Elizabeth Berg, a man named Andre, and writing true

On August 16, 2013, I kissed my husband curbside and anxiously entered the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Chicago. I was wearing my favorite jeans, a polka-dot blouse and my black pumps, the ones with the large leather bow near the toe. But the space felt wrong, like the cafeteria on the first day of school: a virtual minefield of social suicide and no map to guide.

I looked around, knowing full well I would find no familiar faces, but hoping I could spot aspiring writers, that perhaps our hearts would seem familiar to one another. And after a few trips up and down the stairs, I spotted them. Comrades in pen. Soldiers of prose.

We were all nervous. Sizing up the space and each other, then scanning the large area for a face we’d seen only briefly, if at all: that of Ms. Elizabeth Berg.

I had met Elizabeth previously, but doubted she’d remember me. I had been too nervous, too giddy that warm summer day when she’d spoken about the motivation behind her novels, including her most recent, Tapestry of Fortunes.

Meeting Elizabeth.  May 10, 2013.

Meeting Elizabeth. May 10, 2013.

Afterward, as she signed my copy, she told me of a workshop that was in the planning stages. It would be in Chicago. “If you’re serious about writing”, she told me, “I think it would be a wonderful experience for you. Please try to come.”

And then there I was, waiting for the first of three days with one of my most beloved authors .

Her latest novel, which I enjoyed, but doesn't hold a candle to my absolute favorite, The Pull of the Moon.

Her latest novel, which I enjoyed, but didn’t move me nearly as much as my absolute favorite, The Pull of the Moon.

Elizabeth wrote my name before I spelled it, hence the addition of "who wrote before she listened" to the inscription.

Elizabeth wrote my name before I spelled it, hence the addition of “who wrote before she listened” to the inscription.

There were five of us: different ages, different backgrounds, different writing styles and different motivations for putting pen to paper. But we all had two things in common: we all loved Elizabeth and we all wanted to learn from her.

The ladies from the workshop (L to R):  Sandy, Ginny, Chrissie, Me and Marilyn.

The ladies from the workshop (L to R): Sandy, Ginny, Chrissie, Me and Marilyn.

She told us our time together would be sacred. That we would bond quickly, share more and share bigger because of the intensity of the workshop. She asked us to be open to feeling everything that came, even the terrifying and difficult. That it would make our writing more authentic. And then she said this:

“Don’t be afraid to feel. The good stuff is where the bullshit ends and the truth begins.”

I nodded my head in response and heard the tinny clang of my armor, heavy and protective: Bullshit. Yes, that’s what it was.

On day two, Elizabeth shared with us where our talents might best be suited. I had prayed all night for her lips to form the word novelist, but instead she told me she saw me as a children’s book author. And called my writing ethereal. Afterward, as we sat tight and straight like Popsicle sticks, I asked the ladies if they felt the same. Ginny, who I’d grown to adore, stepped closer, “It’s just what she thinks; it doesn’t mean anything…unless you think it does.” But it did. Elizabeth Berg was telling me I’d be a great children’s author. Perhaps she was right. Since she was Elizabeth Berg and all.

I was dreading day three. Its focus, dialogue, had never been my strength and I’d convinced myself it never would.

On that day, Elizabeth gave an assignment:

Today’s assignment is to go out and listen to people talk. It can be anywhere: on the street, in a restaurant, in a bathroom, in the hotel lobby, on public transportation. Pay attention not only to what they say but HOW they say it—you want to pick up on natural patterns of speech. What gets emphasized? What makes for pauses? Hesitations? Repetitions? Is there a strident quality to what they’re saying? A lyrical one? A dull one? How does emotion affect the way something is said?
…Try to replicate cadence, a natural and way of speech. Try to avoid clichés or dialogue that goes nowhere; have your assignment be a little story. Understand in your mind who these characters are before you make them talk: see them clearly in your mind.

I felt sick to my stomach. I had no idea where to go or what to write. So I wandered down Wacker, turned left on Michigan and saw a man standing in a doorway, a paper cup in his hands and a cardboard sign around his neck. Written there were two words:

I’m hungry

I looked at him as I passed, but I didn’t See him, and continued to walk until I found a door that looked interesting and walked through. I ordered my lunch, then sat at a table near the back, behind a young couple and away from the noise. She was pleading with him to stay together, despite their parents and their friends’ objections. But he heard nothing. He was messing with his iPhone and jamming to the tunes heard on his bright red headphones. She looked down, around and down again. And then there was silence.

I started to eat my lunch, but couldn’t forget the man’s face, his sign and those written words: I’m hungry. So, I got up, bought him some lunch and headed his way. When I held out my hand, he cocked his head and put his pointer finger to his temple. It stayed there as he sized me up and then extended his hand toward me:

“My name’s Andre.”
“Pleased to meet you, Andre. I’m Dani.”

I asked him if he’d mind having lunch with me to which he replied, “pull up some concrete”, which I did. He told me about losing his job, his apartment and his family. He told me about life on the street, sleeping under Wacker Drive, “which smells like trash and dead things…’cept in winter.” How his friend had a dog, “one of them smooshy ones with rolls” and how he helped them make it: “People seems more inclined to feed a starving man with a dog, ‘poor thing’, they always say.”

He told me about working in factories in Kenosha. And I watched him hide his hands as he told me how badly he wanted to shower, “to get clean, you know?”.

Then he told me this:

“Yous my present from God today. People don’t see me. But you, you stopped. And looked at me. That there’s a God thing, mam. Yous a God thing.”

I shook his hand again and told him I needed to get back. And then looked him straight in the eye: “It was nice meeting you, Andre. Thank you.”

I ran to the hotel and began feverishly scribbling the account of our conversation, as if I were watching from the outside. And when I shared it with my group, I cried, overwhelmed by what had happened and how he’d let me in. “That was a God thing,” I told them.

 

That first day in the Hyatt lobby was 365 days ago. One week later I started this blog and since then have referred back to things said by each woman who attended, to Andre, and, of course, to Elizabeth, who reminded us on our last day together:

“Writing is not a craft, it’s a calling.”

I know now I was called to this place and that I couldn’t fully be here without my traumas and triumphs. That you wouldn’t hear me or See me without them. So in honor of Elizabeth, Andre and my nearly one year blogging anniversary, I’d like to extend my heart in thanks to those who have sprinkled light and truth on my path, those who have Seen me and had the decency to hold my gaze in this precious space:

To Ginny, a beautiful writer and friend, thank you for believing in my voice and experiences. And thank you for believing others would as well.
To Charissa Grace, a wordsmith if I’ve ever known one, you are true heart. Thank you for being Family.

To Jane, a tender soul and talented writer, thank you for breathing kindness, acceptance and grace.
To Stephen, a man of passion and stalwart faith, thank you for your time, your willingness to consider and our continued conversations.

And finally, to Elizabeth Berg, who taught me about the sanctity of writing true. May you know I always will.

  One thought on “Elizabeth Berg, a man named Andre, and writing true

  1. August 16, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    *tears*

    My silence here, my deepest tribute.

    Yous a God thing.

    Me

    • August 23, 2014 at 8:52 pm

      I’m not sure that I am, but the Us that happened in that abandoned doorway certainly was ❤

  2. August 16, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    Thank you very much for a fantastic story and lesson.

    • August 23, 2014 at 8:53 pm

      My sincere thanks for reading, Robert.

      Blessings,
      Dani

  3. August 16, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    Oh, Dani – you gave me goosebumps! Of joy, envy, admiration and truth. Elizabeth has been one of my favorites since her first book so many years ago. Your connection with her, and the friends you’ve made because of her, are certainly God things. As is your generosity of time and spirit of acceptance during your lunch with Andre.

    Keep writing.

    • August 23, 2014 at 9:00 pm

      Oh, Sammy, I completely agree. Elizabeth is such a force of heart and raw power, which she harnesses beautifully through pen strokes and evocative prose.

      I felt beyond blessed to be in her presence and will remember those 3 days for many years to come.

      My truest thanks for reading and commenting; both mean the world to me and my heart.

      With thanksgiving,
      Dani

      P.S. I will Always be writing…XOXO

  4. August 16, 2014 at 5:12 pm

    Yes indeed, yous a God thing and a writer 😀

    • August 23, 2014 at 9:04 pm

      As are you, Catherine.
      As. are. you.

      With thanks and heart,
      Dani

  5. myhopejar
    August 16, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    Happy Blogiversary Dani! And thank you for sharing this story. I cried when I read your lunch with Andre and my heart goes out to him I pray God has helped restore him and get off the streets. You really are a God thing. So happy you started writing and sharing this blog. It has been such a pleasure and a gift getting to know you ❤

    • August 23, 2014 at 9:07 pm

      What a sweet comment, Jo. Thank you so much for sharing this journey with me. I feel beyond blessed to be present in this space and time–even more so because this forum has allowed my to meet sweet souls like yourself.

      Blessings to you and baby, friend,
      Dani

  6. August 16, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    Dani, yous a God thing. Without a doubt, a God thing. We are blessed with the presence of your longing words and of your love.

    • August 23, 2014 at 9:12 pm

      What a lovely comment from a truly lovely person.
      Thank you, friend.

      With blessings of health and grace,
      Dani

      • August 23, 2014 at 10:22 pm

        Sorry for the typo. Drives me nuts when I see a typo that I cannot edit to correct.

        • August 24, 2014 at 6:42 pm

          I know, Kitt. It does the same to me 😦

          Squeezes,
          Dani

  7. August 16, 2014 at 11:12 pm

    What a beautiful story, Dani. I have always loved your heart felt writing and am so glad I found your blog. I think you’d make a great children’s author OR a novelist! Happy blogiversary! ❤

    • August 23, 2014 at 9:15 pm

      Thank you so much, Alexis…for the praise and the belief in my future as a writer.

      ❤ Dani

      P.S. I just love your blog. Thank you for allowing me to share in your journey.

  8. Nancy
    August 17, 2014 at 2:18 am

    Dani- you are a gifted writer. I read all your stories, and love to read more. It’s a gift you have and a gift to share.

    • August 23, 2014 at 9:19 pm

      Nancy, thank you for reading and sharing in this journey. It is a true blessing to know that I have loyal readers who think I have something to share.

      With heart,
      Dani

  9. August 17, 2014 at 3:32 am

    My sweet, sweet Dani. Can it really be only a year ago we just met? I feel like I’ve known you, in some ways, for eternity. I remember that polka-dot blouse, your cute little shoes, your sweet demeanor, your tender heart, steadily revealed throughout the weekend and pulling us toward each other like magnets. From the first meet and greet mix up in the lobby, our group’s dinner together that first night, all us of answering Chrissie’s direct icebreaking question, through that last night splayed out on my hotel bed having that deep heart-to-heart when we were supposed to be writing, I knew yous were a God thing come into my life. Sitting across from your precious young self each session, hearing you read your moving pieces, including the one about Andre, I came to adore you and your writing. I am so glad we talked about your starting a blog – you are obviously touching many with your words, your love. And I am oh so very glad that you will soon be coming to visit me in NC in a few weeks!!! Love to you, dear friend. Yes, please do keep writing!

    • August 23, 2014 at 9:24 pm

      Blessed friend, your friendship was one of the best things to emerge from those days in Chicago. I pray we will continue to be there with and for one another as the years roll on. And that the passion that knit our hearts from the beginning–writing–will always be a refuge for us and a place to deposit our tender mercies.

      You are much loved,
      Dani

      P.S. Can’t wait to squeeze you!!! ❤

  10. August 17, 2014 at 3:37 am

    Reblogged this on Inspirations from Wake and Sea and commented:
    Thank you, Dani, for this post – a reminder of where we were a year ago – meeting favorite author, Elizabeth Berg. What a pivotal weekend! xoxo

    • August 23, 2014 at 9:25 pm

      Thank you for this, love.

  11. Danielle de Luca
    August 17, 2014 at 6:03 am

    The first time that i cryed , i ‘e like very much this text, thank you

    • August 23, 2014 at 9:27 pm

      The power of words is truly amazing.
      Pode chorar, irma. Eu chorei tambem.

      Te amo, Dani ❤

  12. August 17, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    I love this post, the vulnerability you wear on your sleeve in it, the tenderness of your exchange with Andre. Others have used the word beautiful plentifully here; I see why.

    Wishing you all the best with your calling.

    • August 23, 2014 at 9:30 pm

      Thank you so much for your beautiful compliment.

      I’m touched.
      Truly.

      With heart,
      Dani

  13. August 17, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    wonderful to know you made someone’s day. I am sure he made your day as well!

    • August 23, 2014 at 9:31 pm

      You couldn’t have written truer words, Sherry. He truly did.

      Much love,
      Dani

  14. August 19, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Oh Dani,
    I’m sitting here with goose bumps and an overwhelming desire to meet you and know you better. Everything about what you shared here inspires me and swells me up inside…so much that I barely have words to describe it accurately.
    My favorite is your story around meeting Andre. I’ve been to Chicago a bazillion times, had meetings in the Hyatt and have been under the bridge near Wacker (both on purpose and accidentally). You have a knack of seeing people and meeting them where they are at and I’m sure Andre will forever count you among his blessings.
    And oh, I would just love to meet Elizabeth!
    I’m having fits right now because I can’t express this heart swell I have going on–but, since you are so good at seeing people, I have a feeling that you already know my heart even if I can’t say it eloquently.
    Much love,
    Michelle

    • August 19, 2014 at 1:09 pm

      I love this comment! Thank you Michelle! You have put it into words well what Dani manages to do.

      Charissa

    • August 23, 2014 at 9:36 pm

      Oh, Michelle, this just broke my heart in the best way possible. Thank you for truly Seeing me and getting my heart. You expressed yourself perfectly and I See you…through it all.

      I would love to meet you, but until that day comes, I am happy to trade heart songs, breathing in prose and breathing out blessings.

      You are cherished, friend,
      Dani

  15. August 20, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? That’s how I feel about commenting on your sacred sharing, Dani. Your writing is a dew drop on a rose bud, and at the same time, the ancient sea that sweeps the shore. You bring fresh words and depth of being that makes your blog, and you, a treasure. I am certain this anniversary is a tiny start to all that waits in your future as a writer, and as a person.
    Love,
    Jane

    • August 20, 2014 at 5:52 pm

      Oh JANE! That was glistening with glory! What a wonderful and perfect characterization of God’s Precious Dani!

      Thank you for that…you brought me a fresh round of tears…for the beauty of what you wrote, for the beauty that Dani wrote (and writes), and for the gratitude in my soul to be privileged enough to read.

      Love, Charissa

      • August 20, 2014 at 6:05 pm

        For the gratitude in my soul to be privileged to read. yes!!!

      • August 23, 2014 at 9:42 pm

        She and you…Wow!! ❤

    • August 23, 2014 at 9:41 pm

      Jane, I am just spent after reading your touching comment. Thank you for your grace and kindness, your praise and encouragement.

      You will never truly know what your words mean. But know they are deeply felt. Deeply.

      With love & thanksgiving,
      Dani

  16. September 5, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    Has it been a year? still feels like seconds away. A year since i lost mine a few weeks after yours, and your comfort on my site.

    • September 24, 2014 at 7:42 pm

      It really has. Time pushes forward, doesn’t it?? Through heartache and triumph alike.

      With heart,
      Dani

      • August 14, 2016 at 9:45 am

        I checked your blog, a year (after this response) later, and yay! Super happy for you 😊 i have always felt in my heart that you will be blessed with a baby in God’s perfect time!

        • August 17, 2016 at 12:07 am

          Thank you, Imes. I’m touched you thought of me and took the time to check back. Many blessing to you, dear, from Dani and baby M 🙂

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