Maybe it’s the holidays. Sitting around watching the kids run wild, revisiting that tray of nasty pastries, listening as you go around a room littered with torn wrapping paper to share what we’re most thankful for. Or if you were alone, wondering what that would be like.
Moments like these cause a writer to take pause.
To pull back into another of our private little reveries and ponder perspective.
As writers of fiction or narrative of any kind, we’re not exactly furthering the cause of humanity from the safety of our keyboards. We’re not defending our country, we’re not saving souls, and we’re certainly not getting rich.
A fuller perspective, however, doesn’t dwell on those pesky truths. Rather, it reminds us that we possess a resource, a tool chest, with which we can penetrate the consciousness of others. And in doing so, deliver something beyond entertainment.
At a writing conference once, a woman looked at me and said, “I want to write beach trash… like you.”
That moment was one reason I started this website.
To apply what I do to something beyond my own shallow ambitions, which include a return to the top shelf at Borders and more appearances on morning talk shows.
Frankly, as this site has grown, I find this work – speaking directly to you, my peers in this game of writing – much more rewarding.
Even though I’m still not getting rich. Monetarily, at least.
But there is an even higher realm of meaning and reward that we can access. It is available to everyone, literate or not. But we writers are humbly positioned to take advantage of it more than most.
To write something that truly, immeasurably, counts.
I’ve done it a handful of times. For a grand total of four people.
I’d like to quickly share that with you today, in the hope that you might decide to target a similar audience with your gift of words, and the inherent and unavoidable gaze into the abyss that comes with it.
It is perhaps a natural law of relationships that the most important truths too often remain unspoken. As writers, we have the opportunity to convey our affection with words that transcend anything that the copy guys at Hallmark might come up with.
And so, from time to time – and including some scribbling on those very same Hallmark cards – I go deep into the throbbing, desperate depth of my love for my wife, and I write it down.
I tell her how much she means to me, and endeavor to define the depth of my love and commitment to her happiness. Eye-rolling, blush-inducing hues of purple passion that neither of us can show anyone for fear of eternal banishment.
It makes her cry. She can’t unread this stuff. And thus, it takes its place as the most important thing I will ever write.
Because I mean every word of it.
My son is in college. A big expensive school that stretches our resources beyond their means, while he struggles to understand the dimensions of the opportunity he has before him.
One of the most important things I’ve ever written – ever – was a letter during his freshman year telling him that I was withdrawing all funding for his education until he got his shit together.
The immediate response was his announcement that he would be seeking emancipation. Followed quickly by a sudden realization that his father was the only one speaking the truth with this level of clarity and consequence, and this firmly.
He came to understand that what I had written to him represented the greatest gift he’d ever received – a firm shove toward integrity and maturity. A lesson that would define him going forward.
Two years later he is an officer in his fraternity, and earning stellar grades. He’s lost 50 pounds (beware the Freshman Buffet Effect), works out daily and has landed on a promising career vision.
Would it have happened without my letter? Perhaps. Then again, I really don’t think so. Either way, it doesn’t matter… because the letter did matter.
It was the most important thing I’d ever written. And I continue to write him letters of fatherly encouragement and coaching to this day.
My father died of Alzheimers at the age of 76. It happened in 1992 after stints in several nursing homes that could not handle him, leading toward his final months in the Oregon State Hospital, the very same place (perhaps even the same ward) in which One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed.
He wasn’t a perfect father. But his love was perfectly intended.
Which is why, about a year earlier, I wrote him a letter expressing my appreciation and love. Telling him that, despite all else that hadn’t worked in his life, his fathering had worked. That he had succeeded in perhaps the most important role a man can assume.
It wasn’t long. But it carried the weight of an entire childhood, and it countered a life full of challenge and defeat.
I’d never seen my father weep before that moment, as he sat there reading my letter. He didn’t say a word. But he did keep that piece of paper in his wallet until the day he died.
It was the most important thing I’d ever written.
And it made me realize the power we wield as writers who are willing to take up the pen and craft the truth into something timely and beautiful.
To make our words a gift to others. That context is the empowering magic pill of anything and everything we will ever write.
I wrote my mother a letter, too. But the circumstances were entirely different.
My mother was an alcoholic. An emotional train wreck that didn’t recognize the line between self-pity and abuse. A binge drinker who would disappear for weeks or sometimes months into a dark place of rage and insanity. The times between those binges weren’t exactly the Cleavers, either.
I grew up with a skewed world view and a ton of rage and suppressed issues, some of which challenge me to this day.
Maybe that’s why I became a writer in the first place. I’ll never know.
What I wrote to her exists to this day. It is at this moment still clenched in her cold, dust-dry hands inside a box six feet beneath the surface of a perfectly coiffed lawn, occupying the space right above where my father rests in a military cemetery.
She never read it, of course. It hadn’t occurred to me to write something for her until she was gone.
But then – and I’m not defending my timing here – I didn’t really write it for her.
I wrote it for me. Because writers come to realize – and we’re not remotely unique in this realization – that forgiveness is a staggeringly powerful thing.
After six unpublished books, five published novels, a non-fiction book, over 500 produced corporate videos, a truck convoy full of printed crap selling all things corporate, over 600 online articles and nearly 300 posts on this very site, after reaching literally millions of readers…
.. it was the most important thing I’ve ever written.
As this new writing year dawns, I encourage you to give yourself this gift.
Write something that counts. That touches the audience that’s closest to you.
Write something that will out-live you.
When you do, you’ll find yourself changed. As a writer and a person. Both will be better for it.
You need not ever publish a word of your writing to achieve the highest pinnacle of success as a writer. You simply need to convey something you’ve written into the right hands, at the right moment.
When you do, you will have the changed the world.
Larry’s new writing book, “Story Engineering: Mastering The Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” comes out from Writers Digest Books in February 2011.