Friday, November 21, 2008

The Risk of Writing Words To Be Remembered

When we add our words to the body of verbiage awaiting readers' responses, we take a risk that our words a) may not have any impact, b) may be remembered, but not for the reasons we intended, and c) may evoke lasting images and/or ideas that will, in some way affect another human being, thus altering the entire chain of actions and reactions that we call LIFE. Now, c may sound overblown, even hyperbolic, at first glance, but it's not, and I can prove it, and in doing so, risk altering the way YOU, my reader, consider what YOU write in the future by forcing you to evaluate your words in terms of "memorability."
When I wrote my first children's novel, Knock on Wood, I recall a woman coming up to me in tears at a book-signing and saying, "You have no idea how much I can relate to your story! I lost my father when I was 10, AND my name is Sara [like the book's protagonist], and I also had to move out of my house, AND I used to imagine friendly faces in the wood panels of my walls, even talk to them...." I didn't know how to react to this woman's gushing reaction to my work; she wasn't exactly part of my target audience--9-13 year olds--AND she was crying, which could mean that my words were memorable to her, but for painful reasons that I had not intended to create.
After a moment of startled hesitation, I responded, perhaps lamely, with an awkward smile,"So you can really relate to Sara's situation, I guess."
"Oh yes!" she replied. "It brings back a lot of memories." She wiped her eyes.
"Well, I hope SOME are good," I muttered apologetically.
Her eyes widened and she opened her mouth in surprise. "Oh, of course they're good! I'm vividly remembering how I was when I was 10, I had to find my own strength to deal with my fears of moving. I wish I could have had a wise tree fairy to ask for advice! Oh, please don't think I'm crying because I'm upset! I'm actually happy!"
I smiled and shook her hand. "Oh, well I'm glad my book moved you then. Thanks for sharing your story." I still wondered why a woman was reading my work, when the rest of those in line to get my autograph on their copies were middle-graders. And if she had already read it, why was she holding out a copy to be autographed?
"THIS copy is actually my own already. I bought it a couple weeks ago at a teacher's event at Barnes & Noble that featured you among the local authors. Would you sign it for me, personally, and then sign a second one for my students?" She lifted a new copy from the table beside me and handed both copies to me.
On the memorability scale, this scored me high points: I had moved a teacher with my words, and she, in turn, could move young readers by recommending or reading aloud my book to them. They, in turn, might find my words memorable, but for different reasons. So how does this minor blip in the world's major events "alter the entire chain of actions and reactions that we call LIFE"?
Let's say that I awakened in this teacher her inner child and her own self-esteem for that former self. She can now relate to her students on a deeper level (maybe her own family, too), and may even dredge up other childhood memories that enable her to connect to young people in ways she has never connected before. Her enriched appreciation of kids' perceptions will enrich her teaching and, by extension, her students' learning experience. An inspired teacher inspires students, who will then take THEIR positive memories of education and inspire other children someday with their fond memories. And maybe one of those children to whom Sara, the teacher, reads or recommends my book will be going through his or her own challenges related to moving--and moving on--in life; thus, that connection through literature would certainly alter the lives of at least two people in a small, but nevertheless important way. Words have the power to change the world, period.
We all owe it to our world to test our words for memory-making potential before we set them to paper or screen. Writing is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. Our words speak for us and about us, to others and about the future.