Since 2000, I have edited a devotional periodical called The Word in Season. Ten years ago, when I was pregnant with my younger child, I received a phone call from one of our readers in North Carolina, Mildred Roberts. She called to recommend a writer for the periodical, a pastor who was on leave from his church due to a progressively debilitating disease. We chatted for a few minutes, I agreed to contact the writer, and Ms. Roberts said, “God bless you,” and that was that. Only it wasn’t.
Several months later, Mildred Roberts called again to thank me for hiring the writer she had recommended. She also wanted to tell me that she liked the short introductory article I wrote for each issue. Since then, Mildred Roberts has called just about once a month to check on the health of my family. She invited us to come to North Carolina and visit her and her husband at their lake home. We exchanged Christmas cards. She sent my children small gifts. And, during every single phone call, she thanked me for my writing. She told me she had saved every one of my columns. The last time we talked in late September, she pressed me yet again to turn my small essays into a book.
At the end of October, Mildred Roberts died at the age of 90. Over the years, she had told me that she was “getting on in years,” though her voice never aged. I looked forward to her calls and hearing her strong southern drawl on the phone saying, “This is Mildred Roberts.” She would rarely answer my questions about her and her own health, preferring to hear how I was and how my family was “getting along.” When her daughter called to tell me that Mildred had died, I was shocked. I had grown to love hearing her voice on the phone. Though her death came in the natural order of things, I was sad to lose this connection with a friend and a loyal reader.
In the midst of work and the business of daily living, as I am trying to get copy written and edited by a deadline, it is easy to forget that the work I am doing is for the readers. When I speak, the audience is evident; I look at them when I talk. But as an author, I rarely get to see my readers. And while it is true that I would write even if I did not have any readers, the presence of a reader does seem to make the work complete. As Ursula LeGuin said, “The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.” In the past ten years, I have been blessed to have Mildred Roberts as a reader. Her notes and phone calls over the years reminded me that my work had managed to affect one person’s life. And that encouraged me to keep writing.
Today, I will be saying thanks for Mildred Roberts and all of the readers in the world. Whether you know it or not, writers need you. We depend on you to read our work and enter into dialogue with us. We may begin the conversation while we are alone, staring out the window or furiously pounding away at the computer keyboard. But without you, it is just a soliloquy. For our words to become a conversation, we need readers to enter into the dialogue. We need you to read our words and respond. You might agree or argue or even nod your head in agreement—but we need that response. We need you to review our words, tell others what you loved and hated, and pass on our books and blog posts to other readers. Without you, this would be a lonely business. But with you, readers, it is a true conversation.
Your turn: How is writing and reading a conversation? What readers are you thankful for?