Throwback Thursday: Why So Many People Write at Starbucks


Throwback Thursday is a series where we take a look back at some of AWP’s most popular posts. Enjoy!

by Larry Kahaner

Why do so many people write at Starbucks?

The answer has to do with me going to Nevis. Let me explain.

Brain researchers don’t quite understand it all, but they’re learning more and more about something called “neuroplasticity.” This is the brain’s ability to change neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behavior, environment, thinking, emotions, and, of course, an unfortunate conk on the noggin. These changes in neural pathways and synapses determine, among other things, our creativity.

This means that your brain actually changes its functional structure based on your thoughts, environment, and the other items listed above. What does this have to with writing? Simply put, by changing our neural pathways and synapses, we can be more creative in our fiction as well as non-fiction writing. One way to do this is through a change in scenery.

I recall many times having trouble figuring out the approach to a feature article I was writing. Getting away from the office, even for a short while, really helped solidify my thoughts. The same went for my non-fiction books. Getting away always worked. A change often led me to “aha moments,” and I could see a whole book’s organization and structure in my mind’s eye for the first time.

Consider the Dune Shacks of Cape Cod. These ramshackle huts built for washed-up-on-the-shore sailors have offered help to the likes of Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, E.E. Cummings, and Jackson Pollack. Before modern science stepped in, we thought the structures’ powers lay in solitude, beauty, and the sound and smell of the surf.

People used the word inspiration. Sorry, it’s just that it was different–very different–from where the writer/artist usually lived and worked. Not only was the scenery dissimilar to home, but the shacks had no running water, electricity, or other everyday amenities. How’s that for different? They still don’t offer creature comforts, and you can enter into a lottery to try one for yourself.

You’re probably thinking that we writers have always known that a change in environment is good for our writing. Now we know why. The science is solid.

Writers often thrive in artistic and literary retreats. It’s not that the environment is so conducive to writing–although it may have to do with not having to cook your own meals or handling everyday family tasks–but, again, it’s that it’s different. A good pal of mine just returned from such a place where he clocked about 4,000 words a day while in residence. He claims his output was due mainly to being relieved of his daily household chores, but I’m going with the science.

By changing our environment, we change what we see, what we smell, how we feel, and what we think. This helps to get us out of our brain ruts which have been worn deep by doing and seeing the same things day in and day out. Scientists now tell us that these ruts are real and not imagined. Leaving these ruts puts us on new paths of thinking and understanding, and that’s always good for writers, fiction and non-fiction alike.

I can tell you right now that being on the island of Nevis is helping my ability to churn out new thoughts and ideas, and not just about writing. At the risk of being too obvious, Nevis is very different from where I live outside of Washington, DC. Nevis is lush and warm. It’s a roundish, volcanic island with one extinct cone in the middle, Nevis Peak, which is often shrouded in clouds. Yep, it’s different.

But you don’t have to get on an airplane to get the same benefits of being in a different place. It doesn’t take much.

Sometimes I just move my laptop to my dining room table and that helps clear the cobwebs. Other times, I sit in Starbucks and enjoy some flashes of writing fervor. It’s not the coffee or the slow internet that wires me for greater word output.  It’s being out of  my everyday office.

Instead of grinding away in the same digs, change your venue. Even small changes in your work environment can move your writing to new places.




Original post here.

Guest post contributed by Larry Kahaner. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, and Popular Science. Currently, he is the editor of Silver News, a publication of The Silver Institute. Check out more of his posts at his blog.


4 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday: Why So Many People Write at Starbucks”

  1. I can’t write a word if I am in an unfamiliar place (unless it is nice and relaxing). Starbucks? Zippo. Airport/airplane? Are you kidding me, I can’t even think coherently. Hotel room? Almost as bad as an airport. Also, I can’t write if a person exists within 100 yards of me (I’m a very extreme introvert and am sensitive to noise – if someone interrupts me, it takes hours to get back). A small cottage on Cape Cod? Yes! Ideal – I have one and the words pour out. A room in New Hampshire looking out onto a wooded mountain side? – Again ideal – I have one and write like there’s no tomorrow. Sitting on a mountain top with my laptop? Too many distractions – I’ve tried and it doesn’t work.

    I have read a lot about neuroplasticity and find it fascinating. Although changing your scenery might inspire more creative thought, I think it is more about having a lot of different experiences, going out and learning new things and “stretching” your brain. These things help create new connections. The more you use your brain and push your boundaries, the more the brain will give back by making those connections. Having new experiences, seeing things from a different angle and the act of discovery also increase creativity. Brains thrive on being kept active and changing environments and putting yourself in new places does help creativity, as you said, but I don’t think it helps get the words on paper.

    As far as actually writing, putting words on paper (screen), I think that part has more to do with being in the proper frame of mind. If sitting on a tropical island puts you in that frame of mind, great. For me it is being relaxed and being a recluse – I thrive on solitude when being creative. A retreat is great (beyond solitude) because you tell yourself that you have one thing to do and only one thing – write. You get into that frame of mind. I think everyone is different and different things/places put them into that frame of mind to write.


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