A Room of Everyone’s Own: The Writer as Public Fixture

The portmanteau “coffice,” which sounds at first like a cute one-liner, turns out to be so useful for describing contemporary reality that it may, like “staycation,” soon appear in dictionaries. Originating in South Korea in 2010, it refers to a coffee shop employed as one’s office. It’s also a verb: to coffice. Bootstrapping entrepreneurs throw the term around, and though I haven’t heard writers use it yet, I suspect they will soon. Every time I stop into a café in New York City, I see them, ears tethered to computers, faces aglow with laptop light. When I speak of “writers,” of course, I am not discussing crafters of emails or grocery lists. I am thinking of aspiring novelists, creative non-fiction writers, and poets too. “There they are,” I think. “The cofficeurs.” And what I have always been tempted to say to them is: Go home. Writing in public feels like a performance, but, when we’re dealing with literature, the performance is not what endures. To put it another way: the final outcome is the performance. I can’t help but assume when I see the coffice-bound writer as one who privileges persona over results. However, when I asked writers I know about their own relationship with public writing (after all, some of my best friends write in coffee shops), I was surprised by the range of answers. One explained to me, on a crowded subway train, that the temptation of Internet pornography was so strong that a public environment helped him avoid autoeroticism, and kept him focused and productive. This did little to assuage my aversion, but I was interested to hear that internal distraction can be just as much an obstacle to writing as external distraction. Another writer pointed to the brute economic necessity of the coffice. This is a salaried reporter with benefits, required to travel locally, who makes a living posting short compact creative news pieces to a blog with as many as fifteen deadlines a week. Wherever he can grab a moment to write, he does. “Sometimes I need to leave my apartment to get work done, to just change the space.” I pointed out that very few writers are writing a novel because rent is due. His response: “Novelists are exactly the same as reporters. Just take away reality, the galaxy of issues that go along with dealing with actual people and their lives, and deadlines.” Ultimately, he said, “If you're saying that NYC supports a large number of creative types who end up working in public, yes, you're correct. Should they shut up (their laptops) and get a job in a cooperative office space, maybe. Me, I'm thrilled Variety [Cafe] has free WiFi.” A third more casual writer -- my partner -- suggested that cofficing may be less a decision about process than a conditioned behavior, the byproduct of college culture. Many educated individuals were brought up in dorms, libraries, large classrooms, campus lawns, study halls, dining halls, and community lounges. To think and create in public has become a norm. Indeed, the implied presence of an immense public when working on a computer with Internet access is almost inescapable. Yet this only seems to sustain my view that writing in public is, like many other habits of college students and Internet users, an attention-seeking performance. Is that so wrong? Coffee-house culture was vital to European literature of the last century, Ernest Hemingway , perhaps the patron saint of cofficers, not only wrote in public, but wrote about how he wrote in public (maybe even as he was writing in public). Hemingway was a great talent, but also a showoff who required validation, and in his youth liked to execute his art before an audience between shots of “rum St. James” and eyeing a pretty girl “with a face fresh as a newly minted coin,” as he writes in the first chapter of A Moveable Feast (a text that no doubt helped fuel the trend of Americans writing in cafés). But writing in seclusion was the true ritual throughout even Hemingway’s life. In his 1954 Nobel Prize Banquet Speech, Hemingway said, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life... For [a writer] does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.” Virginia Woolf, who also knew from solitude, even went as far as to write that a marginalized individual could only contribute quality literature to the world by first having A Room of One’s Own. These days, many of our most prominent writers seem to have gotten the memo. With the exception of Nathan Englander, who I’m told is a regular at the Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights, there seem to be surprisingly few published writers operating in coffee shops. In my casual research I came across How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors edited by Dan Crowe, wherein famous living writers were asked to comment about their own process. Among the sixty-seven or so contributors, only two writers allude to writing in cafes or coffee shops. Nicholson Baker describes his earplugs as useful “in any loud place,” but does not reference a particular public location. Elif Shafak explains, “I am a nomad... libraries, cafes, streets, trains stations... everywhere can be my writing abode,” but like she said, she’s a nomad. Willy Vlautin writes at a racetrack. From A.M. Homes to ZZ Packer the other 64 prefer solitude from their pre-published days to the present, sometimes referencing objects they keep on their desks or pictures hung on a wall in a private room as things that serve their process. As these writers know -- as Hemingway and Woolf knew -- literature is a relationship both with solitude and with the rest of the world, and I suppose what bothers me about the laptop hive of the “coffice” is that it offers neither. So when I see writers hunched over their third refills, maybe I don’t want to say, “go home,” but “stay.” Close your laptop, observe humanity, have a lengthy conversation with a fellow customer or artist, then go home and get the work done. Image of Ernest Hemingway in London at Dorchester Hotel 1944 via Wikimedia Commons