Before dying at the age of 51, the French writer Honoré de Balzac published over one hundred novels. Every day he would eat an early supper, go to bed until midnight, then wrap himself in a monk’s robe and write for the next fifteen hours. How did he manage this? He drank fifty cups of coffee a day.
Here is his description of how coffee made him feel: “Coffee falls into your stomach, and straightway there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army[…] Things remembered arrive at full gallop[…] The light cavalry of comparisons deliver a magnificent deploying charge, the artillery of logic hurry up with their train and ammunition[…] Similes arise, the paper is covered with ink…” and pretty soon another masterpiece is ready for the printer.
Coffee has a similar, albeit less military, effect on me. It reinvigorates my drooping life force, melts away the veils of fog that shroud my brain, removes the leaden clogs that hamper my stride and replaces them with winged sandals, like Mercury’s.
But its most useful gift is the courage to look upon anything as a suitable topic for writing. I’ll be staring morosely out the window, certain that since I have already written about everything in my past, and nothing happens to me anymore, my writing days are over. But put a cup of coffee in my hand and suddenly everything is transfigured into a potential writing topic.
I look down at the fraying fringe of the Persian rug under my feet, and realize that I could write about how my husband and I bought it as impoverished grad students, before we could afford our first sofa. I could include fond reminiscences of the puppies who peed on it over the decades. I could describe the lives of the Iranian children whose agile fingers tied the gazillion knots that make up the rug…. The cup is still almost full and I am already at the computer, typing as fast as my fingers will let me.
If coffee has such magical effects, you ask, why am I not writing at a quasi-Balzacian rate? Why am I not producing memoirs, novels, essay collections, or even just a book of short stories in addition to this blog? It’s the fault of the Caffeine Fairy (CF), a somewhat frivolous entity who visits babies in their cradles and determines their future relationship to coffee.
Balzac’s CF conferred upon him the gift of being infinitely responsive to caffeine, but a century and a half later her gift to me was much less generous, possibly because she felt responsible for Balzac’s premature death. My gift came with conditions. “You may enjoy all the magic of coffee,” she warned, “but only if you use it sparingly. The first cup of the first day will work its mind-boggling miracle. On the second day, the miracle will begin to fade. And on the third, it will be gone. And don’t forget,” the CF went on, “that caffeine is a two-edged sword: use it even three minutes past noon and you will be punished with a sleepless night.”
This puts me in a bind. I can make do with a melancholy cup of green tea at breakfast (I have for years tried in vain to develop a fondness for tea. I cannot for the life of me figure out what the British see in the stuff.) but the time when I really need a hit of caffeine is around three in the afternoon, that dull hour of the day when I tend to slide into an existential funk. Sometimes I throw caution to the winds, brew a cup, enjoy the high, and then, like any other addict, can be found gray-faced and bleary-eyed, cursing myself at 2 a.m.
Speaking of which, if I were Balzac, I would now make myself a cup of (organic, shade-grown, fair-trade) coffee and write like a fiend for several more hours. I would write about the portrayal of caffeine addiction in Bach’s Coffee Cantata, or make fun of Beethoven’s insistence that his morning cup be made with exactly sixty beans, or debate the merits of olive versus coconut oil in keto coffee…but I am not Balzac. It is three minutes past noon right now, and even a single sip of coffee will keep me up until dawn, so here is where I stop.