I am writing in the middle of a book tour that takes me to seven cities in the U.S. The tour actually started the day after we returned from a similar tour in South Korea and Taiwan.
I must say, there’s a major difference in the attention span of audiences in Asia and America. In Asia, listeners sit for 90 minutes straight (I talk for 45 minutes and the interpretation takes equal time) without crossing and uncrossing their legs or moving their hands or shifting posture. In the U.S. you better be quick, and spice up the talk with humor and PowerPoint images; video is even better. The media has spoiled us.
Along the way I have had to learn the style differences between speaking and writing. The speaker has many more tools at his or her disposal. I can raise or lower my voice, wave my arms, pace the stage. If all else fails I can show a clip from a movie. In contrast, the writer can only manipulate black marks on a page, with no color, no sound, and only the subtlest variation in appearance. The reader remains firmly in control at all times. Sheer politeness keeps people from stomping out of a talk, whereas a bored reader thinks nothing of slamming shut a book or turning off a Kindle.
“Most writers don’t make good speakers,” I often hear, and I am grateful for those lowered expectations when I stand before an audience. Although I find writing a much harder task, speaking does present unique challenges. If I hit writer’s block, I open the door and go for a run or a bike ride to clear my head. Onstage I have to keep talking and sweating through to the end, no matter how miserable I feel at the time.
Public speaking also involves the unpredictable. Several times in India the electricity shut off in the middle of a meeting, leaving me standing on a platform in the dark with no microphone. In the Philippines cell phones chirped and rang every few minutes. One man said loudly, “Hello, Ma? I’m in a meeting. Just a minute and we can talk,” as he walked out the aisle. At a charity golf tournament in France, a drunken woman stood up and shouted, “That’s me! He’s talking about me!” as I mentioned the scene in John 8 of Jesus confronting an adulterous woman.
I have spoken through an old fashioned bullhorn on a beach in Myanmar, nearly fainting from the heat and an attack of diarrhea. In Australia I spoke to a group that included aborigines, who had the disconcerting habit of giggling throughout my talk and heading out on walkabouts whenever they felt like it.
It constantly amazes me that my books can connect with someone in another culture since I write so specifically about the legalism, fundamentalism, and racism of the American South. I have learned, though, that churches overseas may magnify the flaws and quirks of the U.S. church. Missionaries, God bless them, may import a legalism that makes Southern Baptists look like liberals and church divisions that make U.S. denominations seem harmonious. Sermons tend to fall into two types, either stiff and formulaic or a rollicking Prosperity Gospel message. Few are addressing questions like Where Is God When It Hurts? and Disappointment with God in such places.
Often after speaking I invite questions. Inevitably someone asks about U.S. policies and our recent wars. The issue of homosexuality usually comes up. I also hear touching stories from people struggling with faith in the midst of pain and poverty. On a tour of the Middle East, I fielded these two questions back to back: 1) How can a loving God allow so much suffering in the world? and 2) What kind of shampoo do you use?
“We have an unequal relationship, you and I,” I used to joke before a book-signing. “You know everything about me because anything I think or do or say ultimately ends up in a book. But I know nothing about you. So in the brief time we have together, tell me one of the deepest secrets of your life, something you’ve never told anyone.” I stopped making that invitation because some people took me seriously and told me secrets I had no right to know. In the process, I learned that a writer can develop a “virtual” intimacy with readers he or she has never met.
The highlight of all such trips takes place when I meet these readers of my books. This book tour, introducing Vanishing Grace, gives me yet another opportunity to hear some of their personal stories. Let me give you a few examples, some of the most moving moments of my life:
Writers live lonely lives, and contacts with readers remind us that what we do in isolation may indeed touch people at a deep level. In my travels I learn that I am not alone in struggling with the issues I write about. One reader said to me, “You keep insisting you’re not a pastor, but I think you’re pastoral, a pastor for those who don’t fit.” I can almost accept that title.
After each of these tours I return to my basement office humbled and also uplifted by my encounters with readers. Just last week I met a man who runs a ministry for pedophiles. “They receive less grace than any group in our country,” he said. “Imagine having to register publicly as a criminal, with a poster announcing that on your lawn, unable to live within a thousand feet of schools, playgrounds, and other facilities. Yes, they did something terrible. But are they beyond God’s grace and forgiveness?”
Close behind him, a woman told me of losing her 17-year-old daughter to a brain hemorrhage.
Yes, book tours are exhausting, logistically frustrating, and challenging for an introvert. But when I return to my basement office in Colorado, I have renewed hope that what I will write tomorrow will somehow connect with another reader—someone I may one day meet on another such tour.