Book Review: The Story You Need to Tell

“After unearthing twenty-seven journals from dusty shelves and long-forgotten hiding places, I began reading them. I thought I would skim through them, a glass of red wine in hand, in two to three hours. Wrong. A week later I was still caught up in the thick of them. I learned how I opened up as a thinker. How I loved to read and explore books. I learned how some authors captivated me, while others tied me in knots. How writer Christine Baldwin taught me the value of keeping a journal for life. How I became a writer. How ideas intrigued me. How becoming a mother changed and fascinated me.”

I was hooked as soon as I read those words. As we’ve shared on this blog, Mary and I recently delved into our own journals and daybooks. Mary is still working her way through hers.

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I picked up Sandra Marinella’s The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal From Trauma, Illness, or Loss as research for my upcoming workshop, “Expressive Writing for Healing” offered in August at Hawkeye  community college in Cedar Falls, and in September at NICC in Dubuque.  As I’ve noted before, unlike my Mary & Me co-author, I really didn’t journal much until after my husband died, when I instinctively turned to writing to work my way through grief.

journalsIn fact, I couldn’t stop writing. I blogged, filled pages of my journal, wrote essays, letters to my friend Mary, and worked on several books, including what would become Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace

Knowing how much expressive writing had helped me, I began delving into the science behind it, reading books and articles by James W. Pennebaker, the man who was at the forefront of research on the connection between expressive writing and healing. I’ve written about Pennebaker many times, mentioning him in both my upcoming grief journal and my workshops, as well as previous blog postings.  While Marinella discusses his research in her book, she also frequently refers to her mentor, Christina Baldwin, author of Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives Through the Power and Practice of Storya book I immediately added to my Amazon cart. That’s what happens when I fall in the rabbit-hole of research; I invariably add to my to-read list. The topic of journaling doesn’t just apply to my workshops; I have a grief journal coming out in May, am including a chapter on expressive writing in my book on creativity, and will be utilizing journals for the GriefShare grief support group I facilitate at a local church and the Lifelong Learning creativity group I’m forming this fall at the library where I’m employed.

The writing prompts at the end of each chapter in The Story You Need to Tell are some of the best I’ve ever seen. I’ll be utilizing some of them in my monthly memoir group, where members often request a writing prompt assignment.

Sandra Marinella is an award-winning teacher and writer. After facing breast cancer in 2012, she turned her focus from teaching to writing as a way of healing, and began volunteering with veterans and cancer patients. Some patient’s stories, and their life transformations, are featured as examples in her book. Sandra founded the Story You Need to Tell Project at www.storyyoutell.com.

The author doesn’t shy away from telling her own stories, which makes this book all the more powerful. Can we really talk about expressive writing without sharing some of our own? One of the most touching chapters for me was the one on healing from loss. Marinella had some pretty intense conversations with her father while he was dying; discussing death, prayer, and faith. Since they shared a love of music, the author asked him to try and communicate with her through music after he died. He loved the idea.

“One day after we arrived home, my dad mouthed his last word to me, Mom. I promised to care for her. And she hobbled over to hold his hand. Two days after he made it home, my dad took his last breaths with his love, my mom, and his family gathered around him. In those moments he radiated serenity, a transcendent beauty. For long moments we stood in hushed awe around him. 

After he passed, we sang and prayed. My brother recited Psalm 23, and then we stood reverently by his side. And in that holy moment- Standing by my father and his soul- my head was filled with the joyful clanging of church bells.’Do you hear them?’ I asked my family.”

Book Review: Letter to My Daughter

Reviewed by Mary Jedlicka Humston

Maya Angelou.

I believe everyone in our country knows of this acclaimed poet/writer. Like me, many have probably read or at least heard of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. My friend Denise and I even had the good fortune to attend our local performing arts center years ago to hear Ms. Angelou speak and recite her oh-so-true-to-the-heart poetry.
So, how is it that I hadn’t heard of Letter to My Daughter?

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When I checked the publish date, I had my answer. 2008. The year I had stage 3 thyroid cancer surgery, treatments, and recovery. The year destructive flooding occurred not only in Iowa City (where I live) but in many parts of Iowa, destroying homes, businesses, and even University of Iowa buildings (including the performing arts center). It was a year where staying current with the literary world took a back seat to living the world around me.

However, finding this gem now was well worth the wait. Short essays fill Letter to My Daughter with a variety of Angelou’s deeply personal experiences to laughter to poetic reflection to memoir.
While Angelou never had a daughter, she writes as if readers belong to her family, thus pulling us right into the meat of her life.

I love her introduction.
“I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters. You are Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American and Aleut. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all.”

The chapters are short, headlined by such titles as “Violence,” “Accident, Coincident, or Answered Prayer,” “Reclaiming Southern Roots,” and “Salute to Old Lovers.” The length allows this book to be read for a few minutes, set down to digest, and then picked up again so the reader never loses momentum for the next slice of Angelou’s life.

In Letter to My Daughter, Angelou invites us into her vibrant, wise, and honest world. I highly recommend that you accept her invitation.

Book Review: Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

Review written by Mary Jedlicka Humston

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan, has a unique format. It is told entirely by the letters and diaries of five women and girls. That interesting aspect alone would appeal to both of us Marys, who are letter-writers-extraordinaire, but the multitudes of friendship stories Ryan weaves throughout the novel also draws us in.

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Middle-aged Mrs. Tilling writes in her journal. Letters from Miss Edwina Paltry to her sister Clara reveal an underbelly of deceit and plotting. Venetia Winthrop’s letters to Angela Quail show their growth from twittering flirts to mature young women. Young Silvie, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, keeps a minimal diary. And, then there’s impetuous and curious Kitty Winthrop who fills her diary with teenaged musings while trying to understand the changes war brings to her hometown.

“You need to find where you fit in this world, where you are happiest, where you can make a difference. And, don’t be afraid of change.” (pg. 364).

This comment from Kitty, 13, “almost 14” as she continually reminds everyone, becomes a basic theme of the novel. With the men of the community off to war, the vicar declares the church choir defunct. The women are concerned about losing their singing community until they realize they can create a choir themselves if they overcome the uncertainty of establishing such an unprecedented proposition.
Well, I don’t think we were doing very well at all until one spring day the new choirmistress arrived and got us singing again. She resurrected the choir, making it a women’s-only choir—the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. It seemed such an unthinkable idea at first, but then we won a competition and realized how much better we were, and how we could transform ourselves into a charity singing show, or anything we liked. Well, after that we all began looking around and realizing we could do a lot of things better by ourselves, or with the help of each other, and together we became stronger, better: A force to be reckoned with.” (Kitty, pg. 368).
The five ladies’ letters and diaries relate the stories about the choir and war life. They show how the entire community pulls together despite hardship, loneliness, death, challenge, and sadness.
I highly recommend this book. The reader will definitely be swept along by its riveting storyline.

Book Review: World Enough & Time

I picked up this book from an end table at my sister Joan’s house in Florida. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop, and she generously offered to let me take it home.

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The timing was perfect. World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen, was all about slowing down, something I’ve never been particularly good at.

This was the first real vacation I’ve ever taken. Any other traveling I’ve done has been for workshops, conferences, public speaking, or some other work-related trip. I’ve never traveled just for fun. I wasn’t sure I could ‘just be.’ A visit to the beach convinced me otherwise.

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Yes, I just sat and closed my eyes, listening to the sound of the ocean waves.

McEwan claims it is solitude, quiet, introspection, and slowing down that begets creativity, and while I understand the concept, there was very little time for any of that those many years while I was raising small children, yet I managed to create.

Even on vacation, I snuck in some writing time, staying up after everyone else one night to write an essay for the journal that will be published next spring. I also began three of the four mornings spent at my sister and brother-in-law’s house writing a letter to Mary, as a way to share my trip with her. McEwen would understand.

“I surrender to the pleasures of old-fashioned epistolary friendship: warmed by my friends’ kindness, their imagined company, even before I begin to write.”- Christian McEwen

She was, of course, talking about the pleasures of letter writing, something she often does on an airplane.

Other topics included in this book are obvious from chapter titles such as these: “The Art of Looking,” “In Praise of Walking,” “Learning to Pause,” and “Across the Bridge of Dreams.” (regarding the importance of getting enough sleep, something else I need to take to heart)

You can read more about the author on her website Christian McEwen, which coincidentally, includes a beach scene at the top of the webpage.

 

Book Review: Last Letter from Your Lover

Reviewed by Mary Jedlicka Humston

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I’ll admit from the start that I am a JoJo Moyes fan. I love her fast-paced, emotionally-engaging novels. Her characters and plots hold me long after I’ve read the last sentence. So, it’s no surprise I enjoyed The Last Letter from Your Lover.
If you’ve ever wondered about the importance of a handwritten letter, then this novel will prove how one letter (received or not received) changed lives.
Let me explain. Moyes takes you back in time to the early 1960s to main character Jennifer, the wife of rich Laurence, and to her lover “B.” Jennifer and “B’s” letters become even more intriguing when Jennifer suffers a head injury and can’t remember anything. And, I do mean anything.
The action moves to 2003 when Ellie, a young journalist, discovers one of “B’s” letters stuffed in an old box hidden away in her newspaper’s archived library. Ellie becomes intrigued enough to doggedly pursue the details.
I don’t want to give too much away, other than you’ll be turning pages long after you should’ve gone to bed. While I’m usually not too keen reading about infidelity and cheating spouses, the storyline takes you onto deeper issues of merit.
The author’s superb storytelling will make this one hard to put down. Enjoy.

Book Review: Twelve Days of Christmas in Iowa

book review by Mary Jedlicka Humston
                                              

The Twelve Days of Christmas in Iowa, written and illustrated by Sue F. Cornelison

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While visiting our two-year-old grandson Levi, I noticed this beautifully illustrated book. Immediately intrigued by the title, I thumbed through it and was rewarded by something both Marys love: letters! Yes, part of this book involves handwritten letters.
But first, as you would expect from the title, The Twelve Days of Christmas in Iowa does indeed follow the familiar holiday tune but substitutes “a goldfinch in an oak tree” for “a partridge in a pear tree.” It can be sung all the way through to “twelve mutton busters” instead of the traditional “twelve lords of leaping.”
You can read this book solely for the fun repetition of Iowa-themed verses to this familiar holiday song. However, an older child will enjoy the handwritten letters that accompany each day of Christmas.
Farm girl Ella writes the first full-page letter inviting her cousin Aiden to visit Iowa for the holidays. After Aiden arrives, the letters are then written by him to his parents detailing unique aspects of Iowa life. Think of hot air balloons in Indianola, a train ride on the Santa Express in Boone, or the Bridges of Madison County. Author Cornelison deftly weaves Iowa history and interesting state details into these letters.
So, on one level, this book is a holiday song. On another level, the song can be sung and the letters read to an older child. And, then to extend the interested age-groups of this book even further, an advanced reader will enjoy reading the letters as well as singing along.
Wouldn’t this be a lovely Christmas present for the Iowa children in your life? If you don’t live in Iowa, Google to see if your state has a Twelve Days of Christmas in….” Without spending too much time, I located several other states represented in this clever style, almost all with different authors.
I hope you and your family enjoy The Twelve Days of Christmas in Iowa. Then, after reading it, you’ll be privy to what “mutton busters” means.
Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!

New release in the Grief Diaries book series, Christmas Giveaway~

Update: mctag2015 was the winner of the new books. Please message Mary at marypotterkenyon@gmail.com with your name and address~ Thank you to all who entered.

Lynda Cheldelin Fell  lost her 15-year old daughter Aly in 2009. Fueled by a desire to help others through loss, she founded AlyBlue Media in 2013,launched Grief Diaries Radio in February 2014, and the National Grief & Hope convention in April 2015, which is where I met her.

When she began her Grief Diaries series of books last year, I knew I wanted to be a part of them. Filled with poignant firsthand accounts, each anthology serves as a portable support group.

My writing is featured in several of the books, including Grief Diaries: Loss of a Spouse and Grief Diaries: Hello From Heaven.    I’m a co-author of the newest book in the series, Grief Diaries: Poetry & Prose, released yesterday.

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I’m especially excited about this book because of its focus on utilizing expressive writing as a tool for healing. The pieces included were written by those who experienced a loss of some sort. Coincidently, at the same time we were completing this book, I’ve been working on a related project, a grief journal I signed a contract for in August. Lynda will be writing the foreword for the book I hope will be utilized as a healing tool. Clinical research reveals it isn’t the simple act of writing alone that promotes healing in the emotionally wounded. Instead, it is reflecting and searching for meaning in our experiences that helps us heal. James Pennebaker, Regents Centennial Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, is a pioneer in the study of using expressive writing as a route to healing. His research has shown that short-term focused writing can have a beneficial effect on anyone dealing with stress and trauma.

Reading about grief can help others in their own healing, and that is the concept behind the Grief Diaries. After my husband died, I devoured every book on the market that dealt with the loss of a spouse. It helped me to know that others had gone down the same path and not only survived, but thrived.

My friend, Dianna Vagianos Armentrout says much the same thing in her introduction:

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Many of Dianna’s poems are included in the book, along with poetry, blog entries, journal entries, and prose pieces from other authors. Here’s one of mine, written on my blog six years ago today:

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There is more to the entry, but you’ll have to pick up the book to read it. It’s uncanny  that the very first entry in my section of the book is dated six years and one day before this book’s release. Or that so much of what I am working into the journal fits into this book. In compiling quotes for the journal, I could then include my favorites in the Grief Diaries:

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Again, there are many more pages of uplifting and encouraging quotes included in Grief Diaries: Poetry & Prose.  I also utilized the resource section of my journal to help me compile a list of ten books that brought me hope in a dark time.

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Despite my lack of poetry prowess, I even managed to write some poetry myself. Any widow with children still at home will recognize the sentiment.

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To celebrate the launch of this newest title in the Grief Diaries series, I’m giving away two books from the Grief Diaries series: Grief Diaries: Poetry and Prose, and Grief Diaries: Hello From Heaven.

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To enter, just leave a comment below this post. I will randomly choose one name next Sunday, December 18.

 

 

Book Review: Use Your Words

Because writing has been such a big part of both of our lives, an entire chapter of our co-written  Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink  is devoted to the topic of combining motherhood and writing. My first check for a published piece came in January 1989, a month after my fourth baby was born. I’ve never looked back. I’ve been writing ever since, with brief breaks after each of my next four children were born. I started my blog Mary Potter Kenyon in June 2009 as a “Housewife Writer blog,” and I’ve been teaching writing classes and workshops at community colleges, libraries, and writer’s conferences since 2011.

One thing I’ve heard repeatedly during these classes is the question “How do you find the time?” or the comment “I’ll write when the kids are older.”

That’s when I pull out this picture my husband snapped of me at my typewriter in early 1994.

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Yes, I wrote my way through much of those years of raising a large family. I wrote my way through caring for my husband during his cancer treatment in 2006, I wrote my way through mourning my mother in 2010, my husband in 2012, and my grandson in 2013. Because I intimately know the saving grace of the writing craft, I want to help other women (and men) discover it too. That’s the impetus behind my current writing project, a grief journal, and an expressive writing workshop I’ve put together.

Because I have a passion for encouraging young mothers to write, I was thrilled to discover this wonderful book, Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, by Kate Hopper.

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Each chapter focuses on an element of the writing craft and includes published essays or poems from other women writers, along with writing exercises that serve as jumping-off points for the readers’ own writing. Use Your Words is a book for both beginning mother writers and more advanced writers who want to improve their writing ability as they process the gritty, mundane, humorous, and sometimes heartbreaking nature of motherhood.

When Hopper’s daughter was born prematurely, she withdrew from graduate school, where she was pursuing an MFA, to care for her daughter. Her baby was five months old when she escaped to a coffee shop and began writing what would eventually become her first book, Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood

“And for the first time since my daughter was born, the world felt a little bigger, and I felt a little less alone. Just getting those memories down on paper made me feel lighter. In the following weeks, I continued to write about Stella’s birth and hospitalization, and with each passing month, I felt healthier and more grounded; I was doing the only thing I knew how to do to make sense of what happened to me, to us- I was writing again.”

Yes. I know just what Hopper means. If you can’t take one of Hopper’s classes, offered online or at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, then the writing exercises after each chapter are sure to jump-start your writing.

You can read more about Kate Hopper HERE.

 

Book Review: Walking on Water

Madeleine L’Engle has long been one of my favorite authors, but not for the book her name is most associated with; A Wrinkle in Time. I was in my late 30’s when I read A Circle of Quiet, identifying with the writer who was also a mother, a woman who “escaped” the cacophony of a noisy household to burn garbage in the back yard. I often did the same. Like Madeleine on her 40th birthday, I was at a point in my life where I sometimes wondered if I was wasting my time by choosing to write every morning, when my husband worked so hard to pay bills and I wasn’t making any money with my writing, outside of the small checks I was getting for some freelance work  I did for a local newspaper. Mostly, I identified with her need to write. I couldn’t imagine a life without writing. I still can’t.

A few years later, I would pick up The Irrational Season. I read her Two-Part Invention during my husband David’s cancer treatment in 2006. I vividly remember sobbing on the couch as I read about her husband’s death. Two-Part Invention was one of the first books I read after David died in 2012. Glimpses of Grace and Reflections on a Writing Life, written with Carole Chase, are prominently displayed on a shelf in my bedroom.

And it was L’Engle’s Friends for the Journey, written with her dear friend Luci Shaw, that served as inspiration for our Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink. (NOTE: available for a special holiday price of just $6 through the publisher right now. Click on the title for more information)

Madeleine L’Engle’s words touched my heart and soul so deeply, I mentioned her several times in my book  Refined By Fire; A Journey of Grief and Grace. Her granddaughter Lena Roy, was kind enough to endorse it.

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For all these reasons, I was especially thrilled to get my hands on a new edition of Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art, by Madeleine, originally published in 1980, the year I gave birth to my first child. It was only when reading it, I realized Lena was the granddaughter of Madeleine’s that had been hit by a truck when she was a young child!

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On page 2, I was instantly enthralled, reading these words;

“I sit on my favourite rock, looking over the brook, to take time away from busyness, time to be. I’ve long since stopped feeling guilty about taking being time; it’s something we all need for our spiritual health, and often we don’t take enough of it.”

And this:

“And then there is the time in which to be, simply to be, that time in which God quietly tells us who we are and who he wants us to be. It is then that God can take out emptiness and fill it up with what he wants and drain away the business with which we inevitably get involved in the dailiness of human living.” (page 162)

I’ve so rarely allowed myself that special time of just being, particularly during those years of raising young children. There was no quiet in a house full of babies and toddlers, much less time to just sit and be.  Yet, despite a distinct lack of time, I wrote. Now, my youngest is eight years old, and while I enjoy more quiet, reflective time, I also have an office to go to every weekday.

I’m working on the manuscript for a grief journal that will include my short essays along with quotes from other authors who have walked down the path of grief, including L’Engle. I was slightly dismayed when I found myself admitting in one of the essays that I occasionally missed the slow paced days of those early months of grieving, and the quiet stillness of mornings when I didn’t have to be anywhere or go anyplace. I wrote my way through much of those mornings.

When I signed a contract for this journal, I was well aware that this would be the first book-length project I would be working on without the luxury of the morning writing hours I had counted on for more than 25 years. So I’ve learned to utilize my weekend mornings and snatched moments here and there, just like I did as a mother with young children. I’d sit on the lid of the toilet to write while toddlers splashed in the bathtub, pull over to the curb and write when an infant fell asleep in the car seat. As was true back then, I don’t have hours of uninterrupted time to write. I have to find the time.

“To work on a book is for me very much the same thing as to pray. Both involve discipline. If the artist works only when he feels like it, he’s not apt to build up much of a body of work. Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work and to go where it tells him to go. Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear.” (page 140)
L’Engle shares these words of Rilke’s from his “Letters to a Young Poet” that she’d jotted down in her journal:

“You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write; find out whether if is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all- ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: Must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and testimony to it.”

Must I write?

In this wonderful book, L’Engle says she would answer in the affirmative.

Just another thing L’Engle and I have in common. Me too.

NOTE: I am excited to report that Lena Roy and her sister, Charlotte, are working on a biography of their grandmother. Read more about that by clicking HERE.

Book Review: In Such Good Company

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I requested a review copy of Carol Burnett’s In Such Good Company, but it sure wasn’t this.

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Yes, the subtitle Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox should have clued me in that this book would be about the eleven year run of Carol’s show, but I still wasn’t prepared to read a blow-by-blow account of so many episodes.  While I do want to watch re-runs of the show I loved as a teen in the mid-70’s, this book was somewhat disappointing. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say Carol Burnett talked into a recorder about the “good old days” on her show, and someone transcribed everything she said onto paper.

That said, I did learn some interesting facts about some of my favorite actors that appeared on the show, including Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, and Vicki Lawrence.  There were moments when Carol’s wonderful sense of humor was evident, and that made this book well worth reading; a fun look back at a show that families could watch together for a good laugh.