A coffee a day (Part I)
I’ve dropped the children off at school and my creative day begins. But I do not retreat hermit-like into my cave. Instead I drive to my favourite coffee shop and sit down without having to order – my habits are that predictable. Skinny latte with ice on the side. (‘Why the ice?’ everyone asks. A simple answer really. Sometimes I get so engrossed in my writing that by the time I look again my coffee has gone cold. And an iced coffee is a lot nicer than a luke-warm one.)
Like many people juggling multiple roles – mother, wife, writer, editor, proofreader, daughter, travel planner, taxi driver, rehab specialist, cook, personal shopper, professional etc. – I have to make sure I make the creative time that I have count. And I just can’t seem to get the words out when I am sitting at my desk at home alone, despite the beautiful view that I am privileged to look at every day.
I’ve thought a bit about this. Why can I write so well and become so inspired when I am out and only manage the drier, more focused thinking I needed for editing and proofreading when I am at home? How am I even able to filter out the buzz of people around me when I am writing creatively but at home the sounds of my children arguing or even just talking seemed inordinately loud?
I have boiled this down to two theories: triggers and atmosphere.
In this blog, I’m going to address the trigger aspect. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a trigger is a: ‘A small device that releases a spring or catch and so sets off a mechanism, especially in order to fire a gun’. For example: ‘he pulled the trigger of the shotgun’. It can also be: ‘An event that is the cause of a particular action, process, or situation: the trigger for the strike was the closure of a mine.’ In the same way, I believe that coffee (or another substance or particular ritual) can be a trigger for creativity.
Says Mark McGuinness in How Mundane Routines Produce Creative Magic, a trigger must be ‘hypnotic’ to encourage creativity. A hypnotic trigger, he explains, should have three characteristics:
- Uniqueness – this activity or ritual must only be associated with your creative time and activity. This is important if you don’t want the activity or ritual to be associated with something other than your creative output.
- Emotional intensity – this kind of mood can only be evoked through creativity and creative work.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat – the more the trigger is associated with the activity, the more effective it becomes. The association is intensified.
Combine these three essential characteristics and you have the magic triangle – a state of being in which creative work is most abundant, clear and inspired.
I can vouch for this personally. Despite my passion for coffee, I don’t usually drink more than one cup of coffee a day (Uniqueness). I allow myself this one very special pleasure when I do my morning creative time and this happens at the same time and place every day (Repeat, repeat, repeat.) So when I smell the beans brewing, my synapses fire and I am immediately ready to write fiction, like my books Love and Wine or Shadow Self, both written almost entirely in coffee shops (Emotional intensity).
And it seems I am not alone in this. In The Spirit of Creativity: Basic Mechanisms of Creative Achievements, Gottlieb Guntern describes other creatives who use similar tricks of the trade. Some, I have to admit, are a little odd but they seem to have worked.
Playwright, poet and philosopher, Friedrich Schiller, for instance, used to keep rotten apples in his desk drawer specifically for sniffing purposes. According to his wife, he was unable to write without this stimulus. Poet Dame Edith Sitwell used lie every morning in an open coffin and contemplate her limited time to be creative – enough to shock anyone into frantic activity, I think. Then there were the naturists like D.H. Lawrence of Lady Chatterley’s Lover fame – he liked to climb naked up mulberry trees. And then of course you get the coffee drinkers: Balzac (who actually died from caffeine intoxication from Turkish coffee – so there is such a thing as excess – 50 cups a day), Truman Capote (drinking his coffee horizontal in combination with a cigarette), Beethoven, Proust, Jean-Paul Sartre and many others.
So when as writers or creatives we are a bit stuck, we should ask ourselves writer Albert Camus’s sage question: ‘Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?’
Time to grind those beans.
What trigger do you use for your creativity? Let me know! And read more about coffee and creativity in Part II.