In the words of the immortal screenplay Throw Momma From the Train, that way-underappreciated disquisition on what it takes to be a writer: "A writer writes." Simple. You don't whine, or make excuses for not finishing stuff, or complain that nobody appreciates your precious talent: you write, and you shut the hell up about being a writer.
Where a writer writes, however, is something else. Thomas Wolfe, more than six and a half feet tall, wrote standing up, his desk the top of his refrigerator. Proust wrote in bed, propped up by pillows, his bedroom walls soundproofed with cork. Virginia Woolf holed herself up in a room of her own, her husband Leonard practically guarding the door. And then there's Jean-Paul Sartre, who sat for years in the same Left Bank caf, in the same corner, lighting up those wretched Gauloises, sipping espressos, and churning out existentialist treatises that've thoroughly confused and depressed us for more than a half-century now.
Mark Axelrod, local novelist, critic, screenwriter and professor of English at Chapman U., is a Sartrean kind of man. Not for the philosophy—heavens, existentialism's been dead ever since the postmodernists discovered there was no self to be existential about—but for the espresso. He too prefers a coffeehouse in which to churn out his self-reflexive, comic deconstructions of the novel (his "Castles" trilogy, published by Tustin's own Pacific Writers Press), his strenuous flights into literary criticism (The Politics of Style in the Fiction of Balzac, Beckett, and Cortazar), his screenplays, his "visual poetry" (Neville Chamberlain's Chimera, or Nine Metaphors of Vision), his essays on film and culture. Dude writes, and he does it in public. And though he's written in cafs all over (Paris, Dublin, Venice, Buenos Aires), he spends most of his time in OC's little postage stamp of concrete, haze and the entrepreneurial spirit.
Lucky for him, a bumper crop of cafs has popped up since the '90s to service his writerly need for atmosphere and background chatter. When I asked him for his favorite coffeehouses, he came up with a Top 10 list—"like my old high school schoolmate, David Letterman, would do"—and though you'd probably prefer to hear what a nerd Dave was back in Indiana, here's Axelrod's list, with his commentary:
10. The Mustard Caf. "Good ambiance, especially the window seat that allows for people watching; great fresh coffee that gives me a kick start in the morning." 190 S. Glassell St., Orange, (714) 288-1404.
9. Zinc Caf. "What I like about this place is one of the corner tables that allows you to hear good distracting chatter. Best chatter comes in the late morning from the beach types much too happy and healthy for their own good. Their voices carry up from the cement floors. Breakfasts are excellent; so's the coffee. When in the mood, I order up the frittata with cucumber salsa." 3222 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 719-9462.
8. Rutabegorz. "Who cares about the coffee? This place is all ambiance—not the '70s hippie feel of the Rutabegorzes in Fullerton and Orange, but a little sleeker and modern, but still friendly. Big old place with the tables and chairs set up for chatter, just the kind of white noise I need to work." 158 W. Main St., Tustin, (714) 731-9807.
7. Caf Lucca. "I like how Parisian it feels. The tables and chairs are set up like they are in my favorite caf in Paris, the Caf Contrescarpe, off the Rue Mouffetard across from the Pantheon. Balzac's neighborhood. Amazing that a little place in the Orange Circle can pull off the comparison, but it does." 108 Glassell St., Orange, (714) 289-1255.
6. Starbucks. "I know, I know, it's Starbucks, but this particular one has a very cozy corner in the back where I tend to go to do revisions. I don't know why it works, but it does, and when you've been doing this as long as I have, you don't ask." 14061 Jeffrey Rd., Irvine, (949) 726-0874.
5. Champagne French Bakery Caf. "The ambiance isn't much—wooden floors, metal tables—but the Tully's French roast is very good and the raspberry almond croissants are sometimes just the thing to snack on when I revise." 3901 Irvine Blvd., Irvine, (714) 573-4667.
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4. Diedrich Coffee. "Great atmosphere. From the tiled Guatemelan wall and terra cotta floors to the couches, it's a great place to write. The Papua New Guinea coffee goes great with the pumpkin muffins. Excellent selection of choice conversations to listen in on when you're taking a break. Unfortunately, Diedrich has been bought out by Starbucks, so no telling how long this place will last." 13681 Newport Ave., Tustin, (714) 832-7030.
3. Panera Bread. "Excellent ambiance, especially the view from the rear of the caf. Good place to write, with classical music piped into the store. The tables are wired for computers with free wi-fi. It's too quiet for me, but the coffee and pastries are very good, and the baked egg souffl is sensational." 1348 Bison Ave., Newport Beach, (949) 721-8800.
2. Citrus City Grille. "The orange and green dcor is, don't ask me why, conducive to quality writing. The coffee's good and there's indoor and outdoor eating, the desserts are amazing, and the chatter gets a high rating. I've written a lot of good stuff here over the years." 122 N. Glassell St., Orange, (714) 639-9600.
1. Corner Bakery. "I don't go here so much for the ambiance as for the cinnamon crumb muffin and the Caf Europe and so I can practice my Spanish with the staff. There's always plenty of room inside or outside, and if I need the sustenance, there's always the sunrise scrambler. I wrote an entire novel there last summer. Could've been because the refills were free." 13786 Jamboree Rd., Irvine, (714) 734-8270.