If you take your laptop into a coffee shop to get some work done, you’ll quickly notice that you’re not the only one. Lots of people do this: telecommuters, freelance writers, wannabe novelists, students…it’s not strange.
What is strange is this:
Yes indeed, in this blurry photo you can behold what I beheld in my favorite ocean view coffee shop at Nye Beach. A man in a hat hunches behind a desktop computer setup. Monitor, computer, keyboard, and mouse, all dragged to a coffee shop and set up at a table. I could see his screen in the large mirror behind him. He was a writer.
Of course I didn’t want to be caught staring, so after snapping that creeper photo I went back to my own business. I ordered peppermint tea and set up my laptop at my own table.
Then I just sat there for a minute.
What should I work on? I felt completely at loose ends. After almost two months of obsessively completing the second draft of my memoir, it was in the hands of my editor. So, now what?
I toyed with the idea of writing a blog post, but nothing interesting had happened to me lately. Here I was, though, at the ocean, where interesting people tend to mill around. Should I find a stranger to talk to?
The barista set my tea on the counter, and I slipped off my chair and walked over to pick it up. I’d already paid for the drink, so I might as well stay in the coffee shop for now and get some writing done. I could find a stranger to talk to later. So setting my tea down beside my computer, I opened a new Google doc and typed out the first words of a brand new book.
A novel, this time.
An upper-middle-aged woman with stickers all over her laptop walked into the shop and sat at the table next to me. The man in the hat emerged from behind his electronic fortress and began talking to her.
Maybe they ran in the same circles. Writers of Newport. I was intrigued by the concept, and plagued by the question of what kind of person would bring a desktop computer into a coffee shop? So I listened to their conversation, in a very obvious way, hoping to find an opportunity to join in. But it was not as interesting as I’d hoped. The man in the hat was waxing poetical about philosophy, and saying very little that made sense to me.
I went back to my novel.
“What are you working on?” The man in the hat was right behind me.
“Um…I’m working on a novel actually,” I said. “I just started today.”
Now, I realize those words did kind-of make me sound like an amateur. But he hadn’t asked me about my writing career in general, he’d asked what I was working on. Which was a novel. That I’d literally just started.
“Well here’s my advice,” he said. “Never rush your key scenes.”
Already he sounded a bit condescending, but I’d wanted to have a conversation with a stranger, hadn’t I? And maybe he’d have some good advice to offer. I pulled out a notebook and started taking notes.
He told me to never write more than 2,000 words a day. He told me that I can always change things later, so I should keep my flow. He said that I should write a full 1’st draft before I begin correcting it.
This advice session was peppered with references to his own, apparently extensive, body of work. “So how many novels have you written?” I asked.
“That depends on if you count the historical stuff or not,” he said with a little smile. “In some ways those books were like novels, but in other ways they were more like philosophy.”
Then he started giving me publishing advice. “Find an Indie publisher instead of going with CreateSpace,” he said. “Everyone knows that CreateSpace books are…well, that anyone can make a CreateSpace book. But even if you do get into bookstores, your book won’t stay there for long. Bookstores keep track of how many books are selling each month, so when they see that no one’s buying your book, they send them all back to you. Basically, you can expect a small run of books, and then no one will care about it anymore.”
Then he talked about writing for the love of writing instead of for the money. I can’t adequately re-create the way he spoke, because I wasn’t jotting down quotes. But there was something almost pompous about it. He reminded me of the kids at college that tried so hard to sound smart by using words like “ontological.”
“Of course,” he said at the end of his speech, “you may be the one rare genius who can actually make it.” There was only a hint of sarcasm in his voice, but it still grated.
“What’s your name?” I asked. “I’d like to look up your books.”
“I only have one series of books on Amazon,” he said. “Amazon is kind-of the enemy, you know?” But he told me the title, and watched over my shoulder as I typed it into the search bar.
Of course I misspelled it, which he pointed out with the same little condescending smile. But I think I must misspell things in a very common way, because Google always understands me, and I found his book with no problem. But he was still there, behind me, and he told me to click the “look inside” button, and click through all the pages until I got to his writing. Okay. We’re doing this thing.
And, not gonna lie, his book didn’t give the best first impression. He’d started by copying in parts of a classic novel that were public domain, and the formatting was atrocious. When I finally got to the parts that he had written, I saw a block of text with big words and no paragraph breaks. My eyes swam over it, trying to skim but struggling. Now what? Am I supposed to read it right here, right now?
There was an awkward pause. Then, “Just read it sometime and tell me what you think,” said the man. He sat down in the other seat at my table. “So, what are you writing?”
Finally! After basically being told I could never hope to be a successful writer, I had a chance to defend myself. But I didn’t know how to make my novel sound promising. I struggle with plots, so I’d chosen a very simple romantic comedy plot line, and made all the characters Mennonite.
I decided to gain credibility by playing the Mennonite card. “There aren’t really novels written about people like me,” I said. “The closest things we have are Amish novels written by people who have little-to-no Amish background. So my idea is to write a novel that’s purely a lighthearted, fun romance, to give Mennonites something enjoyable to read that’s about us and our culture.”
I guess the Mennonite card worked, because instead of the usual condescending smile, he gave a short philosophical monologue about Mennonites. Then he went back to his desktop computer to write more philosophy, and I returned to my novel, watching the waves lap the shore outside my window.
I spent maybe half an hour in this way, leisurely typing. And then…
“Can I read some of what you’ve written?”
It was the desktop computer guy again.
What do I say? I don’t usually let anyone read my first draft. “I don’t know, it’s pretty rough,” I said. “I mean, I just started typing. Very much a first draft.”
The little smile was back. “It’s okay if you don’t have much of a voice yet,” he said. “It takes a while to develop a strong voice. Maybe I could give you some pointers.”
“Okay, sure,” I said, opening up the Google doc. Because people can only make hurtful comments if you take them seriously. And I was beyond the point of taking him seriously.
He read the first page of my document, softly, out-loud, like I do when people show me memes on their phones. And since there’s little-to-no chance that the first half of the first page will actually end up in the novel, I’m going to copy it here for context:
At some point in life, we all eventually come to the conclusion that what we thought was normal was not, in fact, what everybody else did. At this juncture, you have two options: you can choose to believe that you are weird, or conversely, you can choose to believe that everyone else on the planet is weird, and you, you are still the normal one.
It’s alarming how many people choose the latter.
The odd thing is, I didn’t even know how many people out there operated this way until I came to Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute for fourth term. I didn’t realize how many people think that being Mennonite is normal, and not being Mennonite is weird. That just never crossed my mind.
Maybe it’s inevitable when you grow up in Oregon. You will always be a minority, and if you’re a minority, you just have to deal. It’s really hard to pretend you’re not. It’s really hard to pretend that you’re the normal one.
“But you don’t understand,” Kate told me. “A lot of these kids come from Lancaster County. If you live in Lancaster County and you don’t want to ever talk to people who aren’t Mennonite, you don’t have to. We’ve got Mennonite grocery stores…Mennonite gas stations….”
“Hold up,” I said. “Mennonite gas stations? Really?”
That’s how I happened to began it–with a partially formed idea that didn’t fully make sense. I mean, not everyone in Lancaster thinks it’s “normal” to be Mennonite. Probably not even most people.
But ironically, it was that very thing that made desktop-computer-guy take me seriously. Or at least, semi-seriously. He still had that little smile as he said, “you know, I’ve been exploring that very thought in my philosophy writing today.” But he didn’t make any more snide comments about my voice.
Instead, he philosophized again.
He loved that point I made at the beginning. It’s so true, he thought. People’s religion is all they have sometimes. He told me about Mormons, and how we can’t tell them that Joseph Smith was a sketchy crook, because their religion is all they have. Oh, those poor delicate souls that would be crushed if someone as smart and enlightened as desktop-computer-man came and told them the truth!
Yep. I’m for-sure deleting those paragraphs now.
He spoke on the matter for a very long time. I tried my best to remain engaged, because I had, after all, wished to converse with a stranger. “See, that was the problem with colonialist missionaries in Africa,” he said. “They thought that their ideas were the only truth, and they didn’t think that the natives had any knowledge to contribute.”
He said this unironically, while confidently believing that his own ideas were all that needed to be said on the matter. It didn’t seem to occur to him that I might have some knowledge to contribute.
The philosophical ramblings on religion ended only because it was 5 pm and I had a 2-hour drive to my small group at 7 pm. But I did manage a word in edgewise enough to ask him about his computer. “Do you always take a full desktop computer into coffee shops?” I asked.
“Oh, yes! My friend set that computer up for me, so that’s just what I use.”
“Do you have, like, some sort of dolly to carry it on? Or do you just carry it in your arms?”
“I just carry it in my arms.”
There was nothing left to say on the matter. Was it strange? Sure. But even after the condescending nature of our conversation, I still found the strangeness charming.
Still, I decided something, right there in the coffee shop. When someone tells me that they’re interested in writing, never, ever again will I assume that they’re not good at it.
Until I’m proven wrong, I’m going to assume that they have a beautiful career ahead of them.