Category Archives: Personal Writing

Weighing the Books


By Chrissine Rios, MA, Kaplan University Writing Center

My home office-by-day/studio-at-heart is one of my favorite places for many reasons, and about 200 of them are books.

My Bookcase Before

My Bookcase Before

Some have literally saved my life; others have just stuck to my bones.  Each shelf holds a genre, and each genre holds a part of my story.  On my shelf of children’s classics, for instance, I have The Little Prince.  It was my mom’s when she was a girl, and folded inside is the book report I wrote on it in 7th grade; I can still remember crumpling up the rough drafts of lined paper, and there was a dozen.  Back then good writing had a lot to do with good hand writing, I thought, and I wanted mine to be good.

The Little Prince Book Report

The Little Prince Book Report

Another special shelf holds my reference books including Simon and Schuster’s International Dictionary: English/Spanish, Spanish/English, a 1,597-page hardcover that weighs a ton and a half.  I majored in Spanish in college, studied for a semester at the Universidad Veritas in Costa Rica, and for a year at the University of Puerto Rico—I still have my Antología de Textos Literarios from UPR and a soulful collection of postcolonial literature by Caribbean authors.  I bought the big dictionary when I was waist deep in Spanish classes.  I needed it for survival.  And in the eight times I’ve moved since finishing college, I’ve had to decide if I would again pack it up and take it with me, even though the only times I’ve cracked it open have been almost exactly those same eight times I moved, just to weigh my need for it.

I also have a paperback English/Spanish dictionary, a thick book as well but with the same words and not big and heavy.  And when I opened that one to weigh its importance, my initial thought was I don’t need this one if I keep the big one, but then I saw my mom’s name printed inside the cover and remembered how she kept up with her Spanish all those years I was studying it.  So my decision was made: The mammoth dictionary would go to Goodwill, and my mom’s paperback would stick with me.

In a blogging course I took a few years ago, a woman in my breakout group said she gave all of her books away, all of them.  She could no longer look at the stack looming on her nightstand.  She said she reads e-books now—no clutter, no guilt.  And she loves books.  She was finishing her now published novel at the time, which I read, reviewed, and gifted to my mother.  I loved it.  My shelves may be full and my nightstand too, but I have a living library.  Books come and go.  I don’t keep all I read or even read all I keep.  But there’s no way I could let go of my copy of Running with Scissors that Augusten Burroughs signed for me after his talk at the Florida Suncoast Writers’ Conference in 05.  That book was powerful.

Running With Scissors, Signed Copy

Running With Scissors, Signed Copy

Yet I read e-books too, and when Burroughs’s memoir Lust and Wonder came out earlier this year, I decided I would download it from Amazon.  His books have been filling up my memoir shelf for years, and that’s my favorite shelf! When it came to weighing their worth to me, they were heavy with great love, but also, just heavy, and for about a day, or at least an hour as I pulled those and about 40 more from my shelves to lighten my load, I considered donating every single one of my books to Goodwill or the local library.  I don’t “need” them, after all.  I could get most (but not all) as e-books; I could take pictures of the inscriptions.  Books are heavy to move and expensive to transport across multiple states as I will be doing very soon.

Good Will Books

Goodwill Books

But here’s the thing: I do need them.  I need them in the way a musician needs music and a painter needs paintings and a lover needs love.  Books are my reason for writing and loving language; they are my reward, my inspiration, and they have shaped the life I live, and in my work as a writing tutor and a writer, I use them all the time.  I’ve reopened a box a day it seems looking for one and then another.  It’s terribly inconvenient having them in boxes, but I must pack to move.  And where I’m going, I’ll make a new studio-office, and I’ll shelve my books on a new bookcase (since mine was too heavy to keep), and I will be home again.

Books Worth the Weight

Books Worth the Weight

 

“Letters to Jackie”: Lessons about Letter Writing and Journaling from the 50th Anniversary of the Assassination of President Kennedy


Old Black Type Writer

© JupiterImages

By Teresa Kelly, Kaplan University

As the nation pauses to remember the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedythe first president born in the 20th Century and a member of the Greatest Generation – iconic images and sounds from that day fill our television screens. Despite the growing power of digital media, it is a book and a television special on TLC about the over 800, 000 letters of condolence sent to the White House in the months following the assassination that captures for younger generations – including many students – the true sense of grief and loss that people across the world experienced at the violent death of a man they felt they knew and knew they loved. These correspondences – called in both forms “Letters to Jackie” – also show students the power of letters and journaling in helping us record, understand, and cope with traumatic events from both psychological and emotional perspectives.

For those JFK spoke of when he said “the mantel has been passed to a new generation,” he was their rallying point to service. He called for them to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” created the Peace Corps, championed a Civil Rights Bill that passed Congress after his death in part as an homage to him, and challenged Americans to go to the moon by the end of the 1960s – a challenge the country and especially NASA met partly because letting their slain leader down was unthinkable.  They had seen them, they had voted for him, and they had loved him and his family.  It was natural for them to write to his widow and children as it would be for them to send a sympathy card or letter of condolence to a family member or friend.

The descendants of the Kennedy generation know the images and sounds of that era well.  JFK, Jackie, RFK, and a young JFK, Jr. have become ingrained in our minds. We’ve grown up with them playing again and again on our televisions and more recently the internet, we’ve heard the conspiracy theories, and we’ve seen a plethora of actors from Cliff Robertson, to Martin Sheen, to Greg Kinnear, and most recently Rob Lowe portray their own versions of JFK. We’ve seen the news clips of November 22, 1963, and know what is going to happen but somehow, just like when we watch Titanic for the 100th time, we hope for a different outcome.  Some of the more startling moments – the radio announcement about two priests saying the president was dead and Cronkite officially announcing the time of death – give me shivers every time I see them. If you grew up in some homes in the 1970s – especially Catholic homes as I did – pictures of JFK hung alongside pictures of the Pope and Jesus Christ. For our generation and those to come, the youngest man ever elected president is frozen at 46, young, seemingly vibrant, and clearly ready to continue to lead his country, but the agony of the loss escapes us.

That day in Dallas haunts Americans as only few others including December 7, 1941, January 28, 1986, and September 11, 2001, do.   Still, for many not yet born or at least aware on those horrible November days it takes the letters of housewives, military widows, stunned teenagers, and small children trying to comfort a grieving widow and children while coping with their own sadness to truly allow us to empathize with those who did. Many of the letter writers in “Letters to Jackie” claim they don’t write well, they aren’t educated, or their words mean little.  They couldn’t be more wrong, which is something all of us can teach our students to empower them in their own writing.

More than anything Letters to Jackiedemonstrates the indelible nature of the written word – especially when it is spontaneous like a letter or a journal – to capture emotions and allow them to be felt years, decades, and even centuries later.

Brewer, M. Ed. & Couturié, B, (2013, November 17). In Couturié, B. Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy. Washington, DC: The Learning Channel.

Fitzpatrick, E. (2013). Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation.  New York: Ecco Press. (Original book published 2010).