Mark Frauenfelder and Kevin Kelly recently invited me onto the Cool Tools podcast to share some of my favorites apps and services. I’d welcome any excuse to chat with Mark, one of my favorite authors from my publishing days, and Kevin, whose work I’ve always admired. I’m also a long-time fan of the site, which has been around since 2003 (!) You might find the discussion interesting, so check it out.
Every writer has a crutch, something to push them through the discomfort of getting the words down. Mine’s always been coffee.
I started drinking coffee early, which was maybe not a good idea, and it’s been integral to my writing process as long as I’ve had a writing process. Get stuck = time for another cup. Since I’m constantly getting stuck—when am I ever not stuck?—that consumption adds up. Sure, the output gets a little bubbly when those neurons are sizzling, but any self-indulgent flights of fancy can always be edited out in the next pass. In theory.
Even in middle school, I’d regularly make myself a cup of Taster’s Choice whenever the mood struck. Morning, evening, whenever, and yes, it wreaked havoc with my sleep schedule. (Mystery Science Theater 3000 wasn’t going to watch itself.) And, once I discovered the (sometimes) joy of writing in high school, coffee made a natural pairing.
Is coffee bad for you even if you’re not an adolescent? I don’t know. As with red meat, you can find research to support your position either way. Coffee has been seen as cause or cure, poison or panacea, ever since its discovery in the 15th century. When I had the opportunity to work with the Chopra brothers on their shared memoir, Sanjiv, an eminent Harvard hepatologist, told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to drink at least six cups a day for a host of health reasons. I always had, but now I was under doctor’s orders. (Here’s the full reasoning behind Sanjiv’s suggestion.)
After graduating from college and entering the workforce, I spent my Saturday mornings writing plays at a coffee shop/roaster north of Union Square in Manhattan. Jittery with caffeine, stomach in knots, I’d peck at my tangerine clamshell iBook wondering why my thoughts refused to cohere. When I got my first full-time writing job, I decided to try the Atkins diet before I got to point of resting the keyboard on my belly. Dr. Atkins said you should cut coffee out at first, so I did.
There were no real withdrawal symptoms, but the mental craving was intense. I missed the ritual. At the time, every workplace was divided into smokers and non-smokers, the former tacitly permitted to work 20 percent less than the latter and, what’s more, spend that free time networking with senior employees who, naturally, had worked their own way up the ladder in large part by hanging with senior smokers themselves. I’d always been excluded from that elite society. Now I didn’t get coffee breaks, either. Would Atkins take my watercooler next? Where would I go to discuss the latest episode of Friends?
As the weeks turned into months, the weight came off, but at a price when it came to my creative work. Everything felt slower, more deliberate, more conscious—I hated it. I’d been writing a blog called Fancy Robot at the time, around 2003. With coffee, I felt like I could chug a mug and riff effortlessly for ten or twenty minutes before crashing. Now, blogging was starting to feel like work which, at the time, was an absurd notion. Blogging could never be a job! More important, I couldn’t tell whether I was as good at writing without coffee. The work you do while caffeinated always feels more interesting, witty, and worthwhile. Writing without coffee is like turning the overhead fluorescents on during a dance party. You see what you’re doing a little too clearly.
Eventually, I became fed up with being mentally present while writing—to hell with Atkins and his damnable rules!—and decided to pour myself a Venti cup of verbal brilliance. Whoosh! I can still remember that rush after a long period of abstinence. Boy, did writing feel fun again. And if what I got down was a mess, well, that would surely even out once my body chemistry adjusted.
It never did. I’ve been riding that caffeine see-saw all this time. While that wasn’t too much of a problem as an editor, as a full-time writer for four years now my reliance on caffeine has become an issue. I’d even taken to stashing packs of caffeinated mints everywhere to up my dosage without bothering with the coffee-maker. Anything to push through and hit that word count.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled onto the r/decaf subreddit, a community for people trying to quit caffeine. I hadn’t been consciously planning to do anything about my coffee consumption but, on the spot, I decided it was time to let it go. No more busysauce. In a way, I’ve always used coffee as a crutch for my work. In that moment, I began to question whether productivity is something one can drink.
A recent study found that caffeinated bees are busier and have better memory, but are less effective at actually gathering honey. (No, the scientists didn’t give the bees lattes. Many plants in addition to Coffea arabica produce caffeine naturally, and this research may point toward why.)
It’s been a few weeks without my crutch. Again, the physical withdrawal wasn’t terrible. What I’ve been worried about is the effect this might have on my work. So far, I’m keeping up on output and, if anything, my energy levels are more stable. What I still miss are the little manic boosts, the self-indulgent flights of fancy. I just don’t think my readers will. Also, I continue to wonder whether I really am missing out on significant health benefits that might outweigh the drawbacks of caffeine. (Then again, if coffee is so wholesome, why does the Starbucks mermaid have two tails?)
In the end, I’m sticking with it for the time being, happy to be free of my crutch. A crutch becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every time you run into a block—a difficult sentence to construct, an indecipherable note, a moment of mental exhaustion—you turn to it for relief. If you’d only sat with that discomfort a moment or two more, you’d have pushed through it anyway. But now you give credit to the crutch for something you could have done on your own, reinforcing your dependence. Meanwhile, the crutch brings its own problems. In coffee’s case, anxiety and other physical symptoms.
What’s your crutch? What do you turn to when you can no longer face the page? Maybe you don’t need it as much as you think you do. I’m not telling you to stop drinking coffee. Enjoy it. Enjoy six cups’ worth! It isn’t about the coffee. It’s about what you think you need to write, whatever that might be. Ask yourself: what would my work look like if I were willing to face it alone, one warrior entering the arena? What would happen if I tackled my writing with my own bare hands?