Recently, a colleague went to India on business. She loves to read, and she asked if she could take several of my short stories with her. I was thrilled and promptly loaded two manila envelopes, thinking that she probably wouldn’t really enjoy them, that perhaps she was just asking to be polite.
Yesterday she came up to me and told me that my stories had saved her life.
Before she goes on any trip, her husband buys her a book to read. For this trip, he’d given her the latest novel by her favorite author, one he was sure she hadn’t read. Ecstatic, she decided to read the novel on the long flight and stowed my envelopes in her checked luggage.
After the plane was in the air, she eagerly cracked the new book—then got to the end of page one and realized she had read it. She could have read it a second time, she said, but frankly, she hadn’t really enjoyed it that much the first time.
When she finally arrived at her hotel, she was wired. “I thought, ‘what the hell am I going to do with myself?’ and then I remembered your stories and I was so excited!” She had her favorites—for those of you who are curious, she loved “Red Circle,” “Crossing Guards,” “Paisley Surprise,” and “Doors” the most—and went into detail about how they affected her, or what they made her think. “Every night at the hotel, I had them all spread out on the bed, and I’d pick one to read. Sometimes I read two, and some of them, I even read twice. I would have gone nuts over there if I didn’t have them.”
Although I was, of course, flattered by all these compliments, that’s not why I’m sharing this. I’m sharing this because during the course of the conversation I was struck by how many times I’ve doubted my career choice: as in, ‘why am I a writer? What’s the point of all this?’ I know other writers feel this way sometimes, too, although from sharing with my friends, most of us agree that it’s because we can’t not write—it’s born in us, something we have to do or we go crazy. This is usually followed by shop talk: what good writing is or is not, whether or not something we wrote is technically perfect, the minutiae of submissions, the state of the publishing industry or academia. We get all tangled up in the business, where we fit in it, and how it will judge us.
I had an epiphany when I was talking with Karen. That sometimes we forget the other reason we’re writing: our readers. Part of the job is providing them with an experience: we can allow escape, entertain, spark laughter, encourage thought, inspire change. It’s not all about us. It’s about others. Any piece of work we write—even if it’s not perfect—could heal someone, change his outlook, teach him something. That—not selling millions of copies at the bookstore or getting tenure in an English department—is the true measure of success.
Before we parted ways, Karen said she was going to pass the pile on to one of her colleagues.
I wonder what my stories will do next.
 “Red Circle” was first published as “The Red Circle” in The Adirondack Review’s Fall 2002 issue and is still available online for free here. It was reprinted in Mudrock: Stories & Tales’ Winter 2005 issue.
 “Doors” was just written while I was in Ptown in January and still has some minor clean-up to undergo before it gets submitted. If you’d like to read what inspired it, however, you can visit here.