A quarter-century writing in cafes

cafe(友光軒) by voo34oov (CC BY 2.0)

I’ve spent twenty-five years writing in cafes. For a quarter of a century I’ve attempted to produce passable fiction within the thin caffeinated air of Bay Area coffeehouses. I’ve endured countless hours of crummy music blasted overhead by baristas with something to prove—coexisted with hundreds of cafe patrons as neighbors, each with differing notions of privacy and personal space—suffered wobbly cafe tables and seats as hard as steel—and consumed gallons upon gallons of coffee, steamed soy milk, and espresso shots—all in the name of writing books someone might want to read.

My first foray into the writers’ cafe subculture came in the mid-1990s with the purchase of a Fujitsu laptop computer. This machine freed me from writing on a desktop PC-compatible occupying an entire corner of my bedroom. This freedom gave me a way to find a neutral place to get writing done—a place neither the home nor the office.

Cafes back then were largely for drinking coffee and reading. Writing, when it was done at a cafe, was performed with pen and paper. The parallel advents of cheap personal notebooks and wireless Internet rewrote the cafe landscape in America, morphing the coffeehouse from a casual light-fare experience to a pseudo-shared office for the creative class.

Any writer will tell you, finding a good writing cafe is a cherished gift best kept close to the chest. Every move of address I’ve made since I started writing were always followed by long days of stumbling from one neighborhood cafe to another in search of the right one—the mother lode, the comfortable and welcoming writer’s cafe. Even when traveling abroad I make a point of finding a local cafe for writing. As such, I’ve written in so many bad cafes I cannot begin to categorize them—but I’ll try.

Where to begin? There are the noisy, crowded cafes, the cafes where the baristas play Dave Matthews so loud I cannot hear my own music, even when I pressed my headphones tight against my ears with my palms. There are the cafes I can never find a seat and must ask to share a table. Most creative types seem to find this burden distasteful and will invent an invisible friend joining them shortly, so, sorry, you’ll need to sit elsewhere.

There are the overpriced cafes. There are the cafes with rock-hard high stools seemingly designed by 1970s MacDonald’s interior decorators to get customers out the door within ten minutes of buying food. There are the cafes that are too hot, even in the winter. Here in San Francisco the opposite is largely the case, the cafes where the owner props the door wide open no matter how cold it is outside, allowing stiff breezes to charge inside at sporadic moments.

Clocking in years of cafe time taught me not to explain to anyone sniffing around that I’m writing a novel. Doing so only elicits all manner of unproductive responses, from snarky to nosy to rude. More than once I’ve had to pry myself away from a chatty cafe patron who, delighted at my endeavor, felt compelled to describe to me all their book ideas. (Sometimes they offered to let me write their book—”We’ll split the profits fifty-fifty.”) Once, in an otherwise wonderful cafe in Campbell, a regular got his tenterhooks so deep into my work I would find him crouched behind my chair peering over my shoulders to watch me write.

I’ve seen tip jars stuffed full of bills ripped from counters and the thief racing out the door with coins clanging across the floor in their wake. I’ve seen notebook computers swiped off tables and likewise run out the door. I’ve written in cafes decorated like giant doll houses, cafes decorated like discount clothing stores, and cafes so meticulously decorated I felt I’d entered a movie set. I’ve seen a darkened cafe in San Francisco arranged like a ziggurat with staggered levels of cafe patrons facing you as you enter, every one of them typing furiously on MacBooks. The uniform rows of the backlit Apple logo could only remind me of the 1984 Super Bowl commercial.

There are cafes that cap their electrical outlets to force laptop owners to run on battery power only. There are cafes that purchase exotic WiFi systems that only give you so much time online before you must buy another drink or pastry. Some cafes are too-brightly lit, making one snow-blind in the evening hours, and some cafes are so dim you cannot see your hands on the keyboard. There are the cafes that close early, limiting prime evening-hour writing spurts, and there are the cafes that aren’t open weekends for mysterious reasons.

I’ve been in cafes where the owner would assure me I could pay anytime before leaving—and then grouse I never paid for the first coffee when I returned to the counter for a refill. I’ve been in cafes where the owner relentlessly pushed their food on me. I’ve been in cafes with owners who grumbled under their breath about people not buying enough coffee or staying too long.

The Slate.com feature “My coffeehouse nightmare” is a prime example of this type of owner, one who served his coffee “on silver trays with a glass of water and a little chocolate cookie,” hired a Le Bernadin baker to produce specialty croissants, and thought the fast-track to coffeehouse profits was pulling Vienna roast espresso shots instead of Italian. In six months, his cafe was out of business. “The average coffee-to-stay customer nursed his mocha (i.e., his $5 ticket) for upward of 30 minutes. Don’t get me started on people with laptops.” By which, of course, he means people like me.

Cafes hold a unique position in American culture. They straddle commercial and social divides. As a cafe patron, you are engaging in commerce with the owner and her staff. On the other hand, you share a quiet, almost intimate, personal space with other patrons, perfect strangers often seated less than a foot away. Unlike a movie theater, where all are sharing a common experience, cafes are a collection of private moments (reading a book, engaging in conversation, outlining a novel) hosted within a shared public situation. At the risk of romanticizing it, successful cafes are places where both halves are well-balanced. Failure, I’ve always found, is where such balances are missing.

My personal code of cafe ethics? Always buy something. Don’t bring in outside food or drink. Tidy up the table before leaving. Don’t hog the electrical outlet. Voices down and cell phone calls outside. Please and thank you carry a lot of water in any situation, social or commercial.

What cafe do I recommend for writing? The one I’m sitting in right now. And, no, I’m not telling you its name.

What happened to Longform.org?

Longform.orgWay back in 2008, Michael Agger wrote for Slate “How we read online”, a State of the Union on the dreadful shape of Web journalism. Agger’s piece enumerated the accepted practices of online writing that had been pounded into place by the invisible fist of SEO Darwinism: short paragraphs, quick sentences, lots of boldface to anchor attention, and plenty of bullet lists to attract eyeballs. Add a dash of in-the-know sarcasm and a pinch of holier-than-thou smarm, bake until bubbly hot, and you had Internet journalism circa 2008. Nothing mindblowing in Agger’s piece, nothing particularly damning either, just an observer stopping for a deep breath, looking backwards to 1997 (or so), and uttering, “This is where we’ve arrived after ten years?” If you enjoy reading, Agger’s article was a discouraging summary of your options online.

Hence my excitement in 2012 when I discovered Longform.org, an aggregator site of digital long-form journalism reliably curated by the University of Pittsburgh’s writing program. The site updates daily with links to long essays published around the Web. A concise capsule summary accompanying each link provides just enough context to know if a story is your bag of oats. It’s a bit damning of our culture that 2,000 words counts as “long-form” when not so long ago Time or Newsweek would have categorized it as a filler article, but so be it: in 2012, Longform curated the Web I wanted to experience.

Longform’s bread-and-butter essays were willing to breathe and go in-depth, allowing the author time to wander a bit off the path and stretch out to take in the long view. They were the kind of articles that made you leave the browser tab open so you could come back to them later—the kind of material you would share with friends when you met them in the real world, not merely the clickbait you dumped into your Facebook feed to further burnish your online persona.

Some examples of great work Longform introduced me to includes “Cigarettes and Alcohol: Andy Capp” from PlanetSlade, James Surowiecki’s “A Brief History of Money” from IEEE’s Spectrum, and the Wikipedia article on the Tamam Shud mystery, easily the strangest true crime story you’ll ever read. (Longform’s capsule: “An unidentified body found near the beach in Australia in 1948. An unclaimed suitcase. A coded note.”)

I could name a dozen more great articles Longform introduced me to, but these three form a snapshot of the Internet they were curating in 2012. In toto, Longform’s recommendations acted as a collective refutation of Michael Agger’s 2008 pronouncement: The Web doesn’t have to be written in smarmy bulleted shorthand. Longform proved people were ready to read substantial work online. (The years 2011–2012 may go down as the tipping point for the general acceptance of electronic-only written long work, not just long-form journalism, but also ebooks and the legitimization of short story and poetry web sites.)

The above snapshot of recommendations also points to something even more exciting about Longform’s aesthetics, namely their openness to a wide variety of sources. All comers were welcome under the Longform umbrella (or inside the Longform lighthouse, in deference to their logo). PlanetSlade is journalist Paul Slade’s personal web site, a kind of blog of essays he’s been unable to place with magazines, digital or otherwise. Spectrum is the mouthpiece of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, hardly a purveyor of mainstream journalism. Everyone knows Wikipedia, but for Longform to pick one of its entries as a worthy read for the serious-casual reader is, I think, their boldest statement yet.

Today, nearing the end of 2014, Longform is going stronger than ever. They’ve ramped up their staff (sixteen editors, interns, and support staff according to their About page), offer a slick iPhone/iPad app with social media features, produce a podcast, and have promised lots more to come. If Longform is a weather vane, long-form journalism on the Internet should continue to enjoy sunshine and blue skies.

So why do I feel like a plaid-wearing hipster complaining he just heard his favorite college-radio band on a Top 40 station? I’ve not seen Longform make anything close to a bold statement in over a year. What happened to Longform?

Longform’s recommendations for personal blog posts or independent ezines seem far-off memories. Oddities like Spectrum are now rarities. Lately, Longform’s daily march of fresh links are a bland cavalcade of sturdy name brands: GQ, The Baffler, The Atlantic, Businessweek, and Grantland, just to name what I see on their home page as of this moment. There’s a couple of odd ducks in there (The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eurogamer), but they are dying echoes of what Longform once was and would like to pretend it remains.

Longform’s saving grace is their fiction recommendations, a nice touch that keeps the flame alive for those of us not regularly producing non-fiction. But like its nonfiction staples, Longform appears to have its favorites—I’m looking at you, Collagist and Atticus Review.

The homogenization of Longform’s picks is the most discouraging aspect of this shift. Today’s Longform is less varied and less quirky than the past, now more topical and aligned to the 24-hour news cycle of crisis-mode journalism. Longform’s greatest asset in 2012 was the element of surprise tinged with humor. You simply don’t read articles about Andy Capp or killer truck drivers very often. Longform put a much-needed spotlight on these great unusual stories and their writers. It seemed to revel in finding that story you never would have heard about. Today’s Longform links to that dialogue between Frank Rich and Chris Rock, but let’s not fool ourselves: You were bound to hear about it anyway.

It’s not that Longform should banish mainstream journalism from their daily feed. There’s a place for big-name journalism, but considering those organizations’ resources, I would raise the bar on them to make room for other voices to enter the conversation. For example, Grantland‘s piece on Don King is astonishingly human and one of the best reads of last year. It remains a singularity in Grantland‘s publishing history (which is largely NBA trade analyses and movie retrospectives). Grantland attempted to surpass it in November with a tepid, torpid piece on sumo wrestling best remembered as a technical demonstration of HTML 5’s feature set, but Longform featured it anyway.

I keep returning to the word curation. A trendy term and overused at the end of 2014, but if there’s ever a Web site it applies to, it’s Longform. Digital curation is what Longform provides; curation is how it should be judged.

Here’s what I mean by curation. The Louvre is the most exhausting museum I’ve ever visited, a leafblower of art and artifacts aimed straight at your visual cortex. Yet the smaller, more modest British Museum is the better experience. Why? At the British Museum, traveling from room to room feels like thumbing through a pocket-sized guide of Western history. Empty space and shadows counterpoint masterpieces. When a room is busy with artwork, it’s busy like a rural British garden, that is, rigorously cultivated to appear untended. The British Museum’s success is the result of considered decisions, the curators picking and choosing with care from all the cultural riches available to them. The assembled pieces form a cogent experience, and so what’s left out is as vital as what’s included.

Yesterday, Longform’s curators offered to their audience an article with the Upworthy-esque title “This Doomed Alaskan Village Shows Just How Unprepared We are for Climate Change”. This is the straw that broke my back. I haven’t read the piece so I can’t comment on its quality, but everything I’ve come to dread about Longform is encapsulated in this recommendation. The breathless headline—juicy and primed for sharing on Facebook—tells me this is not the long view but urgency reportage, the journalistic equivalent of grabbing someone by the lapels and shaking them demanding Don’t you care? And it’s Longform pushing another politically-charged piece in a time when we’re subjected to non-stop political cattle-prodding from all sides. It may be a beautiful story, it may be an important story, but as a piece of an assembled whole that’s rapidly losing my attention, maybe it’s time for me to find a new curator.