The Writer Makes Coffee

January 25, 2021 § 23 Comments

By Rebecca D Martin

It begins with a cup of coffee, like this:

First, I dig the ceramic funnel from under the heap of dishes on the drying rack. I scoop the coffee beans, a rounded two Tablespoons, and then more for good measure, directly into the grinder and push down the lid and keep pressing and wait, and wait, until there isn’t any more grinding and the machine sounds like an airplane about to take off, the grounds are so fine. (Don’t do anything by halves in this stage of the game, or ever.) The grounds go into the filter in the funnel; the funnel on top of the mug. I pour to soak the grounds, and wait. Then the first big pour, halfway up the cone. I wait again. Once the water that is now coffee has drained, a third pour, the last. I am as light-handed with the water as I am heavy-handed with bean scooping. Weak coffee cannot be salvaged; I would have to begin again, which means less time getting started on writing and more opportunity to get sidetracked into straightening the house or – horrors – talking myself out of writing today, altogether. I must race upstairs post-haste if I am actually going to write. 

But I’ve already begun. The half-minutes between pours, if not expanded by washing the waiting dishes, are spent staring out the window. This is the important time, the time when thoughts untether, when they loosen enough to shake out into some new direction or clearer pattern. Here, now, with my light-woven thoughts and my strong, strong, coffee, I hasten to my computer desk, carrying these silver threads of ideas like a rug, like a colorful, hand-tied rag rug. It is getting toward mid-morning and I may be hungry, but while I tie these thoughts into words, into deeper meanings, tighter, tighter, there will not be time for food.

Here I am. I am thinking about last weekend, and how I learned something new about my husband: to wit, he plays chess well in that he plays strategically. I had never played chess before last weekend, and never wanted to, except that, on Saturday, out for coffee, just the two of us, I wanted to do something together with him, something new and meaningful, and what I learned about myself while playing that game was something I already knew: my mind is developed to detach, to wander free, past the gameboard while my husband plans his next move, through the coffee-shop window, across the parking lot, over the mural painted onto the cement work under the old railroad bridge that passes across the small center of town. Who built that bridge. And what was the town like when he did it? What were the workers’ conditions? It is my turn to make a move, and I have to reel in again, painfully, locking back into where we are in this game and all the rules of play. (Pawns go side and forward, unless attacking, when they move on the diagonal; bishops always move on the diagonal, as far as they want to go; the knight makes an L-shape, which is interesting; the queen, badass woman that she is, can do whatever she wants, and is really the strongest warrior in the game, as opposed to the king, who really does not go anywhere at all, except for maybe to save some skin by switching places with the rook if he feels like it.) Over and over, I reel in, but am only able to make a move after painstakingly reminding myself of the positions on the board, which I had already forgotten. The best I can do is figure out the couple of moves that are open to me. My husband, on the other hand, is thinking four moves ahead, and he explains to me, in his patient, quiet way, what demise I have set for myself, and I don’t mind losing my queen to his checkmate because it is beautiful, the way he can unravel my game so neatly, so well.

I determine quickly that I will never play chess well. Or often. Strategy is an enigma. Writing is the same. Perhaps this is why I am slow to write novels, even though I would like to. I pull up a page and go at it, just as Annie Dillard says right at the beginning of The Writing Life: “you lay out a line of words . . . and it digs a path you follow.” She knows how it works: “You go where the path leads.” I lay out a line, and I follow until I see where it has taken me, but rarely where it is taking me, which would be my husband’s way, and I keep going from there, pick pitch after pick pitch, and maybe, maybe, finding I’ve laid some sure foundation for the raggedy ideas I am pulling together, cats-cradled into whatever assay this combination of words has turned out to be. I sit back to see, and I take a sip of coffee.

The coffee is cold. I walk downstairs with my cooled mug and the tatter and unravel and reweave of words, too. All twenty-five seconds till the beep beep beep are spent staring out the window once again, mindfully pulling at ragged edges and weaving more and tighter. Back upstairs, fast. Fast, this next round of thoughts set down into words, definite black words on the screen, like a long exhalation, like a rush. I sit back to consider my work, because I’m tired now, and my mind is slowing down, and I am hungry and lightheaded, and it’s time this rug with all its loose ends is folded up and stashed away till another morning, till I shake it out again and try to determine its best true shape. I reach for my mug, no longer warm, and no more empty than the last time I heated it. I have forgotten to drink the coffee. I have been writing.


Rebecca D. Martin’s essays and reviews have been published in Relief Journal, The Other Journal, tweetspeak, The Curator, and The Rabbit Room, among other places. She is currently at work on her first book, about the books that house us and the homes that sometimes don’t. She is always at work on the novel she’s been writing for fifteen years, even when she hasn’t put words down on paper for a long time. She hails from Atlanta, but now lives in Virginia with her husband and two daughters. She can be found online here.


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