I write in coffee shops for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I can’t seem to get any work done at home. Inevitably, my dog will find me and drop his ball in my lap and want to play. He’s kind of like a toddler, except it’s legally okay for me to leave him alone in the house. So, I go to coffee shops.
I like writing in coffee shops for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I have become a regular at a couple of places in my hometown. Being a regular is like being famous, except instead of people taking your picture, they serve you coffee. Which I think is maybe better.
I like being a regular for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it gives me a chance to get to know the other regulars. We don’t always know each other by name, but we often know each other by drink, and that feels like an essential thing to know about each other in this coffee shop life. Maybe because it’s a detail, a tiny personal thing that says something about who we are. For example, I can’t offer any scientific or statistical analysis to back this up, but my experience says that people who like icy frappe-type drinks really are more chill in real life than those of us who tend toward lattes.
I suppose, then, I shouldn’t be surprised when random conversations pop up that allows us to drop into deeper levels of familiarity with one another.
Large Coffee To-Go has a kind face and some kind of military ball cap on. It looks like one of the ones my dad wears now that he’s retired. I can’t tell what unit Large Coffee To-Go served in because the lettering is too small, but there’s no mistaking that this guy was Army and proud of it. His mustache twitches a bit when he talks and his smile is kind of crooked when he asks, “You were sitting in that seat studying six months ago. Is studying all you ever do?”
I tell him no, but kind of yes because I’m writing a book. His face doesn’t change, he holds his smile, and he asks me what it’s about. I tell him that it’s about church life because I’m finding that’s the easiest thing to say, so that I don’t bore people with too many details too fast. Large Coffee To-Go never loses his smile and says, “Good for you! I think everybody’s got a book in them, but few people have the courage to write it. What’s your name?”
I tell him, and he says that he’s going to keep an eye out for my book. He says that he’s been a reader his whole life, that he started reading when he was three, and he gives me some absurd number of books that he’s read in his sixty-some years. And then he says he thinks the world needs more really good books.
“Let me ask you this,” I say to Large Coffee To-Go. “In your estimation, given all those books you’ve read, what makes a really great book?”
He leans on the back of the chair across of me and tells me, “You have to tell the truth. Even if it’s fiction, you have to ground it in some simple truth. And it has to be written simply. You can’t be long-winded. People can tell when you’re bullshitting.”
I tell him that I agree, and I thank him for answering my question. He says, “No, thank you. There aren’t enough readers and writers your age, and literate people rule the world.” He rises from the chair he was leaning on and walks toward the exit again. His hand on the door handle, he turns and winks at me, “Keep writing.”
Choosing a creative vocation isn’t easy. People don’t get it when you’re willing to give up a regular schedule and benefits and a 401k to sit in a coffee shop and write all the time. When people ask you what you do, they don’t always know how to respond when you tell them that you take photos or sculpt or paint or play guitar. And that’s okay, because I don’t think it means that they don’t respect the art of it all.
I think most people think like Large Coffee To-Go, actually. I think that most people respect the hell out of the art of it all, and I think most people are excited to talk to people who are spending their lives pouring out creatively. I think most people wish for the courage to publish a book, or show their paintings in a gallery, or sing on a stage and I think that talking to us about our creative vocations reminds them that are people out there who do. And I think most people genuinely want to know what it’s like to take a risk and live life with such exposed vulnerability.
If you are someone who writes or paints or sculpts or plays an instrument – keep doing it. Do it if it’s your vocation or not. Write if you can spend hours at a coffee shop or if you have to steal an hour from somewhere else if your day. Paint if you have a studio or if you have to spread out next to your kids at the kitchen table. Make music in your garage or at church or alone in your living room. Just do it. Do it for the art of it all. Do it because you have a truth to tell.
Do it for you, and do it for me, and do it for Large Coffee To-Go.