Meeting a legend

by Lori Hoeck

Over 40 years ago when I was a young adult in Aspen, Colorado, a one-man show came to town. A talented, but fairly unknown actor (not Hal Holbrook) had memorized almost every line and moment of Mark Twain’s life. The actor even had the look, gestures, and witticism of Samuel Clemens down to an art.

I sat mesmerized by the performer, enthralled to see my writing hero Mark Twain come alive before me. Every wave of the cigar, each dancing smile of self-satisfaction at a joke well received, and the playful Southern accent drew me into the act.

Toward the end of his evening of entertaining, the actor said he would answer any questions from the audience. The Aspen crowd was quick to ask Mark Twain about his take on current (1980s) politics and trends. The actor enjoyed adding Twain’s satire to his answers and took delight in the give and take.

Finally, I raised my hand. Sweeping across the room, expecting another barbed question, he drew near and asked, “And what would your question be, Little Lady?”

I replied, “I want to be a writer. What do I do to become a better writer?”

Suddenly the room fell silent. The actor and audience looked into my earnest face. They realized I wanted Mark Twain, not the actor, to answer my question.

The man’s face softened, his mind switched gears, and he drew even closer, as if Mark Twain and this young woman were to have a private conversation. Everyone leaned forward to listen.

Mark Twain looked me in the eye and said, “Experience of life—not of books—is the only capital usable in writing well, and one can make no judicious use of this capital while it is new.”*

Quite frankly, I don’t remember the words exactly, I just remember he talked about living life more fully so you can write more deeply and richly.

In that one, stellar moment, Mark Twain came down from a high literary pedestal and touched me with his words. As I looked into those Mark Twain eyes, I heard that old father of American literature answer my question, and it changed my life. In those eyes, I felt Mark Twain bless my journey as a writer, a journey I’m still taking.

Thank you for visiting,
Lori Hoeck


*An adapted quote from a letter Mark Twain sent to Bruce Weston Munro, 21 Oct 1881 (Karanovich collection)

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