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I never saw the woman's face. I only heard her voice.
It was spring of 2002, and I was in the middle of a radio interview, talking about my new book, The Right Words at the Right Time, in which I had asked 108 famous people -- people I admired -- to write about the words that changed their lives. Halfway through the interview, a listener called the station and told a story that would stay with me.
Her teenage son had been in a terrible car accident, the woman said, and as she sat in the hospital waiting to learn his fate, two doctors prepared her for the worst.
"You have to know when to let go," said the first doctor, gently warning her that her son was probably not going to make it. The second doctor, believing that her child might pull through, cautioned her that, due to his injuries, he'd never be the same again. Then he added, "But life is precious."
Both men were telling the truth as they saw it, the caller explained, but their words couldn't have been more different.
"I sat there trying to decide which words I would hold on to through that night," she remembered, confessing that neither scenario was something she'd ever dreamed of happening to her son. "But in the end, I hung on to the words of the second doctor. Because life is so precious. And these were the words that gave me strength to endure the life trial that was to come."
The woman was so honest, and her account so moving. I'd been hearing stories like this ever since the book had come out. Everywhere I went, people were eager to tell me about the right words in their lives. In airports. At book signings. In countless, heartfelt letters sent through the mail.
That day in the radio station, I was reminded that we're surrounded by heroes everywhere -- and I thought about how exciting it would be to assemble a new collection of right words stories, not from celebrities this time, but from everyday Americans.
Famous people have lots of opportunities to be heard. This book would provide a voice for everyone else.
The more I thought about the idea, the more I realized that the best way to find stories for the book would be to cast a net across the country -- along both coasts and through the heartland. And so we did. We announced a nationwide contest in the pages of the paperback edition of Right Words, asking readers to search their memories for that vivid moment in their lives when words made all the difference. We set up a website for online submissions. We hung posters in hospitals and military posts, in schools and police stations and prisons. And Parade magazine, which had been a champion of the first book, lent a hand by soliciting stories from its readers.
It didn't take long for millions of thoughtful words to suddenly materialize around me -- riveting, well-rendered letters, more than a thousand all together, from 30 states and three countries. Reading them late into the night was a joy, but choosing the 101 essays that would appear in this book was daunting. People didn't simply send us random thoughts that strung together a few memorable words from their past. They sent us their stories, pieces of their lives.
As I'd learned from the first book, the right words can transform us. They can challenge us at a crossroads; they can help us through times of sorrow; they can dare us to action. They can be spoken with love or shouted in anger. The right words can be funny words, thought-provoking words, words that prop us up when we think we can go no further.
And they can be found almost anywhere -- in a poem or a songbook, illuminated on a computer screen, stitched onto a wall-hanging, or scratched into the dirt with a wooden stick.
Whether set in a small schoolhouse on the plains of Wyoming or in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan, each story we received sprang from the heart. For Michael Raysses of Los Angeles and Nebraskan Steve Martinez, the right words were spoken by strangers, one at a Starbucks, the other in an emergency room. Arizonian Susyn Reeve learned about human compassion, thanks to a chance encounter in a rainstorm. A teenage employee of Burger King grasped Floridian Tim Ciciora's hand and spoke two words that almost made a tough guy cry.
And for four special contributors to this book, words alone helped them extract a measure of hope from the devastating heartbreak of September 11th.
As the nights wore on and the stacks of letters grew, I became increasingly awed by the bounty of truth that surrounded me. I am a wiser person, I think, for having taken the journeys so eloquently recounted in the pages of this book. And I'm thankful for the generous spirit of our contributors, whose strong and intimate and touchingly personal stories may help all of us to find our own right words.
New York City
Spring, 2006 Copyright ©2006 by The Right Words, LLC