Right now I’m on a red-eye flight from San Fran to Detroit, where I’ll land at the ass-crack of dawn courtesy Delta Airlines, pick up a rental car, and drive half an hour to a Motel 6 just outside Ann Arbor. Two days ago, I was in Davis, California for stop #26 on my bound-and-determined, self-funded, WTF-was-I-thinking tour for my debut story collection, Flashes of War. During the Q&A in Davis, a man told me he saw Flashes of War in a window display at The Avid Reader, considered its cover—the toy soldier, the word WAR impossible to ignore—and didn’t feel he had the time for another book. “Especially war stories written by a young woman who has never seen combat,” he confessed. “Then I got home and listened your regional spotlight on NPR and went back to the store the next day for the book. I haven’t been able to put it down since.” The man blushed and I did too. While I waited for his question, the silence was filled by a tender bubble of sound, almost like an infant burping, and I realized the man had begun to weep.
I share this not to say that I have written something that made a reader cry, for the very next day I would do some crying of my own. What felt significant to me was realizing I’d fly all the red-eyes in the world for that kind of moment. One of my mentors, Pete Fromm, always told me, “Writing is a solo sport.” I believe all good writers must engage with the world, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of composing material, Fromm is absolutely right. There are thousands of us out here, but we’re mostly working in basements or trailers or hotel rooms, talking out loud to characters that don’t even exist. Writing ultimately happens in private moments as we lean over our notebooks and keyboards, pecking away in punch-drunk prayer. No one’s there to witness the electricity between brain, breath, and fingertips. Six miles high on my Delta flight, it came to me that the only mercy on a book tour is meaningful moments like the one I had in Davis. Getting to see readers engage with a story reminds me why I do what I do.
Which brings me to this: I write to make sense of the world, by which I mean that the world in all its beauty, suffering, and auspiciousness is utterly too much for me. I’m flabbergasted by everyday observations: the tiny waddle of a junco as it forages through the duff; the way one man’s voice tickles the inside of my ribcage when we stand closely; the tremor of anticipation in a dog’s front paws at the word “walk;” the senselessness of an IED as it blasts one Humvee and leaves another untouched. All of those things, stacked day after day, make me want to laugh and cry in the same second. Life happens so quickly; thin slices of vivid detail and wild hare metaphors. If I don’t try to find meaning by imagining a narrative thread, I start to feel as if I’ll explode.
I’m not sure whether that sounds good or bad to most folks, but it’s my reality. If I do my job well enough, maybe what I have to say will provide an opportunity for pause and reflection. A mark in time. A pinprick on the map. Something to name.
As it turns out, what made me cry the day after Davis were the words of another writer: Barry Lopez. I snuck into the back of the room of a ticketed dinner event for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association tradeshow. Ivan Doig, Barry Lopez, and Jane Kirkpatrick were being interviewed before an audience of indy booksellers and librarians (our last great defenders of the printed word). I immediately felt electricity in the air. It was as though a hole had been drilled into my head so that I could turn off the frenzy and tune into the decades of writerly wisdom in front of me. The moderator asked Barry why he writes. Here is what I transcribed onto a napkin: “People need some kind of protection from the darkness and that’s what books do…this tradition [of telling stories] is ancient…If there were some way to go back, we would be able to see how stories help people organize what they know into meaning…It is not a small thing in the world to create a story and give it away.”
Just like that, the exhaustion of my book tour hit me—but I also felt incredibly validated. No wonder I felt beat; I’d been giving away stories left, right, and center with no end in sight. No matter how many red-eye flights, how many times my name got printed incorrectly, how many empty chairs there were, or how many people said “I don’t want to read about war,” it wasn’t all for naught (and there were good moments, too). There’s something bigger going on when we dedicate our lives to story and it has to do with preservation. With loving something—the world, a human being, a sentence—so much, that you can’t stand yourself unless you declare that love in a way others can hear. A few minutes before the panelists finished speaking, I snuck back out the door and headed down the hallway to prepare for my own presentation in the next room. I didn’t know how many people would show up, but it didn’t matter. I knew I’d have a story to give them.