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A Read Down Memory Lane: Lessons From Your Former Self


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Runaway notes, Mother Day's cards, stories written in elementary school, all of us wrote as children and as teens, sometimes in crayon, sometimes in blue books. And these works can hide for decades like time capsules, tucked away in boxes, all bedrooms, in attics and in journals. Tell us about a piece of writing you rediscovered from your childhood and what it told you about yourself. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Jim Sollisch joins us now from member station WCPN in Cleveland. He's a writer and creative director at Marcus Thomas advertising. Good to have you.

JIM SOLLISCH: Hey, Neal. Good to be here.

CONAN: And you wrote a piece for The New York Times' Opinionator blog. What did you find? Where did you find it?

SOLLISCH: Well, shortly after my mother died a few years ago, I was, you know, we were going through that process of sorting out all her stuff and kind of going through it. And my family it turns out in retrospect not to have been prolific photographer. So that kind of, I think, forced my mother to save all sorts of thank you notes, and report cards and book reports and notes I had written for her for Mother's Day, all that kind of stuff. So I was going through it, and I found a weird stack of notes I had written after my bar mitzvah when I was 13, notes I had written to her friends, thanking them. I distinctly remember putting them in envelopes and putting stamps on them. And here they were in my mother's pile and...

CONAN: Wait. You sent them to her friends who had attended your bar - how did they get back to her?

SOLLISCH: Well, that was the weird thing. So as I looked through the pile, I discovered little notes attached to my notes that said, Marcia(ph), I wanted you to see what a nice note your son Jimmy wrote me. And they wanted to kind of share that with her. So I figured, you know, they might be pretty good notes. I should read them. So I kind of read them, and what I found, you know, what hit me was the commitment of my 13-year-old self to kind of not phone it in. I mean, they weren't great pieces of writing, Neal. I got to tell you, but they - I really made an effort, I think, to be particular, and I kind of - it hit me, sitting there, that that's really what writing is. Half the battle is just saying to yourself, I'm going to be particular. I'm not going to phone it in. I'm going to tell an anecdote.

So, for example, someone got me the encyclopedia of Jewish sports heroes, which you might say, you really need an encyclopedia for that? But I actually got the book. And in writing the thank you note, I - it was kind of part book review. I let them know that I had actually read part of it and about a boxer. And so at any rate, I just think that - it struck me that there were some lessons in there and some clues as to why I may - became a writer later. So it's that book.

CONAN: So you did not take the approach of a dear Mrs. Smith, thank you very much for the nice gift. I will enjoy it. Yours truly, and then changing Smith to Jones and Brown and so on down the line.

SOLLISCH: Right. I didn't do the cut-and-paste thing. You know, I was not trying to be efficient. Lord knows, there are other things I was being very efficient at and phoning in like most of the rest of the school. But apparently, I had some seed at this sort of desire to write in a particular kind of way.

CONAN: Did you think of yourself at that time as a writer?

SOLLISCH: I did not. I thought of myself - well, I was a jock, Neal, after all, I wanted the encyclopedia of Jewish sports heroes.

CONAN: Jewish sports, yeah.

SOLLISCH: And I was a basketball player, but...

CONAN: You're going to be - you thought you're going to be the next Hank Greenberg?

SOLLISCH: No, no. But one of the things I found in there that I didn't put in the essay at all - I'll tell you the story if I can, Neal. I'll keep it kind of short. But I found a speech I'd given in ninth grade, and it was typed on my mother's typewriter. And somehow, I'd gotten myself elected president of my ninth grade class. My friends must have voted a bunch of times because I was not sort of the class president type. But what was cool was that you got to give a speech at graduation, and so I was excited about that. I channeled my inner Martin Luther King and I wrote this really passionate speech and the deal was you had to review it with the principal a couple of days before graduation. So I go in and I kind of give it my best read, and she does not like the speech.


SOLLISCH: Apparently it is too - it's not uplifting enough. And she said, you know, we have kind of a format here. You know, you have to thank a teacher in particular and then the whole teacher and say something to the student body and - so I argued with her and, you know, I lost the argument. So I rewrote the speech. She said you got to rewrite the speech. So I rewrote the speech, came in the next day, read it to her. It was kind of what she wanted. She liked it. And on graduation day I took the podium and I read the original speech.

CONAN: Ooh. A rebel even then.

SOLLISCH: I guess I had that in me. So it was weird 'cause I found the speech, and it reminded me of this whole story. I could see myself in the room with her and see myself on the podium. It was really weird. The speech was about not becoming apathetic as we become adults 'cause adults seem to be apathetic. And I mentioned the Kitty Genovese thing. It was really weird. I was 14. I don't know...

CONAN: That's the young woman in Queens who was murdered in front of a large number of witnesses who did not intervene.

SOLLISCH: Right. I probably learned about that in social studies or something and I was taken with it. So the speech went over well, I think, you know, not really with the principal. And so I found it in my mother's pile, and it told me that she cared about that, you know, because she took a little heat. You know, she knew the principal and, you know, the principal had some words with her. But I thought she saved that. That kind of meant something to her. And I was also struck at how kind of without fear I was as a 14-year-old, you know?

Adults are always worried, don't burn a bridge, follow this convention. I didn't seem to care. You know, I thought, who - I won't need that principal later. And I kind of wish, you know, sometimes I wish I had more of that in me now, you know? We become adults and we do care about some of those things. So it was a very revealing thing to find.

CONAN: We're talking with writer Jim Sollisch about what he discovered about his younger self in messages from his younger self in the form of thank you notes, and he's just talking about a graduation speech that he gave as the ninth grade class president. What piece of writing did you uncover from your past - from your childhood or young adulthood that told you something about yourself? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Chris is on the line with us, calling from Tulsa.

CHRIS: Hi. I guess my story is a little bit different. My mother had always requested when I was growing up, starting in early teenage years, for a letter kind of explaining my - what my previous year was like. She's been collecting these for a number of years. And I remember, I think when I was in my mid-20s, I went home for Christmas, and she brought out this collection. And so I started reading through them, and there's one of them that I remember really struck me about was is some details about a - one of my first college roommates that committed suicide.

And so, you know, it was very - it brought back a lot of deep emotions for me and memories. And so, you know, since then it's been another decade since that point, and every year I still try and get the letters to her. She keeps asking me if I would like to reread them, but it's - I'm kind of interested in, you know, waiting, you know, a certain period of time before I reread them to see who I was, where I was at and how I have progressed through the years.

CONAN: And as you think about the emotions from that time, in a way they've been put aside and re-awakened by these letters.

CHRIS: Yeah. And that's also one of the reasons why I have put off re-reading some of them is because there are very, very strong memories and emotions that do come up when I read them. And so I don't like to relive those accounts very often.

CONAN: Chris, thank you very much for sharing that. That's not an easy story. Appreciate it.

SOLLISCH: I was wondering if his mother was an English teacher. I mean, that's quite an assignment. It's interesting.

CONAN: Interesting, yes. So let's see if we'd go next to Deirdre, Deirdre with us from Atlanta.

DEIRDRE: Hi. When I was, I guess, about 12 or 13, I sent my mother a postcard from a neighboring state, pretending that I was in France. I had embellished the story about how I had flown the Concorde and I mean all of these crazy stuff. Now, mind you, I was raised in Montgomery, Alabama, lower middle class to poor. Nobody in my family had ever traveled or had any desire to travel. I turned 44 last week. And in the time since I wrote that postcard, I've lived in Japan, Sweden, Great Britain, and I married a man from Central Africa. So in so many ways it's as though I knew then what I wanted my life to be like.

CONAN: Did you make it on to the Concorde before it was retired?

DEIRDRE: Never. I did not.

CONAN: Oh, that's too bad.


CONAN: But in a sense, it is an indication of who you were going to be.

DEIRDRE: Exactly. But the strange thing was, again, no one in my life had had those experiences, had any desire to go to any of those places. I can't explain to you how I became the person that I became or why.

CONAN: Well, it's not always an easy explanation. Jim Sollisch, were there any other writers in your family?

SOLLISCH: Not really, no. No, there weren't.

CONAN: So there was no pathway obvious to you.

SOLLISCH: No. No, there wasn't, actually. But, you know, I was thinking about this whole visual thing, you know, we've become even more visual than ever. And most of the keepsakes that people have, most scrapbooks are just filled with pictures. It's really just a snapshot of a time and place and your body. But when you uncover this writing, you know, like the last caller with the postcard, it just - it's a moment in your head, you know, in your emotional life. It's really something.

CONAN: Deirdre, thanks very much for the call. And maybe they'll bring the Concorde out of retirement.

DEIRDRE: I hope so. Take care.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Here are some tweets that we've received from Tanya Ballard Brown: When I was a kid, I wrote a letter to Michael Jackson saying I would marry him and be a star too. Obviously that didn't work out. Rebecca Shore(ph) wrote: My childhood writing shows absolutely no indication that I'd grow up to be a writer. However, it does show how comforting the process is. That's interesting, 'cause Jim Sollisch, you wrote in your piece in The Times Opinionator that clearly, even as a kid, you were obeying some of the rules that you try to observe now as a professional.

SOLLISCH: Yeah. I mean, you know, the first rule I kind of talk about was is not repeating yourself, you know, really finding something original, say, even if you have to knock your head against the wall a little bit. You know, revision - even now, if I write a thank you note to somebody, I write it on my laptop, I revise it three or four times, and then I hand - I copy it over by hand onto a card if I want it to be handwritten.

So I think the writing process for some people is somewhat laborious, but there is kind of a joy in that craft of finding out what you can really say and trying to say it better. So, you know, that's sort of how I've approached it.

CONAN: We're talking with Jim Sollisch from WCPN, our member station in Cleveland. He is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising, and he wrote "The Art of Repetition" for The New York Times Opinionator blog. You can find a link to that piece at our website. Go to npr.org., and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we go to Ellie(ph). Ellie is with us from Los Gatos in California.

ELLIE: Oh, hi.


ELLIE: When I was in eighth grade, my eighth grade English teacher had us write copy for advertising and apparently she kept it. I never remembered getting it back.

And on my 30th high school reunion I went back, and there was my eight grade English teacher handing out our copy that we had written. And I thought it was so ironic because when I lived in New York in my 20s and I worked for Benton and Bowles in television commercials, they wanted me to become a copywriter. And so they put me in an office, and I sat in front of the typewriter, and I couldn't think of anything to write about.


ELLIE: And so I never became a copywriter. And then when I saw how clever I was in eighth grade, I thought, well, it just wasn't meant to be.

CONAN: What did you write in eighth grade? Do you remember?

ELLIE: Oh, it was some copy for some soap or other. But when I worked at Benton and Bowles in television commercials, we did Maxwell House coffee and created (hums) and then we worked for - and then we had Johnson's Wax and had Gaines Meal. And Gaines Meal - our announcer's name was Rex, Rex Marshall.


CONAN: Well, Jim Sollisch, you're a professional in that business. It's harder than we think it is.

SOLLISCH: Aldous Huxley said something famous about it's harder to write a good ad than a good sonnet. And I don't know. It's not an art, you know. We're obviously selling things; it's a bit of a craft. But, yeah, it's not the easiest thing. You know, sometimes you get on an account and you do the same assignment over and over again for 10 years.

You know, I worked - I was copywriter on the lottery account and basically it's an exercise in - hey, you could be the next winner. You know, how do you say that in a different way and create a commercial that doesn't repeat itself and doesn't do the same thing every other of the 50 lotteries around the country are doing? So it is kind of - yeah, it's not the blank page that is scary. It's all the things you can't say because you've already said them.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Ellie.

ELLIE: Mm-hmm. Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's a couple of interesting ones, this an email from Crystal: I wrote my mom thank you notes for good motherly things she never did. This led to me becoming the mother she never was.

And this from Patricia: I found a journal entry about a time I severely disappointed my mother by not helping around the house shortly after she'd been diagnosed with a degenerative neurological condition. I learned that I was a pretty typically clueless teenager; probably also sheds light on my ultimate career choice - pastor.

That's interesting too. Let's see if we go to Heather. And Heather is with us from Oskaloosa in Iowa.

HEATHER: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.

HEATHER: Well - oh, sure. Let's see. It's about 20 years now, but I was a senior in high school and our English teacher made us compose a list of 30 goals we wanted to reach. I can't remember if there was an age or by the time we passed on or whatever...

CONAN: A bucket list, yeah.

HEATHER: Right, right. And then she emailed that to us - not email. I'm sorry, this is 20 years ago. She mailed it to us and it got lost in things around my house for years and years.

And I discovered it about a year ago or so, and so - and I just - I laughed and I laughed. It was some funny stuff. I mean, some of the things on there were - was never going to happen. I mean I wanted to meet this actor, and I wanted to meet that actor, and I wanted to climb Mount Everest.

I mean this goes to show that, you know, at that point in my life I was only living a few minutes for each, you know, just in front of what was going on. But there were some other cool things on there. I mean, I wanted to travel to different countries and learn to play a musical instrument. I mean things I could still do, you know, goals that I could still have now.

CONAN: If you're not over 80, you can still climb Mount Everest. The 80-year-old just made it up there.

HEATHER: That is true, that is true. Yeah. I could - I could still put it on my bucket list, right.


CONAN: OK. What actor did you want to meet? Come on.

HEATHER: OK. OK. Well, all right, OK. I wanted to meet Jean-Claude Van Damme.

CONAN: The Muscles from Brussels.

SOLLISCH: Yes, yes. And also Christian Slater.

CONAN: Well...


CONAN: Clearly, acting ability was not high on your list?

HEATHER: No. No, I didn't care about that, no...


CONAN: Heather, work on your mountaineering.

HEATHER: I will, I will. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Here's another one. Let's end with this email from Denise: I have journals from when I was about 13 or 14. I was praying about my inability to concentrate or stick to projects till they were finished. When I went to college at 19, I was diagnosed with ADHD. I was very relieved to get an answer, but sometimes I still struggle.

And that's probably true of all of us, Jim Sollisch, whether we're trying to come up with another angle on the lottery campaign or writing a radio program every day. Thanks very much for being with us.

SOLLISCH: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Jim Sollisch joined us from WCPN in Cleveland. His piece, "The Art of Repetition," ran in The New York Times Opinionator blog. Again, there's a link to it on our website. Go to npr.org., click on TALK OF THE NATION. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ira Flatow is here with SCIENCE FRIDAY tomorrow. We'll see you again on Monday. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.