Today I am in Brixham, in the super-friendly Bay Coffee Company cafe on the quayside. Through the open door I can see the harbour and passers-by. It’s a glorious day, unexpectedly warm and blessed with spring sunshine.
I am here for the week, enjoying a Journey Through Womanhood residency. Today’s workshop is right here, in this cafe, a Woman at the Next Table session.
And while I wait for the participants to arrive, I thought I could share some suggestions for anyone wanting to write in cafes but unsure where to begin. Because that is a line I hear all the time – where do you begin?
I often begin with free-writing. Free-writing is when you let the writing flow, the words coming out as an uninterrupted stream. You don’t stop to gather your thoughts or search for the right word. You just write. My usual starting line is: How am I feeling today? This always works for me; I don’t have to imagine anything. I leap right in with emotions and what’s going on in my world.
If you find feelings difficult, you can begin by describing everything you can see, hear, smell in the cafe around you.
Often this free-write is enough for me. It’s writing purely for the joy of writing. I love the feel of my fingers flying across the keyboard on my iPad. The reassuring tap-tap-tap of the letters as the words come, effortlessly. No pressure, no anxiety.
But what if you want to produce something? Where do you begin with that?
My advice is simple: focus on the details and the story will come.
You are in a cafe, wanting to write. Looking up from your journal, you scan the other people in the room, looking for inspiration. Your gaze settles on a couple who are quietly disagreeing over something.
You might try to imagine what the disagreement is about. This is what my students usually do. They search for the story. This works, up to a point, but often they feel disappointed. They were hoping for something more interesting than what they’ve produced.
So I ask them this: out of all the people in the room, you were drawn to this couple. Why?
Decisions like this are not random! Something resonated in you. What was it?
Explore this and a story might emerge.
Alternatively, you can zoom in one detail about someone in the room. Something that piques your interest. The woman dressed completely in brown except for a pair of lime green ankle boots. The man wearing spectacles that are held together with sticky tape. The sleeping dog with the bandaged foot. The stressed-looking girl wiping the tables.
Explore that detail. Keep asking yourself why, why, why until something emerges. Every author I know uses this default method. We are eternally curious!
You don’t need to look at people to find inspiration. You can study the food or the drink. Get meditational with it! I have just enjoyed a tomato, mozzarella and spinach panini with pesto. I was aware of the stringiness of the cheese and the flouriness of the panini. The tang of the brown sauce I dipped it in. Again, to zoom in on a detail, I had been aware of a momentary feeling of guilt as I asked the serving girl for the sauce. Did I really need it? Was the pesto not enough? Why?
That’s a lovely personality reveal I could use with an imagined character. We are always told to ‘show don’t tell.’ This is a great example of something that could be slipped in to a description. A quirky little detail that actually reveals quite a lot.
Back in 2020, I wrote a poem in my local coffee shop. The pandemic delayed publication, but it is now out, in the Macmillan anthology Poems for Seven Year Olds.
Here it is:
In the Coffee Shop
Why does Mam drink coffee?
It always makes her sad
She stirs the coffee round and round
While she thinks of Dad
She told me they would meet here
Long before I came
Now Dad is living somewhere else
And Mam is not the same
‘Mam,’ I say, ‘Don’t worry
We will be okay
You and me together
I won’t go away’
She doesn’t even hear me
Mam is in a dream
She takes the spoon and eats the froth
Like it is ice cream
Then she drinks the coffee
But it makes her sigh
Like she doesn’t want it
So I wonder why
Why does Mam drink coffee
When it makes her sad?
It costs a lot of money
And it never brings back Dad
I remember how I began with the image of eating the froth with a teaspoon, something I always do with a cappuccino. And simply by focussing in on that one detail, the poem began to flow. Result!