Last week, one of my favorite people was in town. Well, one of my favorite people that I don’t actually know – the very talented and amazing and inspiring Anna Quindlen.
A former journalist, columnist and now novelist, Anna Quindlen was also the speaker at my college commencement.
I’m convinced she wrote that commencement speech for me. She looked inside me, saw all of my struggles and spoke directly to me.
Of course she didn’t. But it felt like that. That is one her gifts as a writer. She understands the collective feeling around something and is able to express it in a way that is personal to you.
I’ve carried a copy of that speech around with me for the last fifteen years. It often lived on my bedside table. I read it when things were good. When things were not so good. When I needed to be reminded. When I needed to remember what the point of all this was.
And over the years, as I read more of her work I became a bigger and bigger fan.
When I saw she was coming to Philadelphia to give a reading from her new novel, Still Life With Bread Crumbs, I knew I would be there. I had this feeling that our meeting at this time in this place was meant to be. I would have her sign my copy of her speech. Everything would come full circle.
The problem was I didn’t have a ticket, and they were sold out. The day of the reading, I decided that I had to go even if just for the simulcast. If I didn’t go see one of the people I admired most, I would regret it always. I could watch her talk on a screen in a different room, and I could still participate in the book signing.
As I waited in line at the Free Library of Philadelphia, I felt like I had this special connection to her that no one else there had. Sure, you might have read her commentary and her novels. You might consider yourself a fan, but she spoke to me. At my college graduation. She spoke directly to me and gave me a gift that I’ve never forgotten or lost.
As I was resigning myself to my simulcast situation, I overheard a woman saying she had extra tickets. What else could I do besides insert myself into her conversation and secure a ticket? I was in.
The reading began with a small passage from her latest book and then she talked for most of the time about her love of reading and the importance of books. I focused on every word she said letting them sink in and trying not to let my mind wander or think about what might happen when I met her later that evening.
She talked about her need for books as a child and her innate desire to have a voice – areas where female children of the 1950’s and 60’s were not necessarily encouraged. Books made her feel more human and a little less alone. Both things that I relate to entirely. I always thought of my book loving tendencies as a sort of escapism, but she reminded me that craving stories and other worlds and ways of seeing things is not a singular experience.
She spoke about how we should be cultivating the readers in all of us especially our children. When you read a book and enter a world that a writer has created whether real or fiction, you gain more knowledge and more context to question.
And you learn about people different from you. And then you see that these other people aren’t that different from you. And the differences evaporate. That’s what books and reading give us. The chance to be a better person and a better citizen. This is the kind of stuff that inspires me and motivates me to be better writer, woman, person.
Not only is Anna Quindlen, confident, articulate, intelligent and well-read, she has an unpretentious and honest way of speaking about herself and her experiences. She’s charming and witty too. She’s just about as real as it gets.
Seeing her speak again after all these years, I confirmed that my worship of her is entirely warranted. And now, I had to go talk to her.
When you are going to meet someone who you admire, let’s say at a book signing, one might be prone to romanticizing it a little bit. At that moment when you’re standing across a folding table from your personal hero, you want them to recognize their importance to you. You want them to look into your eyes, and even if they don’t say it out load, you want them to be thinking, I know.
I know how much this means to you. I know I changed your life. I know you get it.
I know we’ll always be connected because of my words and my work.
If I was a published author, the expectations of these encounters might give me an ulcer.
There are people that know how to handle themselves in these sort of situations.
I am not one of them.
As I waited in line, I tried to keep my inner monologue from rehearsing. She’ll say this, and then I’ll say that and then she’ll say…
Stop it. Stop it. Stop. Just be yourself. Be in the moment.
Finally it was my turn. I had my book. I had her speech. She very graciously signed both and said about my commencement, I remember that day well.
She asked how I liked Mount Holyoke. I said I loved it, and Go Seven Sisters! (She went to Barnard.)
And that was it. My turn was over. The moment was over.
I didn’t tell her I was an aspiring writer or that I’d been carrying around a print out of her speech for fifteen years and that I cry every time I read it. I didn’t tell her that it taps into something so elemental in me I felt like she stole it right from my heart.
Walking to the train, I thought of everything that I had wanted her to understand.
I thought about the people that can make those situations charming and meaningful and poignant. I envied them.
Go Seven Sisters? Really?
Did she know? How could she possibly?
I think about what she saw when she looked across the table at me. Did she that we are the same in so many ways?
I’d like to think so. Maybe she didn’t feel it as deeply as I did, but something tells me that she knows. She knows that a woman who probably has a family and many other obligations (the dark circles under her eyes give this away) who went to an all women’s college and graduated fifteen year ago doesn’t drag herself out at night in a polar vortex to have a speech signed just because she can.
She’s a smart enough woman to know that there is something else there.
And like any much anticipated event once it’s over, life goes on. Her book and speech back to my nightstand, my admiration still bubbling over hoping that maybe a little bit of her magic and wisdom rubbed off on me.
If I could do it again I would say, thank you.
Thank you for giving us your gifts over and over again and for being my inspiration as a woman and a writer trying to make her way in this world.
But I have a feeling she knows.