One thing that I've learned in the last year is that words, particularly when pieced together to make a story that is honest and real, can change the world.
Every day---every single day--I get emails from people I do not know, telling me how they feel about a story they read that I wrote. Complete strangers. People with names like Benjamin and Devni and Astrid and Mohammed, from places like Birmingham and Bangalore and Mexico City and Patna.
I'd always seen words and stories as very private, something that belonged to just me. Something that was mine. I was never a sentimental person, or attached to things, but words were special, intimate, reserved for notebooks.
At first, it was agonizing to share my life so openly with strangers. The first time I wrote an essay that was truly transparent, I hesitated to push the "publish" button. I stared at it for hours. I think something in me knew that when I pushed that button, the story would stop belonging to me.
These letters are more than just letters telling me they liked something I wrote: these are stories in themselves. Sometimes they tell me their whole life story, sometimes they tell me just one thing they are struggling with. Often they are about topics I've written about like traveling solo, or rape, or cancer. They go deep, into secrets that have been hidden for years, and now are unlocked.
Every letter always ends the same way. They tell me how much the story I wrote moved them, how they are hopeful, how they are inspired to stay in this world and make it better.
When these letters first started coming, I thought they would eventually stop. I wasn't sure I could read them all, because the stories they contained moved me so much I often cried.
But now I understand that storytelling--the art of telling a story--means letting go of it being mine, and letting it belong to the people who read it. It's not me traveling solo, it's the reader's journey. It's not me overcoming rape, it's the reader writing her own manifesto. And it's the reader looking at life after illness with renewed hope and passion to see the world, not me.
As I read their letters, I imagine myself in their place. Their courage. Their belief. Their trust. It takes all these things to write to a stranger, to tell your story to someone you don't know, and hope they will respond to you. All these letters are like beautiful hot pink roses growing up a brick wall.
Now my favorite sound is the bell on my computer, telling me my mailbox is full.