The day I met Anne Lamott…and choked


Seven years ago, I waited in line to meet her, Annie Lamott, the author whose books I had devoured in a frantic kind of way, as if reading everything she’d written would somehow make me a better writer. I’d discovered her years before by accident when a friend told me that my confessional way of writing reminded them of her. I wanted to see what that meant, so I picked up her book, Traveling Mercies. Instantly, I was drawn into her world, at her coffee table, beside her and God and her son Sam as we compared imperfections, the wonderful sucky miraculous life of single motherhood, and how our own mothers drove us crazy and probably gave us our imperfections. I was hooked. I went on to read every other book she wrote, then followed her on social media where I gleefully witnessed her tell it like it was with no apology. I wished I could be that brave, to write out exactly what I was thinking without ever worrying about what my church thought, my coworkers thought, my mother thought. I lived vicariously through her, thinking that maybe I should have a stronger opinion on political figures and refer to God as a woman, just like she did. I wished my flattened hair was kinky enough to do something as bold as the dreads she wore, and wondered if I’d be as cool as she was when I reached my 60s.

I’d just finished hearing her tell a crowd of us “everything she knew about writing,” which only took an hour to tell. It was enough to further inspire my writing dreams. I had several unfinished novels collecting dust under my bed, and aspirations to one day be published. I wanted to ask how she gathered the courage to share unflattering stories about her family. It was one thing to share about one’s own mistakes and disparaging attributes, but to reveal the flaws of others was a thorny situation. Did they forgive her for outing them because she was the Anne Lamott? Did the pleasure of seeing their stories in print supersede their shameful shortcomings made public? Or did Annie simply step around their wagging fingers and high-pitched complaints, holding her head high on her way to writing a new bestselling, must-read novel?

“Are you nervous?” my husband asked, lacing his fingers through mine as I craned my neck toward the front of the line. I’d studied her outfit, the casual way she wore a scarf draped around her neck, the moon and star necklace I’d seen her wear on several different interviews, and how even her casual appearance seemed elegant in a way. In her writing and on stage, she’d mentioned her struggle with weight, but I saw no sign of it. Her pants were loose on her slim figure, her clothing like something out of an L.L. Bean catalog where men and women danced on beaches in colorful fashions as breezy as the wind.

“No,” I answered him, even though it was a lie. I was more aware of my stomach the closer we got, the words I wanted to say to her swimming around my head like a school of herring in an underwater tornado. My questions were starting to fade into statements, ones that told her how much she meant to me, how she inspired me, how her words made me want to be a better writer. Judging by the way the line kept inching forward, I only had a minute or two to convey my appreciation. Would it be enough? I grasped my copy of Traveling Mercies in my hand, trying to bend the curling cover so that it lay flat once again, and thinking of the other books I’d left behind. Was this really the one I wanted her to sign? It was the first book I’d read of hers, but there were others she’d written that touched me in different ways. Bird by Bird, in particular. Why hadn’t I brought that one?

One person stood between Anne Lamott and me, and my tongue was suddenly as dry as the Sahara Desert. Everything I thought I’d say to her disappeared. All my visions of her asking me out to coffee, maybe even her house, so we could discuss our shared profession of writing and my future success as an author…it all evaporated as the person in front of me ended their turn and she turned to me.

“Uh,” I started, which is always a good place to start when talking to your idol. “Uh hi.” What was wrong with me? I thought I should at least mention the book I was working on, the one that would make me famous. But then I realized she might not care, or worse, she’d ask me what it was about. “Um, my name is Crissi.”

“Nice to meet you, Crissi,” she said, her kind eyes meeting mine. This surprised me. She looked at me as if I were the only person there, giving me her full attention like I was someone important.

“Uh, nice to meet you,” I said. “I wanted to tell you, uh…” What did I want to tell her? How could I put it in words, how she’d voiced every single feelings I’d ever had, and mentioned things I’d felt shame over as if they were no big deal? How could I tell her that the love letter she wrote to her thighs, who she called “the aunties,” made me love my body a little bit better? Or that the way she wrote about her son made motherhood feel that much more special? Or how her honest way of talking about the pain of writing made me feel so much less alone?

“I wanted to tell you,” I began again. “I want you to know, uh, how much your writing has meant to me.” She smiled, seeming unrushed despite the line behind me. If I was wasting her time, she never made any show of it.

“She’s read almost all of your books,” Shawn offered, nodding at the book in my hands. Anne looked down and motioned at the book.

“Can I sign that for you?” she asked, and I handed it over. I knew I wouldn’t say anything else. I couldn’t. It was enough that I was there, standing next to Anne Lamott as she wrote my name next to hers inside the very first book of hers I’d read.

“Can I get a picture of you two?” Shawn asked, and I was so grateful he was there. Anne turned and we pressed our heads together as if we’d known each other for years. On my face was a smile, but in my head was a million cannons, firing off t-shirts into the crowd stating that my head was touching the famous dreadlocks of my favorite author, the knotted hair holding years of history I’d read about in her books—the loss of her very best friend Pammy to cancer, her difficult relationship with her mother and then losing her to Alzheimer’s, the day she let a black woman and her daughter make a religious experience out of dreadlocking her hair…the very hair that was touching mine.

“Thank you,” I breathed, and she gave me a gracious “you’re welcome” before turning to the next lucky person in line.

It wasn’t how I’d envisioned it, but it was enough. Plus, I still had her words written down in her books. And maybe, just maybe, if I ever got the chance to meet her again, I’d have better luck telling her how much she meant to me.


Idols, authors and humble beginnings

Last night, my husband and I went to see the American Idol Live Tour. I admit, it was a total impulse buy when season 14 of American Idol ended earlier this year. But we had become so enamored with a few of these contestants, namely Jax and Clark Beckham, that we just had to see them live. So we bought the tickets and waited for this night to come.

My hubby and I, waiting for the show to start.
My hubby and I, waiting for the show to start.

Sitting in the audience, it was pretty surreal to see these kids (omg, I’m such an old-timer) performing on stage in front of us. I say that because we had seen them from the start of their Idol journey. I remember every one of them from their auditions, when they came in front of the judges with hopes of showing they can do well in the spotlight. I saw greatness in Jax from the very beginning, totally blown away with her undercover talent. And Clark? Man that guy can wail! He has this southern soul thing going on that you just wouldn’t expect from a pretty white guy. I will seriously buy any album he comes out with.

The Idols were definitely more polished than we had seen them on TV. And they were already pretty polished at the end of the Idol season. But you could tell they’d received training on how to connect with the audience, and how to make the most of their time in the spotlight. Each one of them held the audience captive with, not only their voice, but with their personal stories of life before Idol – how they were consumed with a dream they just had to make true. They each shared their humble beginnings, and how, despite the challenges they faced as struggling artists, they refused to give up until their goal was met.

And this is the part I love – the story before the spotlight. Every single person who has reached success has this story. It’s the life they lived before anyone even knew who they were, outside of close family and friends. It’s who they were when they were just like everyone else, living with a dream they hoped would come true.

Whenever I come across an artist I admire, I almost always search out their beginning story. Anne Lamott shares a ton of backstory in her book, Bird by Bird, and I have read that book repeatedly, mostly to connect with the Annie that lived before the NYT Bestseller’s List found her. Liz Gilbert shares how discipline and hard work are vital to getting where you want to be, though aren’t a guarantee to reach success. However, she shares that if we love what we do, we should never throw in the towel. Colleen Hoover shared how she couldn’t even afford trash service at her 1000 SF mobile home several years ago. Now? She is every indie author’s inspiration as she cranks out bestseller after bestseller (and I cannot consume her amazing books fast enough). Sharon Hamilton, who I first knew as a real estate agent in my town and the mom of two of my classmates, is now a successful, bestselling romance author. She’s quite the inspiration for those of us who belong to her writing group. But you know what offers me the most inspiration when it comes to Sharon? The blog posts she wrote before her books became big, when she repeatedly shared her all-consuming dream of finding success with writing, and the few posts she wrote where she admitted her frustrations that it wasn’t coming as fast as she would have liked.

I love these beginning stories, because it’s where I hope I’m at now. The other day, I admitted my frustration at how I seem to be on this hamster wheel of authorship, working my ass off to go nowhere fast. But what if, years from now, that post is just a glimpse at my humble beginnings? What if all the work I’m doing now leads to something huge in just a few years? What if my story of frustration and feelings of defeat end up being an inspiration to the next small time author hoping to make it big?

We’ve all got to start somewhere. And if we truly love and believe in what we’re doing, we won’t give up.

Those Idol kids on the stage, they’ve come a long way from where they once were before American knew their names. And, they have a long way to go if they want to remain in the spotlight. They could be the next Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood. Or, they could slip into the abyss that some Idol stars disappear into. Their success depends on them. But how cool that we got to see their journey from the time they were first discovered.

Here’s a video of Jax killing it on the keyboards. Btw, all photos and video in this blog were taken by my wonderful husband. So if video or photos weren’t allowed at this show, you can talk to him. 😉

10 things about me as a writer

I just completed an author interview over at Smashwords, and thought I’d share the whole thing over here. 🙂

What do your fans mean to you?
My fans mean everything to me! Writing can be such a lonely craft, and there are times when I am so frustrated with the story or the characters, and I wonder if it’s even worth writing anymore. Then a fan will send me an encouraging word, like telling me how much one of my stories meant to them, and I remember why I’m doing this – to make a difference, and to share a glimpse of hope in human experiences. Without fans, I’d still have reason to write. But it would hold so much less meaning than it does with people who love my stories and want more of them.

What are you working on next?
Right now I’m working on the third and final installment of my Forever After series – the prequel to A Symphony of Cicadas and Forever Thirteen. Admittedly, I’m totally struggling with this one, as I have to be very careful how the story unfolds since all the events happen before stories already told. Following that, I have a rough draft of a story I wrote years ago and set aside, and I’m itching to dive into it and make it a book!

Who are your favorite authors?
I love Anne Lamott. I love her blatant honesty in her memoirs, and how she uses her personal experiences in her fiction. She’s such a bare bones writer, and a truly wonderful woman. I also love a slightly unknown author named Tim Farrington, who as far as I can tell, has stopped writing books unfortunately. He wrote The Monk Downstairs, and is so delicate in his descriptions, I just want to live in his stories. And I love Elizabeth Gilbert and Alice Sebold, both of whom wrote life changing books I have read over and over again. And my first love in novelists would be Ernest Hemingway, who stole my heart with the book Old Man and the Sea, and watered my writing plant so that all I wanted to be was an author.

What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
Would it be too cliche to say writing? There are so many other facets of my life, mostly my family. But the reason I am an early riser is because my laptop and the growing story on it is calling to me. That, and coffee.

When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
I’m a mom and stepmom to three awesome kids, and married to the most wonderful man. My family is my everything. We have a crazy dog who I just recently found out is an Australian Kelpie mix, but is mainly a mutt. I love taking him for walks, particularly in the evening when the frogs in our neighborhood creek are singing their loudest. I work at a newspaper where I used to write a column that told all of my family’s stories, particularly the stories of my youngest son who is kind of an adorable troublemaker (see Golf Balls, Eight Year Olds & Dual Paned Windows). That gig ended, though, and I mostly just help maintain the websites, though I still occasionally share my writing on the online newspaper. I am part of our region’s writing group called Redwood Writers, and I am their newsletter editor and social media maven. And I am heavily involved with a summer camp, and am one of the people who help plan and coordinate it. All this on top of writing a novel. You could say I enjoy being busy. 🙂

How do you discover the eBooks you read?
Often, it’s from recommendations from my friends. I think that’s the biggest way most books are shared. Someone will be buzzing about this great book they’ve read, and their interest entices interest from others. And then it spreads like wildfire. It’s my hope that one day I can present a book to readers that they can’t stop talking about.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
The first story I ever wrote was about a princess in her castle. That’s all I remember. I was in first grade, and it probably sucked. But my teacher was so awesome about it, praising me on the way I read it with emotion.

What is your writing process?
I start with an idea, and jot it down on an outline. And then when I start writing, I end up straying big time from that outline. But I still believe it’s a good idea to start with a plan, even if that plan changes. It gives me roots to go from, but when it changes, it means the characters are writing the story and not me.

What are your five favorite books, and why?
My first is The Lovely Bones, and the book I referred to often as I wrote my book, A Symphony of Cicadas. I love it because I love Alice Sebold’s way with description and ethereal storytelling.
Next is Peter Pan. I love the symbolism in it about not wanting to grow up, how youth is fighting age, and Wendy’s choice. It represents all of our struggle with leaving childhood.
Then there’s Eat Pray Love. I feel like that’s such a cliche book to love, but I totally jumped on the bandwagon. It was published at a time when I was struggling within the early years of my own divorce and the confusion of the dating world, and taught me that I could find love and acceptance within my own life…or maybe Bali (thankfully, my husband ended up being a lot closer than that!)
Next is Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott. Every single word she writes is like gospel being sung to me.
And then there’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, which takes a confusing storyline and tells it in such a brilliant way that you can totally keep up. I’m not even sure how the author did it. Serious skill.
There are a zillion more books I love, too, maybe even some I love more than these. But for this moment, these are my top 5.

What inspired your latest book?
It actually started with the first book in the series, which stemmed from a vivid dream I had. I was having one of those wedding nightmares a few months before my actual wedding. In the dream, I died. But the dream didn’t end. Instead, I hung around as I watched my fiance grieve for me, and then move on. And instead of being all angry, I moved into a feeling of peace, wanting him to be happy even though I wasn’t there with him. I was so moved by this dream I woke up crying. And then I outlined the whole novel and wrote it for NaNoWriMo, and published it a few months after it was written. The rest is history! Now I am telling the story before my main character died, detailing how they fell in love.