04/12/2013 05:29 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2013

Network? No -- I'd Rather Connect

Believe me, there is a difference.

I resisted Twitter for a long time. To me it was synonymous with networking, which in my mind means unceasing self-promotion and superficial small-talk with strangers. A little like wading into a river with a raging current -- and I'm a terrible swimmer.

Then my novel was accepted for publication. "You have to join Twitter," said everyone from my agent to my publisher to my friends. "It's not about networking. It's just a great way for writers to connect with readers."

I wasn't sure exactly what connecting with readers meant. And how important was that, anyway? Isn't the work supposed to stand on its own? Couldn't I just write my books? But I took a deep breath and waded in.

And in the five months I've been on Twitter, I've tried not to network, but to connect. Twitter gave me a way to say "Thank you for writing" to other authors -- for example, after I finished Taiye Selasi's novel Ghana Must Go, I tweeted to her and discovered that we both adored the same novel, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. It let me say "Thank you for reading," to some of my own readers, too: blogger Karen Carlson wrote an essay analyzing one of my stories, and now I follow her on Twitter to hear her insights about everything else she's reading. And Twitter showed me just how small the world is. I tweeted to Kathryn Schulz, whose book Being Wrong I'd enjoyed. Turns out we grew up in the same hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio, and my mother-in-law was her high school English teacher.

But this is the Twitter interaction that has touched me most, that has really made me understand the value of connecting with a reader:

Growing up back in Shaker Heights, Ohio, I had a friend named Emily Murray. In December of 2000, when we were both in college and had fallen out of touch, Emily was kidnapped and murdered. I kept trying to make sense of it. I couldn't. Eventually, a full five years after her death, I wrote an essay about that futile process, about trying to make sense of this senseless act. I held onto it for four more years and finally sent it to the Kenyon Review, which published it in 2009.

I worried about that essay for a long time. Had it been right to send it into the world? Did I even have the right to write about this at all? Should I have kept those thoughts to myself?

This morning, via Twitter, I received a message from Emily's mother. She told me she had been so moved by my essay, all those years ago, but had never known how to tell me. Until she had found me on Twitter.

It's so easy, as a writer, to get stuck in your own head, to live in the little worlds you create. To forget that there are people out there reading your work, people who may be deeply affected by what you do, that you are writing not just for yourself, but for them. That your writing isn't complete when you finish writing the last word, but when the reader finishes reading it. And most of all: that when someone reads what you have written and finds meaning in it and tells you so -- especially if it involves their own story, especially if that story matters even more to them than to you -- you should be deeply grateful.

I wrote back to Emily's mother, sending her my email address. And now, as I write this, two messages have appeared in my inbox: one from Emily's mother, one from Emily's father. I don't know yet what they'll say, or what I'll say in return. But I am so very, very grateful for this connection.