14 January 2018

When I consume an espresso quickly over the kitchen sink I experience a memory story.

I am in Rome, in 1982, drinking my first stand-up espresso at a bar. It was on the Piazza Navona. Sunlight penetrated to the bright bottles of alcohol and animated the espresso machine. Men, and a few women, but mostly men, came in rapid fire, called out espresso, espresso, received a shot and a pastry, and ran out again.

The name of the drink is espresso. You make it fast, you drink it fast, and you leave quickly. The Roman barista worked fast, was friendly but not too friendly, and delivered 10 single shots in the time I was there.

When I make espresso now it takes me five times as long to construct it as to drink it. I measure and grind the beans. I heat the water. I put the grind into my press and slowly pour in the water. I wait a moment for the grind to bloom. I continue pouring. I let the coffee rest for one minute. Then I press it into a coffee cup that set me back forty bucks. It is overpriced, but the tools of the trade are important and the coffee tastes better when in an expensive cup. If I succeed at making one good coffee in the morning and consume it quickly over the kitchen sink, I drink less coffee during the day.

I come from a culture of writing fast. I worked in newsrooms, on deadline, punching out stories. The first day I went to work in a newsroom they gave me a story to write. In twenty minutes, I brought it back. Skeptical, they gave me another. I wrote it and brought it back. This was in 1992 when we were carrying around rigid three-inch floppy disks and pushing them into drives with a satisfying click. They handed me a new disk. I handed them a story. This went on for the entire morning of my first day at work. I handed them twenty stories. I was freelance. We better hire you full time,” they said.

Now I write more slowly, with more consideration. Sentences are worth constructing carefully. If I can build one good sentence it is like an espresso consumed quickly over the sink. It takes more time to make than to consume, but it can satisfy a reader for the rest of the day.

I’ve just finished reading Draft #4, a book about writing by John McPhee. He rolls out a process that begins with the agony of a first draft and progresses to relative calm. His first draft is a fiery hell, but then he improves the second by starting from the top and reading it aloud. In his third draft, he draws penciled boxes around words and phrases that could use improvement. One more pass, to remove the words in the boxes, and he has his fourth draft.

It sounds painless and is not, but writing has the remarkable quality of being finished, unlike other media. I can look at writing and say that works. While editing audio I have gazed with deadening eyes at a screen full of tracks and backed away, defeated by the choices to be made. We have an edit room expression: Audio mixes are never finished, only abandoned.” Happily, writing tells you when it is ready.

(c) Lee Schneider 2023. Take care of each other. Subscribe.