Finding the “Right Place” to Write

The Night Cafe, by Vincent Van Gogh. Bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark, B.A. 1903

Last week, The New York Times profiled five writers and their “writing rooms.” Obviously, opinions differ on the “ideal” writing environment. Some prefer near-sensory deprivation, like Stephen King, who locks himself in a dark basement. Others require peripheral stimulation, be it a sidewalk cafe or an open window.

But can a writer’s environment really have a meaningful impact on the work they produce?

According to a study at the University of British Columbia, a “moderate” level of ambient noise does actually “increase creativity.” Too much noise (anything above 80 decibels or so, such as a garbage disposal) distracts us and prevents sustained focus. Too little noise on the other hand (50 decibels, the level of a hushed library), also stifles our creative impulses, according to the study.

The ideal writing environment, says Dr. Ravi Mehta, falls within the Goldilocks zone of 70 decibels. And what does 70 decibels sound like?

A coffee shop.

“Instead of burying oneself in a quiet room trying to figure out a solution, walking out of one’s comfort zone and getting into a relatively noisy environment may trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas,” say the researchers. And one trip to a coffee shop in New York or Chicago, dotted with furrowed brows and clacking laptops, will certainly prove their point.

If you can’t make it to a coffee shop, the internet will even bring the coffee shop to you. Free services like Coffitivity, a web-based tool with a variety of mobile apps, offer a fairly lifelike semblance of coffee shop ambiance for your listening pleasure, no matter where you’re writing from.

I’ve written everywhere from my living room, university libraries, the back of an El train in Chicago, and on my phone while walking to work (I do not particularly recommend the latter, but sometimes you just need to get some words out). For me, the most important aspect of your writing environment is that it’s somewhere you enjoy writing.

If you ever enjoy writing, that is. If you don’t, at least go somewhere you enjoy being.


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