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.