Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A Fiction Doctor Exercise: Writing in Cafes!

Some writers go off to remote areas. Some wander into the wilderness. They go up mountains or seek silence amongst the trees or in the desert. All that is fine and dandy. It sounds amazing, actually. Communing with nature. Having epiphanies all over the place. Meeting with the sublime. Like Wordsworth and all those Romantic Poets did. Yeah, terrific, if that’s your thing. And I’ve had my moments with nature too, over the years.

However, my preference is to be among people.

Books – my books, and the books I love – are filled with people and their chatter and clatter; their emotions and adventures. So, what I like to do is wander the streets and spend time eavesdropping. I visit different shops and public buildings. I love galleries and museums (mostly for the echoes. Voices – even whispers – carry so well in those temples to culture.) I love going into Charity Shops and perusing the bookstands. Yes, for the bargains, obviously – but also for the craic. You can hear some startling things when you listen to the people who volunteer to work in Charity Shops.

Above all though, I love cafes. It’s all about sitting still and relaxing. It’s about having a nice cuppa and taking stock. Slowing your breathing. Keeping calm and still even with the streaming mass of humanity bustling around you. It’s finding a way to slow down time to a pace that suits you.

Maybe that’s the guilt thing. And maybe that’s the purest enjoyment in this writing life.

The thought – even the illusion that – in those moments of writing we have learned to master time.

No longer are we surfing through it – keeping ahead of our deadlines and all the things we have to do. No longer are we drowning in it and waving feebly as we realize that we can’t keep up. And no longer do we feel we’re being left in its scummy wake. For those moments of sitting with our notebooks and writing the good stuff – we are moving time at our own pace. We are controlling the flow of time in our own world.

It’s a powerful and heady feeling. A very addictive feeling.

What I love to do is start off my writing in these café situations by tuning into the conversations around me. I take careful notice of who’s around me. I see what kinds of characters are sitting all around me. I try not to make assumptions about who they are, what they are like, or what kind of lives they lead.

What I really want is for them to surprise me somehow.

I tune myself in like an old fashioned radio. Remember them? With the dial and the numbers and the Short Wave and Medium Wave bands? And the way the white noise used to whistle and scream out of the speakers. Voices in all kinds of languages would whisper tinnily and surge forward and then fall back as the dial went round. You’d search for the voices and it was like spinning a globe around. An invisible world of sound would be rolling under your fingertips.

It’s the same when you start eavesdropping on a crowded room. All these lives and all this energy can be overwhelming at first, and it’s tricky to pick out strands of actual conversations. This takes practice. It’s like being a pickpocket. Remember Fagin and the Artful Dodger teaching Oliver Twist the various ways in which to lift the goods from unsuspecting victims? This is a bit like that. Don’t let people realise you’re lollygagging. Don’t stare at them. Don’t look too conspicuous as you scribble down their every utterance.

And, for me, it’s not about catching every utterance anyway. I just want a few snippets. A few leading, intriguing sentences or fragments. That’s all I need. I’m not trying to rob everyone of their life stories. I just want – in these journal afternoons – a bit of local colour and flavour. I just want to sketch in a few crisp details. I want the sense of the language as it is actually spoken, clogging and colouring the air.


Do this. Go out this afternoon. Or if you can’t, at your earliest opportunity.

Don’t set yourself targets. Don’t put any pressure on yourself with goals or pre-conceived ideas about what you might write. Life is full enough of those kinds of deadlines.

Just award yourself an afternoon out – with your notebook.

Wander and wander. Absorb all the details you can. Look at the tops of buildings, not just ground level. Have a look at the faces of people as they talk to each other. Have a look at what people are buying, and the way they stand and walk. Look at the statues and the public art. Look at the wording of signs. Pay attention to colour. Tease out the smells that surge around you as you move through the city. Could you draw a map of your walk and tell direction just by the aromas you encounter?

After a bit, find a perch. Find a corner in a café or a bar. Get your notebook out straight away, and your pens. Have them ready right from the start, so you won’t feel self-conscious later on. Also, you’re not sitting here waiting for inspiration to strike.

God, I loathe that phrase. ‘Waiting for inspiration to strike’ sounds like the worst kind of writing. People who’ve never written creatively assume that’s how writing works. How all art works. We drift around waiting for lightning. For god or a muse or some such rubbish. Nope. We just get on with it. We start making marks on a page without even thinking about it too much. If we’ve got any sense, that's what we do.

Just write anything. Any overheard fragment. Or anything that’s floating up from your own mind. Just don’t sit there with a blank page. Don’t save yourself up to write stuff that you deem is great. If you wait for the quality stuff to just drift along you run the risk of writing nothing at all. Of sitting there crossly and impatient, waiting to be a genius.

Hmf. Much better just getting on with it.

Have a listen. Tune in. Ravel up a few thoughts, a few lines of dialogue. Something that draws your attention.

Learn to follow your interest. Learn to trust your attention.

And see where it leads. Free associate. What do these opening remarks lead to? What do they suggest? Perhaps, if someone’s talking about their upcoming holiday and their dread of flying – this could trigger a memory of your own. Write it down. Where does it lead? To an old friend you’ve not thought about for years? Who were they? What were they like? What became of them in the end? Where were you living then?

What you’re trying to do is to follow the dance of your own mind as it moves from subject to subject. You’re trying to follow it with your pen. You can’t help it moving like this. It will do this dance, whether you’re actually listening or not.

The point of this exercise is, in many ways, getting you to tune into other people. But you’ll find that, in the end, you’re really tuning into your own mind.

And the point is also to gather up some great material. And to surprise yourself with what it consists of.

I promise that, if you give yourself up to this practice and do it as often as you can manage, you will AMAZE yourself with some of the stuff you will write.

WHERE DID THAT COME FROM? You’ll ask. And, when you read back through your journals – which will be chockablock with scribble and coffee stains by then – you’ll be able to see exactly where the material came from.

So. Off you go.

Have a LOVELY afternoon.

And I think I’ll do the same.


  1. Loved this. I'll bear all of this in mind - and I hope you had a lovely afternoon out...

  2. It is a wonderful idea, and I agree that there are many fascinating stories to be invented around the people you see and the things you hear in cafes. Shame I'm so easily distracted by cake...

  3. Since you introduce me to the Molly House I've been out writing in cafes a few times--in Molly House, and also on the barge at Eden just down the canal. It's amazing--I wrote so much more and better and actually *enjoy* the writing, rather than feeling like a chore I'm beating myself into. It's wonderful.