Friday, February 13, 2015

Tribute to Lu Ann

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend and participate in my dear friend Lu Ann Staheli's funeral. Her husband, Mike, asked our writing group to put together some comments to be read during the services. The day before, group members emailed thoughts and memories, and I cobbled it all together. We all went up front to honor Lu Ann, and somehow, with my entire body quivering (likely my voice, too), I read what we'd put together. Here is what I read on behalf of the group.

Lu Ann signing books at the
LDStorymakers Writers Conference in 2011.

July of 1999, Lu Ann opened the directory of a writing organization, found my number, and invited me to be part of a brand new critique group. I was two weeks away from giving birth to my third child and three years into a calling in the Young Women presidency. Yet I was eager to join and asked if she could hold a spot until things were a tiny bit less crazy. January of 2000, I showed up to my first meeting with my heart pounding in my chest. I was incredibly intimidated by the talent sitting across the table.

A few months later, Michele joined us. Here’s how she put that experience: “I quickly discovered that my writing was not brilliant; it wasn’t even good, and I was nowhere near the skill level of the rest of the group. Lu Ann could have easily voted me off; I was not yet in a position to help her writing, and she already had classrooms of students to teach during the day. But she took me under her wing and helped me learn how to write well.”

Jeff recalls his first meeting, after his first book was published. Lu Ann looked at him, smiled, and said, “I read Cutting Edge. I liked it, but it could use some work.” He would be the first to say that she was right.

Heather and Rob rounded out the group until Sarah Eden moved to Utah County about five years ago, and we invited her to come to see if we would be a good fit for one another.

“Their credentials were intimidating,” Sarah says of that time. “I was absolutely certain that after a single night of my relative incompetence, they’d simply quit telling me where they were meeting. That first evening, I was impressed by the excerpt Lu Ann had brought and ravenously devoured the advice she gave the others, all the while scared out of my mind about what she’d think of my humble offering. Not three sentences into her response to my efforts, I knew I had found a treasure in LuAnn, and that my work would be the better as a result of her influence. She was encouraging without being coddling.”

And she truly didn’t coddle. No, Lu Ann didn’t mince words. Sometimes her comments stung, but we knew that they were always given with the intent to help our stories be the best they could be. In fact, her total honesty became something we learned to trust and look forward to. Such honesty is a rare gift, so we weren’t hurt or offended—how could we be, when she was genuinely trying to help, but even more importantly, because so much of the time, she was right?

She was always a teacher, always a mentor, forever looking for ways to help and lift. Sometimes that meant suggesting new ways to promote our books. Other times, she urged one of us to read a specific book because it was just what would help us with the manuscript we were working on. And she knew because she was a walking library catalog—she read constantly from every genre, so she knew more about books than anyone we’ve ever met.

She has given us feedback, encouragement, ideas, and someone to vent to. Someone to laugh with. She gave solid advice, such as when Heather debated whether to take on a certain project: “No,” Lu Ann told her. “You’re better off working on what you already have planned. Stick to your plan. You know it’s right.”

In addition to the hundreds of critique group sessions we’ve shared together, she took the time to read and edit numerous manuscripts for all of us, in addition to those of many other authors, students, and friends. She was never too busy to help. 

In fact, recently I sent a manuscript to the group for feedback. She was already very ill, so while we included her in our email exchanges, I never once expected Lu Ann to read the 90,000-word manuscript while battling cancer. Yet she replied to the email thread, saying rather apologetically that while she’d try to read my book, she couldn’t guarantee she’d get through the whole thing by the time I needed the feedback. That was about three weeks ago. Even in her last days, her concerns were about how much she could give.

Perhaps if she had been less giving, less generous with her time and talents, and more focused on her own career, she would have found both fame and fortune as a writer. Instead, her legacy is farther reaching.

Lu Ann had the talent and skills of a brilliant writer, but more than that, she had the heart of a teacher. She found joy in helping others, in sharing with them the magic of the written word, both in reading and writing. Her loss is also a great loss to the writing community as a whole.

As we have reminisced, variations of the same two things have come up again and again: First, that every book we’ve written since meeting her has been touched by her unique hand.

And second, that going forward, we will continue to hear her voice as we type away, calling us out on awkward word choices, weak character motivations, demanding better descriptions. Things we’ve heard before, like

“Where are we? You didn’t show us the setting.”

“Um, that’s not humanly possible.”

“You used the word very fifteen times on this page—I counted.”

“The girl just rolled her eyes for the fifth time this chapter.”

“Your main character has three arms in this scene.”

Or the classic comment we’ve all heard a thousand times that was all Lu Ann: “Sorry. I don’t buy it.”

We’ll miss not having our pages marked in red with her neat handwriting, no longer seeing her smiley faces and stars in the margins next to parts she thought were especially good. It’s hard to know that never again will we sit around her kitchen table and hear her laugh as we talk shop and brainstorm.

But from the other side, she will certainly continue to whisper in our ears as we write—scolding, cajoling, telling us that we can do better, calling us on it when we don’t. No doubt, she’s already at work, busily helping others, teaching and serving. Being the friend and woman we were all blessed to know. 

She challenged all of us to do better and be better because she sincerely believed we were capable of great things. None of us could have predicted the immense impact she has had on us.

Her support and selfless assistance made us better writers.

Her friendship made us better people.

Some members of our critique group in 2013.
L to R: Lu Ann Staheli, J. Scott Savage,
Sarah M. Eden, Annette Lyon, Michele Paige Holmes
Not pictured: Heather B. Moore and Robison Wells


Lu Ann's family is buried under medical bills from her treatment, even more so because her sweet husband hasn't worked since her diagnosis last summer, so he could be at her side. 

If you can help even a little, please do donate to the family HERE

Another way to help is to buy her books. You can find them on Lu AnnAmazon author page


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