Ninety-eight percent of the time I take it on faith that my writing matters. But every once in a great while I get hard evidence. Like this photograph a reader sent me of Writing the Sacred Journey; her copy was so marked up and falling apart she had to buy a new one. My words have been good company, and I find this deeply gratifying.
Shortly after Swinging on the Garden Gate was published, I participated in a panel discussion about sexuality and faith at a college and was heading out the door when a young woman approached me, holding out a copy of my book for me to sign. At first I was aghast—had she intentionally mutilated it?! The cover was curled, pages were dog-earred, pink highlighter marred chunks of text and comments in ballpoint filled the margins. That memoir was used.
You have to understand that as excited as I was to have Skinner House print Swinging, I was also disappointed, as many writers are, that the publication of my first book was not all I’d hoped for. For eight years I’d written with such longing, such fierce drive, and I’d assumed my ache would be satisfied by launching to the story into the public. In the little niche Swinging filled (readers looking to reconcile faith with sexual identity), it did very well. I spoke on a circuit of GLBT advocacy groups and to this day Swinging is the best book out there exploring both Christianity and bisexuality. But the first print run was 750 copies. No major publication reviewed it. At the time of that panel discussion, my small creative endeavor seemed lost in the tidal wave of books. And none of this assuaged my ache. What exactly had I wanted?
The young woman introduced herself as Nikki; she was a sophomore, raised Catholic, and my story had given her the courage to come out lesbian. She thanked me profusely, and I felt honored. But it was the state of her book that really moved me. She’d lived inside my story. She’d chewed it and digested it. To this one woman, my memoir mattered.
A few weeks later she turned up at the United Methodist Church where I’m a member. Only slightly embarrassed, she admitted she’d sleuthed me out. So I got to know Nikki well, and eventually learned that Swinging had awakened in her a call to ministry. She joined the United Methodist Church, a radical step for a born-and-bred Catholic; she attended seminary; she integrated her sexual identity and life of faith and lived both openly.
Stories weave themselves into the fabric of our lives and irrevocably change us. That my story did this for Nikki seems a miracle, or at least an act of grace. Perhaps the miracle is that I actually got to know Nikki and watch her build her own amazing story with my words in the margins. She flourished in seminary. She loved her pastoral internship. Then, at age 25, Nikki died suddenly from a rare infection from dental work that spread to her heart. I can’t stand that she’s not serving some hip congregation in Minneapolis today. She had been bouncy, big-hearted, and smart, and all that potential ended with her death.
When I think of Nikki now, I’m awed by what her too-short life gave me—this conviction that my stories, that all our stories, can heal and transform. They can matter, to real people, in important ways. Nikki satisfied my ache. If my faith in writing were to take on a body, it would be Nikki in high-top sneakers. I don’t write for her, I write with her, our stories weaving in and out of one another. Someday I’ll ask her for her autograph.
Thanks to everyone for helping me celebrate the 15th anniversary of Swinging on the Garden Gate’s publication. Over 6000 free copies were downloaded! I’ve decided to keep the price low from here on out–only $.99!–because it’s important to me that this story be affordable to readers.
Happy summer, all!
Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew