this is a writers’ café, and it gives me inspiration.  Makes me feel part of a community.  Sometimes I’ll catch the eye of another writer staring up, searching for an “out,” and I know that I can step away from my table and approach him and we can chat a while, take a break, discuss story or the weather or the local news.  And then, re-energized, fitfully empowered, we each of us return to the grind.

I can only write in cafes.  I cannot write in the quiet solitude of my home or, God forbid, a library.  Too much silence. 

Writing in cafes has appealed to me since the day I discovered that some of my favorite authors spent their days in Parisian cafes.  Hemmingway, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin.  The Lost Generation of expatriates.  It all seemed so romantic.  I latched onto the idea of the café writer and never let go. 

I’ve written in the majority of LA’s cafes.  There’s the Bourgeois Pig in Hollywood, which is just a little too “Hollywood hip” for my taste; there was the old Pick Me Up Cafe, one of the first in LA and long since closed (I read all of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” at the Pick Me Up, coughing my brains out on second-hand smoke); the Highland Grounds in Hollywood, where I also shot part of a movie I made after graduating college; The Rose Café in Venice, and so many more.

Since I travel a lot, I’ve hit most every hip café in every major city in the U.S.  I’ve found wonderful surprises in places like Columbus, Ohio, Boise, Idaho and Salt Lake City, Utah.  When I’m in San Francisco I write at the Trieste, a fifty-year old café, which features prominently in my upcoming novel, BEAT.

I’ve pretty much settled on 212 Pier (45 minutes from my home, but well worth it), and the below cafes, which are closer to my home:

 

This is the Catalina Café and Brewing Company in Redondo Beach.  I’ve put a lot of time on Boulevard and Beat here, and there’s a great community of screenwriters who come in every night.

This is Coffee Cartel in Redondo Beach.  I write under the protective guard of the shiny, metal knight, who blesses each manuscript written in his presence.

 

 

Another awesome thing is that Coffee Cartel has a special place for me in their display case.  212 Pier also has a copy of Boulevard prominently displayed in an area where they advertise the work of local authors.

I’ve pretty much given up trying to write at home.  I made a feeble attempt to create an office space using an itty-bitty alcove, a nook, a crannie, in my garage.  It quickly became “Steve’s Office Crap Storage Dump.”

 

When I have to do big, creative things, like this whiteboard for my 3 X 5 cards on WIP story points, I end up leaving it on the bedroom floor where it serves as a bed for our labradoodle.

What I’m saying is that my work-space is a mess.  It’s whatever I have in my travel bag at the time, usually a stack of manila file folders filled with crap I’ve downloaded from the Internet, in no particular order, thrown onto the surface of some café table somewhere in this great big city.  It’s a wonder I’m productive at all. 

Everything important is on my computer.  Which is basically a file folder on my desktop marked, “Beat,” for example, filled with files on character, plot, research elements, outlines, treatments and first draft chapters.  I’m a very linear thinker, so I pretty much depend on writing brief paragraphs of every scene in its proper order.  I’d love to get more sophisticated, but I think I’ll need a computer younger than 15 years if I hope to use the cool “author” software they’ve got in the marketplace.

Really, the last piece of sophisticated equipment I bought was an Underwood typewriter.  I’m hoping to get an IBM Selectric for Hannukah.

Oh, and after reading Rob’s post on Wednesday I decided to upload a photo of my library.  It’s where I worship…

I’m  currently on a no-budget, youth hostel research trip in Europe, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to participate in the comments.  I’ll check in if I have Internet access.  I’m sure I’ll find a café with wifi!  It’s high time for adventure, my friends! 

๏ปฟ

 

40 thoughts on “TOO LONELY TO WRITE ALONE

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    I'm not a writer but I want a knight. ebay maybe? What I like about the idea of cafe writing is that you can change your writing ambiance by moving to a different cafe. But the whole cafe writing thing may be something for LA and NY and other places. I'm thinking in Montana you'd be looked upon suspiciously and asked to move along after a couple hours, unless, maybe you were in Missoula. And researching in Europe? Man, writers live the life! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh my God, he types his index cards. That's just wrong. (And not what I would have expected, this whole week has been very illuminating. You think you know your friends, but…

    PK, there are other cities where you can do the cafe thing, but I think you may be right that it's more a big city thing. Personally I've never understood how cafes can even stay in business, considering how long some writers can nurse a latte.

  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Hey – got a little Wifi time here….

    Alex – you cracked me up with the comment about typing the 3 X 5 cards. You're right, however, it was not me who typed them. My wife was getting tired of me not getting organized so she actually typed them out for me. I honestly don't even know where she got the typewriter to do it. It sure did help, though. And, by the way, The Novel Cafe and 212 Pier are making a handsome living selling decent food to writers who spend eight to twelve hours there a day. I usually spend $20 or $30 in food and coffees when I do a long day.

    PK – That table was actually used by another successful author of mysteries, who used to sit next to the knight and write all day. I've never bumped into her, but I've met her son, who is a promising young playwright. There's a Russian employee at Coffee Cartel who became my consultant for the Russian language sections in Beat. It's amazing how many people I meet in cafes that end up becoming part of my process – they become consultants or middle-men who put me in touch with specialists in the areas I research. And I've written in cafes in Missoula, too. As well as Kalispell and Bozemen. Great cities.

  4. Cornelia Read

    I tried a cafe yesterday, but got nothing done. I think I need earplugs.

    What a wonderful post, Stephen. And I wish I had a wife who typed things for me. That would be really cool.

  5. Steve Steinbock

    This is great. Each of the five 'ratis that have posted this week have revealed completely different perspectives of their writing spaces and processes. Like Brett and Stephen, I'm a cafe writer. In fact, Stephen, you put it incredibly well when you told about the dual introvert/extrovert nature that makes a cafe the ideal place to be alone.

    Echoing what Alex and Stephen said, I've found that most cafes like having authors work there. (Especially if we're polite and leave occasional tips). It's a point of pride for the cafe. Not only that, but I've found more than once that other cafe customers can unwittingly serve as fodder for characters whenever I'm feeling stuck.

    You guys inspired me. I posted a similar column today over at http://criminalbrief.com/?p=13914.

    Can't wait to see what the rest of you have in store.

  6. Dudley Forster

    Stephen – Yep, there are some great coffee houses in Boise. Have you been to Coeur d'Alene?

    Alex โ€“ I kind of like the idea of typing index cards. I hate writing anything out longhand.

    PK โ€“ Montana! East or west? If you're close to Missoula then Iโ€™m right over the pass in Coeur dโ€™ Alene.

    PK & Alex -Thereโ€™s no problem writing in a cafรฉ here. The baristas at the local Starbucks have my order memorized. I've also written in the Starbucks in Moscow, ID and Pullman, WA. Of course, theyโ€™re college towns so that โ€˜s common. The Starbucks in Moscow is in the mall though and that is just wrong.

  7. PK the Bookeemonster

    Sure, Stephen, stick to the pretty side of the state. ๐Ÿ™‚ Come to Billings! Ok, nevermind.

  8. PK the Bookeemonster

    Dudley — I'm in Billings. The west has got the mountains. We've got the Rims and the beginning of the plains but at least we're not east-er where there's a whole lot of nuttin'. It's funny, we were watching a movie not long ago based on a true story, Taking Chance, I think was the name, starring Kevin Bacon as an officer escorting the coffin of a Wyoming soldier. Supposed to have landed in the Billings airport. It was so filmed in Bozeman/Belgrade it was ridiculous. ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Debbie

    Heard about the explosion in San Bruno this morning when I woke, and thought of all of you and your families. I wish there was something I could do to help. Murderati has given me a sence of connectivity to so many states that were just names to me in the past.
    Steve, have you read everything on those shelves? Assuming it hasn't already been done, I'd love for you all to share your top ten favourites sometime.
    Thanks for showing us how you organize your writing folder. I just did that yesterday but I could use further revision!

  10. Brett Battles

    212 Pier will always be remembered as the place you and I met up again after not seeing each other for nearly 20 years. Hope Europe's treating you well. Look forward to hearing all about it when you get back.

  11. Jessie Mac

    I can write anywhere – cafes, on the bed, half-watching CSI etc – though I prefer cafes. It's great to be able to sit and people watch and write down what you see if you're ever stuck.

    But what throws me sometimes is when I arrive at the place and I can't sit where I normally sit for some reason or other (eg they're hoovering or another event is happening so that all the tables and chairs aren't there). Then it's hard. I prefer large cafes so I don't feel the pressure of leaving even though I can't sit for more than an hour.

    You're really lucky to have a partner who not only supports you but helps you type out your index cards.

  12. Louise Ure

    Stephen, thanks for the cafรฉ tour!

    Debbie, I'm about 10 miles from the San Bruno blast. It looks like they finally have 75% of the fires controlled. God, it looks like an atomic bomb blast site.

  13. JT Ellison

    Wow – another out of the home writer. I couldn't do it. I think I wrote in a Starbucks once, got 1,000 words, felt ridiculously proud of myself for focusing in all that noise and distraction, and vowed to never, ever do it again. I'm an introvert who really likes to be alone. Maybe too much. Is there a term for that?

  14. Chuck

    Thanks for the trip into your world SJS. What a cool collection of places! I havent been to LA in a year, but usually get there twice a year. Redondo is right next to where I stay, so I will definitely journey into the two locations there.

    Where in Europe are you? I spent three years there and go back every year. I may have a haunt or two to recommend, depending on your locale.

    Safe travels!

  15. pari noskin taichert

    Stephen,
    It's so interesting how we've got the extrovert writers with introvert personalities, the introvert writers who need the solitude to write etc. What an informative trip this has been so far.

    Great photos of all the cafes. I enjoyed them.

    But that photo of your home library made me wish I'd taken a picture of at least one of mine . . . might do it for next week.

  16. Debbie

    Louise, it must be terrifying to be so close. Already communities are coming together to help families. I've been told I'm a pessimist but when I focus on the positive I feel like a Polyanna; like I'm not acknowledging the reality of peoples suffering. I admire the fortitude of journalists who experience first hand the events and the devastation and then must put it all into words. Even fiction based on reality is still fiction and I would have a complete emotional breakdown if I had to stand in that community and write what I saw, even if I focused on the heroism of the emergency personnel and the citizans.

  17. Richard Maguire

    Stephen, I always enjoy reading your blogs. Your enthusiasm for writing, and the process, jumps off the screen.

    Today, in Munich, I visited three coffee shops, and while I can understand how a first draft might be written against the background of so much noise I'm curious: Do you revise, edit, and do your final draft in a coffee shop?

    Richard

  18. toni mcgee causey

    I had to move out of the original office I had with the wrap-around bookshelves: too much distraction too close at hand. The visual stimuli was too chaotic, too. I love that room, but I've turned it into a den now. And occasional bedroom for extremely cool guests like Zoe and Andy.

    JT, I'm right there with you on the hermit side of the equation. I couldn't accomplish anything in a cafe. I love my comfy chair too much, not to mention the noise and conversation and eavesdropping and crowd-watching would slow me down, and I'm already slow enough as it is.

  19. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Richard – the only place I can't get any writing done at a coffee shop is in Amsterdam.
    Because…they don't sell coffee. They sell pot and hashish. Now, that's a distraction.
    Otherwise, I write everything at the coffee shops, from outlines to first drafts to final output. When it gets really serious I'll often find a cafe I've never been to, so I won't be saying "hello" to three hundred other writers. I'd love to check out places in Munich. Or Paris. Or Barcelona. Or Florence. One country at a time, I guess.

    Great, fun comments from everyone. I wish I had time to answer it all. A couple things, though:

    Alex…something tells me you've got a couple cabana boys all geared up and ready to go.
    Louise – yikes! Ten miles away? Man, you've seen some heavy shit in your life, girl. Don't get too close to the flames. My heart goes out to those families.
    Chuck – come visit when you come to Redondo.
    Dudley – I do not remember seeing a cafe in Butte. Very interesting place, that Butte. I was there during the Evil Kneival Festival.
    Mr. Steinbock – what's great about these cafes is that they were just as open and accepting for the twenty years that I was NOT a published author. It's good to find places like that.

  20. Debbie

    Polyanna Troglodyte and her Cabana Boy. Is this an erotic fiction title or a D&D personality? I'm partial to the rogue…can cabana boy be my warrior?

  21. Sarah G

    THAT'S what I've been doing wrong! No wonder I am my most productive during NaNoWriMo write-ins!

    I must find a writers' cafe! That, and a laptop with a cursor that doesn't jump around.

    Marvelous.

    (fellow introvert, but one that requires a soundtrack)

  22. Debbie

    SJS, not so sure Alex's cabana boys are gears. <g> They're probably not geared up but oiled up to go-and just a couple, pacing herself? So Alex…Stringer Bell and???

  23. Zoรซ Sharp

    Great spaces, Stephen – not sure I could write in them on a regular basis, though.

    Love the B&W pic – is that your writing hat?

    And pardon my ignorance, but what's a cabana boy?

  24. Debbie

    Zoe, just google cabana boy…no need to click images. It'll be pretty evident ๐Ÿ˜€ (besides, we're talking Alex here!).

  25. Dudley Forster

    Ugh — The cabana boy thing is a running joke in our family – What does my wife or one of my daughters say when asked what she wants for her birthday or Christmas – A cabana boy named Paco.

    Zoe – they don't have cabana boys in England?

  26. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    By the way, the b&w photo was taken by an awesome photographer named David Healey, who spends most of his nights photographing gang members, transients and prostitutes on the streets of Venice Beach. He shoots only in film (not digital) and processes and develops his work at his home. His work is exceptional.
    And, yes, that is my writing hat, or was my writing hat, when I got into the "writing hat kick," which lasted about eight months.

  27. Zoรซ Sharp

    Ah, my mistake, I looked up 'cabana' in the dictionary and found out it was a bathing hut or shed, which didn't sound very sexy to me… But now I've done the Google thing, I see what you mean.

    And no, there are no cabana boys in the UK – they'd catch their death.

    Sorry, Stephen, didn't mean to lower the tone, but it seems to come naturally to me.

    Love the pic. I used to shoot B&W and develop it myself. It's much less fussy on temperature than E6 (colour transparency film) and you don't need a totally dark room to print it up. By the way, how does it feel to be lumped together with gang members, transients and prostitutes? Or did he maybe think you were a cabana boy…? ;-]

  28. Debbie

    Stephen, my apologies as well. I looked up David Healey but couldn't find more than a couple of photographs. Do you have a link with more images? Thanks, and really, I'm sorry.
    Do you want to hear something funny? I need to do research that involves going to the city and spending time with people living on the streets. I'm terrified and have shelved the book for now. I think you're in a healthier place than I when you mention that writing is a solitary profession, you're in your head and it's lonely. You seem firmly grounded in reality-preferring to surround yourself with people. I prefer the escape of the story; a world where I don't have to interact, be noticed, feel vulnerable. They accept me there-actually, they don't even know I'm there. Okay, I'm sounding a little psychotic. ๐Ÿ™‚
    I'm anticipating a post or two about your trip! When you say "no-budget, youth hostil" does that actually mean no hotels…? How do you keep your belongings safe?

  29. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    You guys can "cabana-boy" it all you want…don't mind me.
    And, Zoe, I'm certain he considers me part of the former group than the latter, and I'm quite comfortable with that.
    Debbie – I think it might be something like davidhealeyphotography…dot something. Try Googling that and see if you come up with his work. He just recently got a website. He's very old school.
    Well, the trip was very low budget, but after two sleepless nights in a hostel, I dove into the savings and splurged for a cheesey hotel. But at least I have my own shower and toilet in my room, and I'm alone. Now I can sleep.
    Tomorrow I fly home, however. The trip she is done.

  30. Leigh

    I can write in all the environments you mentioned, from dead silent armchair to a cafรฉ. I didn't start writing seriously until forced to hole up, buffeted by devastating hurricanes, which changed everything.

    The secret is finding peace within chaos.

  31. Katharine Eliska Kimbriel

    You lucky people who can write surrounded by noise — I used to be able to focus so tightly I missed a psycho coming into a restaurant and attacking the manager with a broom (until it got noisy. Then I found out there are no longer windows in restrooms, and we'd have to heave a bench through the front window to escape.) This is why I sit in public with my back to the wall. I also read through a house catching on fire. So — I work where I can control the environment!

    I do understand the introvert/extrovert thing, tho. Wish I could slip into and out of it as easily as you seem to. And I wonder how you keep from having fans come up to you while you're working, thinking that they are only a momentary interruption. If you explained it in a post, I didn't read all of them before writing this….

Comments are closed.