My professor asked if I wanted something to drink. We were sitting at his dining room table with my thesis between us.
He offered me juice, soda, or coffee. The first two sounded juvenile, and so I said coffee. I didn’t drink coffee, but I didn’t care. He was drinking coffee.
“How do you like it?” he asked, heading toward the kitchen.
“With cream,” I said. That’s how my mother drank it.
“For Christmas,” he said, “I got this coffee maker that makes one cup at a time. You can make it just how you want.”
I followed him into the kitchen, wondering what to do. I didn’t know how to make coffee. He smiled and handed me a mug. “You can go first,” he said.
Holding the mug, I looked at the jar of coffee grounds and the measuring spoon. “Well, you see,” I said and put the mug in the coffee maker under the spout. “I only drink coffee when I’m out. I never drink it at home and so… well, I don’t actually know how to make a cup for myself. Really.”
My thesis advisor spoke five languages and usually accepted only dissertation students. Fellow grad students had looked at me in shock when I told them that Dr. A was going to be my advisor. “He said yes?” they’d asked.
Dr. A didn’t seem to notice my red face. I made me a coffee and then tore my thesis apart. What I remember best of that afternoon is him handing me that cup. The cup was hot.
Sometimes I stare at my manuscript and consider a bit of dialogue or a plot point, and I think of certain phrases and ideas that will sound smart and impressive. In my first day of grad school, my professor (not Dr. A.) wrote three words on the board I didn’t know. I panicked, scribbling down the words to look up later. They didn’t help. Later in the semester he called me a sucker and my paper dumb.
My dad worried so much about sounding dumb and getting things wrong that as soon as I was old enough to hold a pencil, I made all his phone calls for him. He wouldn’t go to parent/teacher conferences either.
I want my stories to be a good mix of intelligence and fun. I don’t want to write fluff, but I don’t want to be too clever, too I’ve-got-it-all-figured-out-so-listen-to-me.
Do you write to entertain or to inform? Must art have a smart message? Is there a book that surprised you by being both meaningful and great fun to read? Do you think that mix is hard to easy to achieve?