The Quest for the Perfect Writing Location
April 7, 2012
I imagine most writers have a preferred place to write. A comfortable spot where they can pour their words onto the page with few distractions. A place that stirs their muse. For many it may be home, or even the office during breaks and lunch. Or maybe it’s the proverbial secluded cabin in the woods. Then again, maybe you’re one of those writers who can work anywhere, anytime. Ya, well, good for you. But for me, it’s the cosy Grand Cafe in downtown Cambridge, Ontario.
I’ve tried working at home, but it didn’t work out too well. On my page For the Birds you can read about one of my home writing misadventures. But that strange episode aside, there are simply too many distractions like food, TV, books, even this blog, that draw my attention away from writing.
I thought maybe building an office in the basement would work. But, hey, it’s in the basement with no windows or natural light. I didn’t retire only to spend my days down in a basement. So I considered commandeering my oldest son’s second floor bedroom. After all, he’s off at university most of the year so I figured, what the heck, he’s not using it so why shouldn’t I? But when he comes home for visits (which we encourage) he expects to find his room as he left it. Who am I to deny him that? So I decided it was time to find a quiet, comfortable and distraction-free spot where I could write, outside the home.
At first, our public library fit the bill. Its location downtown on picturesque Queens Square was a pleasant walk from my home. Inside it was quiet, with lots of secluded tables scattered about on which to work. Plus there was plenty of natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows. It was ideal. That is, until the construction started; a noisy 8-month renovation. Needless to say, that forced me to look for new digs.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to go far. Right across the Square was an alternate library. The University of Waterloo School of Architecture occupies a renovated, red-brick, heritage building that overlooks the Grand River where it flows lazily through town. The school’s upper floor library offers a panoramic view of the river and our famous Main Street bridge, its twin arching supports a lure for photo bugs and film crews alike. In the school’s library I was able to find a secluded desk amongst the stacks, by a window with a view, where I could write to my heart’s content for hours, in peace and quiet. Or at least as long as there were no students around. But that’s a lot to ask of a school.
You see, when a room is that quiet, even an iPod at low volume sounds loud. Without some white noise to drown out the earbud leakage, you can hear every leftover scream, wail, moan, thump or screech that isn’t permanently damaging the wearer’s hearing. And cell phones. Don’t get me wrong, I admire young people. I have great respect for them. They have every right to remain connected to their wired community. But for some reason all that quiet bleeping, blooping, clicking and tapping has the same effect on me as the sound of a tap dripping in the night. It’s all I can hear. So, while I might resort to the School of Architecture library in a pinch, I can’t rely on it for undisturbed work. So, iPad in hand, I set out once again to find another writing spot.
That’s when I discovered the delightful Grand Cafe. Or, rather, re-discovered it. You see, over the years, whenever my wife and I end up downtown, we usually stop in there for a cup of coffee or tea. But I’ve always seen it as just that… a convenient place to get a freshly-brewed cup of Seattle’s Best. I’ve never thought of it as a place to write.
In hindsight, I don’t know why I didn’t see it sooner. I mean, all the signs were there. The old guy sitting alone at the table by the window tapping away on his netbook. The sports writer in the corner pounding out next week’s article on his MacBook Pro. The student working on her résumé. People sitting alone or together reading newspapers, magazines or books. Hushed discussions about local culture and the arts. I mean, really, what more could a writer ask for than a cozy, convenient place absolutely awash in words?
That’s how I came to adopt the Grand Cafe as my new writing refuge. Hey, I figure that if a coffee shop was good enough for J. K. Rowling, then why not me? Besides, the Grand Cafe is a focal point for most downtown activities. When architecture students are out taking photos for their upcoming projects, they usually end up in the Grand Cafe. If Murdoch Mysteries or Nikita are filming new episodes in Cambridge’s vintage town setting, the crew and cast will find their way into the Grand Cafe. It is the hub of the town’s social comings and goings. And it has turned out to be perfectly suited to my writing needs. With its steady din of activity, it creates its own white noise. Nothing stands out. Just a background of muted commotion, plus the soothing aroma of fresh coffee brewing. Perfect.
I have found that getting there early, sometimes before the sun rises, works best for me. That’s when my brain is rested and full of ideas. And there is usually only a small handful of customers inside. Over the months it has come to feel familiar, comfortable, like an old shoe. Like walking into Cheers, except that nobody knows my name.
It’s always the same routine. I will walk in and be greeted cheerily from behind the counter by at least one of the three girls who staff the place. Mr. Giggles, seated at the table next to the door, will grin broadly and greet me like we’re old friends. We really don’t know each other. But, according to him, he was once a snarky old grouch who suffered a stroke a few years back and now can’t stop giggling and being friendly (think Uncle Albert from Mary Poppins.) He’s innocent enough, though.
I’ll have to place my order twice because, even though all of the girls have served me dozens of times, my order of a “large medium-roast in an extra large cup” (for extra milk) always seems to throw them. Two of the girls will pour the correct amount. The third girl, the short blonde, will stiff me as if the stuff is liquid gold, and I’ll have to ask her for a bit more, like some kind of grey-haired Oliver Twist.
I will carry my coffee to the adjoining room, a quiet area away from the cash register, it’s walls lined with original photos or paintings by local artists. Every six weeks or so they change the display. As I enter I’ll be greeted by my wife’s hairdresser, Michael, who sits and chats over coffee with two other old guys. The old guys will talk about sports and politics and the weather. Michael will talk about travel destinations, the European debt crisis, and the latest news concerning the arts. I don’t think any of them is actually listening to what the others are saying.
After topping my coffee with milk, I’ll plunk myself down at an available table by the window, or at one of the tall, black tables with stylish chrome stools. If I’m there early enough, the folk channel will still be playing quietly in the background. If not, I’ll have to endure the heavy rock channel… not loud, mind you, but not my cup of… er… coffee.
After slowly savouring my first sip I’ll look up to see if Paul is there, typing away at his MacBook Pro. He always sits facing the door so that he can see everyone who enters. Paul is a freelance sports writer, mostly cycling articles, but he’ll write about any sporting event. If he talks about anything (which he usually will if he makes eye contact with you), it will be about his son Conor. Conor is a one-time classmate of my youngest son, Jeffrey, back when they both attended grade school together. But Conor has foregone further education for an uncertain future as a blues guitarist. My wife and I saw him in concert once. He’s really good. I mean, he’s no Eric Clapton, but he’ll be a name someday. His dad, Paul, is his biggest fan, and also his manager.
Paul will go on about how he and Conor, and Conor’s bandmates, are heading to Memphis to compete in the National Blues Competition. He’ll talk about Conor having just finished recording his first CD, and of the upcoming release party. Will we be able to make it? In the course of a short conversation Paul will drop the names of just about every famous blues guitarist out there… some of whom I have heard of, most of whom I haven’t. You see, he knows them all and is on a first name basis with them.
After agreeing to try my best to attend the CD release party, I will return to my own work. Paul will now turn and have the same conversation with someone else. Meanwhile, I’ll flip open my iPad, check my emails, then relaunch my idling Index Card app and check over yesterday’s writing. Invariably, I’ll see something that needs tweaking, so I’ll tweak it. I’ll do this a few more times until the more obvious issues are fixed. Then I’ll think of something new and I’m off to the races. I’ll write as fast and prolifically as I can, letting the words flow onto the page as if with a mind of their own.
Sometimes, as I work, someone doctoring their coffee at the condiments counter next to my table will interrupt and ask me about that tiny computer I’m using. A brief chat will then ensue about their preferred laptop, and whether they do – or don’t – think the iPad is a practical device for writing. After they’ve finish preparing their coffee, they’ll wish me luck with my book, then find themselves a table or head out the door, and I’ll get back to my work.
An hour or so later, once the sun is fully up, or my cup is empty, or my coffee is cold, I’ll pack up and head out to let someone else have my spot. I’ll walk out into the sunny, fresh morning air, and take in the lovely sight of Queens Square at dawn, feeling awake and content that I have accomplished something. And it’s still early. It’s a glorious way to start the day.