The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Write

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.

My Wife

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

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

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.

My Mother

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.

36 Comments

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36 Responses to The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Write

  1. Thanks.

    And Happy New Year.

  2. Hi Larry,

    I think this is the most touching and personal story you have told. I could picture each of your loved ones (characters) reading their letters (even your mother, because who knows what happens when we die). I could imagine the angst, love and drama infused in each letter. And, I could understand the transformational effect and closure as you sorted out your emotions, relationships with each and became a different person.

    Well done. You have given us an important call to action, and again shown that story is life.

  3. Larry,
    Your posts always reach me, but this one more than any other. Like you I’ve written miles and miles of words and stories that the entire world will never see, and many that only a handful have ever enjoyed.

    But there is one thing I’ve written in particular that will always stay with me. This was a letter to my grandfather. Growing up we had seen a lot of him until he and my grandmother moved away to help out my uncle. Visiting became difficult as the years went on because they were so far away.

    Back in the mid 90s I was reading a letter by Ann Landers and I was struck with this need to write Grandpa and tell him how much he’d meant to me over the years. Totally spur of the moment and laden with all the good things I remembered about growing up with him.

    A week later he passed away.

    This wasn’t the first or the last time I’d tell someone how much they meant “just because”, but it was the most poignant and the single most important thing I’ve ever written.

  4. Outstanding!
    Best post of 2010 right there.

  5. Great blog, Larry. I completely agree. I’ve been ‘smart’ enough to write three of those ‘most important things I’ve ever written’. The first two were to my parents as I graduated from college, thanking them for doing such a great job raising me, teaching me right from wrong, how to think for myself, live my life with integrity and honesty, etc. The third missive were the wedding vows I wrote for myself and my wife of 32+years. Even the officiating judge commented in mid-ceremony how well-written, honest, unique, and beautifully expressed those vows were and how impressed he was with their sincerity. My wife liked ’em a lot, too. 😉

    Thanks for reminding us not to be completely caught up in the writing-for-profit trap.

    Cheers,
    Chris

  6. Larry,
    I’m sorry for what you went through with your dad. My father also has Alzheimer’s, as did his mother before him. It’s a devastating disease and one that is vastly under researched. I work for the Alzheimer’s Association for my “day job” and the statistics are frightening.

    When my grandmother died and we were cleaning out her belongings, I found a stack of letters and cards, tied with a cotton string. They were every letter and card I’d ever written to her. And just mine. I don’t know if her other grandchildren didn’t write or what, but they there were. That impressed upon me the importance of words and writing them down like nothing else ever will. I still have them and probably always will.

  7. If I can touch but one other person this way, all the work will be worth it.

  8. Judy Migliori

    You took a blank white piece of paper and filled it with such depth and insight I was amazed. Thank you so much for this post Larry and for all the people who responded – I love what you wrote too – what a great group of people.

  9. Larry,

    What a way to end 2010. Your posts and e-books have been a Godsend to this Panster Extraordinaire! This post, however, has reminded why I started this crazy journey anyway. Agent rejections and mixed contest results had me changing my MS until it was no longer a recognizable piece of myself.

    Thanks for sharing something so poignant and deeply personal. And thanks for steering me back in the direction I need to be. Happy New Year, Larry.

  10. Martha Miller

    Wow.
    I can understand why Laura cries when you write of your deep feelings about her. Real, honest sincerity is always touching because it’s so rare, and because it lets us know the real person writing it. I’ll admit to being a little misty-eyed myself over your post for today.
    It’s no wonder you were voted the Numero Uno blogger. Thanks for starting off my day so beautifully.

  11. Loved this post. You said it so well!

  12. Brilliantly expressed and handled, Larry.

    Thank you.

    Happy New Year to you and yours, too.

  13. Sighs, gasps and goosebumps… a beautiful sermon to memory.
    You take us through the pulse of your relationships at the pace of a boat ride at Disney world, those rides where each scene plays out on a platform as you slowly float by. As writers we work studiously, plotting things out, building our characters, becoming wordsmiths- as humans, we have little to do with the characters in our story and perhaps that is why we react more often than respond to the evolving swirls of complexity that develop between characters. Everyone has relationships in inertia, and the boat is stuck there with the scene presenting the same old story, with endless permutations. Letters, poems, songs, words… they are tunnels in this most important ride in your life Tunnels move you through those stagnant relationships. Tunnels open up the depths of affection.
    I spend so much of my time seeking my “audience” and so often forget about the micro-audience that is forever in attendance.
    Thank you for reminding me.

  14. Gina

    Thank you for a post I’ll always remember.

  15. Larry, I agree with Shane – this is your best, and most important, post this year.

    My mother, (even though she isn’t a “writer”), writes a letter to me, and one to each of my sisters, every year for Christmas. It’s the gift I always look forward to the most, and the one I will cherish forever.

    My husband and I keep an anniversary journal – we write each other a letter in the journal every year on our anniversary (our 14th is tomorrow) as our gift to one another. We started this with the intention of our children and grandchildren having something to remember us by when we’re no longer here, but the journal has become so much more than that. It has been a wonderful blessing for our marriage.

    Thank you for a great post!

  16. Pingback: Important Writing, part 1 « DeeGee's B&B

  17. My gosh, Larry – Your words turned me inside out. Perhaps the best writing school is simply knowing what it means to be a spouse, father and son – or rather trying to know… and then putting it in words.

  18. Pingback: Important Writing, part 2 « DeeGee's B&B

  19. I’m a subscriber to storyfix and read each post, but none hit like this one. It’s a beauty, Larry. You gave a push to get over the hump of past relations gone wrong, which is the stuff we all like reading about, if not living with.

    When a post blindsides me like this, I usually do one thing: use the inspiration.

    A big THANKS,

    http://wp.me/pvYge-1jM

  20. Theresa

    Possibly the most important thing I’ve ever read.

    Thank you.

  21. This is my first visit to your blog and I will be back. In fact, I’ve added it to my blog roll.
    And I agree were oral communication sometimes fails me, my pen seldom does.

  22. KC

    Incredibly wonderful post, Larry. Thank you so much for reminding us of this. Sometimes I’m afraid to write such personal things to people, scared of what they’ll think or what they’ll say about it, even though I’m good at that sort of thing.

    You’ve challenged me for sure.

  23. Larry,
    I agree with the others, and am backed up by a friend and editor of mine who has said my best writing has always been to my family. More humorous and more touching. So I’ll always keep doing that, as it’s my gift to them.

    Now to put that touch into my writing! Thanks for your best post yet.

  24. This blog post was moving, it’s a place I need to visit more often in my writing. Thanks for the reminder.

    I was especially touched by Pegg’s comment. In the late 90s I wrote a cooking column (nostalgic with tales of growing up on an Eastern Oregon farm) for a small suburban newspaper in Seattle-it was a non-paying column. A few years later I wrote a similar column in New Mexico-it paid $25 per week.

    Then in 2005 my mother passed away. We were cleaning out her house and we ran across a binder that had an original clipping of every column I had written for the newspapers. She didn’t live in the same cities, so how she acquired them I’ll never know. The binder sits on my shelf just as I found it and it will remain so.

    Every week I wrote to my “reading public” about the memorable experiences I shared with my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors. It was a childhood every mother wants for her children. It must have filled her heart to know how really safe and blissful I viewed my early years. Unknowingly, I was telling Mom how much of a joy my childhood had been, how those seemingly everyday people had influenced my life and that all of it was a sterling treasure to me.

    At the very least this proves that we never know who’s reading our work, what our best work will be, what the real value is of each written word and who’s touched by them.

    Cynthia Briggs

  25. Wow. I think I picked a great time to discover your site. Wonderful piece. I’ll be back.

  26. After nearly twenty years in newspaper journalism, covering events on a continent infamous for its intense stories, I at one point realised my writing was starting to “flatten out”. My professional writing, that is.
    What I had started doing from when I was a 9 year old boy: to jot down everything interesting around me and turning that into stories, was starting to lose its life, its pulse, its sincerity. Catching a deadline became more important than catching the crux of the story at hand.

    Blogging for me is a way of re-connecting to the heart, inside. Reconnecting to my soul. Or, as you say: writing letters to loved ones.

    It’s only two months ago now that I opened up my blogging, and I feel how much of a difference it makes to my professional writing have an outlet where I can be real, personal, and write for all the reasons that made me scribble in notebooks, all those decades and long holidays ago.

    Have a marvelous New Year!

  27. and the universe does it again…. I was browsing Twitter, saw a re-tweet of this article, and read this stirring and inspiring message one day after I started writing a letter to my son that I wasn’t sure I would actually deliver. Now I will.. Thanks, Larry.

  28. Beautiful post, Larry. You remind us of the immeasurable power each of us has to heal with scratches on paper. What a gift! Bravo.

  29. Pingback: Just make sure it matters « Deanna's Blog, The Life of a Working Writer Mommy

  30. Larry,

    I have been following this blog for several months now but I don’t think I have ever commented. I have learned so much about writing from you but your knowledge and experience (and my lack of) has kept me from interacting. Therefore, this post was a breath of fresh air for me.

    I think writers sometimes forget that their “audiences,” whether in their own homes or out in cyberspace, are human beings with an innate need to connect on an emotional level with other human beings.

    After all of these months of gleening writing tips from your posts, I finally feel a connection to you, partly because we share many of the same childhood experiences and reasons for writing, but mostly because you have made yourself vulnerable by showing us the person behind all of that vast writing knowledge.

    In my humble opinion, disclosing our struggles every now and then makes us more credible, down-to-earth, and real. Following up our struggles with positive solutions is a gift to others who may be struggling with the same issues. None of us our unique in our experiences, this I know.

    This post, for example, gives me a feeling of hope (a “if he can do it then I can do it” type hope) and makes me want to learn even more from you by buying your books 🙂

    I think that giving us a glimpse into some of the most difficult times of your life and relating it to how writing has helped you in those moments is something you may eventually add to the handful of times you have written “something that truly, immeasurably, counts.”

    “To make our words a gift to others. That context is the empowering magic pill of anything and everything we will ever write.”

    I think you did just that here and for it, I thank you.

    Sincerely,
    Sheila Moore

  31. Just a few simple words: Wow… and thanks.

  32. Larry
    Thank you for such a story from the heart. I’m guessing that is some measure, you probably do write because of your mother.
    I believe that we write to sort out our lives in some fashion…some do it more artfully than others and you did it perfectly with this post.
    Thanks for all your help and contributions that inspire all of us to dig deep and find those universal truths.

  33. Here’s to a new year filled with words that matter.
    I’m so glad I found your blog.

  34. Sarah Phillips Pellet

    Fantastic post. I’ve been coming to your site for your professional insights and popped in this morning to look for elements of writing a good climax. I never expected to have tears rolling down my cheeks. Thank you for putting things into perspective.

  35. Okay, so that was beyond powerful; probably the most important thing you’ve written.
    What’s up for tomorrow?
    cheers

  36. Pingback: Write for Those You’ll Impact « Turning Leaf