When I checked in with one of my writing friends last week, the answer I got was, “I haven’t written in months. It all seems so futile.” Another friend, who writes romance novels, said, “I’m too depressed to write. I don’t even see how the world needs my books anymore.”
They aren’t the only writers I know who are having a slump or a block or a crisis. Whatever you want to call it, the more I talked about this with my friends, the more I saw a common theme in the nature of that obstruction. Everywhere I turned, writers were telling me that they didn’t feel like their work mattered.
In times of turmoil, it can feel like your fluffy rom-com or your cozy mystery or your picture book about hamsters isn’t important. It’s not tackling the big issues, you say. Or maybe you’re saying, I’m not writing world-changing fiction. If that’s the thought behind your current writing slump, I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong.
Both the Talmud and the Quran put forth the idea that if you save one person, you’re saving humanity. Every person is a microcosm of the human race, and if your book can save one person, it is important.
I’m the last person to offer pep talks or optimistic platitudes. I’m not here to tell you that everything will be okay. Quite possibly several things will not be okay. Quite possibly terrible things are coming. What I am here to say is that writing matters. Books matter in a way that transcends empty platitudes embroidered on pillows.
Books matter, because they save people. I know they can save people because books have saved me more than once. My freshman year in college was a brutal experience. I’d just lost someone I loved very much and, as a result, stumbled into two ill-advised relationships. At sixteen, I was in over my head socially and academically. I took refuge in the library, quite literally. I hid in the stacks at all hours, reading. It was there that I found Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. In one of the darkest times of my life, when I’d stopped believing in love and hope and wonder, I found a book that made me believe again. I may have flunked that semester, but I am completely sincere when I say that book gave me the strength to come back the next semester and succeed.
While thinking about this question, I ended up talking to a lot of people about how books saved them, and I want to share some of those, simply to illustrate the breadth of the books that save people. Some were fairly obvious and shared. My childhood Sunday School teacher, my friend who’s a drug addiction counselor, and my death row pen pal all cited the Bible. Many of those shared books, however, were less profound. Several friends, including Dee Garretson, who writes middle grade fiction, cited E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a “lifesaver.” It was for me, too, as it provided a window into possible escape routes from unhappy childhood moments.
Other books were literal lifesavers. Poet and teacher Erin Mansur remembers finding a copy of Elie Wiesel’s Night…
“on a dusty bookshelf in the attic of the homeless shelter we were staying in. I was fourteen and suicidal. I knew what my future was going to be. Poverty and addiction. But I read this book about a boy who survived Auschwitz. He survived his time in Hell and I thought maybe I might, too.”
Some lifesaving books were less common, but just as powerful for that personal connection. Rose Lemberg, SFF writer and Nebula and Crawford finalist, says Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is the book that saved them.
“It offered me a vision of possibilities I hadn’t known existed. It was the first time I saw representation of non-binary people.”
Aspiring novelist Barry Wynn says that Barbara Leonie Picard’s One Is One helped him realize in middle school that being “sensitive” wasn’t a curse or a recipe for helplessness.
For horror writer Danielle DeVor, the book that saved her during her adolescence was…
“a vampire paranormal romance called Blood Thirst by L.A. Freed. I was going through a lot of bullying at the time, and the MC is a bit of an outcast. I have re-read that book so many times over the years that I have had 3 paperbacks fall apart.”
Nor is it always a specific book that rescues people. Sometimes, it’s just books. Kell Andrews, who writes picture books and middle grade fiction says:
“Books save me every day, but for me it’s a matter of constant supply rather than one particular. I need hot and cold running books.”
Tracey Martin, author of young adult and fantasy novels, only recently started reading romance novels, “as a result of going through cancer treatments,” she says.
“I wanted and needed escapist books that came with a guaranteed happily ever after.”
Now, if you’re still thinking that published books are somehow more important than what you’re writing, I want to assure you that writing matters, whether it’s published or not.
Clovia Shaw, who writes and occasionally publishes fantasy novels, says:
“Writing lets me fill my head with better things than what naturally roll around in there. Writing lets you travel without being able to afford travel. It costs nothing, but results in literal worlds upon worlds. Writing is control, but it’s freedom, too.”
Even if you never intend to share it with other people, your writing is of value. As long as it gives you somewhere to go and helps you understand the world, it matters. If you only have to save one person to save humanity, then saving yourself counts.
Do you have a book that greatly influenced or even saved you?