I brought home two new books and three great truths from the Southern Festival of Books. More on the books later. On the truths: these aren’t showstopper truths or brand new truths. They are humble and quiet; you’ve met them before. I was glad they gently tapped me on the shoulder this weekend, and I’m sending you their greetings today.
1. Words from a stranger can be a lifeline. I was having a hard Sunday – swimming in my own special sea of anxieties – and was soon to introduce the lovely and smart actress and author Kimberly Williams-Paisley (Where the Light Gets In: Losing My Mother Only to Find Her Again). “How pretty your hair looks!” an older woman said to me on her way into the room. She could not of course know that I was suffering from acute hair anxiety following a recent hatchet job. The woman’s words were soothing to my agitated spirit. “Maybe it’s not as bad as I think!” I thought (though actually it is). No matter. Her words gave me an infusion of courage and confidence when I needed it. Reminder: Compliment strangers. Kind words have such power.
2. Calm words have great power, too. There is usually a solution if you don’t lose your cool. Due to an errant email from me, Kimberly Williams-Paisley was set to arrive for her session at 3 pm on Sunday. Unfortunately, her session was actually supposed to begin an hour earlier. I completely lost my cool in the privacy of my own home and then – barely coherent with worry – called the Festival organizer, Serenity Gerbman. Within 15 minutes, without missing a beat, she had a plan. The smart people at Humanities Tennessee and the Library worked together to adjust, and all ended well. Kimberly gave an inspired talk to a large, enthusiastic group. You would never have known there had been any kind of logistical emergency. Reminder: stay in the saddle when confronted with bad facts.
3. Kimberly’s acting teacher had some great advice: “Ride the horse in the direction that it’s going,” she said. “Instead of wishing for things to be different, choose to embrace the life in front of you,” Kimberly writes in her moving memoir about her mother’s early onset dementia. “When I let go of my tight grip on expectation, I found I could still have some kind of relationship with my mother. I could share love with her in a beautiful new way.”
Caveat: Ride the horse in the direction it’s going – until, you know, it’s time to get off. This element of the truth smacked me in the face on Friday, watching authors Brad Watson (Miss Jane) and Donald Ray Pollock (The Heavenly Table) share the stage.
The men were a study in contrasts, sharing only their late starts as writers of fiction. Pollock seems a straight arrow, serious and careful in demeanor. He went to work at the union mill after high school graduation and worked there until age 50, taking the biggest chance of his life when he left his job and went to grad school. Watson, on the other hand: that fella was trouble from an early age, you can tell, and he’s still got the swagger. He had to do some hard time in Hollywood (as a garbage collector, among other things) before finding his way to writing. When asked about getting a late start as a writer, Watson reminded us to consider author Harriet Doerr, who published her first novel, Stones for Ibarra, at age 73. It went on to win the National Book Award (then the American Book Award for First Work of Fiction) in 1984. Doerr died in 2002 at age 92.
From her obituary in the LA Times:
Asked what was the worst possible sin, she alternately named deliberate cruelty to another being and the failure to use one’s talent. She believed that education could restore tolerance and sanity to the world. She despised euphemism, pretension, phoniness, and hypocrisy. She most valued kindness, curiosity, a sense of humor and the ridiculous, provocative ideas, and beautiful language. In an interview for the Los Angeles Times, she said, “I do believe that, during your life, everything you do, and everyone you meet, rubs off in some way. Some bit of everything that you experience stays with everyone you’ve ever known, and nothing is lost. That’s what’s eternal, these little specks of experience in a great, enormous river that has no end.” Or, as she wrote of one of her characters, she believed that “the tree still held all the birds that ever sang there.”
4. (Bonus Truth). Harriet Doerr reminded me: It’s never too late. But it’s always later than you think.
Other highlights of the Festival:
Better than a backpack:
Beautiful friends at Authors in the Round dinner:
Books I brought home:
Evening at Authors in the Round: