I just got finished watching “A Thousand Words,” a movie featuring Eddie Murphy. The story is about a book agent who develops a psychic connection to a mysterious tree. He discovers that for every word that he says–or even writes–a leaf falls from the tree. He determines–with the help of a holy man–that when the tree loses all of his leaves, the tree–and he–will die.
On the surface, the film is about how casually we use and misuse words. That has a lot to say about us as writers. When you think about it, we each only have a limited number of days available to us–regardless of how long we live–and we only have a limited number of words that we can share. I thought about this recently after pouring five years of effort into one of my projects. If it were the last book or set of books I were to write, if it were my legacy, what would I want it to say? What level of quality would I want it to be?
But on a deeper level, I think the film is about the time we spend on this earth. If each leaf represented a day in our life, how would we spend them? I think back on when I was 19 years old and a college student in Austria. I visited a giant science museum in Munich and made a friend there. We were working our way through a hall full of display cases each fashioned with a button. When you pushed the button, a level would move or a pulley would turn or a gear would do something. There were 40 or 50 of these display cases in a row, and row after row of display cases. We went from case to case to case. After about an hour of this, we stopped and laughed at ourselves, because we realized that we were pushing the buttons without even looking to see what was happening in the case.
That’s the way we go through our lives sometimes. We go through the motions, pushing the right buttons, without thinking about the implications. We do the minimum to get through the day. How would that change if we knew that today–or tomorrow–was our last day of life?
Another incident I think of happened in 2006. My mother was dying of leukemia. It was right before the school year was scheduled to start, and I took a week to go out and see her in California. At the end of the week, I had to get back to school, so I caught a plane back to Texas. I had a layover of a couple of hours in Salt Lake City, so I took the opportunity to call Mom. I talked to her briefly, but the connection was bad, so I cut the call short, telling her I would call when I got to Texas. I arrived at DFW late that night, and thought it was too late to call. The next morning, I called California to talk to Mom. But that night after my phone call from Salt Lake, she had slipped into a coma and died. The poor connection I had in Salt Lake City was the last connection I had to my mother.
There’s one point in the movie where a child version of Eddie Murphy says, “What if we knew that the words we say to someone are the last words we would ever say?” And that’s a good thought to ponder, both as a writer, and as someone just interested in leaving something positive behind.