Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why We Write

A few years ago, I went to my 20-year high school reunion. That felt like the one to go to - enough years to get a fairly good idea of how people had turned out, but not so long that they weren't still evolving. Most of the women there had made a special effort, and looked great; most of the men had grown fat or bald. (One unfortunate fellow, who'd been very handsome at 16, had done both, and, shiny-domed and at over 300 pounds, was unrecognizable.)

I saw my best friends from those tortured years, who it was wonderful to see again; the torturers, who'd, unsurprisingly, become bitchy women and crude men; and people kept coming up to me and saying, "I saw you on Jeopardy!" and "What's Oprah really like?" and, sotto voce with a long, appraising glance, "You looked great in Playboy!" But the interaction that meant the most to me was when a woman I didn't recognize said to me, "I was in your tenth-grade English class, and I wanted you to know that I've never forgotten this one story you wrote. I still think about it all the time."

I was touched, and told her so, though I myself scarcely remembered the story - about a London party girl waiting for a date, not a typical topic for a tenth-grader - or its long-memoried reader. But it made me want to have that kind of impact on more people.

When I read this recent essay by Suzanne Vega about "Tom's Diner" and then the many heartfelt comments about the song and readers' stories about how it had affected them, that's what I thought of.

I currently spend most of my time trying to persuade others, often very successfully, that the products of other people's creative labors are worth buying. I look forward, in the relatively near future, to doing that for my own. But first, I must continue to tell my stories with the hope that someday, someone I've never met will be able to say to someone else: "You have to read this - I read it 20 years ago and I've never forgotten it."

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