The Day I Met Leigh Bardugo

A couple weeks ago I had one of the best moments of my life: I got to meet Leigh Bardugo! She is on tour for her new book Ninth House, and I was able to make it to her Chicago stop. Now, this feels strange to say, but I’ve never been to a book signing before. Although I’ve been a reader my entire life and I’ve always wanted to be a writer, I still let myself shy away from meeting the people I look up to in person. But I wasn’t going to miss out this time.

I was actually really nervous beforehand. I went to the event by myself, and even though I’m used to doing things alone, I still get nervous about how everything will go. I didn’t know what it would be like inside (it was moved from the bookstore to a local theater), I didn’t know if I’d meet anyone to talk to, and I didn’t know what the process would be like. I always overthink things like that… but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from going.

I arrived at the theater pretty early, and there were already quite a few people there but no line had started yet. Eventually giant boxes full of books arrived, and they shuffled us all outside to line up while they prepared. It was windy and cold, but none of us cared because we were all too excited.

I was 6th in line and a few of us in the front got some Ninth House pins. Because I was alone, I was able to listen to everyone’s conversations around me. There was so much talk about young adult books, Etsy shops, bookstagram, and other signings people had been to. A LOT of talk about Harry Potter, which is sort of amazing to see a series retain its relevancy for so long and stretch across generations. 

Eventually they herded us into the theater and I got a seat in the middle of the second row. I couldn’t believe how close I was. They had a velvet maroon chair set up for her with a microphone. It was all about to happen!

Before I bought my ticket to the event, I read in Leigh’s newsletter that we would get our copy of Ninth House signed and we could also bring any personal item as a second thing to get signed. I really wanted her to sign my writing journal. I thought it would be so motivating for me to see the signature of someone I look up to every time I open it. But when I looked around the event, I saw other people had brought a copy of Six of Crows or something from the Shadow and Bone series. I got really worried that it was going to be rude of me to have her sign such a personal item instead of her other books (what do I know I’ve never been to a book signing before), so I asked the staff there if it was okay, they checked with Leigh’s people, and they said it would be totally fine. Another small thing I worried about for no reason.

Time passed quickly and pretty soon, Leigh Bardugo was out on stage right in front of us. Listen… I’m not even understating it when I say it was amazing. She was so funny and kind and honest and talked to us in a way that felt like she was really listening. She talked about the process of writing Ninth House and how the idea had initially come to her back in college, but it was never meant to be the first book she wrote. She had to work on her other ideas and learn more about her process before getting to this one.

After a few minutes of that, we were able to ask questions. My hand shot up like it was going to fly off my body (bit of a Hermione moment) and I asked her the question I’ve been struggling with for so long: How do you overcome self-doubt when you’re writing? Here’s what she said:

“I think we’ve been taught by culture that when we have those feelings of self-doubt, when we feel like we’re failing at the work we’re doing, that that’s somehow a sign that we’re on the wrong path. ‘Surely if I was doing this right, if I was doing what I was meant to be doing, this would be amazing. I would feel good about it.’

When we’re very young and we write, we do feel amazing. That part of our brain hasn’t engaged yet, and it’s a pleasure and a joy to write. Then there’s this other thing that takes over and says, ‘Everything you’re doing is wrong. Everything you’re doing is crap.’ And it’s very hard to shut down that voice.

But what I would say to you is, the bulk of writing a book is not days where you feel like a genius, and days where you feel like, ‘oh my gosh this is all good. This is all right. This story is exactly where I’m supposed to be.’ It is actually a series of days that feel like failure. And those days are NOT signs that you are on the wrong path. They are actually just signs that you’re trying to do something you’ve never done before. Something bigger and better and more challenging and more exciting than you’ve ever done before.

So the next time you feel that self-doubt kick in, I want you to engage with it and be like, ‘Oh thank you! Thank you for this horrible way you’re making me feel! Because this is a sign that I’m doing this right. Leigh told me I was doing this right. The worse I feel, the better I’m doing, so I’m just gonna keep going!’

You shut that voice down, and you keep going.”

Leigh Bardugo

See? I told you she was honest and real and funny and brilliant (I could go on and on). I kept an audio recording of her answer so I could always remind myself of this advice when I’m struggling because it’s so incredibly helpful to hear someone I respect and admire say that they have the same kinds of days I do. And the only way to climb over that hurdle of self-doubt is to acknowledge it’s there, shut it down, and keep going. Keep going, keep going, keep going. 

She answered other questions about partnering with both Netflix and Amazon, writing characters (she suggested building the character from what they want – side note: I’ve been working on characters in my current project, and I’m understanding this better. What the character wants and desires becomes the foundation for all of their actions), and more general writing advice.

Something else that really resonated with me is when she said there’s no expiration date on talent. There is no rush to get something out faster than the person next to you. It’s okay to take your time. It’s okay to focus on other aspects of your life, especially when you have responsibilities like bills, rent, loans, your family, school, etc. A lot of times, I can feel that hectic urgency inside of me. I want to hurry myself up and get the book done because look at all these other people my age (or YOUNGER) who are already published and established! But it’s never too late. There is no expiration date on writing, and I shouldn’t be so hard on myself about it.

Back at the event, it was time for the book signing to start. I was #162, so I had quite a while to wait. But I suddenly realized I hadn’t thought of anything to actually SAY to her when I got up there. My mind spun around and then just turned off. I couldn’t think of anything. I was still too nervous on top of my normally awkward self.

At last it was my turn. She asked me how to pronounce my name, and when she got to my writing journal, she flipped it open and asked me what it was and where I’d like her to sign. I said, “Anywhere!” probably louder than I intended to. I shrugged and stood there smiling like a dork as she wrote her name. She slid the two items back to me across the table and said, “Good luck with your writing!” I smiled and I think I said thank you? My brain hadn’t turned back on yet, so I’m not sure if I said anything at all. But I don’t care because it was still amazing. I did something I was nervous about, I met someone I truly look up to, and I got some writing advice that I will always carry with me.

Last week I tweeted about meeting her and thanked her for signing my copy of Ninth House and my writing journal. She liked the tweet, which somehow feels like the icing on top of an already exciting start to my own writing journey.

Weekly Reads: A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

At the beginning of this year I promised myself I would start reading more – something I always say but easily get distracted from. Unfortunately I am a slow reader. Novels take me longer than they should and they often feel like a chore. But I was committed to my promise of reading more, so I decided to focus on short stories instead. It was an easy way to explore new styles and writers I hadn’t been introduced to yet, and it also felt less daunting than that giant stack of books I keep avoiding.

With the ever-growing list of short stories I’m reading, I’ve decided to regularly share them here with a Weekly Reads post. I’ll talk about some of my favorites and what they’re teaching me about writing.

First up is a story I read in January: “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez. It was the first Marquez story I ever read, and I fell in love with him from the title alone. Three months into 2019 and it is still one of my favorites out of the 60+ stories I’ve read so far.

Marquez, a Colombian writer born in 1927, was a part of the Latin American boom of literature in the 60s and 70s. In 1982 he won the Nobel Prize for literature, and he has been cited as one of the most significant authors of the 20th century. He wrote numerous short stories and novellas, but he is perhaps most well-known for his novel 100 Years of Solitude (which has been in my To Be Read pile forever).

Marquez has a very exploratory way of writing. In fact, he said that he never tries to stick to one style:

In every book I try to take a different path… One doesn’t choose the style. You can investigate and try to discover what the best style would be for a theme. But the style is determined by the subject, by the mood of the times. If you try to use something that is not suitable, it just won’t work.”

Although I have only read three short stories by Marquez, I’m already inspired by his flexible approach and his willingness to try new techniques. He explores the boundaries of reality and mythology, weaving in the ever-present theme of solitude. He has a unique way of breathing new life into the simplest things and revealing it with the use of magical realism.

Magical realism is a literary movement that uses the supernatural as an ordinary part of reality. The most fantastical elements become a mundane part of everyday life. It’s extremely popular in Latin American writing, and many readers are introduced to it through the works of Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges.

In “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” magical realism flows through the entire story, starting with the very first paragraph. One day during a storm, a family discovers an old man lying in the mud in their backyard:

“He had to go very close to see that it was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings.”

This man’s wings are mentioned in such a matter-of-fact way that it seems totally normal. Of course he has wings, why wouldn’t he? That’s the power of magical realism; it brings the most magical ideas down to our regular life.

Unfortunately for this old man, his wings are in such terrible condition that he can’t get out of the mud and fly away:

“His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud.”

A neighbor woman who knows “everything about life and death” comes by and plainly tells the family that he is an angel. The family puts him in a chicken coop in their yard, and the entire town comes by to check him out. They prod and stare at him, waiting to be entertained by this caged creature that is completely apathetic to its surroundings. But the town is soon distracted by a different attraction: a traveling show featuring a sad girl who was turned into a spider because she disobeyed her parents.

I was instantly captivated by the way Marquez mixes the natural with the supernatural. There is this sense that we take the most beautiful parts of life for granted; we aren’t impressed by even the most magical things, but in some way we still expect them to happen. It feels similar to reading old fables or mythology, and yet it is so relevant to modern life. To me, these elements make it feel like the classic idea of a story.

I hope I can replicate some of Marquez’s insights and curiosity into my own writing. He has such a unique perspective on life, and I want to share my own through similar fantastic story elements. I have only read three of his short stories so far, and there is still so much of him I want to explore. Just looking at some of his other titles already has me intrigued:

  • Bitterness of Three Sleepwalkers
  • Nabo: The Black Man Who Made the Angels Wait
  • The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World
  • The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother

So I will keep studying the work of Gabriel García Márquez and hopefully pick up on some of his brilliance. I will read more of his short stories and novellas, and I will finally attack my TBR pile with his masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude. In the meantime, I highly encourage you to read “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” here or in this collection of his stories.