OMG, I Just Met Jeannette Walls!By
Oh my gosh, I just met Jeannette Walls! She’s the author of the hugely best-selling (two-million sold already!) memoir of growing up in a wildly dysfunctional family, The Glass Castle. She’s as mesmeric, compassionate, and provocative in person and as a speaker, as she is as a writer.
And I just realized that Jeannette Walls’ father—her alcoholic, crazy-brilliant father—was a MASTER of Plusing-It! He (and her mother) took both the mundane and the extraordinary events of their lives and made them into stimulating, expansive activities for kids. Maybe that’s why his daughter became such captivating writer. Maybe that’s why The Glass Castle is one of my favorite contemporary books.
For ironically, The Glass Castle truly is full of parenting tips, of examples of how to cultivate the imagination of children, while concurrently telling a story of parental neglect and irresponsibility.
Listen to this: From the stage this morning, Jeannette told the story of how, at Christmas-time when she was little and the family lived in destitution in the desert, her dad took each child out under the night sky and told them they could pick out a star as their gift. She selected the brightest, Venus—and he told her it wasn’t a star, it was a planet. But what the heck, if she wanted a planet, she could have one. Jeannette says it remains her “most treasured gift ever.”
If that isn’t a way to PLUS IT! on a Christmas day when one’s in dire straits, I don’t know what is.
Now, I said I met Jeannette Walls: here’s how that occurred. A new friend of mine, Charlene, who is a board member of the Children’s Fund couldn’t make it to the Children’s Network Conference keynote speaker breakfast event. She invited me to go in her stead. What a gift!
Sitting at the large round table, drinking coffee, I met several committed, compassionate social workers who work with teen mothers and preschool parents.
Then Jeannette came on. She wore an understated simple black dress and pearls. But she led off with the true story of being stalled in a taxi in New York City and looking out the window, only to see her mother picking through a dumpster, looking for food. She ducked down, she confesses, and driver went on. (If that gets you, run out and buy the book.)
She continued, talking about the power of storytelling—to help one face one’s demons, to convert shame to strength, to release regret and permit one’s experiences work for one. She talked about the gifts we get from learning to navigate obstacles—a gift, she says, the rich sometimes pay real money to experience, in the form of challenge programs like Outward Bound.
The crucial things that her father gave her, she said, were self-esteem, an eternal sense of hope, and a belief that one day things would be okay. The truly lucky are those who can get back up, she said, and those who can help others.
“Don’t ever apologize for your scars,” her second husband told her on an early date, when she shyly revealed that she had burns on her body from an accident when she was three. “Scars are a sign of your strength. Smooth [skin] is boring. You’ve got texture.”
When Q & A time came, one person asked a question. Then, “Any more questions?” No one raised a hand.
So I did, and in that moment I felt I met her personally. I thanked her for what she’s already given to the world, for promoting the power of story, and I wondered if story-telling can be taught.
Jeannette Walls said the secret to good storytelling is telling the truth. It’s “complicated and squishy” and it’s different from telling the facts. But it’s so important.
And yes, she said, storytelling is highly teachable AND highly therapeutic.
I stood at the end of a long, long line to buy her book, although I’d already read a borrowed copy once. I had a copy of my small book, Plus It! with me, and I decided to give it to her.
I was shaking as I reached where she sat signing. I don’t know why—probably because I feel she’s a great writer whose lifework is an enormous influence for good for families and children. (BTW, her editor is the person who also edited Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes.)
Do you know what she said when I asked, “May I give you a copy of my little book?”
She said, “Only if you’ll sign it for me.” Now is that a class act, or what?
And thank you, Charlene.