Sometimes you get a fan letter that is more than just "you write good stuff, thanks." I get versions of this all the time and am always appreciative when it happens. As you writers know (and this may be a secret or not for readers), as narcissistic as us writers are, we also have moments in writing where we doubt our abilities... moments when we're convinced that we suck and have no right writing anything except a shopping list.
Then there are those rare times when you get a fan letter that transcends everything else you've ever
received. I was sent one yesterday through my website. I read it twice before I wholly understood the gravitas of the man's words. I admit I cried. It was almost too much. You see, I don't write to change the world or change a person. I write to entertain, first and foremost. If I achieve that then I did what I intended. Often, I want a reader to think and perhaps understand. Those are secondary goals and if I achieve that, then I know I've done something real good. But to be told that my writing changed a life... maybe saved a life, that's something altogether different. It's frankly, humbling, because no writer, regardless of their narcissism, ever writes a fiction novel intent on saving lives.
Grunt Life, Grunt Traitor, and the soon to be published Grunt Hero (collectively called the Grunt Series) is an alien invasion story about a small group of grunts who all have PTSD to varying degrees. Because I wrote the first book when I was stationed in Afghanistan, I think I was able to tap into the PTSD theme better than had I not been in Afghanistan. In a war zone, everyone has PTSD. EVERYONE. Me included. So the suffering and symptoms I wrote was real. It was raw. It rang so true that my superb editor at Solaris Books, Jonathan Oliver, and rightly so, expressed his concern that the book(s) might be a trigger. It worried me as well. Neither of us wanted to do harm. We wanted only to entertain and maybe achieve those other things. We discussed the nature of Grunt Life and it's themes. Although we never voiced it, I think each of us knew that if either one of us had said to the other, 'maybe we shouldn't publish this," that we wouldn't have. And that's a bold statement I've never made in public before, but I believe it to be ultimately true. Jon cares about what he publishes. I care about what I write. We live by the mantra- Do No Harm.
We ultimately decided to let it roll off the presses. The first print run sold out before it hit the streets. We held our breaths as the reviews began to pour in. And they were great. They got what we'd intended. Never did a single reviewer condemn us for capitalizing in on suffering, instead they all mentioned how real and raw the narrative conveyed PTSD and its symptoms and how it made them realize things they'd never known.
Collective exhalations of relief.
Back to the email. I didn't know whether or not I should mention it in passing or provide it (names redacted of course) in whole. I didn't want to use it as an advertisement. I could never monetize someone's misery. That's not what this blog post is about at all. What I was thinking was this: maybe if I was able to help one person, perhaps others could be helped, not by buying any of my books, but by reading the email I received.
Sort of like passing it on. Paying it forward.
Here's the email:
Dear Mr. Ochse, I recently discovered your excellent book Grunt Life and whilst I was reading it I came across something that has transformed my relationship with my daughter (redacted). You see she was a self harmer and I never really understood what caused her to keep hurting herself. When I read the passage about Aquinas and the need for her to self harm I finally understood what my daughter was going through and why. I took the book upstairs and just said to her please read that passage and then tell me what you think. After reading it she said that it described how she had felt when she was down and it was right about blaming herself for problems in her life and feeling guilty about them. I will never know how you managed to get such a complete and accurate description of the illness but regardless I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the chance to understand it. Yours sincerely, XXXXX
I am honored and humbled to have been able to help. I don't know what else to say.
Don't go out and buy any of my books. If you feel the need to spend money, why not go out and spend the money you'd spend on one of my books by giving it to a local veteran's groups or a PTSD charity. Here's a link to the National Center for PTSD where you can find more information. Here's also a link to a website providing access to Self-Injury Outreach and Support. Please go there if you need to or if you know someone with a problem.
I hope this blog post helps.
Pass it on if you think you need to.