Words Over Coffee


His email arrived sometime in May, or maybe late April. An invitation. He’s a writer, a someday filmmaker, and he wanted to talk Art.

I’ve known Joel since he was born, I guess. His family and ours go to the same church; his age falls just between that of Everett and Emma. I’m sure they tumbled over one another in the church nursery. But he first truly registered with me when, at about four years old, he spoke to me on the church sidewalk with all the gravitas of a grown-up. He was adorable.

Since then, I’ve watched him grow up in the way that parents watch children not their own: out of the corner of my eye. But in recent years, he’s been around more, hanging out at my house with my children. Among teenagers I’ve known, he’s emerged as that scarce and winning type: deeply thoughtful, with the confidence to discuss those thoughts with adults not his parents. We’ve had some good conversations over the years.

Now an invitation in the inbox: words over coffee. Would I meet with him at a coffee shop and talk art-making? Talk writing, to be specific? His schedule was flexible. Would I meet him?

Yes, and I was looking forward to it.

The problem was time. When could we meet? I was working on a magazine article, a project requiring research within the limitations afforded by Everett’s upcoming graduation. My answer: Sure! I’d love to. But can it wait until after May?

There’s no hurry, he said, which was good. May flew by, as did the graduation festivities. Our home’s exterior, due to long-neglected damages, was undergoing a modest reconstruction, as was my magazine article. Meanwhile, a wedding loomed.

Can it wait until after the wedding? Mid-July at the latest. I’m sorry.

His answer: No problem.

So then the wedding and all the travel, and a return to a house interior– due to recently developed damages– undergoing a modest reconstruction. The living room furniture was in the dining room, construction dust was everywhere, and the suitcases had exploded on the bedroom floors. The magazine article, meanwhile, was in a sorry state of disrepair. And we were leaving town again in–what was it?–a few weeks.

Me, embarrassed and tired: After that?

Him, cheerful: That’s fine.

But things still did not look good. Remember all that time I spent on the magazine article and consequently not on the clean-up? And you know the faithful miracle of housework: It always waits for you. Mine grinned at me from dust-coated walls.

The article, meanwhile, Was Not Good.

And we were anticipating a wedding reception. Not a wedding, mind you, but a party to celebrate our newlyweds here among their North Carolina friends. There was a house to clean up and a yard to make right. There was Emma’s back-to-school preparations. I sprained my ankle walking the dog. I had no time for the article and absolutely no business meeting anyone for coffee.

Me: So sorry. So, so sorry.

Finally we met this week–but mostly because he was here at the house already, hanging out with Everett. Our conversation wasn’t in a coffee shop; there was no coffee involved. He sat on our living room sofa and I on a nearby chair, happy to not be on my feet (er, ankle) for awhile. He ate his Chick-fil-A French fries and, with all the gravitas of a grown-up, asked me:

When you’re starting a story, do you think about the concepts and ideas you want to communicate, or do you start with plot, or with character?

Here was something I hadn’t thought about in awhile. Not in a long while. Suddenly I was recalling Maddie in her earliest days–such a long time ago.

You start with ideas. No, with character. Well, but character must absolutely drive the plot. One can play with believability. Almost anything is believable–potentially, anyway, if you handle it right. But you can’t readily believe a person suddenly doing something out of character.

And what does one do with the ideas or images that come to mind–those random ones that seem completely insignificant to the larger work? Are they worth writing down, or do you wait until you’re sure of a thing and then take the time to develop it?

No, you don’t wait, because you never know. You never know when an idea or an image isn’t exactly the one you will–someday–be reaching for. Write it. Bring it to life and then, if need be, squirrel it away. You never know.

I had a useless character while writing my book who kept coming up. I didn’t know what to do with her. Truly, I had no idea why she mattered, but I kept writing her, and I kept writing her in. In the end, she was enormously significant to the story. I needed her throughout, but she came of her own volition. I can’t explain it to you, and I’ve heard other writers say the same thing.

We went on like this for the better part of an hour, each of us talking about that what comes in the exhilarating isolation of creativity. I summarized some concepts from my book for him. I told him about how, for years, any church communion service I was part of had my head teeming with ideas. I had little notebooks of grocery lists and errands that were punctuated with thoughts on the meaning of the Eucharist. It was a vital part of my book, I told him, and now that I’ve finished the project, these ideas don’t come to me anymore. I can receive communion in penitent and grateful prayer, just like everybody else.

He told me about a concept he’s working on. He showed me the paragraph description that was an opening scene, and in a few moments of reading, its quiet and fearsome tableau filled my living room. He talked about it, and behind his eyes, I watched the strange multi-fold labor of the creative: ideas made manifest in character, then teased out in images that invite others into the room.

He said: the most terrifying thing in the world is a blank page.

Yes, I said, remembering that fear and wishing that I were staring down a blank page again.

But I had to go. Time to get Emma from school, and then hit the grocery store, and then a meeting at church at 7. I was running late already, having lost track of the time because for ten-twenty-thirty minutes I was talking about writing, that thing Annie Dillard describes as “mere,” but that, for some of us, is akin to life.

We continued talking as we walked to our cars.

He won’t go to film school. Quentin Tarantino (among others) says don’t bother. Joel says Tarantino said to make a short film. And I thought about my training as a writer: two classes, one workshop–all of it twenty and more years ago.

I picked up Emma. We went to the grocery store. And the ensuing days have been full of preparations for the wedding reception– all of them must-do’s for that joy-filled reception.

The “words over coffee” had happened– without the coffee, but rich with reminders of what I love to do. I’m grateful to Joel for the conversation, wedged as it was into an unforgiving schedule. And I’m looking forward, more than ever, to confronting a blank page.


“The written word is weak. Many people prefer life to it. Life gets your blood going, and it smells good. Writing is mere writing, literature is mere.” — Annie Dillard

“To this day I actually think that…rather than go to film school, just grab a camera and try to start making a movie.” — Quentin Tarantino

“The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly…. that page will teach you to write.” — Annie Dillard


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