Ten Days and Three Talks by Inspiring Women

In the last two weeks, I’ve gotten goose bumps, shed a few tears, and had my ass kicked thanks to these three women. Each shared some particularly stirring thoughts and moved me mightily through talks at conferences.

Stephanie Carls

Get Smart 2017 ad showing all speakersGet Smart 2017 was a big day for me. In that afternoon conference, I wore several different hats. In the eleventh hour, I’d stepped in to organize and emcee Women Communicators of Austin’s annual educational event. My true labor of love that day was organizing and moderating a discussion with three communications professionals. Put me in a room where interesting people are captive to my every question and I am one happy camper!

Moderating a discussion, however, isn’t like a normal chat. Your brain moves in weird ways, simultaneously listening and thinking ahead. Afterward, it’s as though I haven’t heard anything (this goes for interviews, too; my notes and a recording, for example, verify I talked with legendary track star Michael Johnson. Any actual memory of our conversation, however, evaporated in a haze of hyperventilating fangirl frenzy).

When something sticks, that’s telling.

Panelists Leah Fisher Nyfeler, Sonja Sommerfeld, Stephanie Carls, and Jane Ko at Get Smart 2017 in Austin.
Get Smart 2017 panel discussion: “When Your Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words.” l to r, Leah Fisher Nyfeler, Sonja Sommerfeld (Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine), Stephanie Carls (My Savvy Life), and Jane Ko (A Taste of Koko). Photo Credit: Women Communicators of Austin

During that panel discussion, one of those three talented image-based experts, Stephanie Carls, made an emphatic point that has since popped into my brain with regularity:

If she weren’t embarrassed by her past work, she wasn’t working hard enough.

At the time, I briefly thought, “Don’t you always work to your best ability?” But that wasn’t Carls’ point. The thing is, if we’re always working to our best ability, we’re always improving. That future self will have more skills, work smarter, and produce better content.

The only way to be completely satisfied with the past is to never progress.

Because my own inner critic is particularly harsh, this gave me a new perspective on what I’d been viewing as “failures.” Those criticisms of my website? They’ve morphed into pleasure that I’ve outstripped what was once satisfactory.

Viola Davis

Mosaic of Viola Davis photo and name on screen at Texas Conference for Women 2017
Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler

There was a lot of talent at this year’s Texas Conference for Women: Anita Hill, Sheryl Sandburg, Adam Grant, and a host of amazing panelists. But let me be honest. I was there to see the actress Viola Davis in the flesh.

I admire Viola (I use the casual “Viola” because anyone who stalks someone this much on social media surely deserves first name familiarity).

What brought me firmly into the Viola Davis fan club was her performance on “How To Get Away with Murder,” particularly a scene from the first season, where she quite literally bares herself by removing wig and makeup.

Now, I was at Texas Conference for Women on a press pass (thank you, Texas Lifestyle Magazine!), so I could either watch Viola speak on the live feed in the media room (pros=nice digs, great picture, laptop space, and room to write; cons=no live Viola) or sit in the cavernous conference room, sequestered off to the side with the rest of the media scrum (pros=VIOLA! IN THE SAME ROOM!; cons=bad view, no place to write, completely out of the action, waiters passing back and forth, uncomfortable chairs).

Oh, I opted for the cavernous conference room.

Viola Davis speaking at Texas Conference for Women 2017 at the podium
Photo Credit: Getty Images for Texas Conference for Women

Viola Davis filled that space with her presence. Simply remembering the experience brings waves of prickly goose bumps. As she testified—and testify she did; her words were a speech like the Grand Canyon is a hole in the ground—she took us into her childhood and held us rapt.

I wrote in my notes: “Grace meets you where you are but doesn’t leave you where it found you.” Did Viola paraphrase Ann Lamott or I just transcribe it so? Doesn’t matter. I wrote down many things that spoke to me: her “call to adventure” and “the sweet elixir of making yourself known.”

So much beauty, strength, and life in this self-described “perfectly imperfect” woman.

“Everything I’ve ever experienced in my life is a part of my strengths.”~Viola Davis

Notes written on paper with pen from Viola Davis' speech at Texas Conference for Women 2017
My notes from Viola Davis’ speech at Texas Conference for Women 2017. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler

Christina Baker Klein

The joy and beauty of Texas Book Festival? Finding the unexpected gem. Last year, I wandered into and was blown away by authors Helen Ellis (American Housewife) and Chris Bohjalian (The Guest Room) witty and sparkling book-based discussion.

Sarah Bird introduces Christina Baker Kline at Texas Book Festival 2017
My dream: one day, Sarah Bird introduces me at Texas Book Festival. Here, Christina Baker Kline (Orphan Train author). Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler

This year, Sarah Bird drew me into a session. The pull was clear–I’ve read all of Bird’s books (many of them multiple times). But I knew nothing about the featured author, other than she’d written a big bestseller I hadn’t read. Two YEARS on the New York Times Bestseller List, 4 million copies sold. You know: Orphan Train.

That’s right; author Christina Baker Kline was in Austin to discuss her new book, A Piece of the World.

I confess my spirits were briefly crushed when Bird gave a nice introduction before telling the crowd that, essentially, she’d sit there while Kline gave a talk. Ah, well; I had no expectations. And then Kline blew me away.

Her presentation was, hands down, my best experience at 2017’s Texas Book Festival.

Schedule and notes from Christina Baker Kline's talk at Texas Book Festival.
My notes from Christina Baker Kline’s talk about A Piece of the World, her new novel. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler

Kline’s presentation wove a wonderful background story for her work. Her family life intertwined with that of A Piece of the World’s protagonist, a fictionalized portrayal of Andrew Wyeth’s model Anna Christina Olson. For almost 40 minutes, I was spellbound by Kline’s captivating mix of history (a bit of Salem witch trial), biography (Kline’s childhood and family), art history (how the Olson’s home featured in Wyeth’s work), writing as process (Kline choosing and researching the topic), and pop culture (her entertaining and enlightening look at memes based on Christina’s World).

I completely forgot about Sarah Bird (sorry, Sarah!). And Kline’s talk became the standard by which I evaluated every other Texas Book Festival session.

What I Bought at 2017 Texas Book Festival

Books Leah Fisher Nyfeler bought at Texas Book Festival 2017

The book tent is a very tempting place, so I tried to limit my exposure. After a first strategic pass at lunch on Saturday, I waited until the end of the Festival to revisit. Alas, all of the books I’d subsequently been inspired to buy had sold out. My haul, therefore, was comparatively low (gift certificates to Book People will make great Christmas and birthday presents, hint, hint).

Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City by Kate Winkler Dawson

I missed this session, which was moderated by Skip Hollandsworth, so I treated myself to the book as consolation. I really enjoy crime stories in a historical setting.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

I wasn’t familiar with this author but she appeared in multiple appealing-sounding panels. I attended one: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Everything.” Irby won my heart with her funny, no bullshit observations on pop culture (including some serious shade thrown at a popular TV show, which had me laughing in agreement).

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline

After that presentation, how could I not?

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Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at www.leahruns100.com, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

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