The EMU’s would like to welcome Trent Reedy, fellow EMLA client, to share some thoughts about how he came to the realization that being a writer and writing books was the best way for him to change the world.
I used to think I could change the world.
In my early twenties, I thought that if I could only get my political party to defeat the opposing side, then everything would be set right. I wasted a lot of time and energy arguing about that stuff. Then I was sent to the war in Afghanistan with my Army National Guard unit and everything changed. With a very real possibility of death lingering over so much of my time there, life was stripped down to only what was truly important. I promised myself that if I made it home, I would dedicate my life to my faith, family, friends, reading, and writing. True to that promise, I no longer get wrapped up in socio-political debates or the current cause du jour. I don’t display argumentative posts on my social media or argue with the posts of others whose viewpoints differ from mine. I no longer believe I can make a change in America or in the world, at least not on the scale or in the manner I once envisioned.
This I believe: The power of a book to improve the life of its reader is beyond measure.
During the most challenging part of my time during the war, my fellow soldiers and I were living in a rented mud-brick Afghan house. The house was built for an Afghan family, and not for nearly fifty soldiers with their vehicles and equipment. Insufficient cold storage meant we were limited to small field rations. The well was shallow and often went dry, so we were allowed three-minute showers once every three days. If the well went dry on a soldier’s shower day, he’d have to wait three days and try again. The heat would flirt with 120 degrees, and was nearly unbearable under our helmets and heavy body armor. The Taliban sent us frequent death threats, and my life was reduced to an endless, colorless drudgery of duty, guns, filth, and fear.
That kind of living ground me down, reducing me to a machine-man who was slowly dying inside. Then one day the mail finally arrived, and with it a copy of Katherine Paterson’s novel Bridge to Terabithia. Some miracle allowed me to find the time to read the whole book that day, and I remember my spirits being lifted up and freed, in a manner similar to the way I felt when I could finally take off my heavy baking hot body armor.
Bridge to Terabithia reminded me that there is still hope, even in the most difficult circumstances. More than that, it was a spark of beauty at a time in my life where beauty seemed so very hard to come by. I needed that spark of hope and wonder. I needed that connection to another person’s personal thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
Bridge to Terabithia helped me keep going through those long fearful days. Because of that novel, I will never forget the awesome power of one book to affect its reader. It was that book that gave me hope, not only that I might survive the war and return home, but also that I, too, might one day follow my lifelong dream of becoming a writer.
My goal as a writer isn’t to change the world, but to make a connection with each single reader of each of my books.
During my time in Afghanistan, my fellow soldiers and I encountered a young Afghan girl named Zulaikha who had suffered from birth from cleft lip. An Army doctor had volunteered to conduct her needed corrective surgery, but the Army could not send a helicopter for her. So my fellow soldiers and I pooled our money to pay for civilian transportation to get Zulaikha to her surgery. When she returned to us, she was completely changed. Only a tiny scar hinted that anything had ever been different about her. And although she was very young, and we were probably intimidating strangers from a distant land, she faced the entire situation with a wonderful quiet courage and dignity. For me, she began to symbolize the struggle that all Afghans face in working to build a better country for future generations. The last time I saw Zulaikha, I promised myself I would do whatever I could to tell her story. That’s what led to my first novel Words in the Dust, the story of a young Afghan girl named Zulaikha who dares to dream, who finds the courage to pursue her own best destiny.
I once heard from a young Afghan-American reader who thanked me for writing “a book that shows that not all Afghans are bad.” I worry for this reader, wondering what she must have to deal with in her daily life that makes her feel that such a book is necessary. But I’m honored that she could find some measure of comfort and common ground with Words in the Dust. And I hope that other readers might find an Afghan friend in Zulaikha, a connection to this country that has become such an important part of our own country’s narrative. The Zulaikha I met in Afghanistan didn’t set out to change the world. Instead she inspired me and the soldiers with whom I served. And I hope her namesake character will make a connection with others, one reader at a time.
I recently celebrated the publication of my fourth novel If You’re Reading This. This book, about a sixteen-year-old young man who begins to receive letters that his soldier father wrote before he was killed in the war in Afghanistan, is my attempt to say goodbye to this long war that has affected millions of American young people. My goal with If You’re Reading This isn’t to convince anyone to support or to protest the war, but to offer the reader a sense of what the mission in Afghanistan has meant to Afghans, to the soldiers who served, and to the families who sacrificed in support of that service. If I can help even one young person who has missed his deployed loved ones, then I’ll have done my job. An entire generation of young people has grown up, enduring the sacrifices in support of our long wars, and I believe they deserve to know why. They deserve to know that they’re not alone and that their sacrifices are valued and appreciated.
I wonder if a great deal of the problems we continue to face in society may be at least partially the result of too many people trying to “change the world,” of too many people stuck in a default mode of thinking in sweeping generalizations, of seeing in each person they encounter, not an individual in all his rich complexities, but rather as a subset of a larger group with all the potentially problematic assumptions that view can bring. My YA trilogy Divided We Fall depicts America’s political divide stretched out to its furthest nightmarish extreme. In my story, this division has resulted from two sides, two clashing socio-political ideologies that are both trying to “change the world” for what each of them believes is the better. Instead of communicating with individuals person to person in order to seek common ground and practical solutions, the people in Divided We Fall flock to those whose thoughts and ideologies mirror their own. Safe in those self-affirming alliances, they set about trying to “change the world” by hurling partisan insults and blanket accusations at their adversaries, until all they’re left with is the divide itself.
Ten years ago, in the violent maw of another divide, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia reminded me of the life saving power of books, of each book’s awesome potential to connect the individual to hope and a better life. I believe that all the wars, weapons, and worries of the world could be overcome if each individual strove to live for the positive and uplifting. Nothing brings an individual to that way of thinking better than the real human connection that is possible through the pages of a book.