The Magic of the Coffee Shop
I don’t know if this is the case for most coffee drinkers, but I can remember the exact week when coffee became a centerpiece of my life. More importantly, it became a centerpiece for my writing life.
I was living in Ireland at the time, going to grad school for writing, and one of my classmates and I decided to take a trip to Venice for part of our spring break. Venice, if you haven’t been, is an incredible city — everything there is old and winding and colorful and haunted. Just put your camera up to your eye and, no matter where you are in the city, you have an instant post card photograph. And when Kate and I went on our trip, it was also deserted.
Sadly for her, my friend came down with one of the worst sinus infections I’ve had the misfortune to see, and so I spent much of my time in Venice wandering the narrow, twisting sidewalks alone. Which sounds bad, but really, it was kind of a magical experience. I had plenty of time philosophize and take photos and brood. And one of the things I did, being so inspired by the romantic nature of the lonely city, was write.
What I wrote, for the most part, was not particularly good, I’m afraid. Some core scenes of my novel did come to fruition there, but so did a lot (I mean a lot) of really, really, really bad poetry. But that caffeine is no joke, and when you’re shaking with that first coffee euphoria, you write whatever comes into your head because you haven’t learned to filter it yet.
I felt like the greatest writer that ever lived. It was magical.
Once home, I was converted. Coffee was a way of life for me, and the coffee shops I frequented in Dublin are among the places I miss the most. I imbibed the juice of the enchanted bean with the fervor of a religious zealot. And the pages and pages I filled with enthusiastic scrawl while I sat along the canals of Venice, sipping an espresso — those felt to me like a gift from another plane. I had met the gods, and they were highly caffeinated. All those people shaking in their pews in small, rural churches, the ones bowing down again and again and again at the Wailing Wall, the whirling dervishes spinning around and around and around in their white skirts — I felt something like that.
And yes, it sounds dismissive of those people, or like a severe exaggeration of my caffeinated inspiration, but I assure you, I mean every word. And yes, it was because I drank way too much of the stuff and it had made me high as a kite, and no, I don’t generally get quite that much out of coffee these days — but maybe you can see why I love it so much to this day, why I rarely go a day without at least a couple cups.
This very minute, if fact, I am sipping coffee from a favorite mug.
But don’t take my word for it — history is full of famous writers, whiling away the hours in tiny cafes. Everyone from Ernest Hemingway to J.K. Rowling spent their early days bouncing from cafe to cafe, mingling with other writers or scribbling out their seminal works. Ever walk into a coffee shop and notice that everyone there is on their computer? Maybe they’re onto something.
Here’s the science-y explanation: The caffeine in coffee binds to the adenosine receptors in your brain, which are responsible for making you feel sleepy. When the caffeine hits, BAM! The adenosine can’t get to your nerves and you feel more alert. Caffeine also blocks reabsorption of dopamine in your brain (dopamine is a neurotransmitter that activates the pleasure centers in your brain), which is part of the reason you get that euphoric high when you drink a cup. You can find more information on the science of caffeine here.
But there’s more! Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, talks in his book about how relaxation help encourage creativity in our brains by turning down the volume on a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is basically responsible for impulse control, which is terrible for the creative mind because it gets you second-guessing yourself and stops your brain from allowing you to follow your thoughts wherever they take you. While I’ll admit that caffeine is not physiologically a relaxing substance (it’s actually a stimulant), the coffee shop is a very relaxing place. Think about it: people gathered around to chat or read, enjoying pastries and sipping warm drinks. It’s all very calm. The ambient noise of keys clicking and hushed voices, pages turning. Strangers stop to chat with each other. Your guard goes down in a place like that. So what happens? That damned dorsolateral prefrontal cortex takes a nap while the rest of your brain is just waking up, stretching, and getting down to business.
One more factor, I think, contributes to the writer-in-a-cafe phenomenon, and that is the starving artist quotient. All artists, I think, benefit from a change of scenery, and coffee shops allow us to got to a place that is not our home, where we feel comfortable, and where we can stay warm, sheltered, with adequate facilities, for hours and hours at a time without spending a ton of money. While I would never suggest that a person stay all day in a place and only buy one cup of coffee (it’s just rude, people), you can buy yourself a cup every hour or two and stay perfectly within the bounds of polite society, get your work done, mingle with other artists (because, who are we kidding, that’s who else is there all day) and not break the bank.
One of the greatest things I got out of my coffee addiction while I was in Dublin was the Fellowship of the Bean. This was a group composed of three of my classmates and I who would walk down to the local Starbuck’s (don’t judge–it was right on the bay, and the closest good, local-owned coffee shop was a twenty-minute bus ride away) every Sunday after our hangovers wore off and stay there until they closed the place down. We’re talking, five or six hours sometimes. It was lovely. Just four friends writing and talking and reading and pumping black, beautiful coffee goodness into their bodies. If I could’ve taken it intravenously, I would have. Those were some of the most productive days of my life, and spent with people who are some of my best friends to this day, despite the miles between us.
This is what coffee has given to me. And for that, I am ever grateful, and ever reverent (say that three times fast–if you’re caffeinated).