I’m writing this in one of my favorite places: a booth in the northwest corner of Whataburger on Andrews Highway in Midland, Texas. This is a very familiar place. Not exotic or literary, no hipster qualities, not fancy or cozy, but certainly mine. Being here opens my mind and stimulates my thoughts. The restaurant is seldom quiet, but as long as there are several conversations going at the same time it all turns into gray background noise and it feels like I’m all alone.
I regularly scope out good writing spots, both in Midland and whenever we travel. I wish I were better writing at home, but there are always distractions. As the movie, The Last Samurai warned, I have “too many mind” when at home. I mind the chores, mind the TV, mind family members I love, mind my closet that needs organizing, mind my bike and wonder if that front tire is holding air. If I leave home and go to some other place, none of the distractions follow me. Even a noisy and busy restaurant can be peaceful if none of the noise is about me.
My first important requirement for a good writing spot is this - I prefer booths to tables. Booths are more likely to be along an outside wall or in the corner, and since I’m already doing the nerdiest of things in a public restaurant, I’d rather be on the edge of the room. Even booths in the middle of the room seem less exposed than a table. Booths feel tucked in, private, isolated, specific, and encourage me to get to work. And I find them more comfortable when I plan to stay for an hour or two.
I often wonder if I would do better at a coffee shop. Would I have cooler insights if I were sitting in a classier place? Maybe. But my second requirement for a good writing spot is - I like free drink refills. That eliminates all cool coffee houses, and besides that, fancy (expensive) coffee is wasted on me anyway. So more often than not, I find a Whataburger and camp out in the corner booth.
I read a story in Austin Kleon’s newsletter about John Swartzwelder, famous writer for The Simpsons. When he was kicked out of the writer’s room for chain-smoking he found a diner he liked, and would write from the same booth every day. When California banned smoking in public places he got kicked out of his diner, so he purchased his favorite booth, installed it in his home, and continued his work as if nothing had changed.
One of my fears is someday all Whataburgers will be remodeled by young extroverts who think customers want to sit close to each other and talk about meaningless topics, and they’ll remove booths. If that happens, I can imagine following Swartzwelder’s lead, buying my favorite booth and setting it up at home, except that I’m certain Cyndi wouldn’t go for that. So in the meantime I’m using my booth for as long as I can as often as I can.
John Swartzwelder and I are not alone in our booth-loving. For ten years David Lynch went daily to Bob’s Big Boy, where he had a milkshake and sat in his booth and wrote. In my accounting, Whataburger trumps Bob’s Big Boy, but that may be my Texas roots showing.
I used to enjoy going to the downtown library and holing up in one of the study carrels, especially the ones in the back corner hidden behind stacks of books. I loved the quiet intentionality of the library. Unfortunately, they removed the carrels when the library was reduced from two stories to one story. It’s now closed for a major remodeling and I’m nervous how it will turn out. Probably like most modern libraries, designed by high-energy architects who think everyone needs and wants to be entertained.
So don’t be surprised if you find me holed up in a booth with my head down and hand moving. It’s were I like to be.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32