A Reader Who Believes
You have ten seconds to think of ONE thing (and it cannot be family or friends) that makes you excited beyond all recall. Ten seconds. Ready… set…. go. What comes to mind? Candy? Chocolate? Cokes? Roller coasters? Music? Writing? Reading? Swimming? Sports? Colored Kleenex (so cool!)? Whatever it is, I promise you, it can’t compare to what I feel when I get when what I always considered to be traditional “fan mail” with my name on it. There really are no words. Something happens to me when I read the widely used “I read your book” subject line. It’s not just excitement, it’s not just anticipation, it’s not just joy filled with schoolgirl-like nervousness… it goes much deeper than that. Tenderness fills my heart, tenderness for God, tenderness for my characters and all the real, non-imaginary, breathing and hurting people they represent; gratitude and awe that someone would take the time to tell me their opinions on anything I wrote. I save each one: they’re tangible, visual reminders that you don’t really have to believe in yourself… you just have to believe in the dream and in God.
I don’t think I’m a good writer. I think I’m an emotional one. I write about sensitive topics that strike a big nerve with a lot of people (a fact, by the way, that I find deeply saddening). And, because of my own past, I understand it. If someone wrote a song about whatever traumatized you as a child and you heard it, you would cry or, in some way, be affected. Basically, that’s all I think I do. It’s funny, because I think God knows that, too and He knows that, back when I was a kid, I probably would have given up at some point, I probably would have stopped midway through a book because I didn’t think the writing was good or because a publishing house said no or because I didn’t think anyone would read it. Lots of reasons. So God got creative…. He filled my soul with a thirst for the written word; He made me love it so much that, gosh darn it, I don’t even care if I’m not good. I was broken hearted when the first publishing house told me no. I thought I’d never recover. It was a personal attack, even if they never actually read the thing. But, lo and behold, that very same week, I was back at it. I swore off publishing til much, much later but nothing was going to keep me from writing. I loved it too much. I cared too much. It healed me too much, filled me with a peace I can’t describe. And I thank God so much for this intense love of the written word, a love that prevented me from quitting it. I didn’t believe in myself, I didn’t believe in my talent, but I believed in the stories that I was creating. Don’t get the wrong idea — I don’t get “fan mail” all that often…. usually, I’ll get about two or three a week about the books themselves and another handful about the blog. Danielle Steel gets so many that it took the woman three years to read and respond to the email I sent her years ago. John Grisham, Stephen King, even Jodi Picoult probably all have second homes just to house to bags of fan mail. Even though it makes me FEEL world famous—eh—I’m really not. Still… each and every single one matters to me. When I receive one like the one I got this morning, well, the sun just shines brighter, the sound of bees don’t make me pass out from anxiety (a miracle), I stop feeling the overwhelming need to sit myself down in a corner and cry as I haven’t cried in years.
The gift reads as follows, verbatim: nothing added, nothing except the name of the sender taken out:
“Dear Ms Johnson:
I just finished both your books Forget Me Not and The Character. I bought The Character after I saw you speak in Memphis at the college. I thought it was something I could handle but I couldn’t get the part you read out of my head. It scared me too much. But I kept the book and when I saw the new one come out, I brought it too. I am going to graduate in May. I will be a nurse practioner. I thought I needed to be able to make it through your books by then. That was what I promised myself I would do. Ms. Johnson, my grandfather used to lock me in a trunk he kept in his bedrooom until I promised not to scream when he raped me. He did this for two years until my older brother walked in and told my stepmother what was happening. He went to jail. So did I. He got out. But I never did. I still live inside a jail. And you are the first person I’ve ever seen who I think really understands that. I shook throughout every single page of The Character but I didn’t cry. I didn’t cry because I was shell shocked. I thought I was the only one who ever thought those things. I thought I was the only one. Then I read Forget Me Not. I cried through every single page of that one. It was so moving and so sad. I skipped class the day after I read the book so that I could cry some more. Then I looked you up. I went to youtube and watched the videos of the Memphis speech. I went to your website. Then I went to the blog and read all night long. I don’t know how many of your blogs I read, I read a ton of them. You write things that I think. You write things that I’ve felt all my life but never been able to say. You use the words that I wish I could have used when I was a kid. But you always end your posts with something good. Every blog post I read ended with something good. How do you do that? I have never written to another author before. I always thought it was wasted time. Maybe this is too. I kind of hope it is because I hope these books spread like wildfire. When I read these books, I felt like I knew you. I brought two more copies of The Character and one more of Forget Me Not tonight. When I graduate, I am going to take them with me into the hospital and give them to whoever I see that might need them. I am glad you have healed and moved on. I am glad you are better. But I am selfish because I am also very, very glad you understand. When I saw you in Memphis, I wanted to speak to you but I was too scared. You gave me a card and told me to email you. I think maybe you saw something that even people really close to me have never seen. Thank you.”
My heart bleeds.
But it also rejoices. You see, much of the shame that comes with being harmed in horrific ways is that it makes us believe we’re crazy—insane crazy, or selfish or …. guilty. When I answered this e-mail, I assured the reader that I’m not “healed”, plenty of people claim I’ve not moved on at all. But, the truth is, maybe some of that shame is embarrassment. We think we should have been smart enough, should have been brave enough, should have been ______________ enough to keep ourselves from getting hurt in the first place. The truth, though, is that we are who we are for a reason, a divine reason, a good reason and it wasn’t our responsibility to stop anything: we were children, with children’s minds, children’s logic and children’s bodies. The lie of abuse is that we deserved it.
In typical Tiffini fashion, I wrote this poor woman practically a novella in response but, ultimately, what I wanted her to know was that (a) I DO understand, (b) she exercised more courage than she probably is aware of simply by reading those two books and (c) I’m really not a good writer and that means whatever encouragement she took away from the books wasn’t from me: it was from God. As a young child, my saving grace, my angel, came in the form of the pen. I found an escape, a safe haven, a dream through it. In the lives of my characters, I learned laughter, hope and, most importantly, the necessity of dreams. Of course I want my work to be successful, of course I have dreams of being on best-selling lists. But, even more than that, what I want is to be understood. And this woman’s e-mail pierced me because she understands me. We’re two women who may never become friends in the real world but we’re connected by a history of memories that are the same whether they took place in the United States, Pakistan, Paris or Iceland. She is about to become a nurse practitioner. She read my books, something I can’t even do cover to cover. We think we’re failing because the world says we need to move on or because we have trouble with intimacy and trust. We’re ashamed because we did things, “allowed” things, saw and heard things that we know we shouldn’t have. But a person who wounds an armed man who invades her house is innocent of all wrong-doing because she was merely safeguarding her own life. When attacked, some will run while others play along. Both the runner and the complacent victim are still victims, and neither way is right or wrong. Even if we weren’t in danger of actual death, we, too, safeguarded our own sanity and lives in whatever way we knew how.
And I would never be able to say all that convincingly in real life. The power, though, of the written word is that it allows us to put what we know in our heads onto paper, regardless of what our hearts believe. The written word allows us to separate what we know to be true from what we feel. And, in my experience, this can be deeply healing, deeply cleansing. Knowing that someone else understands, that someone else saw, smelled, touched and tasted all the filth and shame that you did is more powerful a hope than seeing the one who inflicted the pain punished for it. My dream has been to write because it makes me feel normal, and it helps me see in black and white what the truth of the situation really was. The fact that it can touch others, reach others, shows me that God can take something as simple as what my “talent” is and transform it into grace. It reminds me that I nourish the dream of writing not only for my sake but because I know that God can use the long-winded words of an over-analytical, overly emotional woman like me to produce miracles.
Reading “fan mail” always reminds me that I have no idea who is reading these blogs. The stats tell me from what countries people are reading and how many, but I have no idea of what stories are behind those statistics. So… to anyone who may read this and feel compelled to write a song, a poem, a book, a movie or to create…. anything…. please do it. Human spirits and lives all across the globe are connected, and healing waters flow the fastest, when we share the parts of ourselves that we think we cannot share. For reading, for sharing, for reminding me that it’s okay to be the emotional writer I am, for believing in my dream along with me, for giving me strength and understanding…. thank you.