Searching for a way to measure impact is the life’s work of scientists, educators, politicians… and writers.
How do we know if our words have hit the target? We work hard to find the right phrase, the just tone, the perfect capture of that scene racing through our minds. But how can we tell if we touched a nerve, or hit a heart, or moved a soul?
Sometimes we get lucky and our readers let us know.
A recent professional review of my third novel, Black and Blue in Harlem, called it a “hopeful noir.” Though the phrase seems contradictory, I like it for the balance struck between the dire and the upbeat aspects of the characters and themes I examine.
Hopeful also captures the tone of emails I’ve received from readers. One, Paul, evoked images of a resurgent neighborhood to let me know my books had hit home:
In any case, if you ever want to meet gardeners in Harlem I manage a community garden (Lydia's Magic Garden), or the police officers who patrol our precinct (I was on the Community Council of the 25th Precinct) or meet the engaged neighbors who make up the Harlem Neighborhood Block Association (HNBAorg.com), just let me know. Thank you so much for an engaging and fun read. It's so refreshing to find a contemporary Harlem example of detective fiction (so many are Harlem Renaissance focused). Let me know if you ever come to Harlem to do research, especially if you'd like to venture east of 5th, and/or come to a Block Association meeting, the 25th Precinct's monthly meeting, or even a meeting at a community garden (I am involved in all 3).
Another reader, Annette, took her message in a deeply personal direction:
I can't tell you how happy I was to read in "Practice the Jealous Arts" (Watermark'd,
page 112) "The family we're going to make together won't look like anyone
else's...Our family will look like you and me together. Something completely new." I
was with my husband forty years, until he died, and we were our own little family
(along with cats, one at a time). Every time I would read or hear the expression "starting a family," always meaning to have a child, it grated on me. It was a direct
statement that a couple is not a family until the people have a child. [Thomas] and I
were everything to and for each other, with all the commitment that "family" implies.
For a third reader, Albert, the locales I invented for my stories inspired him to hope he might visit those places in real life:
I have question though. In the Jealous Arts you set it in an upstate NY town founded
by African Americans. Does that really exist, or were you just pulling my chain to
make me read on? I'd love to take a ride there this summer, if it's there.
“If it’s there…” The sweetest words I could hope for from a reader. To know in such a concrete way that I had impacted his sense of the world and its possibilities. I was sorry to have to tell Albert that the upstate burgh of Ionia Corner was strictly imaginary, as were the murderous habits of its artistic residents.
In their different ways, readers Albert, Annette, and Paul let me know I had touched them by creating a vacation spot, a relationship, and a neighborhood of such authenticity that they were drawn to want to live there. I’m so grateful to them for letting me know.
Calculating the impact of your words is hard, especially in the imprecise world of fiction writing. But measuring their effect is possible. Thanks to the open minds and generosity of readers who write.