Do You Want to Be a Writer, or to HAVE BEEN a Writer?

Do you enjoy the process of creativity? Or are you picturing the black and white photo they’ll use for the dust jacket of your  book? Your first interview on NPR? Your Amazon author’s page? We all have egos to feed. Of course, it would be nice to have laurels on which to rest. For some people, that’s international fame and best-seller lists. For others, it’s small presses and accolades from peers. Is this something you think about?

While I was home in northwest Florida recently, I spent some much needed time with a good friend. We were discussing how different our lives are, in comparison to the plans we made in our somewhat misspent youth. Interestingly, we’re both at different stages of answering this same basic question about our art. Did he really want to make films, or be known as a guy who made them? Did I want to be a writer, in the present? What I mean by this is that I had to assure myself that it was the process I wanted. The actual doing of it. I had to really decide if I enjoy showing up at the desk and creating the characters and their messy situations. Writing and editing. Revising. Is it worth the distress, the frustration? It’s a matter of motivation, I suppose.

I have a number of motivations to write. First,there’s the obvious reason: I write to bring some sense of order to the world. Not in the journalistic sense—the what, when, where, why, and how—but in the sense of our shared history. The exploration of world and self, human compassion and cruelty, and all the themes and mysteries associated with it. Our humanity, and how we often abuse and celebrate it. How we relate to each other. The condition. It’s what makes people love fiction, of course. Sure, there’s the entertainment value of a well crafted plot, a good story. But I think it’s the connection, recognizing ourselves and our emotions in the characters, that makes us return to fiction again and again. And, more personally, it helps me understand those things in the context of my own life. Sometimes I read a passage, for the hundredth time, and suddenly realize where it came from, and that I can see it differently now. I know this is perhaps trite and I sound like some pretentious grad student, but it is the truth.

I suppose the second reason is that I’m better at it than a lot of other things. Music, for example, is technically easier for me, but I am not terribly creative with it. I cannot do what my partner does and just jam with any group of musicians I find. My voice is good, but not great. I can write lyrics and compose a melody, and then perform the song with absolute sincerity, but I cannot do that wild and wonderful thing, improvising, that all really good, professional musicians can do. While I am new to writing fiction, I am more creative with it than I am with music—I can recognize and invent decent stories. I certainly need to learn how to do it better—to hone that craft—but I am definitely enjoying the process.

Finally, I enjoy the lyricism of writing. Perhaps this comes from my relationship with music. But when I choose just the right word for a particular sentence, I get this little burst of pleasure. Not so much because I did it, but because those words, by virtue of the language we share, fit together and flow so well and convey exactly what I want them to or, sometimes, what I didn’t realize I was getting at. Granted, this doesn’t happen every day or every time I sit down to write. So when it does, I make sure to savor it. Like the time I was present for a night launch of the space shuttle—I didn’t have anything to do with it, but I felt pride in the accomplishment just the same, because it was something so extraordinary that we humans accomplished. Does this sound ridiculous? Perhaps. But you’ll get it if you’ve ever seen one of those launches, when the night becomes day and the ground rumbles from the force and power of that enormous machine, and you stand there with maybe fifty other people, between the parking lot of a run down La Quinta and a Village Inn, the smoke billowing towards you across the water, silent together in your awe.

So the answer, for me then, is that yes, I do want to be a writer, not to have been one. It is the doing of it that gives me pleasure. So that is what I am, not what I was. And while I’d like to be published in a prestigious journal, what I really want, more than anything, is to write the kind of stories that I want to read. So I persevere.

How about you? Why do you write?

Finding Time: An Experiment, Part 2, Wherein I Celebrate My True Nature

“I wasted my time!” my kid said last night before breaking down into a (thankfully) minor tantrum. This was in response to the somehow unexpected news that, immediately following his evening ablutions, it was his bedtime. He just couldn’t bear the thought that he spent his last few waking moments doing anything—brushing his teeth or picking up his Legos from the living room floor—anything at all other than playing. 

This is kind of how my experiment with becoming a morning person went. I did try, for a solid week. But when I actually fell asleep sitting up, and spilled coffee all over myself, I decided it was time to reconsider. When I look back at all the writing I accomplished during the early morning experiment, I’m amazed by how little of it is in any way useful. Mostly, it’s just bitching and obsessing about all the crap I had to do each day. More journaling than anything else, with very few nuggets of goodness, and nothing I could translate to decent fiction. Absolutely nothing on the two stories I’ve been incubating.

I even tried to motivate myself with the promise of coffee shop time first thing in the morning. I gave myself the first 30 minutes of being awake to bitch and moan on the page, in my car, parked in the garage (I didn’t want to be that person waiting outside the coffee shop, like an addict, for someone to come open the door, even though that is basically exactly who I am). Then, once I got to the shop at 5:35, I started in with the fiction. But my mind wandered. I just looked around the shop, listened to the employees, stared into space. I might concentrate for fifteen minutes, but then something else—another customer, traffic outside, the sunrise, a disturbing work e-mail from the evening before—would interrupt and I was powerless to resist.

It appears, after all, that I did waste some time. I think there are two main reasons I was unsuccessful:

  1. I was not able to concentrate on anything because my brain just does not work efficiently that early in the morning.
  2.  I was not happy; I was grumpy. Perhaps my psyche was just pissed I was trying to impose such rigid controls that were so contrary to my nature. Apparently, my psyche believes that discipline is for suckers.

Sometimes, wasting time is okay—maybe even essential to our happiness. But because I simply don’t have that much time available to invest in writing, the time I do spend needs to be productive in some way. And just complaining on the page is self-indulgent crybaby bullshit, nothing more. And that is, apparently, the extent of my intellectual capacity first thing in the morning. For some reason, two and a half hours make a significant difference in my ability to be productive. That’s why I can go to the coffee shop at 7:30 Saturday morning, place my order, start being productive by 8:00, and write for a solid three hours before losing steam. But that’s a weekend luxury. 

When I was working a full-time job and taking a full load of classes, I could live off of three or four hours of sleep. But those days are long gone. I need a solid six hours of sleep, preferably seven, so it’s a delicate balance. But I think the key is to just recognize my limitations and, finally, celebrate my true nature. I don’t like things to follow predictable patterns. I revel in the messy chaos of my life. So I’ve come up with a new plan: no real plan at all, except that I will still chase that sacred two hours of writing time each day.

During the work week, I will schedule each day individually. No pressure, psyche. Relax. Here are the only two rules I’m going to impose on myself because, apparently, I have become averse to most forms of self-discipline:

  1. If something gets in the way of the writing time I scheduled in the morning, I’ll figure out how I’m going to compensate before I go to bed. If I have to wedge writing in between a conference call and sitting down to supper (pasta again), that’s what I’ll do. If I have to give up evening fun time (e.g., reading, watching something on Netflix before bed), I will do it because I don’t have a ridiculous wakeup time—I’m returning to the much more sane 6:30 a.m.
  2. I won’t let more than twenty-four hours lapse between writing sessions. Even if I have to learn to employ Dubus’s method of fifteen minutes sitting in the car, in my garage or the parking lot of the grocery store, I will do it. Because even if I break the first rule by only writing for fifteen minutes, I will have at least written something. And there’s a pretty good chance it will be better than the drivel I came up with last week.

I’m taking my kid’s approach to playing, and translating it into the context of my writing life. There are a lot of other things I could and probably need to be doing instead of writing fiction. But I’ve just decided that sometimes, especially if I’ve missed my scheduled writing session, anything else is a waste of time. Showing up at the page is, after all, what matters. It doesn’t matter what time of day.


Finding Time: An Experiment, Part 1

For many of us, one of the most difficult things about writing is simply finding the time to do it at all. Most of us, of course, have day jobs. We have to spend anywhere from twenty to forty to who knows how many hours a week making enough money to support ourselves and our families. Add in all the other commitments from family and community, and we’re often exhausted by the end of the day.

How many times have you lain awake in bed, knowing you should get up and write, because you want to—you need to write—but your body, your physical self, just wants to rest? When that happens, do you just spring out of bed and show up at the desk? Neither do I. Why do you suppose that is? I think, for me, it’s because I must will myself to sleep. I know that if I don’t get at least six and a half hours of sleep, I will do nothing more than just get through tomorrow. I will bark at my kid, my mind will be foggy, I won’t want to go the gym—the list is practically endless. I need my sleep.

The one thing almost every successful writer will tell you is that they show up at the page, somehow, some time, every day. Skipping a day, for many of us, makes getting back into that world even more difficult the next day. This is certainly true for me.

During a lecture at the Sanibel Island Writers Conference a couple of years ago, Andre Dubus III told us that some days he used to go sit in his car to write, even for just fifteen minutes, because his house and life were so busy (I think he has five or six kids). I was amazed by that. I’m just not that good. I have to ease into it—dump out the miscellaneous data first before getting to the good stuff. So I really need at least one and preferably two or three hours at a time.

When I decided to commit myself to fiction, I tried to schedule time to write every evening. My intention was to cultivate discipline and train my mind, not just my body, to show up at the page every day at the same time. But life just got in the way. I would plan, for example, to write from 7pm until 8 or 9pm. This schedule would work for a couple of days, but something would always sabotage my plans—my car would break down, or my kid would get sick, or I’d have a crisis at work that required more of my time. Also, keeping that time meant ignoring my spouse during the only time we had to spend together before bed, which naturally resulted in feelings of guilt. Or, I’d be so exhausted by the end of the day that I’d have no intellectual stamina left.

So what did I do?

Mostly, I floundered. I procrastinated. I shrugged my shoulders and said I just didn’t have the time. But I knew that wasn’t true. I did have the time; I just had to claim it. So, I started timing every one of my daily activities. I created a spreadsheet with a twenty-four-hour clock and accounted for every minute of every day for a week (one minute to take meds, forty minutes to take the kid to school, forty-seven minutes to make supper, eighteen to eat it, etc.). This was extraordinarily enlightening. By the way, if you’re interested in doing this, I recommend ditching the spreadsheet and signing up for Toggl to use on multiple devices.

As it turns out, I was wasting a shitload of time. Realizing this—seeing the evidence in columns of numbers—allowed me to quickly prioritize in a more realistic context. I knew exactly the minimums and maximums for all the tasks I simply had to do every day (e.g., sweeping the kitchen floor can wait, but I have to make the kid breakfast). I started working on my new schedule, looking for any way I could maintain my lifestyle and work in sufficient chunks of time to write stuff that didn’t suck. I obsessed. But no matter what I planned, the results were always the same: I could not consistently schedule time at the writing desk during the day or evening. By nighttime, I was just too tired to be remotely productive.

So I decided to do something radically ambitious: to turn myself into a morning person. I assure you—I am not a morning person by nature. I’m foul in the morning. I’m so foul, I can’t even eat for the first two hours I’m awake (and I love to eat). So foul that I don’t allow myself to send any important e-mails before 9am, because I can’t trust myself to be truly objective. It just comes down to this: I don’t want to get up.

So why in the hell would I abuse myself by getting up even earlier? Because it seems like the only time of day I can claim for myself alone—the only time that no other person might reasonably expect me to tend to their needs. Also, as Robert Olen Butler explains in From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, immediately waking from sleep and hitting the page is one of the best ways to get into the flow state of extreme concentration. For those of us who require more than fifteen minutes at a time to get into that zone, this may just be the only way to do it on a regular basis. And right now, the regular part is key for me.

So, beginning tomorrow, I’ll start getting up at 05:00. I have tried this before, for the sake of exercise, and failed miserably. Luckily, a twenty-four-hour gym opened less than two miles from my house, ending that struggle. I may fail at this again, of course. But there’s only one way to find out for sure. We’ll see.

Happy writing, whenever you find the time to do it.

What I Learned by Failing at NaNoWriMo

So my question regarding literary fiction writers participating in NaNoWriMo turned out to be irrelevant. I think I got to 3k words. Here’s my assessment: November is a horrible month to try to do anything like this. February, March, April, May, June, July, and August are all months in which I might accomplish something like this. But September through December is sort of the lightning round for me, and probably you too. I have music festivals, Halloween, Thanksgiving (15-40 people at my house), Xmas/Yule/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa (my kid wants to celebrate them all), New Year’s, and family birthdays throughout. Not to mention how bananas every finance person is between September and January, when every business ends its fiscal year. If you have anything to do with the money side of things at your company, Fiscal Year End is a big deal. And yes, they capitalize it; because business folks love to capitalize Everything They Consider Significant.

So, yeah—I don’t know what I was thinking. It must have been something along the lines of, “All these other people do this every year, so I’m sure I can too! Hooray!” Also, I traditionally work like this, in a manic state, once I stumble upon a great idea or I have a deadline approaching. Key difference: I never do it for an entire month. In a burst of misguided optimism, I really thought the formality of the deadline would keep me in check.

That didn’t happen. I think I realized around November 15th that it was a ridiculous goal. The NaNo founders must have started this whole business when they were in college. You know—before any of them had full-time jobs or kids and November was kind of a lazy month. Not yet into finals and paper deadlines with a sweet holiday break during which they could catch up and write tens of thousands of words in between TV and turkey-sandwich-eating commitments. That’s just not my life. If I’m not working, planning, prepping, cooking, traveling, or visiting with family on any given day in November, I’m either writing or sleeping.

Maybe I’ll try the NaNo summer thing. Or I’ll just continue with my current disorganized method. That leads me to my next post: finding time to write when you are more than just a writer. Stay tuned.

Not Writing at Half Full in Newberry


We drove up to my mother’s tiny South Carolina town for the holiday. It’s one of those frighteningly idyllic, old southern places with old-fashioned values and practices—the kind of place that’s perfect for her, but not for me. Or, I should say, not for her and me. This is because I would embarrass her on a regular basis if I lived there. I choose to spare her the trouble by just visiting as often as possible. This is Main Street. Isn’t it nice?


By the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we had run out of the coffee we roasted for the trip, and I was in need of something other than pre-ground Folgers. So my aunt and I went into town for what Mom refers to as a “fancy drink.” For such a tiny town, Newberry has a very nice and spacious wine bar/coffee shop in Half Full.



Here’s Jared, who was so friendly and made me an excellent latte. My aunt and I each enjoyed a nice pastry and a lively discussion about Newberry.





The interior is certainly clean and well lighted. They have ample tables, comfy chairs, and the obligatory couch seating.


For us nerdy writers, they even sell handmade pens.


I must confess that I didn’t actually get any writing done when I visited Half Full this trip, but I will definitely do so on my next visit. If you pass through Newberry, remember to stop here for a cup of coffee and a quiet moment to write. If you are hungry, choose from their assortment of pastries and light fare. They’re open Thursday through Sunday.



Do ANY Literary Fiction Writers Participate in NaNoWriMo?


Have you ever done NaNoWriMo? If not, why? Does the idea seem ludicrous, or too much of a gimmick? Or maybe wholly unnecessary because you already have the luxury of spending that much time writing (good for you!)? Do you assume it’s for amateur writers in the, ahem, genres only and you, by comparison, are a serious writer of literary fiction? Do you even know what I’m going on about?

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) began in 1999 as a way for a group of friends to stay motivated about writing. Since then, it has grown into quite a phenomenon. Check it out here. The rules boil down to this: write a novel (defined as a “lengthy work of fiction”) of at least 50k words entirely within the month of November. Then, in December, use a simple method to validate your word count and enjoy some modest prizes and bragging rights. Seems pretty simple, right? However, this seemingly innocuous tradition has received some rather pointed criticism.

There are many articles out there written by people who just want to complain about something. But there are also a few interesting and thoughtful articles detailing why some people believe literary writers shouldn’t participate in the frenzy. I think Laura Miller’s piece for Salon brings up some salient points regarding what’s wrong with the concept. With one point, I absolutely agree. Publishers’ slush piles are inundated with crappy first draft novels in December, and it makes their lives more difficult during a month in which no one needs additional stress. This is an unfortunate consequence of NaNoWriMo, and I agree that folks who complete a first draft, from start to finish, in November have no business sending it to a publisher in December. Obviously, novels require more care and revision than such a schedule allows. Miller also highlights the troubling trend of amateur writers who only  write, instead of also being gluttonous readers. I don’t doubt that such people exist; I’m just glad I don’t know any of them (I know plenty of people who don’t read much, but none claim to be writers). How can you possibly be a good writer if you don’t read voraciously?

Despite the negatives, I have signed up for NaNoWriMo this year. Hear me out. Ever since fifth grade, when Ms. Jones taught my TAG class about free writing, I’ve been a fan of stream of consciousness expression. This is how I think of NaNoWriMo. It’s one big, month-long exercise in stream of consciousness writing. The NaNoWriMo folks fully encourage you to write crap because they know no one can start, finish, and revise a remotely decent novel in 30 days. Anyone who expects to produce anything but the most cursory of work during this exercise is wholly misguided. Or arrogantly stupid.

I intend to deviate slightly from the norm and write a collection of loosely related short stories. The organizers don’t consider this a rebellious act, but even if they did, they might also encourage it. These first drafts will certainly be horrible, but that’s how most stories start for me. I believe that ignoring that part of us that wants to play critic is essential to getting to the crustiness—the trouble—of what it means to be human, which is what all good literary fiction explores. I don’t care how crazy or indulgent or bad it is. I’m going to write it down if it gets me to that daily word count goal. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to pull out some nuggets worth exploring later. Maybe those nuggets will turn into real stories.

Perhaps my priorities are misplaced, but I find myself to be much more productive if I have a deadline. The fact that I will need to write 1,667 words per day to reach 50k in a month requires a significant commitment. For people like me, who write when time allows because we don’t have the luxury of writing whenever we want, this is an exciting motivator. Sure, NaNoWriMo isn’t really a deadline. I’m not losing a paycheck or getting a lower grade if I don’t succeed, but I think there’s something about declaring my intentions to other writers that makes it more concrete than just saying I’m going to write X amount of words daily in perpetuity. I do have a practice of writing every day, but that’s it; I haven’t put any other parameters on the commitment. This exercise will help me find my average, to which I can then make a realistic commitment in December and, with additional practice, maybe improve. Or not.

Also, there are other literary writers out there doing it, so there is support. I just checked the literary fiction forum and there are 20 threads with 418 posts. I know that’s minor compared to the 432 threads with 9,861 posts from the fantasy crowd, but it’s more than the chick lit forum (19 threads, 324 posts), and that’s got to account for something. So what if our numbers don’t approach those of the YA, fantasy, and sci-fi folks on the forums? I’ve never had a problem being the odd one out. Granted, I don’t know any of these people or their work, but I’ve become “buddies” with a few, and I’m looking forward to casually providing and receiving support.

What I’m getting at here is that you too, literary fiction writer, can have a positive experience with NaNoWriMo. It’s not a big deal. Just don’t be a snob about it, don’t worry about what anyone else thinks, and set some enjoyably unrealistic goals for yourself. Try it out. It’s only for a month. Then you can go back to whatever appropriate writing schedule you currently employ.

If you decide to do it, look up CoffeeShopWriter and add me as a buddy. I promise not to expect much of you. Thanks for reading.

Workshop Bliss

The Workshop

While I contemplate the pros and cons of getting an MFA, I want to learn as much as possible from the writers I admire most. John Dufresne is one of them. I first met John at the Sanibel Island Writers Conference (SIWC) in 2012. At that point, I hadn’t read any of his work. I showed up for his 7:30 a.m. writing practices each morning and just loved his style. Naturally, I immediately downloaded/ordered all of his work. If you haven’t read his stories, you’re in for a real treat. Same with his novels. Go to the library, Powell’s, or Amazon and order some of his books right now. You’ll thank me later.

One of his books is The Lie That Tells a Truth, which is a how-to for fiction writers. And it’s one of the best. For me, it ranks up there with The Art of Fiction (John Gardner). I devoured it when I returned from Sanibel, and decided that I would find out if he was planning to do any other conferences or workshops. I got on his mailing list and found out about his conference in Sante Fe, which I couldn’t attend, and the one in Seaside, Florida, at the Seaside Institute’s Academic Village (SIAV). Because I’m a Floridian, this was a much more feasible option.

For my first workshop this past February, I was an observer; I did not bring a story. Before you ask why, I’ll just tell you: because I was chicken shit. There are a lot of reasons, and I’ll probably write about them in the future. Not now. The important thing is that I just overcame that fear and decided to submit a story this time. John and Kim made that easy, because they really want all participants to have a rewarding experience.

I learned so much from both of them and from my peers. John’s one of those guys who is not pretentious or pedantic. While he’ll educate you on the repeat offenses (um…em vs. en dash, anyone?), he doesn’t get lost in the minutiae. John believes in his students. If you are fortunate enough to have him as a teacher—either in the MFA program at FIU or through the workshops he conducts outside of school—you will definitely learn skills that will help your fiction. And it’s just fun to be around someone who is such a good storyteller. And funny. I am going to take my time revising, but I think my story will become better, thanks to the input I received in workshop and during our one-on-one discussion.

The Accommodations

The Village is a great place to take a class or participate in a workshop. They have four basic room configurations in seven cottages (enough for 12-18 people). Six of them have front porches and two are complete tiny houses with kitchens. These cottages were specifically designed to be sufficient, comfortable accommodations without also being distracting. The walls are white, with no artwork or beach themed knickknacks, and there is no TV or radio. They do, however, provide wi-fi, which I found a little slower than what I have at home, but better than what I am used to at most hotels. Here is the bedroom (full bed) I had in February:


I didn’t take a picture of the bedroom last week, but you get the idea. Here’s the desk, which was the same both visits:


While I sat at that desk, scribbling away, this was my view, which became the wallpaper for my iPad (it reminds me of what I should be doing, but in a friendly way):


There are more pics at the Institute’s site, if you’re interested. The classroom is in a building right behind the cottages, so there’s no commute to the workshop. There’s also a great communal area with plenty of tables, chairs, and umbrellas.

Also, it’s in Seaside. You don’t have to get in a car the entire time you’re there if you don’t want to. Everything you need is within walking distance. Including the coffee shop, Amavida, which has seating inside and out:



As you can see from the menu board, they have some great food options. I didn’t sample anything myself, so I can’t offer a review of the food. But my latte was hot and coffee was not bitter.


Of course, sometimes I just didn’t want to have to go anywhere first thing in the morning, before workshop. That’s where the Aero Press and pre-ground coffee came in. They don’t provide a pot at the SIAV, so I had to bring my own works:



While swilling that morning coffee, I took walks. Nice, tranquil sunrise walks. I know some folks plunk themselves right in their desk chair first thing, but I prefer to walk while the world wakes up. And not on the beach; everyone’s at the beach for sunrise and sunset. I do love the Gulf, but I prefer the solitude of walking through the neighborhood.



The Next Step

Revision. Isn’t it always revision? I’ll be working on that story we workshopped for a bit before starting the next project. Perhaps I’ll use it as a jumping off point for the NaNoWriMo? The idea of writing a novel is so absolutely absurd for someone like me, in the nascent stages of this fiction thing, that I might just do it.

What About You?

What was the last workshop you attended? Was it what you expected? Can you recommend it? Please share in the comments below. And, if literary fiction is your thing, you might want to consider joining us for the next workshop at Seaside, tentatively planned for February 2015. I’ll definitely be there, eager to improve the next story, hang out with some great writers and teachers, and enjoy a few days at the Gulf. I’ll update this site with information as the details are finalized.




My Coffee Shop Soundtrack

Do you prefer noisy, cacophonous places, or do you prefer the whispery quiet we remember from libraries of our youth (libraries are much louder places now than they used to be)? Do you take comfort in the sounds of the kitchen – the clinking water glasses, the scrape of porcelain cup on saucer? That rushing gurgle of the espresso machine or the frothing of milk? Do you prefer white noise in general when you concentrate on something? Or do you find the dialogue of other patrons too distracting?

Eavesdropping is one of the great advantages to coffee shop writing. Transcribing other people’s conversations is a great way to practice dialogue. But that’s something I only do occasionally. Most of the time, I need to block out the conversations going on around me to stay on task. This is especially true if there’s an annoying conversation nearby, in which every other word is “like” used for emphasis or as punctuation. Also, if I’m at the shop in the afternoon, when it’s full of college students having the kinds of conversations and arguments I had a long time ago (e.g., the shameful tendency for people who are not musicians to refer to Led Zeppelin as a heavy metal band, etc.). I don’t find these conversations annoying at all – they’re often quite interesting. If I have oodles of time, I’ll listen in. But I don’t usually have much time. And I’m there to write.

What about the music? While some places offer a variety of sounds, I often find that I either don’t like the music they play, or I do like it and, therefore, find it distracting. I’ll drift away from whatever piece I’m working on and start paying attention to the music instead. This is especially true for music with singing – the lyrics pull me out of my story and into someone else’s.

Even if I’m not distracted by lyrics or conversations, the general sounds of the shop or instrumental music might still affect my mood. In such cases, I tailor my soundtrack to the story I’m writing. If I’m writing a scene happening in a quiet room, I don’t want booming thunder for a soundtrack. If I’m writing a scene with two characters having a heated conversation in a car at night, that thunder might be perfectly appropriate (not to mention trite). I control the mood of ambience by listening to one of those white noise apps. I’m cheap, so I use the free one. For years, I used Sleep Machine. Here are some of my favorite general combinations:

“Jury Duty”: morning birds, fish tank, spaceship
“Dusk”: frogs, stream, crickets
“Sunny Day”: beach (small waves), wind chimes, white noise 4
“@Office”: clock (really faint), low fan, white noise 4
“Summer Afternoon”: rain (heavy), distant train, rain & thunder

Because you can listen to three different tracks at the same time, there are lots of possibilities. If you’re writing a scene in a doctor’s office, you can use the fish tank sound with the waiting room sound or fan. You get it.

Unfortunately, I now need a new app. I just got a new phone and Sleep Machine isn’t available on this iOS. I will probably just download the top three cheapest apps and decide which to keep based on the UI. Unless someone has a favorite they would like to share.

Do you employ such measures, or do you find it easier to write with the ambience of the shop? Do you find this different from the noise your brain has to contend with at home? If you do use an app, which one? What’s your favorite individual sound or combination of sounds? Do you stay with a standard, or do you use sounds tailored to the scenes you’re writing? Please share and thanks for reading.

Why start a blog called “Coffee Shop Writer”?

I am grateful that I work at home. But I spend an inordinate amount of time there. If I don’t get out into the world for a few hours a week, I’ll lose my…you know (I’m trying to stop cursing so much). I also won’t get much writing done. I have a family, so when I’m not working, there are just too many other things I can do at the house – out of guilt, boredom, or laziness – instead of writing. The only time I can really, productively write at home is at night, when the house is quiet; but that’s also my only opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation.

I know writers who can sit down for 10-15 minutes at a time and knock out a few pages. I’m just not that good. I do write every day, no matter what, but I am most productive when I have big blocks of time. I just need some time alone to really concentrate, unencumbered by obligations. It’s nice to have a place that, in the context of my little universe, is mine separate from my family, colleagues, and friends. A place where I can ignore my phone and e-mail, and revel in my favorite thing. So I go to a local coffee shop once or twice a week. It’s my salvation.

Usually, I go to the shop every Saturday or Sunday between 8-9 a.m. and stay until noon or 1 p.m. I can usually manage one other day during the week, depending on my workload. I like to get there before the crowds start streaming in – primarily to secure my favorite table, and to have a couple of minutes to visit with the staff while I unpack and decide what to order. Once I sit down, I know I have a few precious hours to get something done. So I just get started. It’s very Pavlovian – my brain just knows it’s time to work. Sitting down at my desk at home just doesn’t have the same effect. Perhaps that’s because I don’t have a dedicated office space at home. I have an office area in my bedroom, but I I use it to do all my professional and personal computer work. The only thing I do at that table in the coffee shop is write.

Regarding the blog title, I prefer the word “shops” to “cafés” because I do not live in Europe and I don’t want to sound like a pretentious ass. In my city, we have coffee shops. Some of them serve food, some don’t, and some, strictly speaking, are really tea shops. But none of them are cafés.

Do you do most of your writing at home, or do you prefer to get out? Do you go to coffee shops? Or do you frequent your local library, a park, or some other place? If you feel like sharing, please leave a comment below. Thanks for reading.


Hi. Welcome to Coffee Shop Writer. If you’re like me, you may work at home and spend a lot of time alone, in your own head. Perhaps you’re a professional writer, working independently as a freelancer, or maybe you’re someone who writes in snatches of time, around your commitments to other work and responsibilities. Whatever your situation, the important thing is that you’re a writer. That means we have at least one thing in common.

Coffee Shop Writer is for all of us who would like to be members of a wider community without all the complications and obligations often associated with personal acquaintance. Let’s discuss whatever comes to mind. Also, let’s share information about our favorite shops in our respective cities. We might also discuss crafty things like structure and plot, share character ideas, and even explain how we find the time to write at all. There will be room for reviews ranging from the technical to our experiences at conferences and retreats. Eventually, I’d like to create an online journal for literary short story writers.

I hope you find something here that will inform, comfort, entertain, or engage you. Please keep in touch.


The Coffee Shop Writer