This is the question posed by my fabulous life coach, Andrea Maurer, as part of our 90-Day Power Play program. And being the A+++ student I strive to be, I wholeheartedly threw myself into research and reflection.
First, however, a little background. This question was prompted by my general angst and insecurity about writing fiction full-time. (I know, I know. Me? Angst and insecurity? Shocking.) A portion of my 90-Day goals revolves around completing and releasing my next book — my first published work of fiction. Oh, I’ve written plenty of novels — none of which will ever see the light of day. “See How They Run” will be the first. And there’s a lot of nervousness around that — of course, because that’s how I choose to experience it.
It seems indulgent, really, after a lucrative and successful career as a marketing copywriter to switch gears and devote myself to the writing that I actually love to do — the writing that fuels and inspires me. Just because I made a career as a copywriter doesn’t mean I can make a career as a novelist, right? Just because fiction is what I love doesn’t mean it’s earth-shattering for anyone else, true? And those are the self-limiting conversations that run laps around the hamster wheel in my mind.
Who am I to follow my dreams? Who am I to believe that what inspires me might someday inspire others?
And that’s where Shmee comes in.
“What is the value of fiction to you?” she asked. “What would your life be without books?”
And thus my research began.
My entire life has revolved around reading and writing. From as early as I can remember, I was hoarding books, checking out as many as the library would allow, sneaking into the adult section to read snippets of Judy Blume’s “Wifey.” (I mean, how dirty could the author of “Blubber” be, really…?) When I wasn’t reading, I was writing, observing, listening, jotting down bits of conversations, maneuvering my way through the complex maze of human emotions via words and pencils and paper.
And yes, there were books that changed me, shaped me, helped me define my own place in this world. Judy Blume almost singlehandedly taught me how to make my way through grade school. V.C. Andrews taught me about high drama and cliched angst. Ernest Hemingway helped me appreciate the power of great literary works. Maya Angelou introduced me to the beauty of poetic prose. Today, I still continue to learn from my favorites… Ann Patchett, Donna Tartt, Lisa Genova, Julia Glass, Chris Bohjalian, Ilie Ruby, Caroline Leavitt, Kim Edwards, Anne Lamott, Amy Bloom, Ann Tyler, Kathryn Stockett, my newly discovered Eleanor Brown… I could go on forever.
I suppose the point is that if fiction helped shape my life, perhaps my own words can help shape another’s. Shmee explained to me, “You have a gift. You need to give that gift away. You have to allow it to grow and expand. A gift is nothing if it is not offered with open hands.”
You see, I’ve been worried (again, shocking, I know…) that what I want to do most doesn’t really mean anything. I’m not saving the world, I’m not reforming public education, I’m not writing self-help books to help improve lives, I’m not feeding hungry children in Africa, I’m not rescuing abandoned dogs, I’m not saving souls from eternal damnation.
What if one person reads one sentence and says, “Yes! Yes! That’s how I felt. That’s what I saw. That’s what I needed to hear.”
Again, it all goes back to the human connection; our need to feel a part of something bigger; our need to know we are not alone in this crazy world. Our stories are all different, and yet they’re all the same. We’re human. We love, we hurt, we heal, we grow, we cry, we laugh, we need, we give, we take, we run, we stumble, we doubt, we believe. We are.
I was browsing at the bookstore with Mary the other day (best friend, beautiful day, books… ahhh…), and as always, I was like a proverbial kid in a candy store. I could stay at Barnes & Noble all day long, without a meal, a bathroom break, a drink of water, a prolonged breath. That’s how sustaining books are to me. My eyes are always wide, my hands always reaching for the next one, my lips eager to spread the word.
“Have you read this one, Mary?” I asked again and again and again. And we talked and laughed and shared recommendations.
At one point during our trip, Mary turned to me and said, “I love how much you love books.”
It was the greatest compliment anyone could bestow upon me.
Books help me connect life’s dots — if I slow down enough to draw the lines between them. Shmee has introduced me recently to the beautiful Amy Oscar. She is a lovely soul who writes about angels and heavenly interventions and spiritual awakenings that tend to stretch me out of my normal comfort zone. Yes, I believe in angels. I’m a good Catholic girl, after all. (Well, the “good” might be debatable…) I have a guardian angel; I attended a school named after Michael the Archangel; there are most definitely angels in my life. But I don’t necessarily talk about them. Verbalizing those beliefs is a little “woo woo” to me, I must admit. But Amy Oscar does it beautifully, gently, without boundaries or judgment. And so, I’ve been reading what she has to say and wondering how it all fits into my own life.
During that same Barnes & Noble trip with Mary, I picked up a copy of Chris Bohjalian’s “Secrets of Eden.” It was a signed copy, and after I kicked myself for completely missing the opportunity to meet him in person (can you say Author Stalker?), I bought the book. I’m a sucker for a signature. And I’ll be damned if a central theme in that book wasn’t angels. Angels! And you know what else? It was set near Bennington, Vermont. And you all know how I feel about Bennington. I don’t know what all those things mean, but I know there aren’t any coincidences in life. So, I’m listening. I’m waiting. I’m ready to connect those dots when the next one makes itself visible to me.
In the past three weeks, I’ve read every book pictured above. As I was plumping my pillow, gripping my glass of Apothic Red, and reaching out for the next decadent work of fiction, I said to my dissertation-writing husband, “I’m becoming a book whore.” He replied without pause, “You’ve always been a book whore.” And so I have.
When I was little, I eschewed TV in favor of my next “Little House on the Prairie” book. Of course, I never missed a Tuesday night curled up on my mom’s lap to watch “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley,” but otherwise, I always favored reading over watching. I’d spend hours upon hours curled up in a storage locker in our apartment laundry room, poring over words while engulfed in the overpowering scent of Downy fabric sheets and the comforting chug of the dryers. In the summer (when I wasn’t racing my bike to the Boys and Girls Club to compete in my next softball game or kicking all the neighbor boys’ asses on the basketball court), I would venture out into the field behind our building and hunker down with a book in the cozy cardboard fort I’d created. (I’d probably also sneak a Merit Ultra Light or two, but that was neither here nor there…)
Literature courses in high school and college? Manna from heaven. Essay and research paper assignments? Bring it on. I couldn’t get enough. And even when I was taking 18 hours of Shakespeare and American Lit and Women’s Lit, I still found time to read contemporary fiction.
And so, Dear Shmee, here’s what I’ve discovered: If I have allowed others’ words to mold and shape my day-to-day life, then I need to give that gift back to the world. In fact, it would seem downright selfish not to, wouldn’t it? Who am I to decide what someone else might want or need in his or her lifetime? All I can do is open my hands and offer whatever I am able.
Now, I’m going to wait patiently for my A+++.