One of the most delightful things for writer is when someone stumbles upon a story and takes the time to respond. This month, a personal essay of mine landed in the seat-pockets of Southwest Airline planes, and friends have been posting little snapshots of the magazine on their laps. I love hearing where they're going on the flight when they find it, and how it made them feel. I've even heard from a few strangers who took the time to find my website and send me an email. It makes my day every single time. I reply to every one.
This month's story, The King of Tides, may be the most stumbled-upon story I have ever written. It is an homage to a father-daughter relationship, disguised as a fishing story, and it had been "marinating" in my heart for seven years, ever since my father died. I had feared I would never find the right venue to tell it — with the right audience, and enough space to tell it right — and thought I would one day just write it for myself. But last year at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference (where I am headed again tomorrow), I met a young and gifted editor who would find the perfect home for my story.
It isn't often one gets 3,000 words for a personal essay. Long-form has largely given way to charticles and listicles and roundups of trendy things described in 75 words or less. A lot of publications don't believe in readers who read, assume our attention spans are all eroded by Facebook link bait and faux news about Kardashians. In most of the magazines I write for, a 1,200 word story is on the long side.
But I think people crave longer stories, even need them. When you flip through a magazine that serves little more than the literary equivalent of heavy hors d'oeuvres, do you really feel satisfied? I believe every magazine needs moments where people lean forward in their chairs and think, "Ooh! I'm going to try that!" But we also need those stories where we lean back into our chairs, lose ourselves in a story, and forget the time. Stories that make us feel.
Perhaps one of the things that made Southwest the perfect home, is that the audience was captive, suspended above the buzz of life, cut off from social media, with time to read and think. In the stories most important to me, I want every reader to feel a moment of "me too." My hope for this one was that a few business men sitting on a plane would remember their own fathers, and rub pretend-dust from their watering eyes.
Although I am much too old to be crying on an airplane, I felt compelled to express my appreciation for sharing your story, one stranger wrote. You write beautifully, and reading your reminiscences brought to mind a number of fond memories of my dad, whom I lost to cancer four years ago.
Another wrote, Lost my dad to small cell lung cancer 10 years ago this winter. Was Stage 4 when diagnosed the Monday after Thanksgiving, 2005. He passed on Christmas Day at age 73. I got home from Iraq in time to spend the last six days with him at his home. As Midwesterners, we routinely used bobbers. To this day I can't eat bluegill or catfish without thinking of my dad.
This, my friends, is why I write. To make someone feel, and remember. And realize no matter how lonely we feel, we are never truly alone.