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.
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 .
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.
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 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.