Can Another Cup of Coffee Improve Your Writing?

All writing is creative.

And the written word lasts a long time—so it pays to improve and hone your skill.

Writing is important in many areas of life. It helps us find better jobs, be more respected at work, and helps us persuade and influence people more effectively. Movies and television shows begin life as a written script. College requires an enormous amount of writing. Great speeches begin with great writing.

So join us, dear reader, on a journey to discover why coffee is a writer's best friend.

Writer's Block

A woman feels like another cup of coffee

You know the feeling.
It's late.
The lights are low.
The kids are in bed.
At last, some alone-time to work on your next chapter.
You tell yourself writer's block is just in your imagination.
You tap your fingers.
You wait.
But the words don't come.
So you decide to have another cup of coffee.
Cheer up—you're not alone.

Just around the corner
There's a rainbow in the sky
So let's have another cup o' coffee
And let's have another piece o' pie!
― Irving Berlin, 1932.

Creative Stimulant

For decades, writers have turned to coffee as an elixir. Here are four quotes from some of history's caffeine-loving creatives.

J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye said:

That’s something that annoys the hell out of me—I mean if somebody says the coffee’s all ready and it isn’t.

Jerry Seinfeld, American comedian, actor, writer, and producer said:

We want to do a lot of stuff; we’re not in great shape. We didn’t get a good night’s sleep. We’re a little depressed. Coffee solves all these problems in one delightful little cup.

David Lynch, surrealist filmmaker and creator of the popular Twin Peaks murder mystery TV series said:

Even bad coffee is better than no coffee at all.

Poet, essayist, playwright, literary and social critic T. S. Eliot said:

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

English Coffeehouses

Coffee Houses in 1650 and todayCoffee's history as a creative stimulant goes back much further—to a time of intellectual flowering that we call The Enlightenment.

The Grand Café in Oxford is considered the oldest coffeehouse in England. Opened in 1650, it was a meeting hub for some of the greatest thinkers of the day.

People with different backgrounds and expertise would get together and share their ideas—a caffeine-fueled creative environment that helped shape the modern world.

Not quite the silky smooth, blended beverages we know today, 17th-century coffee followed the recommendations of a Turkish proverb:

Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love.

Even those hardened to the beverage thought of it as “syrup of soot and the essence of old shoes”.

But people flocked to coffee houses and couldn't get enough of the so-called "bitter Mohammedan gruel".

The craze spread like wildfire in London and by 1730, Londoners were consuming more coffee than anywhere on earth, save Constantinople.

Coffeehouses were the commercial gathering places of their day. Lloyds insurance, the Spectator and Tatler magazine all started life in London coffee houses.

One coffee house in particular became synonymous with writing. Will's Coffee-house in Covent Garden achieved fame as the regular haunt of the poet John Dryden (1631 - 1700) whose literary dominance earned him Poet Laureate in 1668 during a period known as the Age of Dryden.

Other literary greats, including Samuel Pepys (1633 - 1703) and Walter Pope (1627 - 1714) frequented Will's, liking nothing more than to discuss the sonnet form or the literary merits of blank verse.

Patrons debated whether Paradise Lost should have been written in rhyme and provided visitors ample entertainment of one sort or another—owing much to Dryden's influence.

The Science of Caffeine

Caffeine molecule in the brainThe Art of the Cell's website has a superb image (shown right) of yellow brain receptors, called adenosine A2A, embedded within the nucleus accumbens.

All that technical talk means that the stimulant in coffee—caffeine (a mild psychoactive drug)—blocks chemicals in the brain that ordinarily make us feel tired. So we feel alert instead.

A terrific boon for writers!

The reason we get a buzz is even more fascinating when exploring the science of caffeine.

This article in The New York Times gives insights into a study of caffeine made possible thanks to the sequencing of the Coffea canephora genome. The study reveals that plants evolved caffeine as a defense mechanism against enemies, such as certain insects. The same evolutionary process gave rise to the discovery of Salicylic acid in willow trees—the active ingredient in aspirin.

Caffeine binding processCaffeine has other benefits for plants too. The decaying leaf matter from coffee plants contaminates the surrounding soil, making it difficult for competing plant life to grow—protecting its turf.

Another benefit for the plant is that caffeine makes its pollen more attractive to nectar-spreading insects and other animals—ensuring its survival.

The same chemical that helps coffee plants also helps us. In extremely high

doses

it is dangerous, but at low doses, it stimulates our brain activity.

Coffee could be a writer's best friend.

Coffee Shop Ambience

Yet more good news for writers who love coffee.

A December 2012 study conducted by the Journal of Consumer Research asked 300 participants to complete a set of mental exercises at three different noise levels. One group completed the tasks in near silence, one group at moderate noise levels of 70 decibels (about what you find in a typical coffee shop), and one group in “loud” conditions. The second group—the one at moderate coffee shop noise levels—was the most creative, scoring highest on the tests.

Here's the testers' rationale for the findings:

  • a high noise level causes distraction and makes it more difficult to process information, therefore inhibiting creativity.
  • a moderate (coffee shop level) amount of noise distracts people without significant impact on their processing ability, but inducing enough of a challenge so as to enhance creativity by prompting abstract thinking.
  • in conclusion, a moderate noise level is better for creativity than either the low or high noise levels.

Think about that for a moment. For freelance writers who work from home, the coffee shop environment can provide a welcome change from the silence of the home office. Plus the feeling of community and camaraderie from groupwork empowers creativity even further.

Coffee shops make stimulating, creative places for writers to work!

I love spending time in the creative space that is the coffee shop/cafe. Here are some of my most memorable coffee shop experiences. Why not share yours?

Tattered_Cover_Book_Store,_LoDo,_Denver

Denver, Colorado is a coffee-lovers paradise. Within the Lower Downtown "LoDo" vicinity alone there are 15 coffee shops within a couple blocks of each other. One of my favorites is the Tattered Cover Book Store. Open 7 days a week with cafe within, it has that quintessential book-lovers atmosphere and hosts prominent book signings, with an events space to seat 250.

 

Denver Tramway Power Company Plant Building

Denver's old street cars were converted to run on electricity in the early 1900's and the old historic powerhouse building is now a recreational equipment store with a coffee shop. The Victorian building boasts massively high ceilings and huge arched windows, allowing light to flood the interior in a way reminiscent of New York's Grand Central Station. It makes for a wonderful atmosphere to inspire writing.

TheMarketDenver

The Market Cafe is a hip cafe/eatery in a well-preserved Victorian section of Denver known as Larimer Square. The split level interior with authentic old-wood floors, gourmet coffee, specialty grocery, and deli-bakery creates the kind of buzz that unclogs even the most stubborn writers block.

 

Algiers Coffee House

Cambridge, Massachusetts residents argue that their side of the Charles River (across from Boston) has the best coffee shops for writing inspiration. It's hard not to agree, as you soak up the Moorish-influenced decor of the Algiers Coffee House. The eclectic menu has everything from classic Turkish style Arabic coffee to their own Special Mint Tea. Image Credit: A Lady in Boston.

 

Grand Cafe Oxford

As the oldest coffeehouse in England, The Grand Cafe is a delightful space to soak up the creative ambience of 17th century enlightenment thinkers.

Just sit back and gaze at the design details and imagine taking notes with a quill as you listen to Samuel Pepys pontificate about 17th century literature and politics. Image credit kake/flickr.

New York Cafe Budapest

The New York Cafe, Budapest, Hungary, must be one of the world's most opulent cafes. I was lucky enough for a quick visit whilst on a business trip many years ago. It is quite overwhelming, complete with frescoes, Venetian chandeliers and gold stucco detail adorning twisted columns. Gaze around awe-inspired as you feel the extravaganza of elegance that was the Belle Époque/Edwardian Era. Your writing will pour out, completely unhindered.

David James

David James

A Brit living in the United States, I'm interested in how we can better use technology to learn and collaborate. My interests include history, creativity & innovation, British culture and travel, philosophy in business, and educational technology.

2 thoughts on “Can Another Cup of Coffee Improve Your Writing?

  • March 30, 2015 at 10:00 pm
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    Such a detailed and informative post on the keys to better writing and for us.. yes, coffee is a HUGE part! Really enjoyed the history on coffee houses as well as the quotes. Thanks so much for sharing! 🙂

    Reply
    • April 3, 2015 at 6:28 pm
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      What a lovely comment Brian and Felicia. I’m so glad you liked it. Coffee is indeed a wonderful beverage—and charged with creativity-inspiring magic! Thank you!

      Reply

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