The last thing I was thinking about was writing a book. True, I had always written—news for radio, reports and reviews for magazines and articles for journals. In fact that very day, September 7, 2006, I was meant to deliver a lecture at a huge international conference in the North of England about new ways of writing for radio.
But that life came to an end the second two nervous-looking police officers tracked me down at my hotel. They told me that my wife had been killed in a car crash and that our four-year-old son was very near death at a hospital in London. That high-flying career I’d been so proud of became, in that instant, as important to me as an old chewing-gum wrapper.
The initial prognosis was bleak. I was told that my son would likely die and I should consider donating his organs. Then I was told he’d probably spend the rest of his life in a coma. Then I was told he’d likely only ever attend a school for the severely handicapped. So when my son rolled past these limits one by one and began what I hoped would be a stupefying recovery, I started a blog about it. The first entry went up exactly three weeks after the crash and was a simple “thank you” for all the thoughts, prayers, cards and tokens that had been sent our way since the crash.
As the weeks ticked by I documented every milestone, the triumphant steps forward and the tear-stained setbacks, on that blog. At first a small handful of comments got posted from people we knew. But as my son’s amazing journey started to touch even the professionally cautious hospital staff, the URL got shared around to other families in similar circumstances and to people in other hospitals. Before long, the responses to our harrowing but utterly human story overwhelmed my ability to reply.
Towards the end of our three-month stay in the hospital, one of my son’s doctors mentioned to me how valuable he’d found the blog and how I should consider doing something else with it. I smiled and thanked him, but at that moment I wasn’t going to be distracted from the only thing that mattered to me: being at my son’s side and helping him get his life back.
Over the months that followed, with trying to find the right surgeons, three kinds of therapy and managing my son’s transition from the hospital to our local school, I used the blog as a space to explore my hopes and frustrations. This was my therapy—part of how I worked out not just what was best for my son, but what was changing in my own life and perspective as well.
The writing in my posts was candid, often startlingly so. And people reading those entries responded to that openness with an outpouring of compassion that I’d never seen in my corners of the web before.
With all this positive feeling coming my way, and with the worst of my son’s ordeal behind him, I finally decided to turn our story into a book called After the Crash. By pointing to the profile of the blog and to depth of the feedback, I was able to get a contract with Mainstream Publishing (an imprint of Random House UK).
As I worked the early drafts into a proper manuscript, I kept in mind what people had responded to most strongly in the blog: the unvarnished honesty about my feelings, and my sense that, in situations like these, your outlook can influence your outcome. This completely straightforward approach also meant that my son, when he was old enough to read the book himself, would have a clean and unflinching record of how he, at the tender age of four, battled through staggering physical and emotional trauma to create for himself a gloriously normal childhood.
And what I did worked: I was invited on all the big morning TV shows, did the public radio circuit, had feature articles in national papers, and After the Crash became a best seller. But it worked in a more important way too: it touched people, and the responses came flooding in from others who’d had similar experiences and beaten similar terrifying prognoses, from readers moved to tears at a four-year-old boy’s ability to empathize with the truck driver in jail for killing his mother, and from parents who said they’d never look at their own children the same way again.
In the end, my producing a book that took off didn’t involve clever arguments or following formulas. It happened from following my heart. It came through a human connection, through sharing a path through an all-too-common tragedy, and through showing how that tragedy changed me—and changed me for the better.
Martin Spinelli is a media, film, and music professor. In his twenties, as a reporter, anchor, and producer in Buffalo, New York, he produced award-winning news features for NPR as well as the acclaimed literary series LINEbreak. He is the founder of the Academic Radio Program at the City University of New York at Brooklyn College where he produced the AIDS-informational soap Welcome to America broadcast on Radio Africa International.