I attended the Florida SCBWI’s Winter Conference last month—as a speaker, which was major league awesome, and I’ll write more about that another time. But frankly, I was so blown away by what headliner Bruce Coville had to say that I wanted to share that first.
The speech he gave was called Lengthening the Chain. It’s from a passage out of John Berger’s Here is Where we Meet. In an exchange between a mother and a son, the mother starts by saying…
“One thing repaired changes a thousand others.”
The son replies, “So?”
And out flows a maternal speech: “The dog down there is on too short a chain. Change it, lengthen it. Then he’ll be able to reach the shade, and he’ll lie down and he’ll stop barking. And the silence will remind the mother she wanted a canary in a cage in the kitchen. And when the canary sings, she’ll do more ironing. And the father’s shoulders in a freshly ironed shirt will ache less when he goes to work. And so when he comes home he’ll sometimes joke, like he used to, with his teenage daughter. And the daughter will change her mind and decide, just this once, to bring her lover home one evening. And on another evening, the father will propose to the young man that they go fishing together… Who in the wide world knows? Just lengthen the chain.”
Coville went on to discuss how what we do as writers matters. He read a letter he’d received from a man who had read his books as a child. One passage had touched this man in a profound way and stayed with him throughout adolescence, influencing him to eventually join the Peace Corps and work for a number of years in a third-world country. Imagine the number of lives this young man was able to touch and change for the better, because of an idea Coville had written into one of his stories.
Coville then went on to share a story about Alex Flinn, author of Breathing Underwater. When a fan read this book about an abusive teen relationship, it gave her the courage to break things off with her own violent boyfriend, and then reach out to other girls caught in the spiral of abuse.
Ellen Hopkins, who writes gritty stories in verse about difficult contemporary topics, was another speaker at the conference. She was contacted by a young drug-addicted girl who was disheartened by her many failed attempts to get straight. After reading Ellen’s words, this girl gained the courage to try a final time. At their last correspondence, she’d been clean for 7 months.
We hear it all the time: our words have power. But here’s proof, people. Words can be transformative, not only in the life of the reader, but in all the lives the reader touches.
Well, sure, you say, if you happen to write about drug addiction and physical abuse and life-or-death topics like that. What if I don’t? How can my stories lengthen the chain and help my readers?
The way All Dogs Go to Heaven comforted a girl grieving the recent loss of her pet
The way a fictional story about a horse could enlighten an entire world as to the reality of animal cruelty
The way a book about rabbits astounded a child with the truth that “nice people aren’t always nice and evil doesn’t always wear a black hat”
The way a great story can turn a non-reader into a voracious one
The way the familiarity and simple goodness of Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables could bring comfort and peace to a new mom in the throes of postpartum depression. [Guess who :)]
The fact is, there are a million ways that a story written from your heart can touch someone else’s—by giving comfort, revealing a truth, introducing a character that the reader recognizes in him or herself, or simply providing a few hours of joy. So write the story that is yours to write. Be honest and brave and original, and use your gift to lengthen the chain for someone else.