Sunday Stories: A Literary Greek, Part Two

A Literary Geek, Part Two

Warning: This Sunday Story is long, but you’ll want to read it.

Last week, I began the story of meeting one of my literary heroes, Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses. She writes novels now, but The Glass Castle remains a classic in memoir-land. It remained on the New York Times bestseller list for more than eight years—quite a feat.

The day before the Amelia Island Book Festival, I reached out to Life Writer and longtime friend/colleague Marie Fenn, who served as chairman of the festival in the past and is still an active volunteer. I knew she planned to attend a gala that night where Jeannette Walls would be. I asked, “Marie, if you have any ins with Jeannette Walls, would you ask her if she’d mind taking a photo with me at the festival?” Marie said she’d find out.

After the gala, I received Marie’s email message, “Jeannette will be there by 10:15. She’s dying to meet you.” Dying to meet me? Marie must have typed that wrong. She must have meant to say, “You are dying to meet Jeannette Walls.”

What? She wants to look at my website? I couldn’t believe it.

Not so. Marie told Jeannette—I feel like I’m on a first-name basis with her now—about Life Writers, how I help people write their life stories, and how I helped her start writing her book, Thank You for the Shoes.

After meeting Marie at the festival, she introduced me to this tall, elegant woman, and the first thing Jeannette said to me was, “I can’t wait to check out your website.”

Jeannette then introduced me to her husband, John J. Taylor, an accomplished writer in his own right, and the four of us had a fifteen-minute conversation about the importance of life story writing.

Marie took the promised photos of Jeannette and me, and then it was time for Jeannette to speak. Marie and I sat in the front row, where I took lots of notes.

Jeannette’s talk was funny, full of stories, and inspired hope and belief. I cannot do her amazing talk justice, but here are some of the most important thoughts and ideas I gleaned from her that day:

  • Now, Jeannette calls herself “just a woman with a weird past,” but she spent much of her life trying to hide the truth. She attempted to be “a woman without a past.” She said she was always running from something or chasing after something, and “Secrets are like vampires. They only survive in the dark.”
  • In talking about why she wrote The Glass Castle, Jeannette first hoped a rich kid would read it and be kinder to the kids from the other side of the tracks. Secondly, she hoped a kid from the wrong side of the tracks would read it and know there’s hope. She knew she had accomplished that goal when she heard from hundreds of people with similar backgrounds as hers.
  • One reader from the wrong side of the tracks said her book was “a first-class white trash story.” She took that as a great compliment.
  • Jeannette said, “Honesty is contagious, and if you’re honest about your story, others will be honest with you about theirs.”
  • Being a voracious reader, she always knew there was something better out there than her current life. But she said her parents gave her the promise of hope, the gift of dreams, and a vision for a better future. They didn’t provide those things, but she knew it was out there somewhere. She believed in what she had not yet seen. She never felt unloved by her parents, and she always felt valued. Her older sister Lori does not view her past as Jeannette does and “would write a totally different story.”
  • Jeannette also talked about fear. She told a story from The Glass Castle where her dad taught her to face her fears when she was scared of monsters under her bed. He named the monster Old Demon and told her to look him square in the face. From his example, Jeannette learned, “If you run from a demon, it will pursue you. Instead, you should put a harness on your demon and make it work for you.”
  • When dating her husband, John Taylor, Jeannette said she felt embarrassed about her scars. She was burned when she was three years old while standing at the stove, cooking hot dogs because she was hungry. Taylor told her the scars proved she was a survivor, and they gave her “texture.” The same is true about the scars of our pasts, physical or emotional.
  • When asked about writing about other people in less than favorable lights, Jeannette said, “You have the emotional right to tell your story.” She also said, “In lawsuits, the courts have usually ruled in favor of the author.”
  • Jeannette said it took her five years to write The Glass Castle, to be honest. She wrote the opening scene of her mom rooting through garbage at least twenty times to do so without it being accompanied by “ugly crying and tusks of snot running out of my nose.”
  • She reminded the audience, “You are not what happened to you, and if I’d had a lovely, normal childhood, I wouldn’t be here today.”
  • Jeannette said our goal as writers is to “tell a story that is accurate and true, but truth is not a solid, and it’s equally as important to listen to other people’s truth.”

I met Jeannette Walls that day, knowing she was an outstanding writer and storyteller, but I walked away admiring her even more for the amazing human being she is.

Remember, the only way to do this wrong is not to do it at all!

Until next time, happy writing, everyone.


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5 months ago
Reply to  Patricia

Seems like Jeannette Walls was everything you hoped for and more.

Kit Dwyer
6 months ago

I’m so glad you re-highlighted this wonderful story in your archive, Patricia. You and Jeanette are inspiring humans!

Linda Monnahan Peterson
Linda Monnahan Peterson
1 year ago

Great story, great insight!

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