A couple of nights ago I needed something new to read before bed, so I picked up an old favorite, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. Though it’s a young adult book, it is one of the most beautifully written stories that I’ve read, and the author’s mastery is further evident by the book’s brevity. I wanted to reread it for two reasons: to once again taste Paterson’s transporting descriptions and careful plot revelation, and to have a good cry. I wasn’t disappointed. As I read the last pages while eating a late lunch in my backyard today, I sobbed freely, with snot and tears and everything.

And that wasn’t my only cry time today. Earlier, on my drive into work, it was a country song on the radio that set me off. I’d never heard it before and the lyrics snuck up on me. Next thing I knew I had a lump in my throat, my eyes were welling up, and a sad rattling sigh escaped my lips. I had to turn off the radio mid song else completely lose my composure as I turned into the company parking lot. My relief from the song was short-lived though, as it played again on my drive home and this time I listened to the whole thing, and cried some more. I guess it was just meant to be one of those days, one for cleansing tears.

But all this crying made me wonder… why do we seek out art that dissolves us into salty puddles of emotion? Is it a way of preparing ourselves for the intense emotions that accompany tragedy? And why do we create art with the intent to draw out those emotions? I’m not quite sure, except that perhaps we need to remind ourselves that we can feel… simply that we can feel.

And isn’t it magical that a book, an inanimate object by all accounts, can bring us to tears? A song at least is being communicated by another person who conveys emotion with their tone, inflection, and sometimes even a crack in their voice. But a book only has words printed on a page, black and white symbols representing ideas passively and with room for interpretation. While some readers may not be swayed to tears by the same material as I, I really feel that is something to be in awe of that art can do that to us, that we as humans can relate to a fictional character enough that we are emotionally affected.

I’ll never forget my first memory of this experience, and it wasn’t my tears that fell but those of my first grade teacher, Mrs. Morinaga. She was reading aloud to the class a story about a boy in a dog sledding race (from some quick research, I think it was probably Dog Runner by Don H. Meredith). The boy needed the prize money for his family and against all odds he was actually leading. But just as he neared the finish line, his favorite dog died (her “heart burst,” I can remember that from the first grade). My teacher was sobbing, tears running in rivers down her face as she continued to read to us. I remember getting up and going to the back of the room to get her a paper towel (I was such a teacher’s pet). I remember the end of the story too, that as the boy mourned the loss of his dog and berated himself for pushing her too hard, his competitors caught up to him: one man in particular who was favored to win. The man, instead of going for the blue ribbon and the prize money, stopped and left his sled, picked up the body of the dog, and walked the boy across the finish line.

That’s why I want to be a writer. I want to weave a story that packs enough punch that a first grader will remember it for the rest of her life.

By the way, this is the song (don’t play unless you’ve got tissues handy):