Very early on, I discovered that writing uses concrete details to evoke emotion and thereby move the reader to a place of feeling. When I first tried to do this, I wrote about the things that mattered most to me. My two children as toddlers in Tucson, the way their plump brown legs ran toward the swimming pool. The sweat that glistened like crystals on their skin. The way my son's blue eyes laughed from the inside before the sound tumbled over me. How my daughter's hair smelled after a shampoo--like apples just beginning to decay.
I wrote about canning tomatoes at the double white porcelain sink with my mother. She would peel and I would stuff those mushy red orbs into clean mason jars because my hands were small and could fit through the mouth of the jars. I'd write about the feel of the juice as it crawled up my fingers, tiny golden seeds sticking to my skin. I'd remember picking blackberries along the railroad tracks with my cousin, Linda, and my little brother, Bruce, now dead from a heroin overdose. I'd write about the way he sang Beetles songs and wore his hair to his shoulders. I even wrote about the first time I had sex and the left inguinal hernia that made itself known that night. And I learned that good writing is always an exercise in empathy. We must feel for our characters the way we feel for ourselves and the people we love.
Today, in an old notebook from high school, I rediscovered the draft of an assignment to write a letter to me from my ninety year old self. This is what I wrote at seventeen:
"You must slow down and enjoy each moment. It is not as important as you think it is to always be doing something. Take more time to sit quietly and absorb the life going on around you. Take more time to feel and less time to think. Walk in the woods and listen to the sounds the leaves make beneath your feet, hear the insects in the tall grasses. What are they telling you? Roll in the leaves you rake into piles the way you always did as a child. Achievements mean little as time moves by us. In the end, what matters most is who you love and how well you have loved them."
I was struck by the wisdom of seventeen year old me pretending to me ninety. And I felt so lucky to have spent a lifetime writing and holding on to the things I'd written. I've discovered that writing is the gift that returns again and again--the message constantly changing as we do.