There are two kinds of writers: writers who require a quiet, fuss-free environment to write and writers who can barely squeeze a word out if there isn’t a little background bustle to oil the inspiration process. I subscribe to the second camp and whilst, (somewhat bizarrely), I’m completely capable of writing non-fiction, blogs, journalism and academic material in complete, contemplative silence I can’t seem to incite my imagination for writing fiction in a quiet place. I spend hours and hours every week in the coffee shops of Belfast. I am the girl in the corner of Clements with one hand over my mouth, glaring furiously at the screen as I read aloud to myself and thump the keyboard so hard I burn out spacebars at a rate of one every two years. Sometimes I think I should affix a sign to my habitual table or inform the baristas, “serious writer at work. You will thank me when you can claim inspiration for my next Booker prize-winning novel. It’ll be just like JK Rowling and that Elephant place in Edinburgh.” I often wonder what the baristas of Belfast make of me; whether they can tell I’m a genius or assume me a strange friendless girl who can’t get enough of journaling.
Though it’s a little depressing to think about it, I’m probably investing the guts of £1,500 a year in our local coffee shops. It’s an enormous amount when you consider I could be making myself thousands of cups of Nescafe at home for the same price. Then again, if 500 plus cups of coffee, (and the occasional caramel square), is what it takes to create stories, it’s not that enormous an investment and cheaper/less harmful by far than the large amounts of whiskey and red wine some other writers seem to require in order to get words on to the page. It’s not the coffee which inspires me. It certainly isn’t the background music, (though Common Grounds I give you kudos for hitting the mark much more often than any other Belfast-based coffee shop). Neither is it the setting for most of our coffee shops are still variations on a Starbucks-dictated theme. It’s the hum of life which hangs in the air of a coffee shop, reminding me that I do not write from, or indeed into, a vacuum. I write out of relationship with others. I write in the hope of forging relationship with others through my stories. I can’t find myself inspired by a space which isn’t peopled.
I hear my parenting friends talk about coffee shops which are open to children and coffee shops which simply aren’t child-friendly. The same is true of writers. Most of the coffee shops around the student area are happy enough to let you linger for a couple of hours over a single Americano, pouring over a book or typing away with your headphones on. They’re used to students and possibly keen to cultivate a laidback, intellectual atmosphere. Coffee and books have always sat snugly together like the beginning of a really great idea and most good coffee shops in proper cities will acknowledge this in both their attitude and layout: comfy chairs, decent-sized mugs, a low-level soundtrack, ill-inclined to bust out anything heavier than Elliott Smith. Outside the city centre and, I have to admit I’m specifically thinking Belmont as it’s my neighbourhood, there are some lovely coffee shops. There are even some places which brew pretty decent coffee. Indeed the quality of scone in the outer East is actually superior to those offered in inner city coffee shops. However, I just don’t feel welcome as a writer in any of these coffee shops.
I fully understand that small businesses need to make money and this means turning over tables as quickly as possible. A scruffy girl in a parka who comes in every morning and spends two hours stretching out her single Americano probably isn’t their ideal customer. Judging by what I’ve seen in the last few months they’re ideal customers are newly-retired, minted ladies in Marks and Spencer’s cut offs who take thirty to forty minutes in pairs to down their cappucinos and raspberry white chocolate scones. None of them appear to be writing books or even reading books, (though I did see one lady working her way through the Women’s Realm this morning). I acknowledge that these ladies have more money to spend than me and also co-ordinate better with the sofas and scatter cushions.
However, there’s a lot to be said for loyalty. If I could find a writing spot in a corner of one of the four to five coffee shops within a quarter mile of my front door and the coffee was decent and they didn’t play Cool FM I would buy a coffee there five nights out of seven, (I really would). This would equate to (Belmont Road prices), £11 per week, much more than a Woman’s Realm reading, scone and frothy coffee buying, once a week customer. I would also say nice things in person and on social media about good service, (I’m thinking the opposite to having my half-drunk Americano whisked away from me after forty minutes), good coffee and good service; staff who actually get to know their customers and instigate an ongoing conversation, (full marks Black Bear, Clements on Botanic, Common Grounds, Ground in Waterstones and the lovely, lovely people in the Urban Grind directly behind the Ulster Hall’s stage door). It would be nice to feel like I belong in one of my own neighbourhood’s coffee shops. Perhaps, one of these days, someone will open a writer-friendly spot in the East. I’d have a loyalty card within seconds. In the mean time I will continue to walk, (3.5 miles each way), or drive in my car, (carbon footprinting my way down the Holywood Road and across the Albert Bridge), to one of those nice coffee shops on the other side of town where inspiration comes easy and the baristas don’t linger like ticking time bombs over your shoulder and stories get written in their own sweet, caffeine-lubricated time.