I’m seated almost front and center in room 111 of Marion Knott Studios at Chapman University, and I’m wondering if this class full of 20-year-olds can tell that I feel out of place.
A week earlier I learned from my daughter Devyn, a student at Dodge College, that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author Anna Quindlen would be speaking in Professor Harry Ufland’s class on creativity. It was no coincidence that I was rereading “Aging Gratefully,” a magazine excerpt from Quindlen’s memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.
I’ve loved to write since elementary school. After earning my BA in English and journalism, I have written for newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, direct mail, you name it. I have no trouble saying “I’m a copywriter,” but saying “I’m a writer” catches in my throat like a stale saltine.
After a few minutes Quindlen enters the class, and Ufland tells how they became friends when he produced the movie adaptation of her novel One True Thing. He calls on student after student, and it’s clear that they have come prepared with questions. Quindlen answers each one with wisdom, warmth and candor.
She shares that she’s less a cerebral writer than an emotional one. “I’m most interested in engaging your heart,” she says.
Writing a novel requires a good eye, a strong narrative voice and a very good work ethic, she adds. “It’s thought multiplied by time plus a hard slog.”
Later, when she talks about how the hands-on raising of her children was the making of her as a person, I smile.
“Your kids reintroduce you to life in all of its brightest colors,” she says, and as a mother of twin girls, I know exactly what she means.
“What do you fear the most?” a student asks.
Quindlen leans forward in her chair. “I’m afraid of writing,” she says. “Writing is about judgment. It’s about sitting there and thinking that someone is going to say this character is boring. I have to sweep that fear away every day that I sit in my chair.”
I’ve always wanted to write; yet it’s what I fear the most. Like her, I want my writing to touch someone’s heart. Anna Quindlen is speaking directly to me.
Ufland wraps up the evening and my watch reads 10 o’clock. Three hours have flown by. I want to meet Quindlen, but I don’t know what to say. I leave the classroom and stall in the hallway. This is ridiculous. I’m not going to walk away from the only chance I’ll probably ever have to meet Anna Quindlen.
I re-enter, and when it’s my turn I introduce myself and thank Professor Ufland for making this evening possible. Now I’m shaking Quindlen’s hand and I hear myself saying, “Listening to you tonight, I think, in some ways, my life parallels yours.”
Oh my God. Did those words really just come out of my mouth? I’m cringing inside, but she thanks me and smiles with her eyes. She doesn’t let go of my hand right away, or maybe I’m not letting go of hers.
It’s starting to rain when I walk outside the film school doors. A black limousine is parked by the curb, and the driver emerges.
“Miss Quindlen,” he says, holding the car door open. I look at the driver, then behind me.
“You’re Miss Quindlen, aren’t you?”
“No, but I wish I were,” I say laughing.
He looks embarrassed, and I want to tell him how he has made
my night — no, my year.
Sitting in my Honda, in the light rain, I wait. Quindlen emerges with Ufland and they exchange hugs. The limo driver once again holds open the door, and the real Anna Quindlen steps in.
Maybe it wasn’t inane after all that I told Anna Quindlen I saw my life paralleling hers. It’s not up to me to judge the value of what I write; it’s up to me to face my fear and write from my heart.
That night, for 15 seconds, I was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author, and my driver stood in the spitting rain holding open the door of my waiting limousine.
Anything can happen.
>> READ MORE: For more than two hours, Quindlen answered wide-ranging questions posed by Chapman students in Professor Harry Ufland’s class, covering everything from journalism to materialism, parenthood to sisterhood. Read more about her insight on Happenings.