Coffee Culture

I’ve developed a coffee house habit in the last few years, doing much of my writing surrounded by the cacophony of hissing espresso machines, moderately loud music, overheard conversations and the clink of glasses and dishes.

This new habit surprised me, because previously I’ve written early in the morning, starting about 5:00 AM, when the world is quiet and distractions minimal. My latest book, Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive was written mostly in the afternoons, at one of three or four coffee shops I rotated through.

Apparently I’m not alone. I did a quick look-around and survey at my current favorite local, Greenhorn in Vancouver’s West End (http://www.greenhorncafe.com). The other patrons were a:

  • high school teacher planning her next week’s coursework;
  • graduating law student looking for work in insurance-related law;
  • traveller searching for hotels on Hotels.com;
  • student finishing up a course paper;
  • tattoo artist colouring in sketches with pastel pencils;
  • real estate agent who uses the coffee shop to make phone calls and meet with clients; and
  • hipster pitching his design company to the production manager for a movie soon to begin filming in Vancouver.

What I find curious about the working-in-coffee-shop habit is that the gold standard of work environments is supposed to be a space without distractions. And yet, many of us find that noisy chaos enhances our focus and keeps us attentive to a single-minded task.

Perhaps what draws us into the chaos of a coffee shop is the creativity stimulator of influences mingling. Canadian writer Robertson Davies offered this explanation of creativity in a letter to a friend: “Where the stuff comes from, what happens to it, how the unconscious and the conscious must be allowed to kiss and conmingle, and then how the conscious has to do the editing.”

Relaxation of mind is a necessary precursor to connect the disparate thoughts that emerge to be linked into the best of ideas. Coffee shops are about connecting, and their random noise and chaos seem to facilitate Davies’ kissing and conmingling of ideas.

But then there’s that point where the conscious mind has to do the editing, requiring singularity of focus more than a meeting between the unconscious and conscious. Vancouver artist Douglas Coupland, who just had an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, posted a phrase expressing the conundrum: “Multitasking is a myth; we are all serial thinkers.

All the research on multitasking confirms that our brains really are most effective when doing a single thing at a time, with one exception: music. We can simultaneously listen to music and focus effectively because different regions of the brain process music and ideas.

Perhaps coffee shop ambience is more like music than ideas, rhythmic and melodic inputs that stimulate interaction and creativity.

I’ve had both moments in coffee houses, stuck at a writing block, relaxing into the ambience of coffee culture, suddenly hit by a solution that comes from that mystic place in the mind where ideas connect in unique patterns, and then returning to my writing with the right words flowing easily and single-mindedly.

Like now: pondering the ending of this piece, I look up and see a well-tattooed and pierced young man smoothly juggling red, yellow and blue balls outside the Greenhorn, the perfect metaphor for how coffee shops inspire both inspiration and focus, the two pillars of the writing life.