Coffee and Playing Smart

pretending to be a bride
pretending to be a bride

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?

4 thoughts on “Coffee and Playing Smart

  1. fairyhedgehogblog

    I read mostly for entertainment these days and when I want to read for information I prefer non-fiction. So my aim in writing is to write something fun, not particularly clever or infomative.

  2. I had an agent call my novel “earnest and straightforward.” That sounded to me like the kiss of death. I don’t seem to have trouble being smart in my writing, or meaningful either, but I’d also like some sass, humor, irreverence. I guess I worry about sounding shallow. Working on it with the next one…

  3. What were the three words the professor wrote on the blackboard? (Sorry, not the most important point!)

    …a good mix of intelligence and fun.

    That’s great. Of course “fun” doesn’t just mean “funny” — there are fun thrillers, fun dark comedies, and so on. But I do love something that makes me smile first and then, as I think about it afterwards, makes me appreciate the sleight-of-hand that masked the seriousness at the core. Not sure about the “inform” part, but I hope my stuff is both fun and serious. As for the difficulty of accomplishing, I don’t know… I just hope that if I’m saying something serious, but having fun with it, somewhere out there Ideal Reader will appreciate both.

  4. Right now I would be happy to just write to entertain. But I think any worthy story will have some substance too. And I don’t mean the profound, philosophical stuff. What I like are stories about life and people. Stories that make us feel like we’re not alone. I don’t know why, but Fried Green Tomatoes comes to my mind right now. I read the book as well as having seen the movie. It was so funny, but what made it funny was its ability to show people and life like it is. And then it was serious…about decisions people make that will either make their lives better or worse. And the kinds of things that people stand up for. I guess there is a little bit of profound, philosophical stuff there too. I think it is hard to write a book like that. I know I haven’t been able to do it. At least not yet.

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