When the first book of my memoir trilogy, Victory Is My Name, was published late last year, I invited some friends and close colleagues to read it online at a private web-page, or download the e-book there. I didn’t request feedback, though of course I was hoping for some. One of my longterm friends (we were best-friends as children and young teens) started to read the book and then stopped when it got to the hard parts. I believe it became too uncomfortable for her to read about some private feelings and events of my life that had never been visible in my cheerful optimistic nature as she knew it. For me this was so disheartening, more than I can even begin to tell you.
Reading a book that’s historically or personally true requires embarking on a journey that may not be entirely safe, and certainly will not be entirely comfortable. But the reader always has an easy escape – just quit. Close the book and walk away.
There were several friends who stopped reading when they got to the hard parts of my life. They were not abandoning me, they just instinctively and innocently did not want to go there. They didn’t want to know me that well. They liked me the way they had come to know me: cheerful, honest, not too complicated.
The dedicated “Real Readers,” deep readers, the kind who love and devour books as a normal part of their daily lives, those are the ones every writer wants to love us. But capturing them is like fishing the ocean with a bent pin on a string. And if we succeed, most of them will be strangers who are not handicapped by any prior perceptions of us.
In every good book there will be a burning bridge the reader must cross, usually early-on, and in every great book, there will be many more ahead. That’s where the commitment is made, at the first burning bridge, whether to cross into this journey or turn away.
My readers and yours are out there, but they probably won’t be our family or friends, and this will hurt. But it’s because some parts of us will emerge through our writing that will disturb their old concept of who we are. They will suddenly see someone deeper or more complicated than they knew, which may shock them. Not-knowing was fine, and it was working for them. God bless them, for they probably loved their version of us very much, as they perceived us. Now if we turn out to be too much more than they knew, it disturbs their comfort. It might even cause them to take a deeper look at their own lives.
Here’s one truth out of many that I learned over and over in my 20 years as an ER caregiver, where we cared for every unimaginable level and form of humanity: You don’t know that person in front of you, no matter who it is.
You don’t really know your parents, or your family as individuals, or your friends. You never met them until you met them. You never knew your parents when they were young, and yes, as sexually passionate, instinctively selfish, and earnestly foolish as you are, or were, when you were 20-something. You don’t know what emotional life-baggage they’ve carried, and struggled with, down the path to get this far. You don’t really want or need to know.
That colleague who is confident, successful, and self-assured, may have been abused, abandoned, physically or emotionally starved and beaten as a child, and nobody knew. Maybe s/he is one of the brave ones who were strong enough to survive. Maybe whatever they had to overcome forced them to grow stronger and braver, and that force became instead what sustained them, became the scaffolding of the quiet confidence that you see now.
You don’t know how the filthy homeless alcoholic or drug addict on the ER gurney got here, with a bloody face from falling down drunk again, whose life my co-workers and I will save, again. You don’t know their story. Everyone you meet may have crossed a few burning bridges to get to this place, where they now stand before you. You don’t know their story.
As the pandemic begins to reluctantly subside and I venture out into my life again, I’ve made a new commitment to my book. I sent another email to one of the friends who stopped reading the book, and asked her to to give it a second chance. I said something like “Try not to see this odd little girl, latchkey kid growing up on the sad side of Dallas in the 1950’s, as someone you know. Don’t try to match her up with the woman you know me to be, now or ever, that’s not who she was then. Try to read it like a novel, an entertaining story with a protagonist and antagonist and other characters and events. I think you might quite enjoy it that way.”
She did read the book again. Afterwards she sent me an email, and said she had read it straight through in two days. I was stunned, but not entirely surprised. She is a professional woman, dedicated and hard-working. She has always been a leader in her field, and like all strong women, knows how to make a commitment and get a job done. She wrote me an extraordinarily generous positive review, and a massive boulder of doubt and discouragement fell off my shoulders. The book was not so bad. It had been the commitment to the journey that was the block, the burning bridge that we are all naturally reluctant to cross.
So here is the challenge: for your book or mine to succeed. For its gift to be shared and its truth be told, we’ve got to find a way to get both friends and strangers to take the risk, to brave the journey, for a good book is always a dangerous journey, and a great book will have many burning bridges to cross. But just beyond, there will be a discovery of something about ourselves and all of us.
You don’t know the person standing in front of you, no matter who it is. They might have an unexpected gift to give you. Only a few of us will dare to tell our story, but in every one of us, there is always more to the story.
The book is Victory Is My Name, a Memoir, Book One. It’s available in paperback at your favorite bookseller, both paper and ebook are at internet stores (Search by author, Victoria Chames) and any brick & mortar bookshop will order the book for you with no shipping charge. You can read a sampler here – http://www.darkhorsepress.com/sampler-victory.html
If you’re interested in being a Beta Reader for Book Two: The West Bank, please contact me by email: victory (at) darkhorsepress dot com. The first draft of Book 2: The West Bank is now in progress.