Why I Write in Restaurants

It’s possible for a space to feel too comfortable.

Looking at my own “workspace” at home, it absolutely looks like I spend a lot of time sitting there. There’s an art print on the wall behind my comfortable high-backed chair from IKEA. There is a minimalist desk lamp (also from IKEA) that illuminates the space directly between my laptop’s keyboard, the coaster for my tea mug, and the stand where my iPad or phone controls my Pomodoro timer and music selection.

It is my preferred space for book work. It is my preferred space for editing and tweaking my own work. Beyond that little ring of light and cheap wood, though, the rest of the desk is chaos. It is too comfortable. One of my culinary teachers warned us that our workspace reflects our minds- if you have a messy workspace, you have a messy mind. Beyond my laptop, thar be dragons.

When it comes to this weekly blog, I feel like I have to go mobile. The wanderlust of the “nomadic entrepreneur” seizes on me, and I need to pack everything in a satchel and “find a place to write.”

Today, my “office” of the moment is My Vice. It has cocktails and a really good beef sandwich. The table is empty except for my typing machine and a late lunch. Arguably, I could save money and do this myself by cleaning my friggin’ desk up- but what’s the fun in that?

My name is Matt Strenger, and I do a lot of writing in bars.

It is happy hour- that mid-afternoon lull between the lunch and dinner crowds where restaurants try to pack tables- or even close down for the staff to prepare for dinner service. Drinks are cheaper, the menu is reduced in portion size, and salty snacks (the better to encourage getting more drinks) are terribly appealing. I’m currently picking away at a little bowl of olives, and just talked myself into getting a scotch and soda. Some marketing tricks are evergreen.

Besides tasty beef, salty olives, and good drinks though, My Vice has my butt in this seat simply because it’s a nice place to write this blog post and no one knows me well enough to talk to me.

As I walked around earlier, I passed places that I knew would provide good food and drink- a few owned by good friends. Given any chance whatsoever, I will always support my friends business ventures (especially if they’re peddling really good food and alcohol.) I have lived with myself long enough to know, however, that if I go somewhere where I am a “regular”- where I have friends and people know my name, I will not get any writing done. I will sit, and chat, and drink, and thoroughly enjoy killing the afternoon.

I will not, however, get any work done in the only kind of place that it seems I can still write naturally and fluidly. That is, in the “wild.” In my natural habitat- which seems lately to be restaurant tables, bar stools, and cafe corners, not home office spaces.

At that point, part of it becomes artistic pride (the hardest part of this writing gig really is just showing up regularly) and the other part of it is a ridiculous financial/moral dilemma. “Listen, if I’m gonna go out and spend the money these days, it can’t just be because I feel like it. I need to be doing something.” No, I can’t write off meals just because I happened to use Patio Table #1 as my office for an hour or so. That little perk is arguably reserved for when I do reviews of a place, and even then it’s about 50%, alcohol excluded.

Note to self: budget for a CPA.

Why does working in a restaurant, bar, or cafe help get the creative juices flowing? I mentioned a while back that I like to be surrounded by life while writing about it- the motion, sound, and bustle of a place where food and people happen make it easier to write about food and people happening.

After ten years in the industry, restaurant dining rooms and bars have become something like liminal spaces- places of motion and transition. Dots on the map somewhere between A and B. An empty dining room or a silent kitchen is more unnerving to me than an empty airport, or school buildings when class is not in session. Sitting in a busy dining room, even if I’m not moving, I feel in motion- catching a buzz off the life and action surrounding me, and turning that into words on a page.

I admire people that can keep that feeling of action and life inside them, calling it up days later at a desk in a quiet office. God knows I used enough tricks and techniques early in the pandemic to inspire that feeling of motion I was missing- noise machines, running, writing outside, ‘writing room’ chats, seeking out industry friends to talk shop.

In the end, though, I was still in my chair, at my messy desk, in my apartment. I can work in that space. I enjoy working in that space… but only on things that require the silence of research, the focus of outline, and the isolation of slow contemplative creation.

To write something lively, with interest and a feeling of action, I almost always need to slip into the flow of the industry like a warm bath. I need to feel the motion soothe my mind and senses, breathe in the rush and urgency, and let the story soak into my skin.

No, I don’t need to get a table somewhere every time I need to write something- but damn if it doesn’t make it easier.

Stay Classy,

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