I live a fairly quiet life. I go about my business in small ways, connecting only with a small number of people. I don’t feel limited by this smallness in any way. Instead, my life feels safe and manageable. But every so often, my small, quiet life becomes larger and quite loud, which is what happened this past year with the publication of my first book.
Tweets. Facebook posts. An online interview. Visits to bookstores, conventions, and schools. It felt as if my life grew three sizes overnight. No, it wasn’t the Today Show or NPR, and thank goodness it wasn’t because that would have probably left me balled up in a corner somewhere. “And next, we have Mandy Davis author of Superstar,” Terry Gross would say. “Wait…is that Mandy crouched under the snack table, stuffing her face with Cool Ranch Doritos?” Three sizes, I could handle. Thirteen, I could not.
It’s all about small steps—just like with writing. You don’t write a novel in a week or do a complete revision in a month. Well, maybe some people do. But I am slow. I need time to think and adjust and get comfortable. Someone once told me the publishing world moves at a snail’s pace, and thank goodness for that. Maybe the slowness is one reason why I enjoy this whole being-an-author thing so much.
But the slowness isn’t why I write.
I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about why I do things and the question of why I write is one I return to over and over again. For a long time, when someone would ask me this question (or when I would explore it myself), the answer would come, not in words, but in the form of a feeling—a standing-on-top-of-a-mountain feeling or a sitting-around-a-campfire feeling or a staring-up-into-a-perfectly-clear-night-sky feeling. I knew what it felt like but hadn’t yet found the words to describe it.
Enter Brené Brown.
It was August 2015. My mom and I had driven down to Nashville for Brené’s Rising Strong day, and oh what a day it was. The presentations. The insights. The meet and greet where I totally got to invade Brené’s personal space and pretend like we were besties for the slightly blurry photo op above. (But I mean, blurry or not, that’s me and Brené, people. ME AND BRENÉ!) Little did I know the real magic of the day would happen after my mom and I had returned to our hotel room. We talked late into the night, then finally agreed that if we didn’t get some sleep, we’d never be able to stay awake for the long drive home the following day.
But I couldn’t sleep, not with my brain and heart buzzing like it was. I felt open and receptive and ready. For what? I wasn’t quite sure. But I knew it wasn’t sleep.
In the bag we’d been given at the beginning of the day was the most recent copy of O, The Oprah Magazine. My mom used to subscribe to O, and every time I picked one up, I always began at the end with Oprah’s “What I Know for Sure” section. So, when I opened the magazine all those years later, that’s exactly where I went. This month Oprah wrote about the power of storytelling. It felt as if she had written the article specifically for me. I won’t recount it all here, but it ended with this gorgeous sentence: “That’s the power of words—of a story told so well, you’re enlarged by its meaning.”
Enlarged by its meaning.
Those were the words I’d been waiting for, the words that would help me set a purpose for all my future writing projects and work (including the one you’re reading right now).
When I was growing up, I looked to my future, and like so many other bright-eyed idealists, I decided I wanted to change the world. Back then, changing the world meant helping people (by changing them). Through no lack in trying, I’ve learned that you can’t actually change other people. You can offer support and kindness and even guidance if you want to. But people will always make their own choices. We only change when we’re ready. And even then, making specific changes can be extremely challenging. I have quite of bit of experience in this area.
A single experience (or piece of writing) rarely changes my life. What it can do, though, is expand my world view. And depending on what I’ve already experienced, a single moment may be the key that finally opens up inside me a different way of thinking, feeling, or being. That’s why I love the idea that words have the power to enlarge us. For me, writing something with the power to affect someone, to enlarge someone, is a much more manageable (and meaningful) goal than trying to change the world.
The amazing thing is though, whenever we’re affected by something on a deep level, seeds are planted. When enough of these little seeds mature, we do begin to change. When enough of us have changed, the world begins to change right along with us.
When I started grad school and began working toward my MFA in writing for kids, I remember mentioning to others how I believed that the purpose of books was to teach young people lessons. As a former teacher, I tended to see books as vehicles of learning. I felt so naive when other more seasoned writers explained that as authors our loyalties must lie in the story itself, not with its eventual outcomes. So I focused on craft and process, lessons which definitely have served me well. But after almost a decade of writing, even though I am still fiercely loyal to the integrity of my stories, I’ve once again grown to see my words as vehicles of learning.
When I write anything, a book or a blog post or a speech even, I endeavor to feel the story at every turn. When a story is grounded in human emotion, the experience of reading becomes elevated. We’re not just reading anymore; we’re experiencing. We’re sharing these deeply personal moments as we accompany a character or narrator on her journey. And soon we realize it’s not just her journey anymore. It’s ours, too.
Along the way, we definitely learn things. About the world, yes. But more importantly, about ourselves. We feel things too, and come to see ourselves in another (and see another in ourselves). And by the time we come to that final sentence, we are enlarged.
Almost every time I sit down in my quiet little room, in my quiet little corner of the world, and spend time with my words, it happens. I develop this sense that I am somehow more than I was. The act of writing does that for me.
And my goal, my mission, my hope is that in some small way, my words will do that for you, as well.