For a writer, it’s a gift to know someone reads your writing. For a storyteller, it’s high praise to hear a story in return. Have I mentioned I love getting mail?
In the mountains where I grew up, storytellers were once known as “liars.” This was not an insult. The tales they told were often more fabricated than factual. But they were entirely true of the human condition, intended not to inform, but to entertain, enlighten and inspire.
I was born into a family of “liars.” My grandparents and parents, my blind baby brother, my aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins, the dogs that slept under the porch, even the fleas that slept on the dogs — we all told stories. But I never once dreamed that I’d grow up to earn my living as a writer.
The story of how it happened is a long one. The short of it is this: I won a scholarship to college. Got married. Had three babies. Took a job as a file clerk for a newspaper and ended up as a reporter and a columnist.
A lot of other things happened, too, along the way. A life can be summed up in the lines of a resume or an obituary, but it’s lived between those lines.
For 20 years, I’ve written a weekly column and every week, I hear from strangers — friends I’ve yet to meet — who read my stories and write in return to tell me stories of their own.
They write about their lives, their families, their hopes and dreams, losses and joys and, most of all, their grandchildren.
I wish you could read them.
My great regret is not always having the time to reply (I won’t live that long). But I read every note, every card, every email, and I appreciate every word. It’s enough to make me keep writing. At least for today.
My stepfather was just a boy when his father was killed in an accident. His mother needed help feeding the family, so he quit school to go to work.
He never learned to read. He married my mother when I was 4. She taught him how to write his name. I remember the look in his eyes the day he realized I was watching him practice.
His illiteracy was a family secret. We all knew it but never spoke of it in his presence.
A few years before he died, when I published a collection of columns, I gave him a copy that I signed and inscribed for him.
I’ll never forget it. He held my book in his big calloused hands, studying my name on the cover. I showed him where I’d signed it and read aloud the inscription. I had seen him cry once, the day my mother died. But this time, it was somehow harder to watch.
Finally, he looked in my eyes.
“I can’t read a word of it,” he said. “But I will sure treasure it.”
I’ve been blessed by many fine words in my life, but none that meant more than those.
We read and write for two reasons: to know and to be known. It’s been that way a very long time and I hope it always will. It works like this. You take thoughts and feelings from your mind and heart and maybe your soul and fashion them into words. That is called language.
You put the words on paper or a computer, using lines and symbols you trust to carry your meaning. That is called writing.
Then someone you’ve never met will see your lines and symbols and recognize them as words. That is called reading.
Sometimes the words hold the power to re-create the writer’s thoughts and feelings in the mind and the heart and even in the soul of the reader.
That is called a miracle.
Words matter. They tell us who we are. They turn strangers into friends. They can even make us want to keep doing what we do. At least for today.
I told you all that to say this: I am grateful for your kind words and the stories you write to tell me. I may not always have time to write back and say thanks.
But I will sure treasure it.
Sharon Randall is a columnist for McClatchy-Tribune News Service (www.sharonrandall.com).