By Kathy A. Megyeri
Author Anna Quindlen is a national treasure. She’s a journalist, self-help author and writer of fiction, nonfiction and memoirs. Her books are consistently best sellers; she’s won the Pulitzer Prize and her Newsweek columns were collected in “Loud and Clear.” Her “A Short Guide to a Happy Life” sold over a million copies.
About “Write for Your Life”
This latest gem of a book demonstrates that anyone can write and everyone should, and this short, quick-read book isn’t just for English majors—it’s for “civilians,” as Quindlen calls us—people who want to use the written word to become more human and more themselves, and to explore, learn, and connect with others through writing. Through writing of any kind, we can find what truly matters in life, what truly lasts in our hearts and minds, and we can find community, history and humanity.
And why is that so necessary? Quindlen cites poignant examples from Anne Frank to Toni Morrison, from love letters written after World War II, from journals, and from reflections from nurses and doctors today to show how writing connects us to ourselves and our loved ones. And as a mother, daughter and friend, she makes the case that recording our daily lives in writing is essential because when we write, we look, we see, we react, we reflect, and we have something to hold onto in this changing world. Writing is important for the heart, mind, and spirit while it also documents history.
Some have already learned this. George Washington University senior Roman Bobek says, “Writing has taught me to become more attentive, to be concise and purposeful, to identify what is relevant, to be honest with myself and exercise restraint, and to improve interviewing skills because we all have stories to tell.” And Quindlen recommends that of all the people in your life, the most important recipients of your thoughts of them should be your parents, your siblings, your best friends, the teachers who changed your life, and the doctors and nurses who cared for you in the hospital.
But your words need to be on paper written by hand to be truly meaningful. Too often, we assume people know how we feel, she says, but when “we actually put it down in words, we realize how gratitude, appreciation, and love take on a larger, more lasting meaning when they are in concrete form.” When others my age clean out the drawers and go through the belongings of deceased parents, how moving it is to find a letter they kept from a child just saying, “I love you.”
When my mother died, I found a poem I had written as a teenager for Easter called “Peter Cottontail loves you as I do,” and as juvenile as it sounded now, I was thrilled she had kept it all these years. Just recently, I lost one of my best friends to a stroke, but I still have her beautifully constructed Christmas letters collected over the last 50 years and that is tangible proof of the bond we shared and the memories we both treasured.
When I taught high school many years ago, I assigned each child to write a letter of appreciation to a teacher they remembered who impacted their early lives. A 93-year-old resident of a nursing home wrote back to say it was the first time she had ever received thanks for her 39 years in the classroom and she was truly touched. When I required students to write letters of gratitude to their own parents at the end of each school year, I was stunned when a father called to tell me his wife had unexpectedly died and the son’s letter would be the eulogy at his wife’s funeral.
Thus, I knew firsthand the power of this simple gesture that meant so much.
My favorite chapter in Quindlen’s book addresses those in the medical profession and examines the great tradition of doctor writers who see human existence up close—writers like Arthur Conan Doyle who invented Sherlock Holmes, poet William Carlos Williams, and Anton Chekhov. Dr. Rafael Campo, the son of Cuban immigrants who is the poetry editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, says the JAMA publishes a poem in every issue alongside the expected essays on cholesterol, colonoscopies and cancer treatments.
Why is each submitted poem important? Campo says, “It speaks to that impulse to narrate what is happening in human terms and is a space for doctors to become whole again in their clinical work.” Dr. Campo believes writing is important for building empathy among caregivers, to learn “the vocabulary of human interaction to treat patients properly,” so they “never lose touch with the humanity of their patients.”
After reading this chapter, I understand why my own accomplished and award-winning internist in Washington, DC treasures his book club and writes himself as well. As oncologist Laura Vater of the Indiana University School of Medicine admits in the book, “Writing helps me to process, helps save my emotional life, slows me down in this chaotic world, anchors me, and makes me a better physician.” But the benefits of writing, Quindlen argues aren’t just for members of the medical professional or academics. There’s even stories behind our “to-do” lists, our hobbies, our homes, our favorite recipes and our relationships.
And it’s especially important for us women when one considers historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s comment in the book: “Women have constituted the most spectacular casualty of traditional history. They have made up at least half the human race, but you could never tell that by looking at the books historians write. The forgotten man is nothing compared to the forgotten woman.” And Quindlen makes good on her invitation for us women to write because she includes space in the final few pages of her book to “tell your story, record your thoughts, note your feelings, and write it down. There is a place here to begin……”
And my own contribution to Quindlen’s efforts is this, especially now that Mother’s Day is near. I’ve ordered a dozen copies of Quindlen’s book for my girlfriends (not all mothers) but I want these women to know they’re important to me. After I write a note of gratitude to each on the title page, I’m asking them to fill in the last few pages with their own stories, thoughts, and feelings. Their children, spouses, family and friends will be so grateful and to Quindlen especially for writing this short, simple and heartfelt plea.