Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Writers and Their Coffee: All the Regular Reasons, Plus Mine

It won't startle anyone to find a writer with fingers on keyboard, a cup of steaming coffee within easy reach.

I start my day in my home office with a cup of coffee, and I look forward to it. As the day unspools, I head down to the kitchen to refill my oversize mug whenever I need a mental break from the awful draft on the screen, or when the draft in my older house nips at my ankles, or I know that if I don't unfold my legs soon they may refuse to hold me up in a few hours.

But I'm not a coffee hound, not even a gotta-have-my-coffee-or-I'm-grumpy girl. (I'm grumpy in the morning, but it's not about coffee.) Coffee lovers, true coffee lovers, will find the following appalling: Though I won't turn down an expertly blended cappuccino from a skilled barista, I don't care what brand I drink, at home I drink instant, I dump two Splenda packets in the cup, and use only skim lactose-free milk. And  – I drink only decaf. 

That's because other than savoring the way that first cup warms me on a chill New Jersey winter day, I'm fairly sure the only  reason I drink coffee is that it helps me feel closer to my father. And it was always thus: my coffee habit (three or four cups a day most days, less in the summer), began wholly as a way to share something with him, decades ago when it seemed we weren't sharing anything.

But like many revelations in the life of a writer of memoir and personal essay, I did not understand this at all until I had a brief experience I could have discounted and forgotten. But writers of personal nonfiction don't do that - we file things away, and pull them out for reasons we don't always understand. That's what happened: I had an unnerving, but in retrospect, lovely experience surrounding a cup of coffee a few weeks after my father died—and then weeks after that, I began to write about it. That was seven years ago. 

I tinkered with that flash nonfiction piece about coffee sporadically for a few months, then put it away. For a long time. I’m not sure if I did that on purpose—following my own advice about creating mental and emotional distance from both the experience and from the early draft, so I could revise/rewrite it properly later—or if those early paragraphs perhaps felt too flimsy to develop into anything, or too personal.

But the event (which lasted just a little over an hour), and the feeling that triggered the essay (which lasted for years), finally nudged me to work on it again. I had to be attentive to the line between sentiment and sentimentality. I worked on it again. And again. Got some feedback, tweaked, and then understood that I had a place for it within a much longer essay in my memoir manuscript.

I began to send the short flash piece out last summer, and I'm so pleased that Gravel Magazine liked it enough to publish it in their March issue. I'm also happy that the editor chose this photo of my father holding me, to accompany it. 

If you've ever spent time in a coffee shop and maybe had a strange encounter while there, or you've felt that someone who was gone was in some small way still there, I hope that you will take a few minutes (it's that short) to read "Coffee Regular."

Top image (coffee cup):  by Waferboard via Flickr Creative Commons; Photo, bottom, Lisa Romeo, all rights reserved.

1 comment:

kario said...

I love the coffee story! It gave me goosebumps, not only because I had a few similar experiences after my father died where I felt really close to him as you must have sipping Tony's coffee that day. And I love when you say (in this blog post) that nonfiction writers tuck details away and pull them out again later, often for unknown reasons. That rings so true for me! Thank you for sharing this.