I'm sitting at a Starbucks, occasionally sipping on a Vanilla Bean frappuccino, and desperately struggling with a particularly nasty piece of dialogue. If there's one thing I'm no good at, it's dialogue. It's getting pretty frustrating. Especially since I know exactly how this scene is supposed to end, after having had its conclusion in my head for close to three years now. It's getting there that's proving to be more difficult. In my head, it's a wonder of a scene, with exactly the right amount of tension and crisp dialogue and some foreshadowing to boot. On paper, not so much. The girls at the table next to mine are getting pretty agitated and loud, so I turn up the volume on my iPod and go back to trying to write my way out of this mess.
One table over to the left, facing me, is a woman perhaps a few years older than me. On her table an empty cup of coffee and a spiral-bound notebook, in which she scribbles sporadically. Every once in a while we look up at the same time and our eyes meet, and we exchange the kind of smile that indicates that, though we are complete strangers, we know exactly what's going through each other's mind at this exact moment. "This is a complete waste of time," her eyes seem to be saying, "I can't write worth a damn." "You should see what I've got," I want to say. Then she goes back to staring out the window, and I look down and cross out a paragraph or two, before crumpling up the sheet of paper and placing the resulting ball carefully next to its two predecessors. This is going to be such a productive afternoon.
At the table right in front of mine sits a buddhist monk in his orange robe, playing with a MacBook and a brand new iPad. He's sitting with his back to me, and though he's partially obscuring the iPad, I can still see what he's doing. I'm guessing he just got the newest toy from Apple and is trying it out; right now he's watching a series of videos involving other orange-clad monks, skipping quickly from one to the next. The next time I look up, though, a change in the quality of the picture indicates that he has now switched to a movie. A New York street, then another. Extras milling about. Then Ben Stiller rounds a corner and starts walking towards the camera. Title card: Night at the Museum. I smile and go back to staring at a blank page as Ben Stiller enters the Museum of Natural History.
The woman's leaned over towards the monk's table and is talking to him, so I kill the sound on my iPod and start eavesdropping. She tries a few shaky French sentences, before asking him if he speaks English. She sounds American, with a faint Midwestern accent perhaps. Hard to know with the girls next to me apparently trying to set a new world record for loudness in a confined space. The monk says yes, but his English seems to be at least as shaky as her French, and as a result, what we have here is a failure to communicate. I'm about to volunteer my services as a translator when she finally manages to convey that she is offering to buy him another drink. "What are you drinking?" takes a little longer to be understood, but he eventually responds by a semi-cryptic "caramel" and thank her with a nod. On the screen Ben Stiller is being pursued by a gang of crazed monkeys. I've seen this movie, but I have little recollection of it.
By the time I decide I'm done for the day, Ben Stiller's defeated the bad guys, and everything's back the way it should be in the museum. Except Theodore Roosevelt's still played by Robin Williams, which for some reason sounds very, very wrong. I gather my stuff--among which the two pages I've managed to write over a couple hours--and head for the trash can, where I dispose of my empty cup and of the remains of half a dozen aborted chapters. As I pass the woman, she looks up from her notebook and smiles. "Goodbye," she says. I smile back. "Good luck." She nods appreciatively. By the time I exit the shop into a late Paris afternoon, she's back to scribbling in her notebook.