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Why Keep a Personal Journal?

Melinda FergusonHave you ever wanted to keep a journal but didn’t know how to begin? Perhaps you’ve asked yourself, “Why should I believe for a minute I have anything at all interesting to say?” Have you ever abandoned a journal out of boredom or dismissed personal writing as a waste of time?

More than sixteen million blank journals are sold annually in stores and on the internet.* As technology threatens to replace traditional forms of communication, there appears to be an opposite impulse to slow down and talk to ourselves. Here’s the catch: While vast numbers of blank books are purchased, few are ever fully used. Would-be journal writers often give up before realizing journaling’s many benefits.

There’s good science from psychologists and medical clinicians claiming personal writing improves your health. Physically, the act of simply sitting down in comfortable surroundings, picking up a pen, and writing your thoughts and feelings almost immediately lowers your blood pressure, reduces your heart rate, and increases the production of T-cells that pump up your body’s immunity system.Writing helps keep your mind sharp by expanding your observational skills and memory. As a spiritual practice, writing strengthens your faith. Professional writers and artists have long used journals to develop ideas, break through writer’s block, and practice their craft. In your journal, you are likely to discover a never-before recognized source of creativity within yourself.

How Journal Writing has Helped Me: A Short List

  1. Increased my reverence and gratitude for my life and Life
  2. Helped me identify what I need to be happy
  3. Provided a safe place to unlock and understand my feelings, explore my emotional life, and recognize my moods and what caused them
  4. Helped me appreciate my childhood
  5. Led me to realize that I am a creative and imaginative person
  6. Boosted my critical thinking and writing skills
  7. Enhanced my self-confidence and given me a greater sense of peace
  8. Brought me to a place closer to self-acceptance and serenity

Journal writing is a path to inner peace. As a consequence, I believe I have brought a little peace into the lives of my family, friends, and colleagues.  Perhaps this is too much of a stretch, but imagine: If, as the title of physicist Conrad Lorenz’s paper on chaos theory suggests, the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil might set off a tornado in Texas, isn’t it possible that one person’s journal writing might contribute to world peace? Isn’t it a joy to think so?

 

*Estimates compiled from Leaving a Trace, The Art of transforming a Life into Stories by Alexandra Johnson. Little, Brown and Company, 2001.           


ABOUT MELINDA: Melinda L. Ferguson grew up in Lima, Ohio, graduated from Miami University, and moved to New York City to earn and MA from Columbia University before embarking on a career in Manhattan as an editor for major book companies. After her family moved to Long Island, Ferguson taught English classes at Suffolk County Community College, English as a Second Language at the Smithtown Adult Education Program and facilitated memoir writing workshops at community libraries. In 2016, Melinda received an MA degree in Creative Writing & Literature from Stony Brook/Southampton University. Melinda moved to Charlotte in 2016 to be near family.

Recollecting Ourselves

Elizabeth West

As a writer, I discover so many things that evoke emotions.  This summer, I was doing a COVID cleanout and found a treasure trove.  My mother had saved all of my letters I sent to her when I was 20 and went to London.  I spent the next couple of hours reacquainting with my 20-year-old self.  Only I could read between the lines in those letters and know the true story behind all of those forgotten words.

So many of our memories are intangible, but artifacts – like the letters – are real accounts of times gone by.  We are able to interact with these words, feelings and observations in real time. We can also find meaning in other non-literary items.

As I look around my kitchen, I find several artifacts of my life. The loaf pan, the “fancy” measuring spoons, the never-used espresso set…. These inanimate objects speak to me in ways that no one else can hear.

As a writer of creative nonfiction, I am fascinated by the power of everyday things. I can even look at a homemade Christmas ornament and be transported back to that central New York classroom in the 1980’s when I made it for my family. Here is an excerpt from a story I wrote about our Christmas trees growing up – yes, I said trees – we had two. One was the family’s tree and the other was Mom’s:

Mom’s tree was different. It had a theme – either silver or blue – and had beautiful ornaments. Although I viewed it as impersonal and a little too fancy, I get it now. This was Mom’s tree. All Mom’s. And she could do whatever the hell she wanted with it. This resonates with me so much this Christmas, as I am now a mom and missing my mom who we lost in 2016. If I could have her back now, I would gladly give her whatever kind of tree she’d like.

Christmas is different since she left us. Sometimes, I stare at our tree, and it reminds me of all we have lost. It brings up searing feelings of loneliness and grief. However, two things have brought me out of my haze. Obviously, the kids do not let me brood for long. However, this year, an article made me remember what the Christmas season is all about.

Invite them in – despite the recipe you burned, no matter the dirty house or sink full of dishes. No one will remember these things. All of these imperfections make a home. The love and kindness will be the souvenirs.

Gather up your things and write about them. Share your stories! We need to hear them.


ABOUT ELIZABETH: Elizabeth Adinolfi West is Associate Professor of English at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. She is also faculty advisor to the student creative writing organization, SWAG. Elizabeth published an essay about her son in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hopes and Miracles. She writes a weekly blog entitled “Turning Arrows into Flowers” at elizabethwest.com.


GET INSPIRED WITH ELIZABETH: Join Elizabeth for Recollecting Ourselves: Using Artifacts to Guide Your Writing on December 9th, from 6-8 PM in person at Charlotte Lit. Discuss finding artifacts from the past and get some guidance on how to create artifacts to fuel your writing. These artifacts can serve as inspiration for poetry, fiction, or creative non-fiction (memoir). See how much fun it can be reacquainting yourself with the past or planting seeds for future writers through the magic of artifacts. More information is here.

Recommended Memoirs for Book Clubs

There are times I’m suddenly aware that I’m not as well-rounded a reader as I’d wish. The curation of this list was one of those moments. I read the way I do most things––intuitively and deeply. I’m a poet, so my memoir preferences lean toward beautiful writing as much as to dramatic storytelling. I’m a student and teacher of depth psychology, so a memoirist’s ability to reflect upon the inner journey is just as important to me as funny anecdotes about crazy relatives. I’m a feminist, which leads me more often, though not exclusively, to women’s stories.

As a writer, I also adore craft books, which is why I’ve included one by Mary Karr. I promise, it’s as much fun as her first memoir. And, if you aren’t yet a writer, by the time you finish The Art of Memoir, you’ll be ready to pick up a pen.

Composed: A Memoir by Rosanne Cash

Not your typical celebrity tell-all. Sure, there’s enough industry-insider intrigue to keep fans of Rosanne Cash and Johnny Cash turning pages. But Rosanne is a sage, often lyrical, writer. Hers is a story of the ties that bind her to her family, her music, and her soul. 

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Didion became famous for pioneering a form of writing that seamlessly marries journalism and personal essay. She is a keen observer of the tense relationship between the outer world and inner experience, nowhere more so than in this acclaimed account of the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death. 

Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

Delightful, and delightfully short, this genre-defying collection of personal reflections marries the best things about poetry (intensity of compression) and memoir (radical, sometimes raw truth-telling). Plus, Fennelly’s observations about marriage, children, and the writing life can be uproariously funny. Fennelly currently serves as Poet Laureate of Mississippi.

There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald

I fell in love with Casey Gerald when I heard him speak at last year’s library fundraiser, Verse & Vino. His wasn’t the only book I bought that night (no surprise there), but it’s the one that keeps me thinking. He writes in breathtaking detail and with lots of good humor about his dramatic and impoverished upbringing, the searing pain of surviving adolescence as both black and gay, and becoming a man within a duplicitous society that both promotes and limits him in his journey into adulthood.  

I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory by Patricia Hampl

This memoir is a beautifully written exercise in the art of discovery. Though it’s not a craft book, Hampl consciously demonstrates the means through which she reflects on her inner and outer life experience, explores the misty landscapes of memory, and explains what most memoirists are only vaguely aware of—the reason for writing one at all.

Crazy Brave: A Memoir by Joy Harjo

Harjo was named U.S. Poet Laureate this past June. Yes, this memoir is written in prose—gorgeous, lyrical, mythic prose. After you’ve read it, you’ll likely want to read her poems, too. And, afterwards, you’ll want to find recordings of her music. And, after that, you’ll want to meet her, which you can do next April when Harjo visits Charlotte to headline CPCC’s Sensoria festival and (lucky us!) teach at Charlotte Lit.

Memories, Dreams, Reflections by C. G. Jung

As I admitted in the introduction, I’m a Jungian, so there’s no way I could leave this classic off my list. Yes, it’s one of the more difficult books (and perhaps the strangest) on the list. But readers will be rewarded for their efforts with fresh understanding about the roots of modern psychology and an experience of its founder’s rich imagination. MDR, as it’s known, is a classic—deservedly so.

The Liar’s Club and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Yes, these are two separate books. I’m fighting against the limits of the list. Besides, my hunch is that avid readers have already come across Karr’s famous first memoir, The Liar’s Club. If not, read it before any of these others. Then sometime in the middle of your reading year, take up Karr’s equally compelling craft book, The Art of Memoir. Even if it doesn’t make you want to take up your pen, it will make you a better reader.

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine by Sue Monk Kidd

Kidd is known for her best-selling novel, The Secret Life of Bees. This is an altogether different kind of book—part memoir, part study of feminist spirituality. Kidd weaves the two threads seamlessly, not only finding her voice in the process but helping readers do the same. As she writes, “The hardest thing about writing is telling the truth. Maybe it’s the hardest thing about being a woman, too.”

Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith

This memoir is also written by a U.S. Poet Laureate. Smith served in the role from 2017-2019. By now, you might be wondering about the relationship between poetry and memoir. All I can say is that the best memoir writers have a style of consciousness, a tendency for and pattern of reflection, that is poetic in essence. And no one does this more lyrically or powerfully than Smith.

Since many book groups meet every month of the year, I’m throwing in a few more titles to choose from. These books are no kind of runners up; I just ran out of room!

  • Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
  • Bluets by Maggie Nelson (another slender micro-memoir volume)
  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Tips for a Better Book Club

Review: Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling

Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs
Beth Ann Fennelly

W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN 978-0-393-60947-9
111 pages | Memoir | $22.95

Short forms are all the rage, lately, with the profusion of prose poems and flash fiction staking (small) claims on the pages of literary journals. Add to this genre-fluidity the “micro-memoir,” another short form employed virtuosically by Beth Ann Fennelly in her new collection Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs. These pieces range from a sentence or two, to several pages in length. Many are lighthearted. Some are lists. A few are prose poems in spirit: see “A Reckoning of Kisses” and, especially, “I Was Not Going to Be Your Typical.” This is not a bad thing. Fennelly is staking a claim here by writing however she damn well pleases.

A poet by trade, Fennelly serves as the poet laureate of Mississippi, but she’s also written fiction along with her husband, the novelist, Tom Franklin. The narrative slant of even the briefest of these micro-memoirs sends their stories reverberating further than their words. For instance, take this economical recounting of life among the long married, part of a series that runs throughout the book:

Married Love, II

There will come a day—let it be many years from now—when our kids realize no married couple ever needed to retreat at high noon behind the locked bedroom door to discuss taxes.

A rare honesty and self-deprecation weaves through these pages, often with humorous results. No spoilers here, but don’t miss the fun of “Why I’m So Well Read” and “One Doesn’t Always Wish to Converse on Airplanes,” the latter an oddball encounter just weird enough to ring true. Pull up a chair, Fennelly seems to offer, have I got one for you.

Her truth telling lands solid punches, too, when addressing more serious territory. Those who have had difficult relationships with aging parents will relate to her recounting of time spent with her father, in particular “Sweet Nothing.” The sudden loss of her sister, as detailed in “Grief Vacation” is heartwrenching. Quiet fury rages through “Goner.” At three pages, one of the longest memoirs in the book, it grapples with sexual abuse in Fennelly’s childhood church. She’s left the church, but it hasn’t left her. Catholicism’s ritual and language are a recurring theme.

As ever, Fennelly writes about motherhood with beautiful ferocity (notably in her 2004 poetry collection Tender Hooks). She returns to the subject here, refracting it through its complexity in the bold “What I Think About When Someone Uses ‘Pussy’ As A Synonym For ‘Weak,’” and this humorous piece:

When They Grow Up

My oldest child will hate me because I wrote an entire book about her. My middle child will hate me because I wrote hardly a word about him. But the baby; ah, the baby. When I write about him, I call it fiction, and I’m always sure to mention he has a big penis.

In midlife many of us have lost people we love and those we don’t. Children, if we have them,  are growing or grown. We’ve lusted, and loved, and occasionally regretted it. Those who’ve not gotten there yet will appreciate Fennelly’s take on what’s to come. Heating & Cooling is an economical accounting of midlife that works by illuminating points on this timeline brightly enough to let the reader stitch together the whole.


We are thrilled to welcome Beth Ann Fennelly to Charlotte Lit December 1 and 2. 

Fennelly, the Poet Laureate of Mississippi, is the featured poet on our upcoming 4X4CLT Series 2 Number 4 posters. December 1, she’ll read from and discuss her work at our poster release party, at Resident Culture Brewing Company, 7 to 9 pm. Park Road Books will be on hand with Fennelly’s books for sale.

If you’d like to try your hand at the micro-memoir form, Fennelly teaches a master class at Charlotte Lit the following day, December 2, from 10 am to 1 pm. Spaces are filling quickly for “Build Me a Hummingbird of Words: Tiny Texts.” Register at charlottelit.org/workshops.


Credits: Photo of Beth Ann Fennelly by Jon Cancelino