“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”
-Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
On April 25, 2004, I was sitting in my car in a hotel parking lot in Colorado Springs, crying. How do I remember the date with such specificity? Because that was the day my life changed. That was the day that I changed.
To be fair, if someone had said to me at that moment, “Your miserable existence is about to get much, much better,” I would’ve immediately asked them for a hit of whatever they were smoking. Because back in 2004, I was trapped in a marriage to an emotionally and physically abusive alcoholic. In the years I’d been with him, he had effectively suctioned away about ninety-five percent of my self-esteem, leaving me crippled with a horrific social phobia. Luckily for me, I’d discovered the perfect form of escape: writing.
With the first few chapters of a historical thriller firmly in-hand, I’d nervously set off for the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, a regional writer’s conference held annually in Colorado Springs. It was the first one I’d ever attended. There may have been all of two hundred people there that weekend—max. Walking into that hotel to pick up my registration packet and name-tag was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I felt like I was like shuffling into a formal cocktail party wearing hair curlers, a kilt, and a snorkel. Everyone seemed to know everyone, each person belonging to one joyful huddle of laughing friends or another, and they all seemed to possess a level of positivity and confidence that was only possible with the aid of illicit drugs. Everyone but me, that is.
Once I’d been issued my packet, whatever courage I’d mustered up to go inside in the first place had evaporated. “I don’t belong here,” I told myself before rushing back to my car and bursting into tears. Eventually, the waterworks slowed to a trickle (and an occasional, forlorn sniffle). I can’t go back in, I thought. I just can’t. The only other choice was to accept that I’d paid hundreds of dollars to attend the conference—not to mention the countless hours I’d spent agonizing over my manuscript—all for nothing.
I was reaching for the keys, ready to start the car and drive home, when mystery/thriller author Mark Bouton happened by. My conference name-tag having caught his eye, he glanced over. Never breaking stride, he said, “You’re here for the conference?”
I nodded, mute.
His smile was kind. “I guess I’ll see you inside.” And then he was gone.
Okay, I know one person, I thought. Sort of.
And now I also had a mission: to find that man and talk to him. Even after all these years, I’ve never been able to shake my fear of walking around in a strange place among strangers, but I can tell you that appearing to look for somebody feels a whole lot less pathetic than shuffling along by your lonesome, staring dejectedly at the floor. I mean, whether the person you seek is comprised of actual flesh and blood or is just an imaginary friend, other people will notice you scanning the crowds, looking determined, and they’ll assume that there must be at least one other human being in the place who finds you acceptable company. Eventually, someone will smile at you and say, “Are you looking for someone?” or “Can I help you find something?” Voila! Yet another connection made.*
After my ten-second parking lot conversation with Mark Bouton, I forced myself to get out of my car and rejoin the conference. I didn’t see Mark again until the next day (believe me, I looked!) but when I did, we hit it off. We’ve been friends ever since. Now, back in 2004, I never dreamed I’d ever be published–and if I was, I was sure it would be through a traditional, Big Six publisher, and that it would be my thrillers that would get me there. I certainly never entertained the notion that I’d one day write a romantic comedy. Or self-publish. Or become a bestseller. Or, most astonishing to me, be a public speaker. Ah, but sometimes the universe has a sick, twisted sense of humor, doesn’t it?
It was years before I was able to tell Mark that he was the crucial, if unwitting, catalyst that set in motion everything that came after. (His response? “You know, I’d never spoken to a woman sitting in a car before, and I don’t think I ever did it again.”) Over the last eleven years, one thing I have always wanted is the chance to share this story with other aspiring writers–not just in a blog or as a throwaway anecdote at the start of a workshop, but before a banquet hall crowd at a writer’s conference with Mark sitting nearby.
Earlier this month, I finally got that chance when the Kansas Authors Club invited me to be the keynote speaker at their annual conference. Mark sat on the dais as I opened my speech with the story; I couldn’t have been more thrilled. After the banquet was over, I was amazed to find out that no one there had ever heard the story before—not the selection committee members or his friends in the audience. The fact that he never felt tempted to name-drop (c’mon, just a little bit; everyone loves to brag) shows you just what type of man he is, the same type of man who would offer a kind and much-needed word to a stranger, never guessing what such a small gesture might do.
For whatever caused you to speak to a stranger in a car that day in April 2004, I thank you, Mark Bouton, from the bottom of my heart. ♥