“Your story made me cry”: The Impact of Fiction on Readers

Some years ago, I used to do performance literature, which is where you take a piece of your writing and you perform (interpret) it. One piece I was performing was a story of a doctor who had to pull the breathing tube on a newborn in an operating room during triage. While a lot of stories of this type of narrative focus on the emotions of the doctor, or something equally tragic, this story focused on the fact that the baby, who was too small to survive, was going to die, but no matter what else was going on in the chaos of that operating room, the baby wouldn’t die. So everyone in the operating room had to keep working through their other dramas as this infant was fighting its last moments of life. The linking line from each scene was “and the baby was still breathing….” I interwove this narrative with a story I had written about a man who shows up for work one day in a job where everyone lives a mundane life where nothing changes, and on this one day, a co-worker goes nuts, killing everyone all because he was that one guy in the office that no one ever took seriously. To describe the experience of those two stories linked together, it was like riding a rollercoaster, going from humor to tragedy to horror to shock and back to humor again. All linked with “and the baby was still breathing….”

Anyway, it was one of those pieces that received a lot of positive praise at the time, but years later, I completely forgot about it. I was serving as an assistant debate coach a decade later and at a speech tournament when this person I didn’t recognize walked up to me and said: “Holy crap! It’s you! You made me cry one day!” I looked at this guy, who was rather large and intimidating, and to be honest, I couldn’t imagine ever being able to make this guy cry, unless I had hit him with a crowbar, right before running the other direction because it would not have done any damage. But then he started describing the story I described earlier and said that he remembered walking out of that room and crying for a long time because of the impact of that story. He said he’s never forgotten it.

And I believed him because it had been over ten years, and there was no way anyone could have remembered a simple story for ten years and then remember who told it to him unless it made some sort of an impact.

And that’s when I realized the true impact of being a writer. Over the years, I’ve written a lot of stories, some funny, some tragic and some heart-breaking. Each story has been a struggle in taking a journey that I’ve never taken before, and while I’ve always believed that I’m seeking out some way of moving myself through a narrative, the simple point is that we really want to touch other people, to remind people of why they’re living in the first place, and provide either some meaning, or something further to think about. I think this is what has bothered me so much about a lot of the fiction I come across; it’s almost like the only reason it exists is because someone just felt the need to fill up space on a blank piece of paper.

Writers have the ability to influence people, but even more important, at least to me, is that they have the ability to make people stop and think. And sometimes, that requires the writer to put himself/herself outside of a personal comfort zone. One of my strongest narratives in my writing career is probably one of the few pieces that received the most attention, having won a number of national awards. It has actually been performed a few times by people from different sections of the country, who each seem to find a new way of interpreting something that was written with multiple layers of perspective. When I wrote it, I had this idea to tackle the problems of gay bashing in this country. Having come across a lot of attempts of this type of story, I used to criticize the fact that either someone was too linked to the subject matter (experienced it before) to distance oneself well enough, or someone had no connection to the gay lifestyle, so it ended up being one of those stories where someone was trying to make an impact by touching a controversial subject only because it was controversial (but really had no nuance to breathe any life into the narrative). I was afraid I was going to suffer from the latter problem because honestly I’ve never been involved in a gay bashing before (never having bashed someone, nor was I gay or someone who was a victim of such an incident). When I started this project, I was convinced I was tackling a subject that wasn’t mine to do so, and it would be recognized instantly once it was completed.

So what I did was try to analyze a gay bashing from every perspective of the incident itself. I went into the mind of the victim, the basher, an innocent bystander who witnessed the event but did nothing, and the lover of the victim itself. What I did was write the story from the perspective of a survivor who has lost his memory of the event and is in the hospital recovering, remembering the incident from each perspective before finally realizing he was the lover of the victim, and as a result, the final victim as well. For me, the story was extremely hard to write because I had to explore the story from a perspective that was completely uncomfortable for me, but I had to do it sincerely and not try to fill the details with cliches or common expectations. The final crescendo between the main character and the basher, and the realization that anger and hate were the only two things separating them (where he loses his battle with anger and is left with “hate” as the last step towards becoming everything he feared the most) was the critical scene in the whole story and it was probably rewritten twenty times before I got it right.

I received a lot of letters from people about that particular story, from practically every walk of life and particular backgrounds that I had never expected. I even received comments from people who were big Elvis fans (the linking tie between all of the narratives was an old Elvis song that had been playing on the jukebox where the bashing took place), and felt that the song would never sound the same to them again after having experienced the story.

Unfortunatey, not all of our stories can achieve this level of narrative, but when they do, that’s when we’re reminded of why a lot of us became writers in the first place. And it wasn’t just be called a writer or to put words on paper, but to move the audience to think and experience something they hadn’t expected to feel before beginning the journey.

Author of Innocent Until Proven Guilty and 15 other novels. Writer, college professor and computer game designer.

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