While at the College of Mount St. Joseph earning my English degree several years ago, I worked as a writing consultant in the writing center. We assisted students in every stage of the writing process from idea generation to final editing. I heard more than one student complain about writing, I can tell you. My response was “It is an honor when someone wants to read what you wrote. They are interested in getting inside your mind. They want to know what you think.” I don’t always have this idea of respect and esteem in the forefront of my mind when I’m writing. But it is the simple truth.
I took a course while at the Mount called Exploring the Sacred. It was a wonderful combined English and religion course, taught by a team of two excellent professors: Elizabeth Bookser Barkley (Buffy), and Alan DeCourcy. One of the books we read was Martin Buber’s I and Thou where he discusses the nature of relations. In a bare-bones simplification of his idea he maintains that the expectations we impose on relationships reduce it to an “I-it”-ness. Whereas if we have unconditional love and acceptance we elevate the relationship to an “I-thou”-ness. Really listening, seeing another person fully and respecting that, elevates them from an it to a thou.
All you really have to do is think of how you view the employee at the cash register or the slow driver in front of you and compare that to your child, sister, or spouse. I could go into a lot of examples here, but that isn’t the focus of this post. The focus is to share how it feels as a writer to have individuals read what you write.
I’m experiencing this wonderful, scary, validating feeling over and over again with the launch of Dancing in Heaven.
On Saturday November 5th, I was the guest speaker at Jeff Hillard’s Cincinnati Authors class at the College of Mount St. Joseph. To be perfectly honest, I was anxious about this class from the time Jeff asked me to participate up until I was sitting at a desk Saturday morning and had begun to speak. I don’t have a lot of experience with public speaking and it makes me nervous. I also was concerned I would cry. It has always been difficult for me to talk about Annie, even before she died. Sometimes I would be having a discussion about her with someone and I would try to say something that struck a hidden nerve and I would tear up. I never saw it coming.
Fortunately, one of the students gave me a perfect segue. I had asked them to introduce themselves and tell me their majors. Since they all had recently read the book, most of them also volunteered what they thought about Dancing in Heaven. One woman said, “I am emotional. It made me cry at times.” I answered, “I cry easy too. In fact, I cry when I talk about it sometimes.” I reached in my purse, took out a little pack of tissues, and said, “Don’t worry about it if I do. I’ll recover.”
It was extremely validating for me to be there and hear their comments and questions. They got it. They really got it. And in some cases they saw things in the story that I missed myself. It’s amazing to me that I wrote this book from my own personal experience, and yet I continue to learn more about my own experience by the light that readers shine on it.
One of the first readers of my book was a high school classmate of mine who now works as a home health aide for a disabled young man. “I remember the first time I met Annie at your home on Gainsborough,” she said. “I remember being afraid.”
I don’t think it’s terribly unusual for people, especially young people, to be uncomfortable or even afraid when they see someone or something they don’t understand. My dad once told me when he was a child he was afraid of people in wheelchairs. But I had forgotten this aspect of my experience.
Many of the students in the Cincinnati Authors class had a relative, a neighbor, or knew someone who was like or similar to Annie. “My nephew has a rare disorder and was only expected to live eight years. He’s eleven now. What would you tell his parents?” one student asked. “I’m going to share this book with my neighbor’s mother. He’s a lot like Annie. He smiles whenever I go over and visit him. I don’t know if he knows me or not,” another student said.
I sent a copy of Dancing in Heaven to another high school friend who had been particularly helpful. He emailed me last night after finishing it to thank and compliment me. Here’s the miraculous part. He wrote, “Coincidentally, I loaned your book out to one of my staff today as she just received a diagnosis of cerebral palsy for her four-month-old baby who has been demonstrating seizures and other symptoms. . .I think she will find inspiration and strength from your memoir.”
I could go on and on. It’s uplifting for me to see the effect Dancing in Heaven, Annie and my parents really, have on readers.
But I want to end with this comment from a student in the Cincinnati Authors class because it had a big impact on me. A few students had gathered around me after class. One of them said, “Annie was lucky. Your family was perfect for her with your parents and their abilities to make the things she needed.” And then another man said, “Or, to look at it another way, Annie was perfect for your family.”
We needed her more than I ever fully realized. She was perfect for us.