Soon after my first novel, The House at Sutter’s Sands, was published, I was invited to sign books at a local bookstore. A woman approached me, and as we chatted, she told me about her critique group. “We would love to have you visit,” she said. “How about next week?”
That sounded OK to me. I had been looking for a group of writers to meet with. This would be a good chance to see how a critique group worked.
“We’ll have a nice luncheon,” she promised. “One of the writers makes homemade tamales.” My mouth watered as she gave me directions to an address in a nearby town.
On the day of the meeting, I arrived about fifteen minutes early. Cars were already parked up and down both sides of the street. It must be a larger group than I had expected!
When the hostess ushered me into the living room, I saw that folding chairs had been set up in every available space — and they were quickly filling. “I invited a few guests,” she explained. It was 10:00 a.m., and the aroma of steaming tamales drifted in from the kitchen. The hostess smiled. “Lunch will be ready at noon,” she said.”You’ll have plenty of time.”
Time for what? A suspicion began to grow at the back of my mind. Why did these people have notebooks in their laps instead of manuscripts ready to be read? Why was a chair placed in the front of the room?
“We have a special treat today,” the hostess was saying. “Our guest, Marilyn Donahue, is going to tell us everything she knows about writing a novel that sells.”
I staggered to my feet. People clapped. It was a short distance to the chair, but it was long enough for me to pray: Lord, you can see what a mess I’ m in. Please put words in my mouth that will open a door for somebody. Let me speak to their hearts.”
And so I began. I talked about what I knew. About getting up at 5:00 a.m. and sitting outside with God and a cup of coffee before I started work for the day. About trial and error and the joy of finding the right word. About my characters and how they interacted. About plot, and voice, and the importance of keeping your seat in the chair. Later, one guest said, “I felt like you were speaking to our hearts. It opened a door for me, and I can’t wait to get home and start writing.”
I learned that day that we can do unexpected things — with God’s help and guidance. Today, whenever I am about to give a lecture or conduct a workshop, I take time to whisper softly the words that have carried me through many a public appearance:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalms 19:14)