At my best in the company of strangers

motherlandIt’s busy and crowded as you wind your way to the last free perch; only vacant, as everyone who has ever graced this little establishment knows, because it has no plug point for any extended WiFi sessions. Your butt is at just the right height to knock a ‘Mother Cuppa’ cappuccino across an expensive laptop or infinitely more costly lap and the hanging lights, although great when seated, force you into an impression of the famous bell ringing, tower dweller. Somehow you crouch, slide and tiptoe apologetically to the spot with the practised ease of a dancer and the indifference of a lump of dirt as the flustered tourist gives you a frown and heads for another spot opening across the way. It’s noisy with the gurgling and grinding and idle chatter yet somehow the ambient African melodies blend everything into a even hum that makes you feel like something is going on but not enough to make you care. The starched suit beside you plugs away on his Air while simultaneously trying to arrange travel for his sales staff to some ghastly conference resort just north of Cheapville with his phone perched precariously between his shoulder and ear.  A wired ear hippy type is hunched over a battered original iPad ‘hand me down’ decorated with a jagged leaf sticker that easily explains his glassy red eyed stare and concentration camp devotion to the carrot muffin crumbs on his lap.   Across, sits a life coach steering the attentive pimpled redhead down the road to future happiness.  Yes, I am my most creative surrounded by noise and strangers and I do not need a study to confirm it.

I think I may have figured out my writing issue – well one of them at least.

I simply cannot write at home, at my desk and I think it’s because its too quiet.  Originally I thought that it was too easy to get distracted at home, but removing the temptations has made very little difference.  No matter what, I simply cannot seem to get into the zone and write anything substantial.  I tend to mess around, fiddle, daydream or simply take too many power naps. Once I remove myself from the house and sit amongst strangers, the words and ideas flow onto that daunting blank page as though they were always there and I had but to wipe the dust off.

I stumbled on an article (can’t recall where originally) pointing to a study done that says that the ideal noise level for creativity is around 70 decibels – just about the average noise level of a busy coffee shop.  Here is the papers opening summary:

This paper examines how ambient noise, an important environmental variable, can affect creativity. Results from five experiments demonstrate that a moderate (70 dB) versus low (50 dB) level of ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks and increases the buying likelihood of innovative products. A high level of noise (85 dB), on the other hand, hurts creativity. Process measures reveal that a moderate (vs. low) level of noise increases processing difficulty, inducing a higher construal level and thus promoting abstract processing, which subsequently leads to higher creativity. A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing and thus impairs creativity.

(Interesting, but why the hell do studies and papers have to be written in such sesquipedalian loquaciousness?  Do they really think they sound more intelligent or professional?)

My home set-up is not uncomfortable or filled with distractions, it’s too quiet, too uninspiring!  Dumb ass that I am, I have not been able to realise this simple fact.  Sometimes I play music, but not usually, so I should have realised that I was being more creative when it was playing in the background – hell, music while I draw is always important so why not while I write?  Sometimes I leave the door open and the sounds of Spongebob wafts in on an ocean breeze (gotta go delete those pages) and the kids run in and out, ‘Hi Dad, do you have some glue?’  “Hi Dad, just getting some paper.’  – I take these all as distractions and they irritate me but perhaps I have it all wrong – perhaps they are exactly what I need?  Maybe I need to embrace the world going on around me.  Leave something playing in background, leave the door open and just maybe I can get down to my daily targets.

Noise aside, I think the other reason I like writing in a busy place is my observation of the people and my subconscious mind attempting to do a Sherlock Holmes on the proverbial who, what, why, where, when of every coffee drinking “bug under a microscope” that catches my eye.  Not that I am any good at getting the real deal, but I still like to make up an entire life history of every buck toothed blond with coke bottle glasses, black fingernails and a pretty smile that orders a skinny latte and a chocolate brownie.  If I am struggling with a phrase, I look up, glance around the room and the words start up again, or even better, I catch the look someone gives or see them frown or smile – hidden in their own little bubble of coffee, hum and virtual privacy.  There is none of this at home – just four walls and a computer screen and very little to let my mind wander a little off track.

Maybe it’s time for a change to the old home office setup and I need to remember to flip to Youtube for some music to spur on the creativity, before I start.

One step at a time and I may just find my ideal writing environment, one day.


ps.  Coffee and noise from Motherland Coffee Company, if you are ever in Rosebank, Jhb and feel like a cuppa, try it.  Apparently they are also opening one in Cape Town (Corner Wale street & St Georges Mall).



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