- by Sharon Ashwood
Nothing says “Get down to work!” like a cup of coffee. It’s the fuel that gets me on the road in the morning. It’s a social communion and a comfort object. When I meet with friends, curl up with a book, or sit down to concentrate on a task, a cup of coffee is usually nearby. After my laptop, caffeine is probably my number one writing tool.
I’m not alone. Three-quarters of the adult population in the US drinks coffee. A National Coffee Association survey revealed average consumption among javaheads is around 3.1 cups per person per day, with men slightly ahead of women. No wonder our world is so fast-paced. We’re collectively buzzed.
And jangled. As I stared at the bedroom ceiling at four-thirty this morning, pondering deadlines, I began to doubt the wisdom of worshipping the bean. I’d been up late working on my book, but now I was too wired to sleep. The next day’s word count was going to be a slog on four hours of shut-eye.
Creativity requires alertness and motivation. Some of that’s got to come from real rest, not just a barista. So where did my coffee intake enter the realm of diminishing returns? When did it just plain start sabotaging my productivity?
Some quick surfing (heck, I was awake anyway) produced plenty o’ factoids. Caffeine is a psychoactive drug that alters a person’s mood by raising glucose levels to provide a “buzz.” According to one web site it takes 350 mg of caffeine a day to become addicted. A 5 ounce cup of coffee contains between 60 and 150 mg of caffeine, tea 35 to 60 mg, ordinary cola 30-55 mg per 12-oz. can, and the high-test colas about 55-70 mg. In other words, it’s fairly easy to hit junkie levels of caffeine intake during the course of a day.
The physical side effects are legion. Besides the jitters and insomnia, excessive caffeine intake results in increased levels of cholesterol, blood pressure, and risk of anemia as well as cardiac, gastric, and assorted plumbing problems. While caffeine may improve performance on simple tasks, it nukes short term memory and fine motor coordination.
On the flip side, a Harvard web site states that the risk for type 2 diabetes is lower among regular coffee drinkers. Also, coffee may reduce the risk of developing gallstones, colon cancer, and Parkinson’s disease. Coffee improves performance in long-duration physical activities (and if novel-writing isn’t an endurance sport, I don’t know what is).
Further surfing produced a range of results, some of them alarmist. The common-sense bottom line: moderation is key. For most people, a cup or two is okay, but more than that can impact health. Caffeine is one of those crutches than can eventually cripple you.
I remember reading about hard-drinking, chain-smoking, hard-partying writers who approached their pages under the influence of a chemical stew and still turned out brilliant prose. I’ve always wondered if that was myth, or if I’m just a genetic weenie with a decidedly non-Pulitzer constitution.
At any rate, it hardly seems fair to have to surrender yet another vice, but I like my sleep. So now, when I head into the writing zone, I’ll have to convince myself some other hot beverage will do the trick. Somehow, though, writing shoot ‘em up action scenes with a cup of Horlicks just seems wrong. Any better suggestions out there?