What to do When You Can't Write at Coffee Shops

Conor Friedersdorf just posted a great, thoughtful piece on why telecommuters work more efficiently in coffee shops: there are some, but not too many, distractions; it doesn't feel like work if you're out of the office; you can't stay forever, so the time pressure subtly encourages productivity. How I wish I could count myself among these fortunate souls! But I can't. Whether due to genetic predisposition or some obsessive-compulsive disorder or an awful curse, I can only write (decently) when there is utter and absolute silence. For all the reasons Conor laid out, I wish this wasn't so. For some time, I longed to be a coffee-house writer, and worked diligently to become one. In my early freelance days, I tended bar with an aspiring screenwriter who'd been counseled by an actual, successful screenwriter to force himself to write in a noisy bar--because if you can train yourself to write with loud music and drunk people around, you can write anywhere.

That struck me, at the time, as a brilliant insight. We worked in a loud, cheesy college bar, and as bars go, the noise/commotion level doesn't get any higher than at cheesy college bars. So this briefly struck me an added advantage, a stroke of good fortune. Guess what? It didn't work. I mostly sat there like a moron with laptop and developed a pounding headache. The noise made it impossible to concentrate. So did the drunk people who stumbled up and asked, not unreasonably, what the hell I was doing. I stuck it out for an hour the first night. The second night, I lasted five minutes and quit. I don't recommend it.

Since then, I've had a fascination-bordering-on-mania with writers who go to the other extreme--who seek the purest silence they can find to hear their inner voice. Here's what I've learned about how to achieve it:

FOAM EARPLUGS. Buy some. They're cheap. They work great. They're disposable. I like them so much that I get tempted to use them in public settings where they would seem odd, like Atlantic editorial meetings coffee shops and buses. Let this Slate piece be your buyers' guide.

BOSE NOISE CANCELING HEADPHONES. I was late in discovering these. They're terrific, too. Also good for music. And conveniently available at any Mac store. I can no longer fly on an airplane without them. And they're an utterly ordinary accoutrement, so you can wear them places ear plugs might seem odd.

USE BOTH. I'm sure this is psychosomatic, but every once in a while, when I'm really having trouble writing, I'll use both at the same time. Bose headphones are the over-the-ear type, and do a nice job of hiding the ear plugs, so you won't look like a total psychopath.

MIMIC FAMOUS WRITERS. I used to think that doubling up like that was totally weird--and please, spare me your mockery--but then someone mentioned to me that Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace each had silence fixations when they wrote. Although this is only hearsay, so far as I know, part of the story as it was related to me was that Wallace would put in ear plugs, cover them with ear muffs, and wrap his head in a towel, then go out to his garage to write [Update: This is probably the source of the tale, which would make Franzen, not Wallace, the ear plug-and-ear-muff guy. Thanks to reader C.S.] Again: that is quite possibly apocryphal. But I have to admit, I've been tempted.
Update: For further, encouraging reading on this subject, I recommend the lede of this Jonathan Franzen profile just forwarded to me:

Some days, Jonathan Franzen wrote in the dark. He did so in a spartan studio on 125th Street in East Harlem, behind soundproof walls and a window of double-paned glass. The blinds were drawn. The lights were off. And Franzen, hunched over his keyboard in a scavenged swivel chair held together with duct tape, wore earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold. ''You can always find the 'home' keys on your computer,'' he says in an embarrassed whisper, explaining how he managed to type under such constraints. ''They have little raised bumps.''

For Franzen, this is the imagination's price, the arduous means by which he conjures a fictional world and reproduces it on the page. ''It's very, very hard to concentrate,'' he says. ''You have to hold your mind free of all the clichés.''

The days spent wrapped in a blindfold were bad enough. Most, however, were even worse. There were days that simply vanished, hundreds of hours lost to solitary hands of bridge, idle fiddling with power tools, gratuitous afternoon naps. There were evenings that disappeared as well, washed down with shots of vodka and followed by sleepless nights. There were flashes of inspiration succeeded by months of despair. There were false starts, wrong turns and page after page that had to be thrown away. ''Awful, awful,'' is how Franzen sums up a typical day from the last several years of his life.