a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Strangers in a Coffee Shop

Like many aspiring writers out there, I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. For me it's mental survival; I spend way too much time locked away alone in my apartment reading, and there are days when I just need to escape for 2-4 hours, while still getting some work done.

Still, I'd hear stories of people striking up conversations with writers in coffee shops, fellow writers bonding over caffeine and laptop plugs, and it always seemed a little strange to me, because I never talk with strangers in coffee shops. Ever. And they rarely talk to me, and when they do they are usually really odd. (I sense you trying to picture this odd person. No, odder than that. No, still odder.)

I don't think it's because I look unapproachable. It's likely because I'm shy, which to people who know me might come as something of a surprise. But I'm very quiet around people I don't know at all, while I'm way too over-analytical in my head about why I shouldn't talk to someone because I'd probably just annoy them.

So yeah, I've seen people writing screenplays in coffee shops. And no, I've never, ever talked to them.

Before today.

Ironically, yesterday (Tuesday), I had an arranged-meeting with another blogger in a coffee shop, and she was the umpteenth person who'd actually brought up having struck up conversations with strange screenwriters in coffee shops.

So I had that in the back of my mind today, as I wound up in a Woodland Hills Starbucks. Thanks to one of those inexplicable things, in which a coffee shop is empty one minute and filled the next, there was only one empty table, with the seat awkwardly facing the corner, where two other guys, each at their own table, sat. On one was a guy on a laptop, with screenplay pages next to him. The other was a guy in his 50s, who sipped his coffee and people-watched.

I brought out some script pages and a pen, and I was getting ready to finally make this key sequence work when the guy with the coffee noticed me and laughed. He made a comment about how we (me and laptop guy) both brought our scripts with us, and he left his at home.

Even with this conversational opening big enough to drive a truck through, normally I would have made some small talk, then drifted back into my screenplay. But I'm trying to be the new Scott. Writer Scott. The kind of guy that actually talks to other writers in coffee shops.

So I engaged him in conversation, and we wound up talking about a bevy of things, from movies to straight-to-DVD stuff (some of which he has written; he seems very much like a man out of Bill Cunningham's heart), to residuals, to breaking into the business.

Turns out he's been writing professionally for 30 years, mostly TV, some cable stuff, and one movie I'd actually seen in theaters a number of years ago (though odds are you didn't). Laptop guy even joined in too; turns out he's got a $1 million budget movie going into production, and he's trying to pound out his next script.

And it was great, it was cool, it was everything you could possibly want in a random conversation with two guys who just out of a random confluence of events just happened to be sharing the same 20 square feet of space in a coffee shop one afternoon.

Then coffee guy got a phone call, and he was gone, and laptop guy went back to his script, and I went back to mine. Though I did say goodbye to him when I left an hour later.

Who knows when I'll talk to someone in a coffee shop again. I don't want to be the guy who is talking to you while you are working on your script, the guy who you wish would just go back to his.

I mean, what's the general feeling out there? How often does someone come up to you in a coffee shop because they see you are writing, and strike up a conversation? How often do you do it?

(And I'm happily married, so I'm not talking about meeting a potential romantic interest. That's a whole other category of coffee shop discussion. Though obviously pretty girls writing screenplays in coffee shops must get hit on a lot -- it seems like a good conversational opening if you want to strike one up).

Anyhow, I'm sure I'll be out at a Starbucks or a Coffee Bean or a bagel shop tomorrow (probably somewhere west of Burbank, south of the freeway), and if you see me, feel free to come up and say hi.

It's easy to recognize me. I'm the mute guy in the corner.


At 2:27 AM, Anonymous chris soth said...

way to break out of the shell!!!

(I'll be the trembling guy by the bathroom)

Close second to screenwriters in coffee shops: internet dates.

At 3:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live out in the back of beyond. And so does a writer friend of mine - so occasionally we make a date to meet in a coffee shop 'in the middle'.

Otherwise, it's just me and the computer (and the usual interruptions from kids, family life).

I do go to the library....mostly to get research books.


At 8:15 AM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

Before I moved to the Secret Mountain HQ I was a regular at Karma Coffee House (Selma and Cahuenga in Hollywood)and people knew that when I first arrived not to talk to me. I would get 2-3 hrs. of work done then get up, stretch, and converse with everyone there. I've met playwrights, artists, actors, singers and if you look close enough you can see my leg in an episode of FAMILY BUSINESS. It's networking and support when you talk to folks, and we writers need that in spades.

At 8:23 AM, Blogger shecanfilmit said...

I go to coffee shops in North Beach mostly, which are near the Zoetrope office. I do write in coffee shops, but more often I read my stack of short story submissions. Some of the stories I read are so bad, it's the only way to stay awake.

I frequent Caffe Trieste to the point where I know many of the other customers. When one of my British friends lived in SF, he ended up there all of the time too, and he told me it has the culture of a British pub. (Where everyone knows your name, lol.) When I really need to get a lot of work done, I go to Caffe Puccini, a block away. I also see some of the same Trieste customers in there, but it's understood if we're in Puccini, it's to work and not talk... Nutty, eh?

At 8:26 AM, Blogger shecanfilmit said...

One more thing - I'm going to the wedding reception tomorrow night of one of the artist/writer guys I met at Caffe Trieste. That's how well I've gotten to know people there.

At 8:50 AM, Blogger Brett said...

Out here in the hinterlands, if I were to try hanging at a coffeehouse, I'd end up parked next to the very sorts of soccer moms I most enjoy avoiding in the privacy of my home office.

I took my steno pad and notecards with me last week as I took our 4 year old to dance class. Two different moms there noticed me toiling with the cards and pages of notes. Both asked the same question with the same dim smile:

"Grocery list?"

I just stared for a beat, quiet disgust well concealed.


One of the coolest things about LA is also one of the saddest: everyone seems to be writing a screenplay.

At 9:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My wife and I write every morning at a coffee shop in West Hollywood. We have our dueling PowerBooks facing each other, so from the side, it looks like we're playing Battleship. Anyway, we've been in L.A. for about six months now, and pretty much everyone we've met since we've been out here has been at the coffee shop. It's interesting to meet people who are totally unassuming, and then you find out they produced a few Clint Eastwood movies. We've met some really cool people there who are all plugging away like we are.

Plus, one of the X-Men comes in just about everyday, so that's kind of cool.

At 9:42 AM, Blogger Emily Blake said...

I didn't realize there were so many writers at coffee shops. I just thought that was an exaggerated cliche.

I don't drink coffee and I spend all day around 16-year-olds, so the last thing I want to do when I write is sit near other people. In fact, if anyone else is in the apartment I can't work, even with the door closed. I'd never get anything done at a coffee shop.

But girls get hit on, you say? Maybe I'll try it once or twice.

At 10:01 AM, Blogger wcdixon said...

I liked this's very L.A. --- spent a fair bit of time in some Santa Monica Starbucks and another coffee shop in West Hollywood - lots of writers. And about half seemed to be there to work, and the other half wanted to converse (or network, as Bill C says). At first, I found it hilarious to see people writing their scripts with the telltale screenplay piled on the table. But eventually I grew to appreciate those piles, and for the most part (do beware the crazies), you were in an environment where you fit in, and if you desired, could even have a decent conversation. And that was almost comforting.

I've lived in 5 other major North American cities, and that only happens in LA. In most other places, even taking a a laptop into a coffeeshop gets serious strange looks.

At 11:48 AM, Anonymous Joe Valdez said...

I live in Fullerton and write at McClain's Coffeehouse, where the sight of a guy working on a screenplay is still considered novel.

I'm old enough to think "Mead" whenever someone asks me if I have a Notebook. When I'm in public, I write everything out longhand. I learned how to key by practicing on a typewriter - when they still existed - and have never found laptops comfortable.

Anyway, thieves are starting to pull "grab and runs" by snatching laptops away from people in coffeeshops, and I find nothing creatively inspired about having my script take off down Ventura Boulevard. So far, I have not heard about there being a black market for Trapper Keeper notebooks.

At 3:45 PM, Anonymous Amy F. said...

Thanks a LOT, Scott. I write in a coffee shop every weekend and I've never gotten hit on! I'm pretty sure you just called me ugly. :-)

I actually go to the coffee shop because home is too distracting, what with the fridge/phone/husband/laundry, etc. When I go to "work" (at said coffee shop) I actually hope that no one talks to me, and I probably have a "please don't talk to me" vibe all over my face. My weekend work time is so sacred to me that even when I run into someone I know, my usual first thought is "Oh crap," even though in my non-working time I'm pretty social.

I like the combined public/private aspect of the coffee shop, and I like that most people there are writing screenplays, I just have no desire to talk to them. (though sometimes I might eavesdrop on other people talking about their scripts and mentally calculate all the mistakes they're making. But that's just when I'm feeling bitchy.)

At 4:38 PM, Anonymous danny said...

Well I'm a six-soda-a-day man who never switched over to coffee.

But I'm moving to LA in seven weeks, and it looks like i'll have to start faking it to meet people. Awesome.

At 5:09 PM, Anonymous Zach said...

When I go to a coffee shop to write, I'm doing it for the same reason as you, to be out of the house a bit. It's sort of my anti-social social event. I see it sort of like an office, there are a bunch of other people there, so you feel like you are working alongside your fellow man, but you've also got something to do with yourself that doesn't involve actually interacting with any of those people.

There are a few people that go to my coffee shop that I'd be interested to learn more about, most of them I'm not really all that interested in. Maybe that speaks poorly of me as a writer.

At 7:46 PM, Anonymous Sterevino said...

Here is a real encounter I had in a coffee shop near a university.

I had been sitting a while. The equation was not easy to solve, and I was looking back at the text to see if it prrovided a hiint.

A tall man in dressed in black approached my table, said, "Can I sit here, it's crowded and I don't have a take out cup."

I said, "Okay," and went back to reading.

After a few minutes he interrupted me again.

"Say, do you get much out of Butkov?"

I looked up, somewhat surprised that he knew that the idea of "Butkov" was indeed to get something useful out of it.

"Butkov is okay. I'm auditing a course on PDEs."


"No. Physics."

"What kind?"

"Non-equilibrium Stat. Mech."

"Oh, then. What you need to get is Abrikosov, Gorkov, and Dzyaloshinski: Methods of quantum field theory in statistical physics."

"So, obviously you're a physicist."

"I used to be."

"You stopped?"

"I drank too much, my brain is fried, I'm too old. I could never get back into it. Name's Ted."

"Hi, I'm Steve." I looked at him carefully. He was younger than me, pale as a ghost, and hung over. His clothes fit a goth theme, but he looked as if he had slept in them for a few days. The knee of a pant leg was torn."

"Anyway, I got out of it, because of a difference of opinions with my thesis advisor."

"How is it possible just to leave? You can't stop being a physicist. You know this to be true. It's what we are."

"Well, its a long story. By the way, that woman sitting over there wants to talk to you."

I looked over there, to a table at which a young woman was sipping coffee, alone. She had on dark glasses, but the rest of her was promising.

"You know her?" I asked.

The man leaned in a bit and said, "Listen. Take my advice because you're gonna like her, a lot, if you know what I mean. She's interested in you. Anyway, I gotta go. Remember the book."

"Abrahamov...Gorshkov and Dyalozinki?"

"Somethin' like that. Ciao."

And then I moved on to my next encounter.

At 8:05 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Danny --

Trust me, you don't have to order coffee at Starbucks. It tastes like ass. Just buy a bottle of water and a pastry; consider it rent.

At 8:11 PM, Blogger Jess said...

See, in LA, when people talk to you in coffee shops, they've got awesome stories and big buget things to get to work on.

If they talk to you in New York, it's because you're in their seat. And they want it back. NOW.

At 8:34 PM, Blogger Dave said...

In Virginia, you walk into a coffee shop and sit down with a laptop and you get some strange looks for sure.

Also, in the South, most people are pretty friendly in those type environments, so you'd get plenty of unwanted conversations.

I think Bill's got it right with the work for awhile, then socialize. If I've learned anything in my 20 years in the workforce, it's that it really is "who you know" not "what you know".

Being a writer is such a solitary thing that how would you make your connections? From over here on the East coast, it really seems like a joy to be able to find folks willing to sit down and talk about screenwriting.

Here, you're lucky if somebody knows what a screenwriter is, let alone knows what it involves.

Get out of that shell a little more Scott, who knows what could happen!

At 8:42 PM, Blogger Systemaddict said...

Up here, in Vancouver, it's less likely that you run into someone writing a script or reading one. Though, I would say it happens a lot more than any other city North of LA.

I used to only write at coffee shops. Unfortunately for me, I didn't get other writers talking to me. I typically got Gay guys, some women, or some people that just felt like asking what I was working on.

This wouldn't be so bad, if certain relationships didn't start- at least for them. Once they see you once and start talking with you, you're open to conversation everytime. This poses an issue when you are needing to work.

I learned to be able to work at home. Found out that I also work slighly faster at home- no people watching.

But every now and then I'll venture out. Talk can be nice, especially if someone sense when you need to get to it and work.

But good for you to strike one up- It seems like a rare thing, and that's never bad.

At 7:22 AM, Anonymous Lucy said...

If you are happily married Scott, what you should do is have a baby. It makes everyone in the world talk to you, even if you don't have the baby with you, as you have some kind of magnetic forcefield which draws people toward you to discuss all kinds of things and show each other photos. This single thing has probably helped my screenwriting best of all as it's enabled me to collect the best stories EVER. No joking. Only last weekend two guys on a train gave me their entire life histories!


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