on writers and their drinking problem

I’ve written before about the coffee situation, the notion that, while you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can judge a book publisher by its coffee. Specifically, its availability. Are we here to work or not? These details matter as much as the semicolons do, people.

That said, there’s another side to the coffee question. The brew of roasted Coffea arabica isn’t necessarily the best option when you’re blocked or otherwise feeling skittish around a piece of writing. Use caution.

I started drinking coffee at an early age. By high school, I was drinking several cups a day. Not because I was doing homework—I wasn’t—but because Mystery Science Theater 3000 was on late and my priorities were straight. (To this day, I’m confident I made the right call there.)

Ours was a Taster’s Choice household. We weren’t fancy like them Folgers drinkers. Folgers, with its high-falutin’ Shakespeare library. Ha! You might as well drink dewdrops and moonbeams. Folgers might be the best part of waking up, but Taster’s Choice is a conscious decision.

Taster’s Choice: You brought this on yourself.

Actual Taster’s Choice slogan

Historical fact: They call the coffee “Taster’s Choice” because, originally, that choice was offered to the King’s food taster:

“Would you rather drink from this goblet of wine poured by the King’s jealous cousin, or from this mug of instant coffee?”

The goblet starts smoking suspiciously.

“Well, taster? What’s your choice—goblet or mug?”

I’m thinking it over!”

(For all those playing Maven Game bingo at home, I’ve finally squeezed in a Jack Benny reference.)

Between my junior and senior years, I spent a summer at Syracuse University playing with lasers and DNA for a pre-college science program. Syracuse featured one of those old-school college town coffee shops: ratty couches, board games missing several key pieces, the occasional jazz trio. There, I ordered my very first “red-eye”: two shots of espresso, then up to the brim with drip coffee. Why? Because the red-eye was the maximum, and I’m a maximum kind of guy.

Reader, I drank my first red-eye. Pow. Hamster, meet wheel. “I am a golden god!” “Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!That scene in Altered States where the guy becomes a monkey. Et cetera.

When I returned from Syracuse, I was off to the races.

Adenosine is a chemical. In the body, it acts as the brain’s brake. Released into your central nervous system, it slows down neurological activity and makes you sleepy. It’s your brain’s way of saying simma da na! (OK, last reference.)

Structurally similar to adenosine, caffeine molecules fit into the same receptors, blocking adenosine’s effects on the brain and revving you right back up again. Over time, your brain creates more adenosine receptors to compensate, but to this day, I can still count on a slew of ideas about fifteen minutes after every strong cup of coffee.

If I’m really cooking on a new piece, the enhanced recall and accelerated cognition pay dividends. In fact, it can be a real challenge to write without it, even after withdrawal passes. At my first writing job, I quit coffee for the Atkins diet. Not only did my output dry up—a problem in many, if not most, writing jobs—I lost my sense of humor to boot. Since I was spending most of my time at work writing my personal blog, this was serious. I figured it might take a little while for my brain to adjust. My blog would have to wait.

Once I got over the initial withdrawal symptoms, I waited patiently for my brain to return to some kind of equilibrium. After a couple of months, however, I realized: This is my life now. So I poured myself a fresh cup and never looked back.

Coffee gets ideas flowing but, as urgent and important as those ideas feel—particularly when you don’t have a pen handy to write them down—they aren’t necessarily useful. Ideas are cheap; everyone’s got some. Execution is what matters. Depending on the timing, a flood of new ideas can be a distraction from the work at hand. This is especially true if you’re already subconsciously seeking a way to avoid doing that work.

As much as I love coffee, if I’m dealing with uncomfortable emotions around a piece of writing, I’ve come to accept that caffeine makes it harder to settle down and get it done.

Coffee is almost certainly a net-positive for your health. Dr. Sanjiv Chopra, who co-wrote a remarkable memoir with his brother, Deepak, told me to drink at least six cups a day. Six! Dr. Chopra, an eminent hepatologist at Harvard Medical School, says it protects your liver. D.R. Moldawer, however, prescribes caution. Driving without brakes is fun, but not if you have someplace to be and you want to get there in one piece.

The next time you’re feeling stuck, resist the impulse to reach for an extra cup.

p.s. I only heard from one of you about my accidental use of criterium—”a one-day bicycle race on a circuit road course”—instead of criterion—”a standard on which a judgment or decision may be based.” Maven Game readers being what they are, however, Pat can’t have been the only one who spotted this egregious error last week. Apologies all around. Like the Starbucks cup on Game of Thrones, the error has been digitally repaired.

p.p.s. Speaking of which, any self-respecting showrunner would have found a way to make that Starbucks cup part of GOT canon. Daenerys rides a dragon! Is it so hard to imagine she buys her coffee from a mermaid?