Friday, August 6, 2010


Ernest Hemingway with Lady Duff Twysden, Hadle...Image via Wikipedia

Dear You—

Apart from the minor detail of keeping us authors alive – paradoxically, even starving artists have to eat and drink occasionally – I have recently been struck by the notion that the contribution of cafes and restaurants to the world of words has been much under-rated. True, we have been told that Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast was written in the cafes of Paris, and the estimable David Mamet wrote a book entitled Writing in Restaurants, but my general feeling is that the primary focus has tended to be on such eating houses' utility as places  in which to write – conveniently equipped with flat surfaces (an obsession of mine) - rather than their other invaluable contributions to the writing process. For instance, nothing beats a pavement café as a location for people-watching - with a little eavesdropping thrown in for good measure. 

Don’t profess to be shocked. Though staring, and listening to other people’s conversations, is generally considered to be bad manners, you have to understand that, where us authors are concerned, we have a special dispensation to behave in such a way when it is for artistic reasons. You must understand that observing the human condition – discretely, of course – is fundamental to the writing process. After all, where do you think us fiction writers get so many of our ideas – except by stealing them from reality; and, based on much of the non-fiction I have read,  I suspect the reverse is also true.

Personally, I rarely write in cafes and restaurants. Instead I read – always a good cover for people watching – and think and plot; and then scribble the odd note in my black Moleskine notebook; and then retreat to my garret to do the actual writing. That isn’t to say that I have any hang-up about writing in such locations – indeed, I have been known to – but more to stress that my preference is for watching the world go by, and letting my subconscious do the groundwork, before hitting the keyboard.

I must also confess that I’m not sure human progress is being much advanced when virtually every person in the café – as is often the case around here – is glued to a computer with never a laugh heard, a smile observed, or a witticism exchanged. True, all the café patrons could be e-mailing or Tweeting each other in a positive frenzy of computerized camaraderie, but I have my doubts about that. Instead I find all that silent, blank-faced connectivity, no matter how creative such people are being in their own private universes,  a depressing contrast to traditional café sociability – and more than a little creepy.

Farewell for the moment. Write soon. I miss your wit and your company.


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