The 5 best words you can say to a writer

These are the five best words you can say to a writer: I saved what you wrote.

I know that is controversial. Some of you may say the five best words are: Here’s your five-figure advance.

Setting that debate aside, I got a wonderful note recently from Erica, who lives in Windsor, California, and wrote:

Are you the author who wrote ‘Try to Remember’ in  the January 2004 edition of Family Circle? If so, I just wanted to thank you. It inspired me to keep a Christmas journal, and it’s turned into a wonderful tradition.

She didn’t actually say the five best words, but even better, sent a photo that showed she had saved the essay, and actually pasted it in her journal.

If she had been at my front door, I would have flung my arms around her and kissed her.

That’s because I have a small collection of clippings of essays that appeared in newspapers around Christmastime, going back more than 30 years. They include Erma Bombeck’s “Where did Christmas go?” column and Russell Baker’s poignant “Wreaths for the Folks.”

They’re tattered and coffee stained, and my kids will throw them out when I die, but I read them with pleasure every year. 

So having someone in California produce something I wrote 15 years ago is like winning the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest all at once. 

Even better, Erica had taken the tradition I’d written about — writing a letter to myself every January about how to improve Christmas the next year — and she made it even better.  (I am so proud!) A sturdy red journal is so much more attractive and sensible than my homely stack of letters.

Erica also found, as I did, that no matter how utilitarian their intent, the letters naturally turn into a journal. In her words:

This is Erica’s journal. Much prettier than my ramshackle collection of letters.

“Over the years this journal has morphed and expanded to include more than just a record of holiday events and a few reminders. I now take note of Thanksgiving – where, who, what – so I know what worked and what didn’t (don’t order the vegetables if ordering dinner from Oliver’s – they’re not very good).

“Christmas Bunco nights, gingerbread house decorating parties, friend gift exchanges, family trips to San Francisco, yearly Christmas Eve party elephant gift exchange, all noted — for memory’s sake and to aid in planning upcoming years.

“Christmas cards, gift lists, holiday baking, decorations, calendar events, wrapping supplies, I keep a record.”

I fished around in my files and — lo! — found the contract for this essay, which gave Family Circle exclusive rights for six months after publication, so I’m legally free to republish it now. A PDF is below.

My original title was “Dear Me” which I think was much catchier than “Try to Remember,” but I defer to whoever writes the check. 

Meanwhile, if any of you have any holiday-related essays or columns that you re-read every year, please share them in the comments, or email them to me, and I’ll post all the links when we get closer to Christmas.

8 thoughts on “The 5 best words you can say to a writer

  1. Jennifer, great idea and I loved hearing about your life while the children, and you too, were growing up. Years ago our Church initiated a ceremony in our New Year’s Eve Service. First we listed on a piece of paper all the things we didn’t want to take into the new year…beliefs, thoughts, attitudes, habits, people, etc. Then we would go down to a supervised fire at the front of the church and drop our paper into it…where we Got Rid of It! After that we wrote a “Letter to God” affirming all the things we DID want to have in our life in the coming year. Then we put it in an envelope and didn’t open it until the following New Year’s Eve. It’s always interesting and often amazing to see what has or has not happened that we focused on a year before. I no longer go to that church but it is still a powerful and precious part of my New Year’s Eve in the privacy of my own home. Much love to you and the family! Carolyn Dishman

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  2. What a great idea! I wish I had started that tradition years ago. I have an article that is packed up with the Christmas decorations every year (in the box that says “open first” with the ornament hooks and a few other necessary things) and I read it before I start decorating. It’s by Debra Lynn Hook (probably from The State Newspaper) and I forget the exact title but it’s something about not trying to be the Christmas Queen – that what’s important about the season is not trying to have the “perfect” Christmas! I’m going to print your article and put it in my box to be read every year too! Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas!

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  3. I’ve done this now for more than 10 years – and also have a worn stack of letters, wrapped with ribbon. This idea has allowed me to remember the ups and downs of the years – the joy of children at the holidays, the frustration of family members being slow to jump in with the work, being overwhelmed, being overworked – but each year, getting more and more wisdom about how to approach the holidays – and life. This is one of the greatest gifts you’ve given me. #ISavedWhatYouWrote

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  4. I’m so glad I read your blog this morning. That’s wonderful and amazing and cool that someone has held on to your words and got in touch with you to let you know. 🙂

    I do have a favorite essay that I read every year. It was the centerpiece of the Lands’ End Christmas catalog one year, I think in the early 2000s. It was written by Garrison Keillor (okay, that name has a whole knot of issues that I’m not going to address here) and I think it’s called, “What I’m Giving You for Christmas.” My ripped out and much folded copy is tucked away in a box at the moment and an internet search didn’t help me to find it. It’s a beautiful and melancholy essay about Christmas presents and how sometimes the gifts we give can have mistaken intentions, but sometimes the gifts we give ourselves can have the most meaning. He writes about a quiet solo Christmas he spent one year, and how he gave himself that gift of quiet and solitude. At the end of the essay, he says he’ll be giving stamps, dried macaroni and cheese, and socks, because everyone needs soul food, a letter, and dry feet (or something to that effect), etc. I wish I could find it to share with you. Anyway, I loved and love that essay and I read it every year.

    Thank you for reminding me of that and for sharing your beautiful tradition. I look forward to reading the pieces you mentioned in your blog post and what others share in their comments.

    Liked by 1 person

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