Lab Report: Caffeine and Writing

Hypothesis:

There seems to be this perception that many a writer spends their time at Starbucks or another local coffee shop, observing others and writing. Until I moved to the city, I thought this was the kind of stereotype perpetuated by movies, but then I learned that many of my fellow writers do spend their time at local Starbucks or Panera, etc. Of course, if you’re going to sit there and write, you have to first stock up on caffeine. Or do you? The answer seems to be yes, as virtually everyone sitting in a coffee shop, writers included, have a cup of coffee or tea next to them. So then, is their newest masterpiece coming from their observations in that public place, or the beverage they’re sipping in between paragraphs? In this lab report, I’m going to evaluate the connection between a writer’s caffeine intake and their creativity to try to form an answer to that question.

Procedure:

First, I checked out a similar article pondering the same question of a writer’s attraction to caffeine. Very eloquently, Gandy Dancer’s Cortney Linnecke chalked it up to how gosh-dang tired we writers are constantly, due to the “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.” There’s no argument here. Linnecke’s article led me to do a check of the actual amount of caffeine we consume. The Center for Science in the Public Interest provides a nice Caffeine Chart that includes most of people’s favorite drinks. A tall Starbucks coffee is 260 mg of caffeine, while a venti-sized drink is 415 mg. Typical green tea is 35-60 mg, and black is 30-80. M.D. and well-know writer, James Hamblin discusses the possible positive and negative effects of caffeine on creativity, referring to coffee as what it technically is: a stimulant drug. In his professional and personal opinion, caffeine can be good for creativity because of its ability to help with the “most common barriers to creating [which] are initiative, commitment, and self-doubt.” Therefore, he advocates for caffeine’s helpfulness, though warns that “like all good things, moderation.” Over-stimulation can have the opposite effect of increasing your creativity,
i.e. ruining the little amount of sleep we writers manage to get.

Data and Observation:

I found that the Mayo Clinic recommends “cutting back” to anyone who consumes 500 mg a day; you’re probably crossing the aforementioned line with that much caffeine. So try to stick with one cup of your favorite brew, maybe two if it’s tea, since there’s less caffeine, to avoid giving yourself a headache instead of another round of focus.
Of course, experience with caffeine is said to differ depending on the person. In a list published on the Huffington Post, great writers and geniuses are cited for their coffee addiction. Voltaire supposedly consumed 40-50 cups a day. Writer of the Wizard of Oz, Frank Baum had 4 or 5 cups each morning, and poet Margaret Atwood had a line of coffee named after her. Obviously, these creatives, and others cited on this list, produced successful works under caffeine’s influence. However, I can’t say for certain whether any of them suffered the 10 symptoms of a caffeine overdose (though there is no mention of cardiac arrest). But if you personally feel the jitters, increased heartbeat, nausea or any of the other signs, again, you really should cut back.

Analysis:

Hamblin’s words on how coffee can break us out of our writing-ruts are important; sometimes writer’s block hits, or fear of creating the story we have in our head accurately on the page becomes overwhelming, and anything that can break us out of either of those mindsets is welcome in those moments.
As a writer, creativity is crucial. We are each striving to find our own unique ways to convey life experiences in a guiding or inspiring or entertaining way for readers. We’re striving to make connections in ways that feel genuine instead of over-done. If that one cup of coffee or tea (perhaps more tea since it’s a little less caffeine) is going to help, why not?

Conclusion:

It makes sense that so many writers can be found in the back corners of Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts. Sure, character ideas may come from the people standing in line or talking at neighboring tables, but I’m going to have to say that I think the pull to coffee shops is more about the coffee itself than the possible writing ideas (or free wifi).


Kristen Nichols is a sophomore at Columbia, majoring in Creative Nonfiction. She is also working on a minor in Professional Writing, and enjoys spending her time in libraries.

Image Source: Photo Ceramics’ Etsy