Sunday, December 30, 2018


The people at Starbucks probably think I’m homeless, because I’m there at least once a day. Soon I will have to start paying rent.

This routine started out as my reading getaway. I would go there for an hour every morning, sit with my latte, and read on my phone. Once I’d grown accustomed to that, I switched from reading to writing. I used to struggle with horrible, often crippling anxiety, and this was one of its last strongholds. I was afraid to a) write every day and b) write in a coffee shop. Both of these fears were bizarre because a) I used to write every day, and b) I have known for several years now that I do my best writing at coffee shops.

At least part of my fear had to do with the fact that, with how tight my schedule is, I have to go straight from Starbucks to work, which means I need to bring my laptop to work with me, where it could get stolen, or stepped on, or, I don’t know, put in an oven or something. In the end, I decided that I had to just get over my fear, because NaNoWriMo was too important to risk not being able to write every day. (Now I’m so chill about it, I’m like, well, my laptop is going to have to be okay, because there is no way I am not going to write today.)

Starbucks is expensive, so you might be asking yourself why I go there so frequently, even just to read on my writing vacations. For a while, I tried to make Starbucks only a treat, a twice-weekly occurrence, but now I’ve been doing this writing routine for over two months, I understand why it’s important for me.

There are very good arguments for not limiting yourself to a routine, one of which being that you can train your brain to perform only under specific circumstances, which is suboptimal (one of my awesome coffee beans mentioned this to me, and I thought it was really cool). I say that that’s fair, but also that it doesn’t apply to me, or rather, without a routine, I don’t get as much writing done. 
It’s not a bad thing if you don’t have a schedule or if you don’t write every day; it’s just not for me. 

There’s nothing like going to the same place for an hour or two (at least) every day for the sole purpose of putting words on the screen. My brain knows what’s expected of it, so it (usually) performs. There are times when it’s a drag, and all I want to do is bash my head against my computer screen until the baristas kick me out. But one thing about going somewhere, for a set amount of time, to do a set thing, is that you tend to do the thing, even if you don’t want to. Or, at least, I do. There are times when I find myself with half an hour left before it’s time to head to work, and I don’t feel like writing more, but I tell myself to write anyway, because there’s not a whole lot else to do. I make sure to limit my available entertainment options when I’m at Starbucks for that reason. That practice is why posts like this exist.

So why Starbucks? Why not just establish an at-home writing routine? First of all, there are innumerable distractions at home. I could make food. I could eat food. I could wash dishes. I could go outside and play with the dogs. I could count the number of books I own. I could have an existential crisis. Etc. It’s not as bad at the new apartment, since we don’t have internet or reliable cell reception, and there’s something about the ambiance there that’s more conducive to concentration. So I do write there, but when I write at home, it’s spontaneous, incidental; it happens because I feel the words bubbling up inside me and need to let them out immediately.

With my routine, even working full time and allowing myself most evenings to read, I managed to write 121,121 words for NaNoWriMo. Most of that writing happened on my days off and in the two hour window I grabbed every morning before work. Pre-Starbucks, I struggled for three years to integrate some semblance of order into my writing habits, my closest thing to success being when I wrote at my old church, which was like writing at home, but with more distractions. Another victory is that I have a long-standing routine of going to a different café, actually a patisserie, and writing for several hours every Thursday, which for several months was the only writing I was getting done. It made for an excruciatingly slow pace, but it was also better than nothing, and it was the highlight of my week.

I think what it boils down to is this: writers love writing, but we also hate writing, and usually we will put a fair bit of energy into avoiding our work. If you are in an environment where distractions are possible, they will become probable. If you don’t go looking for them, they will come looking for you. But an environment that forbids distractions is, inherently, a game changer.

“But Liz,” I hear you saying, “there’s internet at Starbucks. Isn’t that a distraction?” Sometimes. It’s useful for Spotify, so I can have a wider music selection. And I’ll scroll through Twitter while I’m waiting on my latte or when I need a quick mental break. But I’m afraid I’ll look like a bum who spends all day on social media. I don’t generally advise worrying what other people will think about you, but in circumstances like this, if it helps me stay on the straight and narrow, I guess it works.

Maybe the dedication for my first book should be something like this:

to my vanity, without which this book would not exist 

I feel like that would go over well.

I completely understand if you’re reading this post and recoiling in horror because the thought of a Starbucks routine is as low on your list of appealing options as it could possibly be, right down there with “finding a dead body”. If you can’t get work done in an environment where people might read over your shoulder and sometimes old men get too chatty and the background noise can border on obnoxious, that’s okay.

I won’t lie. These were issues for me at first. (No one cares about your fake best friend, Sharon. The whole shop doesn’t need to hear about her implants.) This enterprise has been an exercise in stepping out of my comfort zone, across the board. I still have to block out the noise with my earbuds sometimes, but the background chatter does well to neutralize my tinnitus. I still write notes in my draft aimed at anyone who might be snooping, sweet nothings like, “This is a rough draft, don’t judge,” and “No one loves you,” and, “I will burn your house down.” I get squirrelly about the whole reading over my shoulder thing, because there are stages in my writing where I would show you my draft, but then I’d have to—well, you know. (I think it’s a testament to how confident I am with HIRAETH that I was rarely worried about that. Although there was that day when I was editing a fairly gory scene, and the chatty dude next to me clammed up real quick and moved to the next chair over. So I guess there are perks to this arrangement, after all.)

But there’s nothing like casually eavesdropping on people’s conversations (because when they’re talking that loud, you know they want to be heard), nothing like working alongside other people, learning the faces of regulars, getting to know the baristas by name and realizing they’re the closest thing you have to friends. *awkward laugh*

Now that I’ve established this routine, I don’t want to go back.

What about you, coffee beans? What are your writing routines? Do you like to write at coffee shops? Where do you prefer to write? What do you do to combat the whole reading over your shoulder thing?


  1. Ok, so first off all, I was super surprised to be mentioned! Thank you!

    I totally get what you're saying. Routines work for a lot of people. For some, a routine is what helps creativity flow. Something that is familiar and reliable is a good way to block out distractions and other worries. You already know what to expect from a routine, so you can do your thing without unexpected variables drawing you away. It's steady and knowable. I have another friend who prefers routines, even when it doesn't come to writing. Like, she prefers to eat the same things every day because then she doesn't have to worry about what she's going to eat and can focus on other things than lunch.

    Writing in coffee shops is amazing! I do agree about those odd loud conversations people have. XD And I used to be super paranoid about someone reading over my shoulder too. I still kinda am, but I'm more likely to tell them off than I used to be. Despite that, it really is less distracting to be a coffee shop than at home. Like you said, I can do anything while at home. When I'm writing, I tend to look up from my laptop to reflect on what needs to happen next or to figure out how character x is going to say y, etc. During these moments I'm still in writing mode, but my focus is more easily broken. When I'm at home, my gaze will land on something, and the focus will break with "Oh, I have to wash clothes" or "I should remember to do x." At a coffee shop, I don't have that. I'm not surrounded by my own life and clutter. The only distracting thing around is people whom I don't know and, not to be rude but, don't care about which makes them less of a distraction unless they address me.

    Really enjoyed reading this post!

  2. I really like to write at my favorite local bakery Sweet Hut, but I usually go when no one else is there to eliminate noise, but I go for the same reason you do which is to lessen distractions because at home I want to do all these other things and it's a nice change of scenery. Plus the food is amazing. I liked hearing your thoughts on this. ^ ^

  3. I would love to sit and write in a Starbucks for hours on end. Big comfy armchair, hot drink... *curses Australia's lack of Starbucks*

  4. Interesting post! I need a routine as well, and a reason to make myself STICK TO IT, otherwise, I also will get nothing done. I'm not in a good position to write at a coffee shop regularly right now, but I'd love to at least see if it works for me, when I do get the chance.