This is what happened to us when a story showed up.

It doesn't happen as much as it used to, but I still get that voice in my head at 1 a.m.

You know the voice?

It shows up with a list of things that I can't do anything about. And it rattles them off, accompanied by a dangerous amount of emotional pull and flawed reasoning. 

This voice is always convinced that it is right, it never lets me argue back, and it's sporting a t-shirt with the slogan "IT IS ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE."

I haven't heard from this voice in a few months, but as of last Wednesday night, it's camping next to my pillow, knitting long unhappy scarves and crowing over my frustrations. 

It's really fun. Definitely has put me in the Christmas spirit.

It's been a long time since I've felt like my job is useless, but that's one of those happy little thoughts that show up at 1 a.m.

My family and I have been immersed in the medical world lately. I've learned to be so grateful for skilled nurses and doctors and surgeons: If you can wield an I.V. without traumatizing your patient, if you don't flinch at the word "catheter," and if you are compassionate on top of all that...

Well. You're a superhero. 

I have a long gratitude list right now. So many people, in so many different roles, have held my family together, given us the information and courage and support we needed. 

But it gets easy to think that everyone else is doing important work, while I somehow lost myself in a silly dream of putting words on pages.

The books that I'm writing--well, I love them. No matter what the 1 a.m. voice says, I still do love these stories. But they aren't important. You can't confuse my work with, say, a doctoral thesis. I'm writing about themes I love, absolutely, and this trilogy is for an age group (eleven-year-olds!) that I care deeply about, but the books are also very ...


(I'm secretly terrified that my friends will read them and then take five quick steps away from me. You can know me pretty well and never guess the kinds of things I'm writing about. Because... how do I put this... there are telepathic lizards in these books. I'm still surprised that they're in there, but, yup, that's what they are.

And there's a family of aristocratic assassins with funny names, and a whole town devoted to jam-making, and these spiders that became really important to the plot somehow, and a whole troop of monocle-wearing superpowered who-knows-whats. 

It's goofy, is what I'm saying.)

Right. So I've had a few interactions with an insanely gifted surgeon, and then I go back to my desk and write about lizards. And then I stare at the ceiling past 1 a.m. wondering what on earth I'm doing with my life.

Do you have these kinds of nights?

But then I remembered one very important moment, and it shut the voice right up.

See, we were in my mom's hospital room. Waiting with her as they tweaked her pain medication, waiting for her to recover just enough from the surgery to go home. We were looking out at the amazing view from the seventeenth floor. Letting her rest, grabbing coffee from the lobby, keeping each other company.

And then: we were reading out loud. 

My family has always read out loud to one another: something my parents were doing for us when we were kids, and none of us got around to outgrowing it. So my mom packed a lighthearted novel for her hospital stay, and Dad and I read it out loud.

And something funny happened. Instead of being overwhelmingly conscious of I.V. cords and hospital gowns, the smells of antiseptic, the sounds of the equipment in the room (I never knew hospital beds were so loud)... instead of all our worries about the surgery itself, and the outcome, and what the rest of recovery would be like, and if any other treatment was needed--

We all teleported. 

To 1930s England. To chauffeurs in uniform, to having tea and lemonade on the lawn, to entertaining the vicar. To frivolous women and pompous young men and imperious great-aunts. To thwarted love and silly mix-ups and endangered inheritances. It was one of those comedy-of-manners kinds of books, trivial and subtle and funny. 

The only thing I had to focus on was reading the very next sentence. Everything else faded away. Mom listened and rested. Dad and I wrapped ourselves up in the story. 

And at one point I looked up to see my mom's roommate standing there, listening to me read. She was holding onto her I.V. pole, with a feeding tube snaking into her nose, but she was with us in the 1930s, standing there in England, just for a little while. 

(She told us--in a beautiful accent that none of us could quite place--that she and her husband had been listening to us for a while, that it was lovely to overhear someone reading, instead of the noise of the TV. "There's a TV in here?" I said later, surprised. We had never even noticed.)

In other words--I tell this emphatically to the doubting voice in my head--in other words, books are still important.

Even when your family gets all shaken around and can't figure out what normal is for a while.

Even in a land of diagnoses and tests and results and lab reports and waiting, waiting, waiting.

After all, anything that can make two women forget--even for an instant--that they are in a lot of pain; anything that can move a group of people over a continent and back about eight decades; heck, anything that can keep me from realizing I'm in a hospital--

Well. That's a very powerful force. Whether the story reminds you of green lawns and sparkling lemonade, or whether it's populated with aristocratic assassins and monocled crime fighters: Stories are important.

And maybe there is no such thing as too silly, when even the silly stories can remind us who we are.