The First Time I Saw Paul Coelho
It was the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. My head was down, preparing for a session we were doing on creativity and collaboration. Lionel Richie came in the room turning heads all over the place, including mine. He had charisma, even amidst other high profile figures who were there planning the future of the world. I didn’t notice the famous Brazilian writer who had entered ahead of Richie–short, unassuming, but surrounded by an entourage of fans and assistants. This man, I came to find out, was Paulo Coelho. “Who?” I asked myself.
What is Serendipity?
As a writer, I love serendipity. This is why I keep a notebook and pen with me at all times–and feel empty when I leave them at home. You never know when something will come to you: a thought, idea, book title, name of a writer. Sometimes a book will come up several times in different conversations with different people, which is a kind of flag that I need to pay attention to. This is where our hearts will want something that our heads haven’t caught up to yet. It’s that place of the unconscious that is working when we don’t know it, and will flag us to things when we least expect it.
Lionel Richie Meets Paulo Coelho
There was a plenary session with Richie and Coelho. My job was to take minutes. It was an open mic for people to ask questions about Richie’s and Coelho’s lives and creative process. It was the hardest session to take minutes of in my life, for there were moments when Coelho spoke and my mouth dropped open. He was talking about creativity and the soul, and that it is love that drives our creative process, drives our writing or whatever else we do in the world. That we much approach our work with passion and discovery. I can’t remember details, but when I returned to Calgary I made a note to read The Alchemist–a book he had referenced again and again during that late-night plenary talk amidst the quiet Swiss Alps.
Writing and Passion
How do we write out of passion? Is it a mere emotional free-for-all that’s purely driven by impulse, a blind inspiration? Or is it something else? Can it be more rational, more objective, more calculated? To me, the initial writing can feel like a free-for-all in which I’m writing down at a blistering pace everything that comes to mind. But then comes the revising, the pruning, and that can take forever. I remember reading an article about Coelho: that he would stew and pace and procrastinate for hours and hours. Suddenly, the ideas would hit and he would write for 8-12 hours straight in a creative frenzy. Alas, I don’t have that luxury of time. But indeed there must be passion–there must be a vision we’re striving for, that we’re hungry to articulate. I like getting it all down, then pruning it.
The Intuition: I Am Going To Meet Paulo Coelho!
Fast forward 10 months. I found out I was going to be working at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting again. I was in bed with a stomach flu, and guzzled The Alchemist like medicine. Along with millions of others, I fell in love with Santiago and his journey to discover the treasure of his heart; the treasure that sat buried in the very place from which he ventured. The book captivated me as a writer and human being. As I lay there in bed, I suddenly had a strong sense that I would meet Paulo Coelho that coming January in Davos. “What would I say to him?” I thought. “Well, I would have to thank him for writing such a marvellous book. And I would encourage him to keep writing.” Nonsense!
Creative Time as The Temporal and Eternal
I am fascinated with creative time; with how temporality and eternity can blur in the creative process. How fast does it take you to have a book idea, to see the whole thing come together in your mind? A matter of seconds? It’s happened to me. How much time does it take to bring that vision into fruition? Seconds? If only that were so! That’s because our creative time comes from our souls, from that eternity we carry as creatures in the image of God. But we are still thrown into the temporal world, and thus bear its weight, its heaviness. Like treading through quick sand, we venture out to build what took us a split second to see in our minds; we venture out knowing we may never return, carried by the eternity we bear within us.
When I Met Paulo Coelho
Fast forward again to January. It’s been a busy Annual Meeting. My team and I were working 20 hour days for five days straight. It was not uncommon to find an empty office on the second floor of the main congress centre and crash out in between sessions. It was about 3pm on the last day, and I hadn’t seen Coelho anywhere. Seeing him wasn’t really on my mind at that point anyway. The work was rigorous, and I was looking forward to the sessions wrapping up so I could get some down time and some rest.
I was hungry, so I took a walk out to the foyer of the congress centre where there was a buffet table arranged with all kinds of food. I filled a plate and walked back to the large doors of the Aspen Room where we were holding our sessions. Suddenly, a flash of silver caught my eye. I looked back and there, unaccompanied, entirely alone, was Paulo Coelho! I couldn’t believe it. I hesitated for a moment: “Wait a minute,” I said to myself, “what am I going to do now? Should I approach him?” For a moment I thought of just letting him go, of letting that moment slip by–but how anti-Alchemist is that! So, I took took a deep breath, mustered up some courage, and walked over to him.
“Excuse me, Mr. Coelho–may I have a minute with you?” I said approaching with a fast-beating heart, and a scratch in my throat.
“Yes–sure, sure . . .” he said, smiling warmly.
“Mr. Coelho, thank you for writing such amazing books, and inspiring millions of people,” I continued. “And I want to thank you also on behalf of my wife who has loved your books.”
“Oh–” he replied, “How very kind.” He put his arm around me (did you catch that dear reader) and we walked briefly across the foyer.
I said, “Mr. Coelho, you must continue writing–you must keep going, for you inspire so many people. I don’t know where you are at these days, but you must keep on going–you must keep writing and keep inspiring . . .”
He seemed a bit taken aback, which I interpreted as having hit a spot with him. He thanked me, and I said good-bye and went back to the Aspen Room to resume work, albeit with great joy–with elation in my heart.
Serendipity is Providence
This story on the surface is about serendipity, but to me in its authentic expression is providence. I love the story of how I met Paulo Coelho, because I see meeting him as a gift from God at that time in my life. It was a time of great creative struggle; a time of struggle as a writer. It was a time when I didn’t really see myself as a writer, but held something deep in my heart–a vision for something I could not articulate. Meeting Coelho confirmed to me that writing was what my heart wanted.
And who knows what my encouragement may have done for Coelho himself–grace works both ways. Maybe he was needing encouragement at that moment, and I was the one standing by, ushered by God to do it.
We are all human. We all struggle. We all need the grace of God, even if we don’t believe in Him, which is where I was at the time. And the Lord in His great Love gives us things that let us know that He loves us, and is looking after us. It’s taken thirteen years since meeting Coelho to see this, and it’s beautiful–God is so good to us. Meeting Paulo Coelho was a way for God to say, “Here my son, meet a great author and be inspired; be inspired for the time I will call you to write.
And is this not the point of Santiago’s journey, the whole point of The Alchemist? Indeed, it is to travel out, to venture, to journey, but at all times to remember–or to realize–that what we are seeking is already right there, in our hearts.
But what I didn’t know was that the day I met Paulo Coelho was also going to be the day when I met another epic writer: the great Elie Wiesel—
but that’s another story . . .