Wake Up and Smell the Coffee…or Tea: Exploring Writers’ Obsessions

Posted by Cortney Linnecke, GD Fiction Reader for 3.2

What is it about coffee and tea that so tickles writers’ fancies? Is it the sharp, earthy smell of freshly roasted beans? Is it the almost poetic way steam tendrils roll off a hot cup of tea like dragon’s breath? Or perhaps it’s the way baristas etch cliché but secretly satisfying designs into marbled latte foam?

No matter the reason, it can’t be argued that writers and hot beverages go together like Shakespeare and iambic pentameter. It’s a fact, as basic and fundamental as the knowledge that Dr. Seuss enjoyed a good rhyme or the consensus that Mark Twain rocked a mean mustache. If you need proof, just look at the world around you: there’s the popularization of mom-and-pop coffee shops, the increasing preference for foreign coffees and specialty teas, and the creeping and steadily escalating price of coffee (which hit an all-time high in late 2014). And let’s not forget the gargantuan size of the menu at Starbucks, which itself is a multi-billion dollar industry funded almost entirely by sleep-deprived artists, hipsters with drink orders the length of small novels, and of course, the occasional, bumbling tourist just looking for free wifi.

So, what gives? What is it about that first sip of morning coffee or tea that makes the heavens open, the angels chorus, and the taste buds erupt in an instinctively orchestrated dance of celebration? The first response I got when posing this question to fellow writers was the matter-of-fact, dead-pan answer I anticipated: caffeine. As far as writers are concerned, it seems there are only two types of people in the world: those who drink coffee and those who stomach the sad brown glop that cowers in “decaffeinated coffee” dispensers on the reject corners of shop counters. Which is to say, really, that while there may be two types of people in the world there is only one type of writer, because I have yet to meet any who, when faced with the option between hot caffeinated coffee and cold decaffeinated glop, hold up their hands and say, “You know what? I actually got a full night’s sleep last night and boy, do I already have enough energy today. Pass the glop!”

Coffee BlogThe sad truth is that most of us writers are overtired, bed-headed gremlins, with baggy under-eye circles bruised so dark that we have no choice but to chalk them up as battle wounds sustained in the warzone of creative writing. We face late nights chasing inspiration, early mornings preparing for work in the “real world,” long hours of hair-pulling and revising, and an incessant stream of voices, images, and characters cluttering our brains. No wonder we need help. And coffee and tea seem to do the trick: an average cup of joe packs a punch of 95-200 milligrams of caffeine, while a cup of black tea serves up anywhere from 14 to 70 milligrams.

So, sure, the caffeine’s nice. But that can’t be the sole draw of tea and coffee. If that was the case, wouldn’t we have formulated a more efficient way to deliver caffeine to our systems by now? A pill, perhaps? Some sort of stick-on caffeine patch? Or maybe we could just go whole-hog and stick IV’s in our arms, set ourselves up with a nice caffeine drip? No, there must be a deeper reason for why writers love their brew. And with a bit of self-exploration, I’ve come up with two possible hypotheses.

My first conjecture has to do with elements of comfort and routine. While I may tend to be a highly randomized individual, I can honestly say that I usually thrive when I at least pretend to keep a semblance of structure in my life, particularly when it comes to writing. After speaking with other writers, I’ve noticed a sort of pattern—writers seem to flourish if they make writing a habitual priority and build it into a regularized schedule. The problem tends to be actually sitting down and writing, that is, committing to the schedule. Now I can’t speak for the coffee-drinkers out there, because I myself am a tea junkie, but for me at least this is where tea enters the equation. There is something soothing and methodic about crafting the perfect cup of tea: put the kettle on to boil, let the leaves sit for five minutes (because let’s be real, using pre-made tea bags will never produce the perfect cuppa), adding the milk, adding the sugar (I personally like to use so much of both that the spoon just about stands up straight in my mug all on its own). It’s a simple process, but something about it clears my head. By the time I sit down to write, with a cup of tea to sip on and warm my hands around, I feel a little bit closer to settling into the elusive sweet spot of the writing zone.

My second theory regarding the appeal of tea and coffee has to do with community. There’s something about a shared dependence on caffeine that really brings people together. I began to realize this after I worked in the newsroom of a daily paper this past summer, although I imagine this hypothesis would work just as well to explain the magical allure of coffee shops. Anyways, the staff I was a part of went through so much coffee that our editor, in an effort to reduce the cost of financing our caffeine addictions, began trading newspaper advertising space in exchange for coffee grinds from a local shop. Every morning, journalists, photographers, copy editors, and graphic designers would flock to the kitchen, hovering and chatting around the coffee pots as if they were some sort of watering hole. The kettles held the promise of stamina and productivity, yes, but they were something more: a beacon for conversation and camaraderie, where writers could discuss their stories, bounce around ideas, and trade tips. In a support system for artists, those coffee pots sat steaming in the center.

So why are writers so obsessed with tea and coffee? Maybe it’s the familiarity of routine, maybe it’s the caffeine-invigorated bonds of community, or maybe it’s simply the fun of picking out the quirkiest mug you can find to house your life-giving elixir. The answer may never be clear, but one thing seems certain: for as long as writers keep writing, the kettle will keep whistling, the coffee pot will keep dripping, and we all will keep drinking till we’re bottoms up.

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