Twenty-six years ago, I was a student in a study abroad program in West Berlin. This was in the spring and summer of 1988, one year before the Berlin Wall came down. Before I left, I had told one of my Spanish professors of my intention to go to Berlin, and he told me that I should look up his close friend, Antonio Skarmeta, a Chilean novelist of considerable fame (most known for his novel that was the basis for the award-winning movie, Il Postino, about Pablo Neruda and the military coup of Chile in 1973). In those days there were hundreds of exiled Chilean intellectuals and artists living in Berlin. I came to Berlin with his phone number.
I remember that it took me several weeks to get up the courage to call him. What was I going to say to him? “Hi, I want to meet you. I have nothing interesting to tell you. I am 22 years old. I just want to meet you.” I was terrified. It was more difficult than it had been for me to cold-call a girl I liked in high school. But I finally called. No one answered. I remember feeling greatly relieved. I could tell my professor that I tried to call but that he must have been out of town.
So several months went by, and I was down to my last few days in Berlin. The day before I went home, I went to the Lateinamerikanische Institute, one of the finest Latin American libraries in the world where I had been doing some research, to return my books. I stood in line behind a man with a mustache and I watched as he signed out a book, writing “Antonio Skarmeta.” My heart raced. My face flushed. I had to say something. But what was I going to say? I don’t remember if I spoke to him in Spanish or German, but I tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Are you Antonio Skarmeta?”
“Yes, I am. And who are you?” He had a broad and warm smile on his face.
“I am George Handley. I am a student at Stanford University here on a study abroad program. My professor, Nelson Osorio, gave me your phone number to call you.”
“Oh, wonderful! wonderful! I need to have you over to my house for dinner. When would be a good time?”
My heart sank. I wasn’t prepared for how friendly he was. I felt instantly comfortable with him, but I had to tell him. “Well, I am leaving for home.”
“Yes, but when?”
“And how long have you been here?”
“Do you mean to tell me that you have had my number and you have been here for six months, and only now we meet? Why didn’t you call me some time sooner?”
“Believe me. You have no idea how sorry I feel right now.” He was so kind and so welcoming, and here I was headed home, knowing now what chance I had let pass me by.
I have told this story to my students for years as a lesson about why you should always go through doors that have been opened for you and take advantage of every opportunity, even if it seems you feel too young or undeserving or are in a little over your head. Just jump in. Unless you want to live with regrets like the regrets I have had about this lost opportunity ever since. At least since that time, I have had the courage to not hesitate to contact famous writers, and this has led to some unforgettable experiences interviewing and getting to know the likes of Rosario Ferré, W. S. Merwin, Derek Walcott, and Marilynne Robinson.
Well, I was casually telling this story the other night to my friend, Jaime Quezada, a wonderful poet and author here in Chile. He said, “I know Antonio and have his phone number. You know he returned to Chile in 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall fell and democracy returned to Chile. You should give him a call.”
Well, of course I took his number and called him immediately. He didn’t remember the encounter, not surprisingly, but he was very gracious to agree to meet me for an hour or so in a café near his house. He was as warm and kind as I remember him. We sat and talked about Chile, about writing, about Mormons, and about his own experiences in the United States. His thoughts about Chile were invaluable for my thinking about my novel, which I have been furiously writing while here. I left him a signed copy of my book, Home Waters, and he signed a copy of his book, Tiro libre, which was published just two months before the coup in 1973. I haven’t been able to find yet a copy of his most recent book, Los dias del arcoiris, which won several prizes. I apologize, but I still didn’t have the courage to ask for a photograph, but at least I called him and made the trip the meet him!
I asked his advice for an aspiring novelist, and his answer was priceless. He said, “You must be willing to be spontaneous. You should be guided more by your heart and your stomach than by your brain. Don’t try to write something that has a moral to the story. Write. Write. And fill pages and pages with words, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred pages. Then when you think you have written a novel, you can shape it into a work of art. That’s when you can use a little of your brain. Don’t overresearch it either. Talk to people, read novels or watch films, but don’t study your topic like you would study for a research paper. That tendency has been the death of creativity for many great writers.”
The best news? He plans a trip to Oregon later this next year, and we agreed to talk about making a stop in Utah.
So the new moral of the story is, even when you miss great chances, don’t beat yourself up because if you cultivate the right change in your attitude, you will get a second chance. Chances come and they go, and they come again. Just be alert and ready to let serendipity do its thing.