When I was in high school, I had a friend who was quite critical of many popular millennial norms, like habitual coffee consumption and ownership of Apple products. He himself had a flip phone and only occasionally drank coffee if it was free. However, when he returned from his first semester of college, he was a changed man.
“You don’t understand,” he explained to me, sipping a cup of coffee he made with imported beans and his new ceramic pour over. “College is a whole different ballgame. Things change when you grow up.”
He got into his car and drove away, talking to Siri on his new iPhone through the microphone he wired above the driver’s seat.
Like my high school friend before he bounced off to college and betrayed the Movement™, I have always been a bit judgmental of the widely accepted practice of becoming a coffee whore by a certain age. Undoubtedly, growing up watching my parents desperately clawing at the coffee maker first thing every morning made the whole thing appear quite unappealing to me.
It didn’t make sense to me that at some point in a person’s life, they gave up their natural energy in exchange for an expensive addictive liquid substitute.
Personally, coffee didn’t give me any energy at all.
Not only that, but it also gave me unwanted side effects.
The only problem was that I really enjoyed the taste of it.
Everything changed two years ago at Christmas. My dad gifted me my first bag of coffee beans. And then that New Year’s I made a very satirical resolution (a phrase which here means “intending to make fun of stupid holiday traditions”). I decided, as an experiment of sorts, to become a coffee dependent.
It took about two weeks, but once I got over the initial shock to my system, something began happening. I still was not granted holy energizing powers, but the massive anxiety and shakes left me. It was replaced by a different sense entirely: coffee began to ground me.
*Disclaimer: all puns on this site are intended at all times.
For the first time in my adult life (excluding kissing), I began to feel content and settled in the moment. It was like whenever I drank a cup of coffee, all the loneliness and fomo that came along with being an emo adult would leave. As if somehow there was no place I’d rather be or no one I’d rather be with than right here with my beans.
Because of this, coffee began helping me with my writing productivity. Writing is an inherently solitary act, which can be a difficult practice for us herd animals. I’m an introvert, but I can get incredibly restless and needy when I’m alone.
Reading and talking to myself are two things that help calm me (due to being able to imagine I’m with someone else), but forcing myself into seclusion and locking my brain up into a single train of thought for the purpose of concentrated writing is hARD.
For some reason, coffee gave me a band-aid for that uncomfortability with solitude. It wrapped me in a warm hug and whispered, okay you have to control your thoughts and can’t daydream or crack jokes with yourself or listen to your favorite songs, but instead of your own head keeping you company in this dark lonely room, I, coffee, shall do my best.
And so my pre-writing ritual began regularly including coffee. The smell would put zip my brain into sharp focus, like when my dogs’ heads snap up at the sound of the Milk-Bones box. The trash of the internet and the pettiness of day-to-day drama would flush itself out and I’d kick into focused writing mode.
I didn’t see my new coffee habit as an addictive necessity. Rather, it was just a simple placebo effect that tricked my brain into doing deep work.
“Deep work” is a phrase coined by Cal Newport, who wrote a book with the same title. The concept is that deep work is a substantial and demanding task (like writing a novel), whereas shallow work is something that doesn’t involve much skill or focus (like tweeting about writing a novel).
The intense focus and time required for deep work can get eaten up by small, less important tasks if a person isn’t careful. In addition to this, the distraction of too much shallow work can permanently erase the capacity for doing deep work.
The solution he recommends to preserving time and focus is to: “become hard to reach, avoid new tech tools, be slow to answer emails, become blissfully ignorant of memes, turn down coffee requests, refuse to “hop on” calls, and spend whole days outside working in a single idea—these are exactly the type of lazy behaviors that can change the world.”
In other words, if one desires to do consistent creative work, one must give up a somewhat perceived “normal” life. Not to brag but being a black sheep of society comes quite naturally to me.
In fact, the aesthetic and social aspect of “coffee requests” wasn’t a concept to me until I moved to southern California for college five years ago.
The coffee shop was the lifeblood of the campus. It was where people built up their friendships, pretended to do homework, displayed their pious bible reading, and scoped out hot people. I didn’t understand those “broke” college students who could somehow afford the expense of caffeine every day, but I did enjoy the new experience of socializing via coffee.
The “coffee requests” routine was deeply ingrained in my blood when I left the hub of SoCal and moved in with my parents near Las Vegas. All of my friends were long distance, and it was becoming noticeably difficult to make new ones in the weird little town I found myself in.
It wasn’t like I was planning to build a life for myself in Nevada, so it would have been an ideal time to buckle down, get over my friendless existence, and throw myself into deep work.
Instead I spent most of my time crying while scrolling on Instagram.
I did end up casually dating a barista for a short time. I’d hang out at the shop while he was working. A couple smiles, a brief visit on his break—all for the cost of a medium iced Americano with coconut syrup, hold the cream. (Sometimes two when he was able to sneak me a free one).
The relationship didn’t last, of course, but my favorite drink remains steady.
I used to have lots of natural focus before college and California. A lot of it was lost due to the overwhelming amounts of socialization available at the campus. It was a small place, which made it impossible to have conversations in public. Since everyone knew everyone, whenever someone walked by, the person you’d be talking to would stop making eye contact and turn to look at the other person. It was beyond frustrating, and the practice effectively gave everyone the attention span of a french fry.
When that mass amount of shallow social intake was cut off after my move, I felt like my capacity for real focus had been seriously altered. It was fortunate that coffee gave me the placebo of focus. I wasn’t addicted. I’m not addicted.
But a few months ago I stopped being sure of that.
My mom and I went to a local rummage sale at a church. We were just bopping along, happily buying clothes from the actual 90’s for like 25 cents a piece, until something happened to my body. There was suddenly zero energy to hold myself up.
I couldn’t open my eyes or take another step forward. Out of my mouth came the fated words:
”I need coffee.”
My mom snapped into action. She grabbed my hand and began hauling me around the event grounds, asking for coffee like it was a do or die quest. Instead of laughing and saying I should get more sleep or that there was a Starbucks a couple miles away I could walk to, there was only quiet resolve. Like I was thirteen years old again, getting my period for the first time, and my mom solemnly nodding as if to say, yes, it’s time.
It was a rite of passage I had entered into. I finally needed coffee to function.
The process of alcohol coming into my life was just as sneaky.
I had an unaffected view of alcohol growing up. Coming from a conservative homeschooled Christian background, most of my friends or their parents posed at least a little judgement towards the consumption of it. But my parents had healthy drinking relationships and I’d seen enough movies to know I never wanted to be stupid and drunk.
However, it was the literary world I dreamed about being a part of someday that subtly changed how I saw alcohol. One of my most constant daydreams was living in an attic (likely my sister’s) and sitting at a desk with a typewriter. I would puff my pipe and consume nothing but whiskey.
Society puts on a lot of show about being a writer. The two points I seemed to pick up on most prominently were: 1) it is impossible to make a living off writing (hence the living in my sister’s attic) and 2) if a person hasn’t lived a tortured life, writing under the influence of alcohol is the only thing that will make their stories good.
“Write drunk; edit sober” was one of the quotes I ate up (it’s frequently accredited to Ernest Hemingway, but the actual source is unknown). I wanted it on a poster above my desk. But I recently learned what drunk writing is truly like, through reading Stephen King’s On Writing for the first time.
King was an alcoholic for a good portion of his adult life, even after becoming an accomplished published author. It didn’t give him an edge or make him a better writer. Instead, it frayed his relationships. He also doesn’t remember writing one of his books, which horrified him.
By the time I finally became of legal drinking age, alcohol didn’t interest me much. (My 21st birthday itself was a silly parody of red solo cup parties.) I had realized how much of an acquired taste it really was and how much bullshit I’d have to be on to drink it regularly or tell my friends I liked it.
I went to my first real party at age 22 and I behaved quite responsibly. It was in LA, and I went with my boyfriend at the time. I had exactly two cocktails, drank twice as much water, and kicked back to let the drunk partygoers entertain me. There was even a game of Twister going on. It was the perfect first party.
I thought I was safe from alcohol because watching people drink it made them look like kids pretending to be adults, as coffee used to appear to me. I thought the whole thing was dumb.
It was a few months after this that I got completely wasted. Unintentionally.
(There was supposed to be a series of drawings describing the date, party, and peer pressure situation I found myself in but I didn’t feel drawing it all, so here’s just this one slightly vague illustration. You’re welcome.)
I blacked out in short bursts as my “date” helped me stumble down the hallway and out the door. As he drove me home, I wondered how he didn’t crash into anything, even though he was drunk enough to slur his speech (please don’t read that sentence, Mom). And then we were suddenly parked across the street from my house and he was telling me I should actually just stay the night with him and my only thought was, how did we get here? I told him no and got out of the car.
Crossing the street to get to my house was an out of body experience. It felt like I was floating ten feet above my head, watching myself walk and judging my stumbling steps.
The front door key was in my back pocket, but of course I didn’t remember that. I pounded on the door. My mom threw it open and I said, “MOm, i’M dRuNNkK” and burst out crying.
She was not amused.
“This is something you need to experience,” she told my shaking body after helping me to the bathroom floor. My sister had less “tough” love. She tied my hair back for me as I hugged the toilet and sat on the floor with me for hours to make sure I didn’t pass out and choke on my vomit. The sun was starting to come up by the time she helped me crawl into bed.
My alcohol intake since that day has been much more tame. But I have finally come to realize the appeal of drinking. I may not get plastered anymore, but I have used alcohol to relax in the evenings after a long day, loosen up to become a more talkative person while socializing, and judge my own attractiveness when I went to a club once and counted how many people bought me drinks (five).
I still clearly have some maturing to do, but I will never be stupid and drunk again. Hopefully.
Over the past few months I’ve slowly come to the realization that coffee and alcohol are normal parts of my life now. In that acceptance, at first there was settledness, but recently it changed to mild panic.
Some part of my personality struggles with being too extreme. Like, balance and normalcy sounds nice on paper, but there is an inexplicable part of me that wants to either be 100% knowledgeable about and dependent on coffee and alcohol or to live on top of a mountain and consume nothing but dew and universe juice.
No middle ground, because who wants to just be average?
I decided to give up coffee and alcohol for the duration of this past November. Making that commitment felt really strange. Like, when did I become the kind of person who drinks enough liquid substances to feel the need to give them up for 30 days? Surely I have not become a basic cliche boring dependent like so many before me!
November is the busiest time of year for me, creatively, because of a program I take part in called National Novel Writing Month (a worldwide challenge to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November). I went to a coffee shop meetup in Vegas that was hosted by local members of the program, and when I mentioned why I was drinking steamed coconut milk instead of coffee, a few people looked at me like I was insane.
“I would literally rather die than give up coffee,” one girl boasted. She actually sounded quite serious.
The reason I chose that month was not to brag or ostracize myself from fellow writers, but to push myself. Because I want writing to be a permanent, professional part of my life. I want writing 2,000 words a day to be a normal part of my routine, not a once-a-year mad dash.
But a small part of the reason for this sobriety, I admit, is because of my fear of dependence.
This fear shows up in other areas of my life. Pretty much all of my serious romantic relationships have gone down the tube because of my fears of commitment and emotional intimacy. I’m scared to be dependent upon them, so I subconsciously trash the relationship.
One time I was in a long distance relationship. My boyfriend came to visit me and instead of telling him I couldn’t wait to move closer to where he lived (which is what I wanted to say), my fears took over and I sexily* whispered into his ear that I was thinking about moving to Australia.
He smiled and said “that’s amazing!” but then broke up with me a week later.
All the Christian dating books I was given as a young teen (because the only dating advice I got from my mom was “not until you’re 30!!!!”) just told me to “guard my heart”. So I did. I’ve done it so well over the course of my life that I’ve successfully kept people from coming in. Eventually they all give up and stop trying, friends and romantic relationships alike.
The outcome of protecting your heart too well is having no one at all who knows you deeply.
On the subject of “dependence”, I want to talk about rituals in the creative world. A ritual is a simple habitual act that triggers a person’s mind into doing something.
Twyla Tharp, a professional dancer and choreographer, says in her book, The Creative Habit:
“Like everyone, I have days when I wake up, stare at the ceiling, and ask myself, Gee, do I feel like working out today? But the quasi-religious power I attach to this ritual keeps me from rolling over and going back to sleep. It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive patterns of behavior—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.”
Twyla’s pre-workout ritual is the same thing every morning:
“I wake up at 5: 30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.”
My own ritual is putting in a pair of earplugs. It blocks out the noise of the world and puts me inside a separate room. It closes up my head so nothing can contaminate my brain and none of my words can leak out without being written onto the page.
Once the ritual is in place it’s important to protect the sacred habit, because that habit leads to the bigger purpose. The reason to get out of bed. For many, this means guarding their daily cup of coffee with their last breath, even if it looks like addiction.
I guess now I understand the coffee obsessed girl from my writer’s group.
So when my drink fast ended on December 1st, I drank a hydro flask and a half of coffee to celebrate. And wouldn’t you know it, the damn caffeine went wild in my system and I didn’t sleep a wink that entire night.
“Balance does seem kind of nice I guess” admits the more mature side of me. For some things.
Stephen King says in On Writing “It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Sure, I’m not going to become an alcoholic or coffee dependent, but guess what, Stephen. I will never balance my writing life. Never. It’ll always take full force addictive priority.
That’s a head’s up to anyone out there who wants to marry me. Our marriage will probably suffer, but my words will stay as fresh as your mom’s instant coffee and as smooth as Tennessee whiskey and I’ll be rich and famous too so that’s a perk for hitching your horse to this wagon.
*A big thing Stephen talks about in On Writing is his distaste for adverbs. They, for the most part, don’t need to exist. The one adverb he does approve of, however, is the word “sexily”. It’s too good to cut out.