I've always heard the advice that good story-telling requires truth, so I won't lie; I'll admit that I want validation that this story-telling-with-words that I've made my life's work isn't just the equivalent of shouting into a void and hoping to hear an echo of my own voice. I want validation that I've reached, even touched, people, in some core way.
Validation, though, demands proof. So it's easy--and yes, human--to equate that validation with sales, high rankings, good reviews. And yes, I want those things. I wanted them yesterday, and I want them today, and I'll want them tomorrow.
But last night, I was a guest at a university class for teachers working on their master's degrees for teaching middle school and high school reading. I was so honored that the class read MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA (a second year in a row!) and wrote papers about how my novel might be taught to teen readers. It was certainly complimentary and validating and delightful to hear teachers discussing my work--its theme, character motivations, imagery, and so on.
But then one of the teachers, who'd been quiet throughout, spoke up...
Her students noticed. They were curious about what she was reading. She told them about the class, about ALASKA, and then she began reading ALASKA with several of her students, 7th and 8th graders, and a few high schoolers who come in as helpers.
My impression from the teacher's description was that she and the students took turns reading her copy of ALASKA aloud to one another, because she said that over the days they read the novel, they were eager to come back the next day and the next day to finish the book. They liked the clear writing, the flow, and the way the end of one chapter 'hooked' them to the next. (Here I pause to give a nod of thanks to my years of practice writing mysteries.)
Well, this image--at-risk, inner city students gathering with their teacher on breaks to read my novel--was in and of itself enough to leave me gobsmacked. Agog. And, I admit it, quickly approaching a teary-eyed state I might not be able to dismiss as merely due to, say, allergies.
But then the teacher went on to talk about the discussions she had with her students about ALASKA. How these young people were excited to read a story that doesn't have a perfect happy-ever-after ending, that's bittersweet, and yet, that's hopeful. She was funny as she talked about them saying, "I hope that writer doesn't give Donna an easy way out!" because they don't have easy ways out. She said the girls--young women--were relieved Donna wasn't rescued by a boyfriend, but that she relied on her own gumption to help her younger brother succeed. She made me laugh (thankfully; a good antidote to the rapidly-approaching teary eyed state) when she said, "if you'd have had Jimmy rescue Donna, they'd have probably found you just so they could say, you've gotta be kidding me!"
(I rather liked that image--12-16 year-old females tracking down an author to demand just why in the world she let the heroine get unrealistically rescued by a boy.)
This teacher added that my novel resonated because her students, like Donna, had to grow up too fast, taking care of younger siblings, often while lacking parental support... and yet, she added, ALASKA made them think about the adults (aunts, grandparents, teachers) who do step in and provide that crucial role-modeling. Finally, she talked about how my novel made these students talk and think about the theme of 'small choices,' both in the novel and in their own lives, and how, maybe, they might seek their own metaphorical 'square inch of Alaska,' and seek their own dreams... but knowing it's OK if dreams don't turn out as perfectly as we, well, dreamed them. It's OK to simply pursue a dream, and get at least part of it right. Get a little further, touch a few more people, do a little better than we might have if we hadn't tried to pursue that dream at all.
I didn't burst out in tears after all those comments, at least not in that moment, and thankfully not in front of everyone.
I hope sharing this experience in a public forum doesn't come off too braggartly.
I'm sharing it because just an hour before the class, (here's that damned honesty thing again), I'd felt pouty about any number of publishing things: what if this, why not that.
Then... as luck, or the universe, or perhaps just my Google calendar would have it... a teacher shared with me, in a quiet, pragmatic, non-fawning yet heartfelt way, her own story, of people gathered round to read aloud my story to one another, the way humans have done since time out of memory. Story-telling and tell-me-a-story isn't just in my d.n.a. It's in every human's d.n.a.
Stories connect us. Stories show us the way. Stories remind us of what we already know.
Her story reminded of what I already know (but tend to frequently forget): that all I can really do is tell-my-stories-with-words. Try to remember the whole point of story-telling--illuminating some small slice of the human experience. And try to remember that real validation is the rare, wondrous, humbling gift of discovering one's story really did touch, in a core way, fellow humans.