If you’ve read my previous blog posts, you know that one of my favorite facets of writing for children is getting to meet them and talk with them and find out what makes their hearts skip. I’ve met so many precious little ones, of all ages, colors, creeds, attitudes, and economic backgrounds. And wouldn’t you know, as God so masterfully planned, each one has his or her own story to tell… keep that in mind for a moment.
One of the most common questions I field is, “How did you get started writing?”
To be honest, I don’t really remember not writing. It’s one of those loves that I toted along in my heart as I was born. I reckon it’s as innate in me as is the blue of my eyes or my tendency to freckle, my Southern accent and my notably non-tall stature. Weaving yarns, as I like to call it, has intrigued me since I could be whisked away in my grandaddy’s arms for an afternoon of spoiling and storytelling… since my daddy brought home history-in-the-making remembrances from his long-traveled roads as a network news cameraman… since my uncle’s underwater, trans-oceanic close calls and Navy experiences caught my undivided attention during conversational suppertime tale-swapping… and those days began in my earliest hours.
Grandaddy and me, around 1979, sittin’ on a pile of red clay and gigglin’ over something only that little girl in me knows.
But of course, there was an actual beginning to my own personal practice of writing. It was my mom who put the pencil in my hand, but not with the instruction to craft a fairytale.
I was often on the receiving end of thoughtful presents from aunts and uncles, grandparents, friends and extended family. My precious Italian aunt showered me with porcelain dolls, tea sets and music boxes, sparkly jewelry and a shiny silver brush, mirror and comb set. An uncle of mine saw that I liked his camera, and he just handed it over to me without a second thought. My mom’s little sister always picked out fun clothes and toys, hand-made a couple of my dolls, took my cousins and me to Six Flags countless times, and baked a bubbling, rich and gooey lasagna from scratch, just for me, every time I visited. Of course, that was supper… she made French toast for me for breakfast!
My parents’ friends had children in high school and college, but they treated me as one of their own. One is a talented seamstress, and she made my peach-colored French-lace frock for my 10-year old portrait, and later my white and cream graduation gown with tucks and pleats, puffed sleeves of perfection and satin ribbon. They attended all my dance recitals, piano performances, school plays and lemonade stands, bought wrapping paper and magazines from my school sales, and tolerated me joining their get-togethers over shrimp suppers, cookouts, watermelon cuttings, rounds of front-lawn croquet and backyard tennis matches (Mrs. Janie, I can still see Cookie with his colorful golf shorts and casually unhurried backhand swing-with-a-laugh, and his characteristic cigar putting the period on his handsome, mischievously innocent grin. I’m so glad I was a part of those afternoons).
So why the pencil and paper at such a young age, Mom? Thankfulness.
Of course I appreciated all those wonderful blessings. I doubt there’s a girl out there who wouldn’t enjoy Six Flags, a doll collection, no-less-than-absolutely-delicious food (always… good cooks run deep in my family), and a devoted audience of familiar, loving faces, ready to ride out past the city limits to the country part of the county, and up the mile-long driveway through the woods, just to buy a cup of lemonade from this only-child.
But did the generous parties know it? Did my grandma and grandaddy know how much joy their presence in my life brought to me? Did they know I loved all the frilly dresses that grandaddy just knew would look so cute on his adoring girl? Did my best friend’s mom know that I appreciated the invitation to come home with them after school and have dinner and spend the night? Did my aunts and uncles know that my heart was full of thankfulness for their Christmas visits… not to mention the Lladro figurines and amethyst earrings? Did my teacher know why she was unforgettable? Did my future in-laws know how thankful I was, all the way to my heart, for the young man they raised? Did my appointed sister (who claimed my mom’s attention and love a generation before I was ever thought of) realize how much it meant to me to have my first sleepover party at her house for my 13th birthday? Did she know I would remember her gift forever?
My mom made sure they knew. It goes without saying that the raising of Yours Truly included clear instructions in the Southern social graces of manners, politeness, conversational poise, proper dress and elegance.
White Gloves and Party Manners was my summer camp, and classical piano was my sport.
Whether or not those instructed graces took… I’d say the jury’s still out; and now that I’m a wife, mother of 3, lawyer, photographer, small-business owner and author, I’d say it depends on the day.
But mom was steadfast in the thank-you note requirement. She still is. She still calls to be sure I’ve remembered to thank her friend for the handmade baby blanket for my youngest son, or to be sure her neighbor knows how very much I appreciate her remembering all my children’s birthdays (and I do!). You can imagine the thank-you note discussions during our wedding festivities years ago… I was on top of it, as I had learned the cherished beauty of a crafted thank-you by then, but she was on top of me being on top of it. She even checks in to be
doubly triply positive that I have included a handwritten thank you (in my best handwriting, to be sure) to those who have so graciously granted to me a leg up in this professional journey to find a publisher.
I don’t mind. I don’t mind because weaving words of gratitude is the very grace that pulled my love for storytelling into writing. I am thankful.
So how did I get started writing? My mom insisted on thank-you notes, that’s how.
Mom with me, probably 1978.
From an early age, I learned not just to say “thank you,” but to explain why I appreciated the gift, the act, the time, the person. There is living fuel in the whys, the hows, the whens. It’s not a burden, it’s not boring, and it’s not something to cause an eye-roll while reluctantly adding a line to the ever-lengthening mom’s checklist. And it’s sometimes not even enough. It often prompts a future act of kindness repaid, or paid forward. It’s a connection sometimes lost on lives that spin too fast, lives centered on self, lives driven by media and little glowing screens that tell us what to do and how to do it and why to do it now. The gift, in all its forms, is the beginning of something, not a stand-alone moment in the universe. The fact that someone took the time to care enough to bless you in some way at all, is worth the best thank-you note you have in you at the time.
As each gift is different, so should each thank-you note be. And there is the birth of my search for magnificently, exquisite words. I began to find that in expressing thanks to my Italian aunt, I couldn’t help but tell her why she was so special. I wanted to put into words why my Friday afternoon hour with my piano teacher was my favorite part of the week. I just had to tell the parents of a childhood friend how dear that gorgeous, intricately designed silver platter was to me, as it would bring memories of our times together as I began to host my own parties as a young bride.
I have found fascinating the challenge to write beyond the mundane of the typical, “Thank you for the _____. It was really nice.”
A whole new world of wordsmithery was born to me, to mold a graceful sentence around thankfulness and truth. What brings about the magnificence of those exquisite words? It’s not me, by any means. It is the beauty in the people who have blessed me, who have showered me with treasures upon the occasions of birthdays and accomplishments, our wedding and our three babies. And beyond all things, so far beyond, the gifts of time, friendship and love are what I cherish most.
Back to those stories our children have to tell… encourage them. Put that pencil in their plump little hands, and help them get started. And then, watch in amazement. They are never too young to write a thank-you note. It’s not a competition in who can write it best, it just is best. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be. Help them. Prompt them to find the source of their thankfulness. Ask your daughter why she loves that book from her coolest aunt, or what your son’s favorite moment was on his trip to Grandma’s house… and ask why. In putting those thoughts to paper to the generous people in their lives, they are already telling their own stories, and they are writing from the source of Gratitude. They will never find themselves at a loss for words.
The fairytales will develop in the depths of their imaginations, and they will have the power of the scrivener’s craft to express them.
Gratitude in thank-you notes easily and naturally grows into an Attitude cut from the same cloth. An outlook of thankfulness will take one further in this life than our selfish tendencies could ever imagine. And in this crazy whirlwinded world in which we function and balance schedules and checkbooks, thankfulness will help uncover the balance we all really need.
Personally, I write because I love deep down in my soul to write, and I write out of appreciation for the blessings that God has laid before me. Now there’s a topic about which I could go on, for there is beauty and goodness to be found in every molecule of this Creation. That yarn weaves itself beyond all capabilities of even the loveliest of words.
“Butterfly on a Thistle,” Nikon D80, 2010, Percy Warner Park, Nashville, TN
-by Ashley Bramlett
This week, I received a treasure. The pre-K children at St. Paul Christian School in Nashville, sent me a thank-you note for our visit with Otis last month. This is no “Thank you for the ____,” note. This is a spiral-bound book of drawings and words and thoughts from the hearts of some truly wonderful whippersnappers, and their teachers!
“The Day Otis Went to St. Paul Christian Academy.”
“I liked Otis with his tie.”
“I liked seeing OTIS.”
Mary Margaret’s observant depiction of Robert and me and Ella and Otis.
There are so many more. And they all express the collective sentiment of thanks, each in its own, amazingly creative and unique way. St. Paul–you have a knack for instilling an Attitude of Gratitude in your students. I am so impressed, so blessed, and SO THANKFUL to have been a part of your school day. Most of all, I love the way you used your words, your imaginations and your hearts to tell me a story. That’s the very request I left with you: tell me your stories. You did! And in such a perfect way. I am thankful that you are part of mine.
It’s almost Mother’s Day. Go thank your mom. Look at your life… she did a lot right! Mom, thank you for making me thank others, for being sure I dug a little deeper than the blank in “Thank you for the ____.” Your intent in that social grace settled far deeper than the pleasantries of politeness. Whether I ever land with the perfect publisher, whether Otis Goes to School and all that goes with him ever makes a bestseller list, whether Random House, Harper Collins, Scholastic or any others of the like ever take notice, I am a writer. And I write from a source of gratitude that all began with a strawberry-haired, barefooted country girl with a pencil-pushing mama, waiting with a stamped envelope, the address of some generous soul in my life, and keys to the car to drive us five miles into town to the old white marble Post Office to mail my words of thanks. Here’s a case where “thank you,” really isn’t enough. What can I do… but write it forward.
Left to Right:
My Aunt Linda (French toast and lasagna chef extraordinaire), my mom, my grandma, my youngest son Preston, and me.
My Ella and oldest son, Paul Kent, in front.
Oh… and what gift was it that my appointed sister gave me for my 13th birthday sleepover party that I am sure to remember always…? Tickets to my first concert… Richard Marx… backstage passes included. I was sure he would take that photo op fan moment and sweep me away to join his band to sing and play the piano on his North American tour.
He did not.
But I’ll remember the fun of that night, the anticipation of what to wear, the excitement and suspense of my first concert, meeting a larger-than-life-at-the-time pop star (who stood quite memorably at a non-tall stature, much like this not-so-tall-myself girl) and that giddy photo op… forever. It’s a colorful thread in the yarns of my life’s story.
And I am thankful. Not perfectly thankful, not best-thank-you-note-writer-ever thankful, not always-next-day-note-writer, and I’m certainly not a judge of anyone else’s note-writing practices or styles. I’m just plain, whole-heartedly thankful, and I recognize that therein lies my foundation and love for the lilting rhythm of writing.
Who would have thought, “Dear Aunt Lilly and Uncle Corky…” would become Otis Goes to School…?