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Monday, March 30, 2015

Journal Writing vs. Writing

In the past few days, I’ve been in touch with two people—one woman in her 40s on Facebook, and one of my geezer peers at a luncheon—to whom I’ve recommended journal writing. 

In the first instance, I suggested that C. sit at her computer, with a blank document in front of her, and simply write all the images, scenes, and memories that arise about a significant friend who recently died, in no particular order, and keeping the emphasis on the details.

In the second, I suggested that J. do some personal writing about the stress she is experiencing while caring for her ill husband.  I’ve conducted workshops in journaling to manage stress, and believe that the process can help people both understand and manage their stress, no matter the source of it.  (A belief supported by the research of psychologist James Pennebaker, cited in an earlier post.)

C. agreed to give my suggestion a try, and I look forward to checking in with her. 

J. responded that she was afraid that someone might find her journal, a common concern of those who hesitate to keep a personal journal.  I emailed her today and told her to just do the writing then tear up the pages if she was so inclined.  For while I believe it can be helpful to look back on what we write—to read what we were thinking and feeling at the time—it is more important to write, to use the writing as a way to both document and clarify thoughts and feelings..

These recent experiences put me in mind of what I always open a journal writing workshop with:  a discussion of the difference between writing and journal writing.

I begin with the three basic elements of any piece of writing, from a grocery list to a blog post to a journal entry to Tolstoy’s War & Peace:

a.     The Subject (what we are writing about)
b.     The Audience (whom we are writing to)
c.      The Purpose (why we are writing)

So every piece of writing is about something; to someone; for a reason.  The reasons may include informing; recording; reflecting; explaining/clarifying; persuading; engaging; entertaining; expressing.

In both writing and journal writing, the subjects can range far and wide, as can our purpose(s).

Which means that the major and only difference between writing and journal writing is audience.  Audiences for our writing can vary; the audience for our journal writing is only and ever the self.

Now if C would like to share her personal writing eventually—to pass on to family members of her friend, for instance, then she has to imagine an audience other than herself and most likely do some heavy drafting and editing.

But J. is first and foremost writing for herself; she doesn’t have to worry about another audience (although she clearly does, fearing that someone else might find and read her journal).  She can be candid, truthful, speak her mind, and, most important, not judge herself for doing so.  My hope is that she will find the process so helpful that the benefit of the writing will far outweigh the fear of some else reading it. 

Besides, she really can tear the writing up once it’s served its purpose.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

In Memoriam: Pat

Pat was my sister-in-law, then my ex-sister-in-law, but as the mother of my two nieces she and I stayed connected well beyond her divorce from my brother.  We also stayed connected because we laughed a lot, made each other laugh, and because we shared so much of the stuff that made for a long and complicated life.

We’d been out of touch recently, though.  She and her new husband moved to California about 10 years ago, and she wasn’t one for regularly picking up the phone to call and say hello, though she was definitely one for happily welcoming anyone who showed up at her door.  I flew out to Palm Springs from Chicago a couple of times over the years, including for Christmas, and it was always enjoyable to be welcomed with such panache, and especially comfortable to be back in her company.

Comfortable, I think, because she and I went so far back, and were almost the same age, not yet 21 when we first met.  We knew each other when our parents were still alive, before she had children, before I married, then divorced, during the many jobs and careers we each built, many out of thin air and pure chutzpah.

Regrettably, I won’t be at the celebration of her life on April 4, almost a month to the day she died of cancer at 72.  But if I were there, boy, I’d have some good stories to tell of our shared adventures together:

            --  the family tradition she created with my brother of stealing their annual Christmas trees late on Christmas eve, after all the lots had closed, some spindly, odd-shaped trees left over;

            --  the small acting troupe she, my brother and I belonged to, along with their actor-friend, David--“The Amazing Bird Bath Players”--my absolute terror and Pat’s natural ease in front of an audience;

            --  at her house that night in Chicago when she made a party game out of the responses I’d received from a pre-online dating service, 21 letters from men sent to a personal ad I’d placed in a local newspaper;

            -- the night on the way to her friend’s gathering that we stopped on a lark at the nearby cemetery, to bring to the hostess a spray of funeral flowers tossed out in the garbage.

I just got word of Pat’s death last night, so these are just the first images that come to mind.  There are many others.  After all, she and I witnessed much together through our 50+ year relationship, the inevitable good and bad, and survived to tell the tales.  She survives still, really, in my memory’s bones, in the bones of all who came to know and love her.

I will always hold her close, in spite of the real distance that now separates us.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Journal Writing & Job Loss

The following letter appeared in The Workologist/Rob Walker column of the Sunday New York Times earlier this month.

My husband lost his high-level, overseas position after the company sold off his division. He has always been an ambitious, successful executive. But in the year since this job ended and we moved back to the United States, he has become depressed. His efforts to find new work, while sincere, have not been consistent.

I am trying to be supportive and have never nagged him. I would like to find an executive coach for him to work with on his job search — someone who would help him strategize and hold him accountable. A friend recommended someone, but that person seemed like a waste of time and money: She suggested I start a children’s party service to tide us over, even though I have zero experience in that area.

I think my husband would be open to working with a good coach who has experience working with C-level professionals, but he lacks the motivation and energy to find one himself. What is your advice? ANONYMOUS

In his response, Mr. Walker references executive career coach, Sheryl Spanier, based in Manhattan.  Following one of her comments, Mr. Walker writes, “A good coach should also be open to concluding that there may be a more serious depression at work that requires a doctor’s attention.”

This got me thinking about a study by James W. Pennebaker et al. reported in the Academy of Management Journal in 1994:

Expressive writing and coping with job loss. Academy of Management Journal, 37, 722-733. High level engineers who lost their jobs were more likely to be re-employed if they wrote about their job loss than those who either did not write or who wrote about time management.

Here’s the study’s opening paragraph:

“The loss of a job is frequently cited as one of the top ten traumatic life experiences....The negative effects of job loss on physical and psychological health, particularly in middle-aged workers…are well documented…”

Now I don’t know if the out-of-work executive cited in The Workologist is middle aged, but I’m guessing he’s close.  I’m also guessing that he’s not alone, especially as more Boomer employees either need or want to continue their professional lives beyond retirement age.

So, yes, unemployed and depressed would appear to go together, especially in a tight job market.  But whether a “doctor’s attention” is warranted I certainly cannot judge.  But I do believe that writing about the experience, for oneself, in a private journal would be helpful. 

This judgment is based on what Pennebaker et al. discovered in the AMJ study: 

“The results supported Hypothesis 3: Subjects who wrote about the trauma of losing their jobs were significantly more likely to find reemployment in the months following the study than control subjects….These results confirm the importance of people’s addressing the psychological issues of job loss to achieve the ultimate goal of reemployment.”

Following are links to both The Workologist column and the Academy of Management Journal study.  I highly recommend the latter especially for readers who are struggling with job loss themselves—or know someone who is.

I also recommend that journal writing be part of your job search process, whether you do it on your own, or in consultation with a coach or therapist.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Blooming Boomers (and Beyonders)

I’m not sure at what point my father said to me, “McCarthy’s are late bloomers.”  My maiden name is McCarthy, though at the time he said this I’d long been a LaChapelle, having kept the name following my divorce,

Truth is, I’m not even sure what he meant by it.  Maybe he was talking to himself, trying to make himself feel better for the peripatetic career changer I’d become over the years.  He could never make sense of that—of my gleefully skipping from job to job, profession to profession—especially as he, a Depression baby, had gratefully accepted a job not long out of high school at a company he retired from some 40 years later.

Come to think of it, maybe he said it after I did finally settle down professionally, in my mid-40’s, as a writer and writing teacher.  Maybe he meant as a prayer of thanksgiving.

If only he were alive today, though, to see how much really late blooming is afoot in the land, especially in Geezerville, where so many of my fellow oldsters keep reinventing themselves.

Click here and rejoice, no matter how old you are.  Because, Fat Lady or no, it does not appear to be over until it's over.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Writing Family Stories: Our Aging Parents

So much is made of the downside of caring for aging parents that I wanted to share this article from last week’s New York Times—“After a Homecoming, a Son Finds His Muse,” by Cathy Horyn.

It’s about George Hodgman, a middle-aged/early Boomer former editor—and now first-time author—who left New York City in 2011for his childhood home of Paris, MO, to care for his 92 year-old mother, Betty, who was suffering from dementia.

Hodgman’s book, which took shape over the course of his caregiving, is described by Ms. Horyn as “…a most remarkable, laugh-out-loud book called “Bettyville,” from Viking. Rarely has the subject of elder care produced such droll human comedy, or a heroine quite on the mettlesome order of Betty Baker Hodgman…For as much as the book works on several levels (as a meditation on belonging, as a story of [Mr. Hodgman's] growing up gay and the psychic cost of silence, as metaphor for recovery), it is the strong-willed Betty who shines through. She may be trapped in midstage dementia, but her stout sense of self never wavers.”

I highly recommend the entire article, especially for those who find themselves in similar situations and/or who want to write family stories about their aging parents.  What struck me most about Mr. Hodgman’s experience was what he realized in the process of writing his particular family story:

“…he has understood this fierce, embattled woman. That may be the irony of ironies: He yearned for his parents to see him in full — and he accepts that they could not — but in setting down his mother’s life, he has brought immeasurable understanding to it.”

Ah, yes, why we go through the hard though satisfying work of setting down our stories: the “immeasurable understanding” of both ourselves and others that we arrive at in doing so.

Click here for the NYT article:

Click here for more on George Hodgman and "Bettyville":

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Skills, Talents, and Passions for Act II

Last night, in the third week of the “Composing Our Lives” journal writing workshop, I asked people to do an exercise based on an article* on  This is the website I’ve been published on, mainly as its focus is on Boomers who want to re-imagine the aging process, especially their own. 

There are various names for this approach, including reinvention, the idea that our coming years are not the time to slow things down, but to change them, to redirect our energy and interests.

That redirection often involves certain strategies to make the process smoother and more productive.  In the article, “5 Ways to Infuse Meaning in Your Second Act,” author Bruce Rosenstein lists those that he believes “can help infuse purpose and meaning” into what he terms our “second act.”

Here’s the first:

Combine your talents and passions Renowned singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt, 64, is a 10-time Grammy Award winner and, according to Rolling Stone, one of the 100 best singers and 100 best guitarists of all time. Raitt is just as well known for her lifelong commitment to social activism as she is for her music.

She has long been mixing her performances with her work in the environmental movement — offering concerts around issues such as oil, nuclear power, mining, water, and forest protection since the 1970s. Additionally, she works on matters of social justice, human rights, and music education. And, over the course of her career, Raitt has partnered with some 100 nonprofits, including Little Kids Rock, Defenders of Wild Life and the Clean Water Fund.  

The exercise inspired by it—and as I gave it—was for people to simply list their talents and passions and, in the process, see how these might be joined and newly realized in the next phase of their lives.  One person had some difficulty with the “talent” list—not unusual, I think, as we often underestimate those things we’re really good at—so I suggested she make it “skills & talents.”  That opened the whole category up for her.

I offer this exercise to readers, and not only the Boomer & Beyonder set, but anyone who is at some major crossroads in their professional lives.  I think you’ll find it helpful.