By Barbara Linn Probst
When we publish a book, we want it to be read. Obviously. But what else do we want?
At the most obvious level, we want our book to be bought, liked, shared, and reviewed. We want to see it on lists; we want lots of reviews (and stars) on Goodreads and Amazon. But we want something else, too—that connection with specific human beings who have been touched and changed by what we wrote.
When I published Queen of the Owls, I wanted all of those things—and I got a lot of them. The book earned awards, made it onto several “best of” lists. And yet, the most important results are things I never could have foreseen.
I’d like to share two of these “results” with you today. One has to do with a wonderful and unexpected connection with a photographer whose work took the experience of my fictitious protagonist to a whole new level. The other has to do with how Queen of the Owls saved someone’s life. Literally.
The first experience came from photographer Angelika Buettner, who saw my article in Ms. Magazine entitled Naked: Being Seen is Terrifying but Liberating . In the article, I personalized a central theme of the novel, which is about the power of “choosing to be seen”— the deep longing to reveal and embrace one’s whole self.
The article attracted Angelika’s attention because she had recently published a book called I Am: Celebrating the Perfect Imperfect
Through a gallery of 121 nude photos and testimonials that reveal the “inner and outer beauty” of women ages 40 to 99, Angelika’s goal is to empower women (and girls) by portraying the “aging and ageless” beauty of our perfectly-imperfect selves. As she told me in our first conversation: “I invited women to wear nothing but what they are feeling inside. Those women stepped out of their comfort zone and gave me the permission to portray their naked souls. I photographed a feeling they had lost—of loving oneself.”
When Angelika saw the article in Ms. Magazine, she immediately reached out to me, and from there to my novel. She read Queen of the Owls nonstop because, to her, it was exactly what she had been trying to convey in her portraits. “The protagonist is expressing the feeling my ladies have, and she finds why it so important to be seen, the real me, by myself. In the end those images are for ourselves.” We discovered that we were offering the same message—for me, through story; for her, through photographs.
From there, a collaboration began. We’ve been meeting on Zoom to talk about ways to work together, joined by a third woman, Lilianne Milgrom, a painter-turned-novelist whose work also addresses the theme of female embodiment. Our dream is a cross-disciplinary presentation about the female body in painting, photography, and story. A shared message, delivered more powerfully through complementary channels.
Who knows if we’ll be successful? But it’s the journey as well as the destination—the gift of an incredibly rich dialogue and friendship among the three of us that I never would have anticipated when I wrote my novel.
My second story is about a woman named Delia Rayburn (a pseudonym, at her request), who won a copy of Queen of the Owls in an Facebook giveaway. In Queen of the Owls, the “bookworm” protagonist reveals, sees, and comes to claim her body through studying—and re-enacting—the nude photos that Stieglitz took of artist Georgia O’Keeffe.
I’ve received many messages from people who found the book to be deeply liberating, but Delia’s was the most important. She wrote: “My connection to your novel is so surprising and totally unexpected ... I'm uncomfortable looking at nude photos of women and reading descriptions of them. Nevertheless, I did quickly look up the photos of Georgia O’Keeffe that you mentioned in the book. The bigger deal is the book prompted me to do a breast examination of myself, which I know I'm supposed to do monthly, but don't usually do. I found a small bluish-purple discoloration and a slight indentation. I called and had the physician’s assistant check me last week. She said it was not my imagination and scheduled me for a mammogram. They will also do a biopsy, if necessary. I am extremely grateful that I won a copy of your book and it prompted me to do this.”
Indeed, the doctors found a lump, and Delia was able to receive early treatment. She wrote to tell me she would never have had this early detection if she hadn’t read my book and been open to what it offered her.
Her story brought me to tears, reminding me that what we do through our writing has far more important consequences than how many stars, awards, reviews, or copies our books might achieve. There are purposes we serve, as authors. Delia’s is a story I learned about. There may be other stories that I’ll never hear.
Our work as writers really matters. It might even save someone’s life.
What about you?
If you’re an author, was there an unexpected gift you received from a reader? If you’re a reader, was there an unexpected gift you received from a book?
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Barbara Linn Probst is a writer and researcher living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her novel (Queen of the Owls, April 2020, and forthcoming novel The Sound of One Hand, October 2020) tell of the search for authenticity, wholeness, and connection. In both novels, art helps the protagonist to become more fully herself. Queen of the Owls has been chosen as a 2020 Pulpwood Queens Book Club selection.
Author of the groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When the Labels Don’t Fit (Random House, 2008), Barbara holds a PhD in clinical social work and is a frequent guest essayist on major online sites for fiction writers. To learn more about Barbara and her work, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/.
Top Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay
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How beautifully you have said this! Yes, our words can be a savior to someone! 🙂
Thank you! It helps to remember that, in all the noise about sales and awards and reviews 🙂
Words have power and can do much good in the world. Books have been a godsend for me. Many times I've mentally stepped into a story and lost myself in its pages.
I feel that way too, Ellen. What's helped me to accept my own self-promotion (a necessity), in the face of so much suffering throughout our world, is to remember that stories have always been a source of healing, growth, and renewal. We need them as much now as we have at other times of peril, suffering, and sorrow ...
Goodness gracious, I do love your brilliant sharings, Barbara. I once told someone that as a writer of historical fiction if I ever heard that one person who read my stories became fascinated by actual history and learned something new, I would feel I had reached a pinnacle. Your two stories told me I can hold to that dream no matter the self-doubts. Thank you! Write On!
I must correct myself somewhat. Your stories are better than my dream! Far better! I am so happy you write!
Your comments are a gift to me, Marie! And yes, you remind us of another aspect—how we can learn something new, even through fiction. I've been so touched by readers who have told me: "I didn''t know anything about art and I was afraid that it would be boring or too intellectual to hold my interest, but I learned so much about Georgia O'Keeffe, and that was a huge part of why I loved the book!" The chance to learn something we didn't already know is another gift we can bestow 🙂
Barbara, thank you. My hero struggles with the death of his wife, for which he feels responsible. I remember well a letter from a reader about one of my books, in which he said his wife had recently passed away and how much my story had helped him. I can't begin to say how deeply moved I was. Our words have power, sometimes -- often -- beyond what we know.
Those experiences mean so much! Just as you say: beyond what we can know. I'm sure you reached many others who didn't happen to write a letter ... I feel the same way!
I love this story, James! I'm so glad you and the reader helped one another. 🙂
Barbara, my next post talks about the power of storytelling in a broader sense. I believe in it so strongly, this ability storytellers have to move the needle for others and change lives. I'm so glad you wrote this!
Thanks, Jenny! And yes, we really don't know how and when and who our stories will affect. What especially touches me is the knowledge that there are many others whose responses I will never know ....
Wow, what a great life-saver your book was to that woman; and an inspiration to others. Thanks for sharing these stories. Wishing you wonderful creativity with your collaborators on that project!
Nothing major, just hope: That one can be published. The dream can come true.
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