the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Coffee Shop Chronicles: Going Analog

with 11 comments

In my neighborhood, coffee shops are overrun by people on laptops. Baristas put signs on tables pleading for courtesy, the places that have zero tolerance rules feel extreme, and the New York Times reports on us under the headline “Destination: Laptopistan”. For the freelancers, the appeal is free WiFi. For me, it’s the promise of a sanctuary from online life.

While meditating on this coffee shop life of mine, one free from Twitter “interactions,” time-sucking Internet memes, and the endless flow of information, I came across a quote from Lynda Barry, “In the digital age, don’t forget to use your digits!” A tidy aphorism with great timing.

When I was in college I had a zine. I created it mainly by hand. All I had was a word processor — the electric typewriter kind — scissors, and glue. It felt good to sit on my floor, listen to music, and create something physical. It’s been nearly 10 years since I’ve done anything like that. Now, with websites and blogs, there’s no reason to go through the hassle. Believe me, there’s a lot to be thankful for but we also lose something in this neat way of publishing.

In his book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, artist Austin Kleon, in the chapter ‘Step Away from the Screen,’ where the Lynda Barry quote can be found, explores the work habits of illustrator and cartoonist Tom Gauld: once the computer is involved “things are on an inevitable path to being finished. Whereas in my sketchbook the possibilities are endless.”

Anyone who’s sat down to a blank page, pen in hand, knows there’s a certain amount of freedom in it. When I stare at a clean, unlined sheet of paper I wonder what will happen. How will my thoughts manifest? In words? Pictures? Both? When I edit on paper, or when I work out an idea in longhand, all sorts of things creep in that are impossible to replicate onscreen — grammatical cues that only I understand, words circled and heavily retraced either for emphasis or while daydreaming, and blatant disregard for margins and linear composition.

It’s easy to overlook the limitations humans face when drawing a straight line. Now that much of our work, often from start to finish, is done on computer, where perfection is possible, we demand exactness. “The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us,” Austin says. “We start editing ideas before we have them.” While I don’t have the scientific background to support it, I’m the type of person who likes to think there’s some neurological significance to these dueling processes. I’m not saying one is better than the other, only that both need our attention.

My weekend mornings are spent on the computer, alternating between writing and allowing whatever shiny, virtual object of the moment to pull me away. After the third hour of disjointed creative focus I pack up my books and head out the door. It would be easy to stay inside that sterile world, the hours dissolving into the ether with each distraction, but as online has become our default location, it’s more important than ever to consciously engage with something tangible. Austin suggestions two desks, one analog and one digital, but for those of us with limited space and deficient willpower, a coffee shop offers a unique space away from the online world. If it weren’t for coffee shops, I’d be just another casualty of the delete key. Austin’s book is a great reminder as to why we should never let that happen.

Buy Austin’s book at IndieBound or find it at your local indie bookstore
Visit Austin’s website
Visit Tom Gauld’s website
Lynda Barry on Tumblr


Written by Gabrielle

March 6, 2012 at 7:03 am

11 Responses

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  1. Nice post, I was writing last night (like properly writing with a real pen and paper!) and I hardly recognised my own hand writing it’s so seldom that I actually physically write anymore, kind of scary when you think about it really 😦 It’s going to take a conscious effort from people to hang onto these skills that we used to completely take for granted when we were younger.

    Roisin Mc Cormack

    March 6, 2012 at 7:11 am

    • Sometimes I’m frustrated by the slowness of handwriting and I jump onto my computer (if home). I do love how my mind meanders outwards into nowhere when I’m with a notebook. On the computer, the daydreaming takes on searching through websites. When done well, it can lead to other stories. It’s interesting trying to find the balance.


      March 6, 2012 at 8:48 am

  2. Gabrielle-
    I can totally relate to the creativity that a blank sheet of paper inspires. I believe my best writing happens when I’ve got a spiral notebook and pencil in hand. In fact, the blank computer screen intimidates my creative muse most of the time.
    For me, a coffee shop offers people to watch, conversations to hear and the opportunity for new characters and scenes to emerge. A skinny mocha is a nice side benefit!
    Thanks for the insightful words.


    March 6, 2012 at 9:33 am

    • Definitely agree about people watching. I hear the craziest things in coffee shops.


      March 6, 2012 at 12:20 pm

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more. –B. Sammy Singleton, narrator of “The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans,” a three-part serial novel that started out as freehand journaling in a NOLA coffee shop, as part of Julia Cameron’s “Artist Way” morning pages.

    David Lummis

    March 6, 2012 at 1:08 pm

  4. Another good place to go “analog” is the local library. There are plenty of tables (depending on the size of the place) to collect your thoughts and write, scribble, draw or whatever. The best part to it is understood that everyone needs to be quiet. Now, try finding that in a busy coffee shop.


    March 7, 2012 at 7:21 am

    • Great point. Coffee shops can get loud, especially when kids are around — haha. Library is great if you need a quiet space.


      March 7, 2012 at 9:11 am

  5. Yes… i am going back to the basics… of hands on in my garage.. quality over quantity. I also did a fanzine for ten years… before the internet, cell phones and all the the Borg that we become use to. It is OK to be Borg.. but I want to go back to a more personal agenda of music and using my hands creatively… i have felt this for some time… and all is good..


    March 8, 2012 at 10:06 pm

  6. […] in April when his book first came out. It originally ran on The Nervous Breakdown. You can also read my riff on Austin’s analog vs. digital approach to creating, posted in March on this […]

  7. Oh nuts! I just got done laughing and nodding about the discarded books issue. I rather patted me on the back about actually reading what is on my billion–ok five, I think, ok, maybe seven, bookshelves. I am also attempting to search and to read the items on my to-read shelf on Goodreads. BUT I MISS SO MANY NEW BOOKS AT THE LIBRARY WHEN I NEGLECT THEM, NEVER TO BE FOUND IN THE BOWELS OF THE LIBRARY ONCE THEY DEPART THE NEW SHELVES!! agony! I suck at recalling book titles and authors. I have tried following reviews and oooo-ing and ahhh-ing and then losing it all. Goodreads is as good as I’ve become at attempting to recall what makes me hot when I see it. It is like assigning books on the foreplay preference list! Anyway now I’ve had to add this book too! psst. it is a new purchase at our local library, not yet released..A VIRGIN BOOK!! oooowiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeee momma!


    March 31, 2013 at 11:16 am

  8. This text is priceless. Where can I find
    ouut more?

    seo Hoddesdon

    October 10, 2014 at 10:44 pm

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