Years ago, I wrote a short essay for a newspaper for the tiny fee of thirty dollars. The piece was about the town I lived in—and more broadly, about the meaning of community. I was residing in Central California at the time—dry, hot farm country between the South Coast Range and the Sierra Nevada. It was a place I both loved and hated, and had a lot to say about. I was proud when the little essay was published, even though I wasn’t making any real money off it. I was pleased when a couple people told me they liked it.
Then one day, a woman I barely knew approached me in a store to say that the essay had helped her with a problem. She and her husband had lived in the area only a couple years, and they were debating whether to move away. They’d gone around and around about the pro’s and con’s of another town in another state. But after they read my essay, they’d made a decision: They were going to stay. My essay, my acquaintance said, had “brought them peace.”
I was horrified. I could hardly believe that someone had made a life-altering choice on the basis of some little thing I’d dashed out for thirty bucks. When I wrote the piece, I thought a few readers might find it amusing, but it had never occurred to me that it would actually help someone.
Like most writers, I saw my writing as a way to heal my own wounds, not other people’s. Writing had helped clear up some of my thornier issues, given me a safety valve for anger, and gotten me through more than one bleak night. But the idea that it might do the same for someone else was a revelation.
For a time, this realization was a major annoyance. I didn’t want to be responsible for offering people solutions, or answers, or hope. The only thing I wanted to give people was entertainment. I saw myself as a storyteller, not a philosopher or healer. Knowing that my writing might affect other people’s lives gave me the idea I had to weigh what I said not just artistically, but for its value as a guide and an aid to my readers. Suddenly, writing felt like an obligation. That was the last thing I needed.
I got over myself after a time: Once it occurred to me that the number of people who’d base their place of residence—or any other major decision—on my work was probably tiny, even over the course of my entire life. Anyway, I soon realized I had little say in the matter. A reader might find some sort of guidance in my work, might have the remarkable experience of seeing his own life reflected in my words, might even discover comfort and support there, but the only role I could play in the process was to be honest, to be kind, and to write as well as I could. Just get on with it, I told myself. And I did.
Still, it’s there: That awareness that my sometimes hurried, awkward prose might change a life. If a 600-word essay in a medium-circulation newspaper can get someone to choose the city they’re going to spend the rest of their life in, who knows what mischief a 450-page novel might do? I try not to think about it.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...