One literary scene from a marriage:

We were at the beach ... I was writing {a novelin the bedroom, in longhand, and he was working {on a playin the living room, with the typewriter. He would come in, it seemed to me, every 30 minutes and say, 'Let me read you this scene.' He would read this hysterical scene and I would laugh. Well, I would have written maybe another paragraph by the time he came in with another scene. Finally I said, 'I will tell you when I am ready to take a break. Do not come in here until I am ready to take a break.' I couldn't stand it.

The marriage of Kate and Jim Lehrer is one with two AT&T word processors, good-humored bickering and several good excuses not to have become writers. His: a full-time career coanchoring the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour." A 1983 heart attack and double bypass operation that would seem to warrant the avoidance of stress. Hers: a stay-at-home-and-raise-the-kids commitment to their three daughters, the youngest of whom is now in college. And an admitted capacity for living vicariously through her husband's projects.

But each decided, more than 30 years ago, to be a writer. And now, Kate and Jim Lehrer -- 47 and 53 years old, respectively -- are thoroughly engaged in the process, marking off week after week with book parties, rewrites, readings, drafts, previews, reviews, opening nights, workshops. "High pitch" living, as she calls it.

Kate Lehrer's first published novel, "Best Intentions" -- about the triangular relationship of a Washington journalist, her rancorous adolescent daughter and her young assistant -- came out in June. And Jim Lehrer's latest play, "Chili Queen" -- about a waitress and customer who carry a minor disagreement over $10 to eccentric extremes -- opens tomorrow at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater after a five-week showcase in New York last winter.

Now Kate Lehrer is at work on two more novels and a short story. Jim Lehrer has another play, "The Great Man," that will take him -- several days after "Chili Queen" opens -- to Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in Utah for a by-invitation-only workshop with other playwrights, directors and actors.

That's not all.

"There's a new wrinkle, by the way," Jim Lehrer says. "Over the last two years I have been tinkering with a novel and I finished it a couple of weeks ago. And just in the last three or four days, Putnam's has bought the thing and they are going to publish it in the spring."

Really, it's laughable. And among the first to laugh are Kate and Jim Lehrer. Every time one of them turns around or twirls a pen, a new project springs up. In the works. Just published. Stashed in a cabinet never to see the light of day. Just reissued. Rerun as a late-late movie on CBS. To be signed. To be written. To be announced.

A hint -- but by no means a guarantee -- that the Lehrers' marriage would somehow turn out to be a literary one can be found in Dallas, on Labor Day, 1959.

She was moving into an apartment building on Gaston Avenue. He was already there, rooming with a few guys from Texas Christian University -- her alma mater. The next day she was to start a new job: teaching 7th- and 8th-grade English -- an undertaking that she approached like a college lecture situation and was, therefore, "terrible" at. He was just out of the Marines and three months into a job reporting for The Dallas Morning News -- "a young thing to do," an uncle of his had told him dismissively.

There they were, standing in a stairwell. She with a load of boxes. He with an offer of assistance. It's the how-they-met chapter.

That evening, Kate Lehrer remembers, "He helped me unpack my books and we got into our first literary discussion. I had just finished reading 'Ulysses' -- I had read it on my own, without any notes or anything. And he had read it the year before, {with} one of those guides. So he knew everything. And I was really impressed. It was years before he ever told me why he had caught all that. I kept thinking, 'Gosh, he's just gotten so much more out of this book than I have.' "

"I have no comment on that," says Jim Lehrer.

Two weeks later, he proposed. She said yes. She changed her mind the next day. A few months later, the subject came up again. She said yes. They were married the following June.

When he talks about himself -- not as Jim Lehrer the Anchorman but as Jim Lehrer the Playwright -- three words stand out: Writing like crazy. The flip side of such obsession, both of the Lehrers admit, is that it's annoying to be around someone like that.

"It's terrible living with somebody who can absolutely block out the world," Kate Lehrer says. "If he had 40 minutes, he could write."

"It not only drives my wife crazy," Jim Lehrer says, "it drives my partner and best friend, Robert MacNeil, completely up the wall."

MacNeil agrees. "Very, very distressing," he says jokingly. "It's a good thing I'm not a competitive person. A good thing I'm not a jealous person." As it happens, MacNeil is the one who set out after college to become a playwright, but with little success.

"Jim has a really extraordinary ability to turn the right piece of mind on at the right moment -- the piece he wants to use," says MacNeil. "Most of us -- ordinary people and ordinary workaday journalists -- can't do it and creak from one thing to another ... He can switch to a piece of mind, like a computer: By pushing a button, he can go to one part of the directory, work in that directory, save it, push another button and move instantly to another directory."

And in switching back and forth, MacNeil says, Lehrer "can do each {project} completely, without tearing, leaving shreds of torn emotional fabric."

What MacNeil sees as a "great clarification" of personality and goals in Lehrer, he partially attributes to the heart attack and surgery. It isn't, he says, a difference of 100 percent. "It's a difference of 30 percent. Jim was always like this."

It was while recuperating from his operation that Lehrer decided he had to return to fiction writing. The idea of sitting down and starting a novel, however, seemed daunting. "I didn't have the energy," he says. "I was talking to Kate, and Kate's the one who said, 'Why don't you write a play?' 'Honey, I don't know how to write a play.' 'Well, what the hell, learn.' "

And learn he did. First by reading plays, then by going to plays, here and in New York. And, believing that "the best way to learn something is to do it," by writing them. "I just kept writing," he says -- "Wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote."

He turned out three plays before he knew what he was doing. Just the idea of it leaves Kate Lehrer giggling. "Instead of, 'Oh, this doesn't sound so good,' it's, 'I'll just write a new play.' Don't bother with rewrite."

"Also, play-writing has been so much fun for me," he says. "I mean, when I get uptight or something, I come down here and I'll fool with a play."

More laughter from Kate Lehrer. "Most people wouldn't find that their outlet for tension."

These are the lines of the battle, affectionately drawn and long in place. The fights that they allude to and laugh about. The differences in style and pace that have fueled a collaboration.

"Best Intentions" begins:

Over and over again I tell myself the story of Sarah. I have a lot of facts, and I claim them. I do not claim objectivity. Still, I cut her out carefully, as I might a paper doll, measuring all the angles, clipping around the elbows and tabs just so. I am not always successful. She obscures conclusions ... Until Leslie died, I lived my life on the surfaces, not wanting to reckon with mortality. I thrived on clutter, and Sarah was a plentiful provider, though she herself was never so deceived or distracted by it. Or maybe not. Maybe -- right up until that day -- Sarah also was caught in the awesome foolishness of daily endeavors.

"We are just so completely different as writers that even while we are good editors with each other ... There's a part of our writing that the other is not even that good a judge of," Kate Lehrer says. "I mean, the kind of stuff I write he doesn't necessarily always want to read. And what he writes, I don't necessarily want to read."

Overlap, influence and idea-cribbing aren't problems, she says.

"Best Intentions," for example, is a novel that Kate Lehrer describes as "interior" -- obliquely suggesting that her husband's work is not. The novel is a study of how three lives -- played out in the Washington world of power and privilege -- can become entwined and even pernicious.

It is not, the author hastens to explain, a roman a` clef about the cocktail-hour behavior of Senator So-and-So -- no expose' of the party circuit. She set the novel in Washington, she says, "because I thought it would make it that much more interesting." Her use of Washington, she explains, is as a counterpoint -- a source of texture and a means of revealing the larger truths she wanted to write about. "I never thought in terms of the Washington novel."

But the publisher -- Little, Brown and Company -- did.

"Best Intentions" is packaged as a Washington novel, with the book jacket presenting on the front a watercolor scene of the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool, and on the back, blurbs from journalists such as Elizabeth Drew and Roger Mudd that endorse the novel as a "knowing" portrait of Washington.

It will be difficult to put the Washington Monument on the covers of her next two novels. She has moved the locales of those works-in-progress to the other place she knows best -- Texas, where she was born and where Jim Lehrer's fiction has been for quite a while.

With the exception of "The Great Man," Lehrer has steered clear of the Washington novel, the Washington play, and even the Washington memoir; his memoir is about his itinerant childhoor in Kansas and Texas.

Settings and character names from the playwright:

"Chili Queen" -- The scene is a Chili Queen fast-food restaurant in a small town in Northeast Texas. The characters -- Velma, Buddy, Duane, Junior, Chick and Bradley.

"Church Key Charlie Blue" -- All of the action takes place on a Tuesday night in the cocktail lounge of a small-town motel in East Texas. The characters -- Bobbie Lee, Lucas, Chuck, Alfred, Skeeter, Jackson, Brownie and Church Key Charlie Blue.

One look at Jim Lehrer's study and it all fits -- the Duanes, the Skeeters and the small-town motel.

In the basement of the Lehrers' home, his desk and word processor, his file cabinets and his sofa escape notice. The room is plastered with bus memorabilia. It's everywhere. On the sofa. On the desk. Under the desk. On the wall. In the closet. On the ceiling. On the floor. The only things missing -- and it wouldn't surprise anyone if they end up there -- are the rumbles and fumes of an idling bus.

"Oh sure, I'm obsessive about everything, just about -- " Jim Lehrer starts to say. They are both sitting in his "bus room" and he's talking about his writing.

"Look at this room!" Kate Lehrer blurts, bursting into high-gear laughter. "This room does not belong to a man who is not obsessed!"

She's right. Cast-iron toys. Ashtrays. Cap badges. Tickets. Coin changers. Rubber stamps. Destination signs. Clocks. Timetables. Baggage compartment keys. Playing cards. Crockery. Dozens of everything and everything with an inscription: "Harmony Short Line." "Blue Ridge Lines." "Passenger Express Service, Indiana Motor Bus Company." "Mack's Motor Coaches/The S.S.S. of Travel: Sure-Safe-Secure." "Central Texas Bus Lines Station."

It began with his father. Fred Lehrer was a revenue clerk for a bus company called Southern Kansas Stage Lines. When Jim was 12, the Lehrers bought an intercity bus line, Kansas Central Lines. One year later, they were out of business. Bankrupt but abounding with tales of misadventure. And when he died, Lehrer's father was a Trailways terminal manager in San Antonio. No family ever loved buses more than the H.F. Lehrers.

From "We Were Dreamers," Lehrer's 1975 memoir of the year his family owned Kansas Central Lines:

I wanted to be a bus driver. Except for an occasional straying during the war, when I longed to be a marine or a fighter pilot, it was the only vocational ambition I had as a kid. The drama and excitement of captaining a big Santa Fe ACF or even a Greyhound Supercoach full of passengers was continually in my daydream fantasies -- speeding down a mountain road outside Colorado Springs when the brakes fail, thirty-seven people depending on me to bring the coach safely to a stop; driving across the Mississippi River bridge at Hannibal, Missouri, when suddenly a crazy man stabs me in the back ...

Lehrer's childhood dream of becoming a bus driver gave way in high school to a dream of being a sportswriter. Neither was realized -- he became a political reporter, and he worked at a bus station only during college, as a ticket agent.

Writing -- someday -- was the only thing Kate Lehrer ever wanted to do. As a child, she says, writing books "seemed like a miracle" -- and to support herself while pursuing that "miracle" on the side, she planned to teach school.

But teaching 7th- and 8th-grade English took energy. The "whirlwind romance" with Jim Lehrer took energy. Marriage and three daughters -- Jamie, Amanda and Lucy -- took energy. Backing up her husband's double days -- as a reporter for The Dallas Morning News and later the Times Herald and as a novelist at home -- took energy. They worked as a team -- he wrote and she typed and edited his manuscripts. "I think part of our whole deal was that even though I wasn't writing, I knew that I knew what good writing was," she says. "It was just his turn to write."

"She did defer a lot for many years, simply with the domestic arrangements and the child rearing and all that," MacNeil says. "And Jim has been extremely cognizant of that -- God, I sound like Colonel North. He has recognized that and done everything to encourage her. But it is harder for her -- if you write every day as a journalist, you are lubricated. There is a more facile connection between the mind and the fingers on the typewriter -- or on the word processor. It's taken her a while to get her machinery unlimbered."

When they first met, Kate Lehrer says, "I remember telling Jim, 'Well, I want to be a writer.' Later, he told me that yes, he wanted to be a writer, too. But he just had the energy. He would do it."

Sitting on a wicker sofa on the screened porch of their Cleveland Park home on a sultry Sunday, she threads her way through the reasons. The wanting to write. And the temporizing. The procrastinating. The loss of time.

"I have to watch myself or I can spend an awful lot of my emotional energy on his projects, just because he always has a lot of things going. It's an old pattern in our lives. So it's very easy for me to use up an awful lot of energy that way.

"I think I used everything as an excuse. And since he really was writing -- he held down a job and could still write -- just so one of us was doing it. It was a good way for me to hide without ever having to do it myself."

He wrote what they figured would sell. "The chances of his making money," she says, "were better than the chances of my making money on the kinds of things I wanted to write. So it seemed to make eminent good sense for both of us to get behind his writing."

As for her writing, twice she says that it took a "long time to get around to doing it."

What preceded "Best Intentions" can be found packed away in a cabinet -- a novel about growing up in Texas ("I simply had no idea what I was doing," she says. "To say it had no plot would be fair enough") and a children's book that got what "Best Intentions" never did -- "lots of nice rejection letters."

In the early years of their marriage -- before PBS and before plays -- Lehrer was writing short stories. "I had already written scads," he says, "when I was in the service and at {the University of Missouri}. Short stories. When I say scads, I mean scraps. Nothing of any consequence."

"But you were always sending them out," adds Kate Lehrer.

"Oh yeah, oh yeah," he says, rallying round the past, sounding like a baseball fan remembering The Big Game.

"Constantly. You had about -- what? -- eight or 10 stories out? They were all written for The New Yorker," she says.

"And The New Yorker didn't know that. Didn't care," he teases. "The first couple of years we were married, I had short stories going out all the time."

"All the time. But it was kind of wonderful," she says. "Because there would always be at least five out there. One would come back, and he just sent it back to somewhere else, and he never got discouraged, 'cause there was always the idea that something could hit."

What hit, during their Dallas years, was a novel called "Viva Max!" now found in secondhand bookstores as a Popular Library paperback and on TV, transformed into a late-late movie. The story of Maximilian Rodriguez de Santos -- a Mexican general -- and his plan to retake the Alamo was, as Kate Lehrer says, "going to be our big ticket."

"I was driven," Lehrer recalls. "I was driven because I figured this is the only way I'm going to be able to change our lives. I had to write this book, and it had to be a best seller and it was going to do this and that and the other thing. I knew exactly what I was doing."

He begins to laugh with the vehemence of the motivation. "And what kept my butt on the chair was not the need to communicate great ideas with people. It was a very tough life, making $82.50 a week ... I wanted to stay pure, as they say, either in the newspaper business or writing, and it was a tough go. It was exhausting, but then it happened."

"Also, it was exhilarating," Kate adds. "You loved it."

"Oh yeah! Oh yeah! I loved being a reporter and I loved the writing. It was a great turn-on."

So was the news that "Viva Max!" would be turned into a movie. A $45,000 windfall for the Lehrers that, according to their calculations, would enable him to quit his job as city editor for the Times Herald and write for five years. Three months into the full-time, at-home writing, a Dallas public television station asked him to be a part-time consultant on news and public affairs. That project mushroomed. And Lehrer found himself doing an experimental -- and successful -- nightly news program.

After that, he could write for love, not money.

Dialogue from a marriage:

Jim: Most of my writing -- I am now to a point where I can get up early in the morning and write in the evening when I get home from work.

Kate: I myself have held it as a great principle in life that one cannot work after dinner.

Jim: But, I've gotten you to where you'll do that now.

Kate: Finally. Shaming me into it.

Jim: Oh, baby, when you were finishing the last time, you were working around the clock. You were as obsessive as I ever was.

Kate: That's because I had to be. I was finishing it. I really was just working all the time. It's not my normal style.