There are cafe cultures and there are cultures that are still struggling to be cafe cultures. I’ve written and read in public in four different geographic areas in my lifetime, and lived in five different geographic areas; when I was growing up in rural Ohio there was no writing in public unless you were in school, and even then one needed to hurry up and finish the damn writing so that I could do some kind of domestic work or farm work or sport.
I didn’t start off in a creative writing atmosphere, and insisted on one anyway. The later I progressed in high school the less I used my free periods for music and the more I used them for writing, reading, or combinations of the two. When I left home after high school (and before I was talked into going to college) I went to a local college library and read the “snooty” magazines with fiction: Harper’s Monthly, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. I wanted to write and read in public, but doing either at all was a source of attention-drawing that I struggled with; I read at lunch at work and my manager suggested that I go back to college to…read. So reading in public opened the door to that support network, but, again…attention-getting.
Any writer will tell you that attention is the last thing they want. Most readers are defined as introverts. Keeping these things in mind, it’s important to note that I loved college so much because I could read and write in public and could avoid most other activities because of the commitments of homework and balancing full-time employment with full-time course load.
After college, though, I wanted to keep up the practice. I would go to a coffee shop in Springfield, Missouri called The Mudhouse (the owner made his own coffee mugs on a pottery wheel), and I would write in a corner in low light, trying my best to write fiction in the face of fresh memoir material from my mother’s illness and passing. I didn’t receive any kind of attention for it, and started to breathe a little; maybe I could in fact write in the Midwest. I had to give up teaching, though, as my work (due to the compensation), and took a job I hated that required a lot of psychological work to maintain performance. I gave up writing for a bit, I hoped.
Flash forward to 2004 and an opportunity to move to the Bay Area. In the Bay Area there are an acute concentration of book stores and cafes and I was a writer and/or reader at a table again. I joined a book club, I joined a writing group. I found myself among my people, published or not, and talking about books, talking about writing, participating in city-wide literary festivals.
And then I moved to San Diego County.
See the picture, above.
Shortly after this picture was taken, someone walked past me on the sidewalk and commented on the fact that I was writing in a journal. Something about what a pretty picture that made. I looked up an smiled, which jarred the person commenting, as though I was a performance artist drawing letters as opposed to someone who was tired of writing in the confines of her apartment.
In seven years of residency in San Diego County, I have managed to find a book club in the last couple of years, which has saved my life. However, if I go out in a bar or in a coffee shop, overwhelmingly there will some sort of comment on either the material I’m reading or the fact that I’m reading at all. I love the comments on the material (one man wanted to know if H Is For Hawk was chick lit–not really, sir–and a woman in a coffee shop two weeks ago predicted that I would read My Sister the Serial Killer in one day, and she was right), but the comments on reading at all take me back to the space between high school and college.
There appears to be something abjectly strange with reading in a bar. There are memes about these things. They weren’t strange in San Francisco, but here it makes other patrons edgy. I occasionally take a book into what I call my watering hole, but it’s closing for remodeling in a week and every other bar I’ve read in thinks I’m going to camp on one drink for a day. With writing it’s worse; when I first moved to North San Diego County I tried to continue my San Francisco writer’s group there, but people were upset with the cafe venue (“There’s no place to park”) and didn’t want to give up their cars to take the train, which was two blocks from the cafe. I ended my involvement with the group, and lost touch with them when I got a different day job.
But writing in public now, particularly at chairs and tables on the sidewalk or (gasp) at a bar, makes other patrons and people passing believe that you are writing about them. Honestly, sometimes I am writing about them, but most of the time I am writing what I would always write about, I’m just getting out of the house to do it. But I don’t want to make everyone else uncomfortable, so…I “behave” myself. I put the book away. I put the notebook away. I tap ideas into my phone, like the rest of the folks at the bar, or the rest of the folks in the coffee shop, and go back to hiding my passion under a bushel or book club.