Thursday, March 12, 2020

Drinking Coffee (and Other Things) with Writers


During these strange times we're living in, the more we realize how important it is to connect with others. Today, I'm pleased to welcome Joyce Hinnefeld, a dear friend and writing sister with whom I've bonded over countless cups of coffee, to discuss how crucial these human connections are.

Take it away, Joyce!

I must have drunk a thousand cups of coffee with various writer friends through the years. In kitchens and living rooms in apartments and houses in New York and New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In countless Starbucks and Paneras. In a number of independent coffee shops that have come and gone in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Drinking coffee and talking to other writers are two of my favorite things to do.

Usually, of course, we talk about projects we’re working on. There have been conversations about alternatives to traditional burial, the secret lives of magicians, feminist re-readings of the New Testament, working-class lives in New England mill towns, and more. I remember lots of helpful advice about my own work. To give a mother’s realization about her young adult daughter a physical manifestation—a gesture, a stirring in her daughter’s sleep. To dig further into a seemingly passive character, a young woman from the Pennsylvania coal region who won’t admit her deepest desires, even to herself. To keep an eye out for too many meandering, clause- and comma-filled sentences. (Like my previous one was, until—picturing the furrowed brow and raised eyebrows of a couple writers’ group members through the years—I broke it up into fragments.)

Every writer I’ve known has dreamed of having a Maxwell Perkins-style editor—brilliant, gentle, as fully invested in your work as you are as the writer. But writers today seldom have editors with the time and inclination to edit in that way. As a writer of books published by small presses, I’ve been fortunate to have smart and attentive editing—but my work has always traveled a long, circuitous route before landing on an editor’s desk. And fortunately, as it’s traveled along that winding route, it’s often landed, first, on the desks (or more recently the tablets) of trusted readers. Of friends who are also writers.

In my experience these friendships with writers might have begun in more formal writing workshops—at the 63rd Street YMCA in New York City many years ago, in graduate school at SUNY Albany in the early 1990s—but the lasting ones have continued well beyond that context, or, more recently, have emerged in other contexts. A colleague in the art department at the college where I teach has a party, where I meet a friend of a friend: a writer. A new writer is hired at the college in the next town over, and someone suggests I get in touch. A young writer, seeking a lower cost of living and more time to write, moves to the town that I never thought I’d call my hometown and asks if we can meet for coffee or a drink. And so it begins. (And what’s great about my friendship with that younger writer is that besides coffee we often go out for drinks—something I hardly ever do anymore!)

My relationships with writer friends now are markedly different from those I had with the people I knew in workshops; these writer friends have offered so much more than suggestions for a manuscript I’m struggling with. They’ve helped me negotiate the tricky challenges of being a writer and a parent. They’ve talked me down from my panicked terror over figuring out how to use social media to promote my work. And they’ve understood, and sympathized with, my frequent “fish out of water” feeling as a writer in an academic setting.

I’ve taught creative writing at a small liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA for longer than I would have ever thought possible when I started the job back in 1997. These days I can’t believe I was fortunate enough to land such a job, and in an age of near contempt for the liberal arts and humanities, and of exploitation of contingent faculty, I know not to take this job for granted. I’ve been lucky in lots of ways, and one way in which I’ve been lucky has been in meeting young people, year after year, who are passionate about language, literature, and writing. Still. Even now.

It’s not easy to keep going with writing, when you’re often working long hours elsewhere to make rent and pay your bills. I know this, firsthand, from my former students. I miss our workshops, they sometimes tell me, when I run into them a few years after graduation. Find some writer friends, I tell them.

Six years ago I started a writers’ conference at the college where I teach. I must have been on drugs when I decided to do that, I’ve since told a number of people. But in fact I wasn’t on anything at all when I first conceived the sort of weirdly utopian vision I had for a conference that would, I hoped, help writers—of all ages, and at all levels of experience—find each other. And in many ways I think the Moravian College Writers’ Conference—scheduled to run for the fifth time at the end of March—has done just that.

I’m pleased about this of course. But I think the best thing the conference has given me is a chance to spend a day with some of my favorite people in the Lehigh Valley: other writers who live here and, in many cases, teach here. To join these writers in recognizing new talent, young and old, and in urging that talent to keep going with the work, no matter the limited prospects for publication, or for teaching jobs.

And to drink a lot of coffee together—even if it’s the coffee from the college catering department and, to be honest (don’t tell anyone I said this), it’s not very good.


Joyce Hinnefeld is the author of the short story collection Tell Me Everything and the novels In Hovering Flight and Stranger Here Below. Her new book, the story collection The Beauty of Their Youth (published this month), is the latest title in the Wolfson Press American Storytellers series. She is a Professor of English at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, where she directs the Moravian College Writers’ Conference. Learn more a and like her page at

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