A year in reading

It’s just after 8:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, and I’ve completed my reading goal for the year.

I’m a list maker, and so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’ve kept track of my reading habits for more than a decade. GoodReads has simplified that process, and also made it easier to identify how my reading correlates to my well being. That’s more intriguing to me than the number of books assigned to each year; when my numbers dip, I’m usually consumed by some hardship. As Anna Quindlen wrote, “Reading has always been my home, my sustenance, my great invisible companion.” When we’re not together, I’m off.

2017 was a year of reconciling Colorado’s beautiful days and abundant outdoor opportunities with my passion for books. I’ve made my peace with the fact that I can’t engage in the physical practice of yoga while reading, but this year I also had to choose between skiing and reading, or riding my bike and reading, or hiking and reading.

Still, I was able to read 75 books.*

And what books they were. I am stingy when assigning stars on GoodReads; if I thoroughly enjoyed a book, it starts out with a three-star rating. If it was good enough but not memorable, the book is likely to snag two stars. Because of that, I was surprised to realize I rated 21 books with four or five stars this year.

These are my standouts of 2017. What were yours?


  1. “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster (I can’t believe it took me 36 years to get to this one! What a delightful book.)
  2. “Looking for Alaska” by John Green (reread)
  3. “When Women Were Birds: 54 Variations on Voice” by Terry Tempest Williams (My favorite author 2017 introduced me to.)
  4. “Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions” by Chimama Ngozi Adichie
  5. “Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kaur
  6. “The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading” by Anne Gisleson (I’m still thinking about this one.)
  7. “A Child of Books” by Oliver Jeffers
  8. “My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues” by Pamela Paul
  9. “Noah Webster and His Words” by Jeri Chase Ferris
  10. “White Girl in Yoga Pants: Stories of Yoga, Feminism, & Inner Strength” by Melissa Scott (I helped edit this one, and I’m so proud of my dear friend for sharing her stories and insight!)


  1. “Our Short History” by Lauren Grodstein
  2. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory” by Caitlin Doughty
  3. “Love Warrior” by Glennon Doyle Melton
  4. “Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs” by Beth Ann Fennelly (Merits a re-read, and may merit another star!)
  5. “On the Teaching of Creative Writing: Responses to a Series of Questions” by Wallace Stegner
  6. “The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying” by Nina Riggs (I may bump this one up to five stars if and when I reread it.)
  7. “Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After” by Heather Harpham (This too was close to a five-star read. I had a great year of reviewing, clearly.)
  8. “The Giver” by Lois Lowry (Reread. I intend to revisit this fantastic book on Sept. 14 of each year, in my sister’s memory.)
  9. “Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America’s National Parks” by Mark Woods
  10. “The BFG” by Roald Dahl
  11. “May Cause Love: An Unexpected Journey of Enlightenment After Abortion” by Kassi Underwood

*Please note, I would never want someone to feel shamed because I read more than he or she does. I prioritize reading because it’s one of the most important things in my life. It is part of what makes me me. I do encourage everyone to read, but I also recognize that we all have different priorities. For example, one of my girl friends aims to spend times on trails each day. I … do not. I admire her drive, and it’s similar to how I feel about books. So, you do you. But if you want reading recommendations, I’ve got ’em!

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Five months, 12 books and the security they provide

A Nissan Altima can only hold so much. And the average 35-year-old American woman probably owns more than that sedan’s capacity.

I know I do. Packing to move to Colorado presented a challenge: I didn’t know how long I’d live with my best friends before I found my own space. I needed to prepare for a change of season–perhaps seasons–and leave room in the car for me, my father and my two orange cats.

I reduced my belongings, selling some and donating others. I boxed up the rooms of my house, sorting them into a storage pile and a move-right-away pile. As I did, I faced one of the most challenging questions of the move:

Which books should I bring with me?

Heather, the aforementioned roommate, said my room had plenty of space. I should bring as many books as I wanted! But that wasn’t the issue, I reminded her. The challenge was not overfilling my car’s 116 cubic feet of space.

Some argue the books we buy say as much about us as the books we read. I don’t know if that’s true, but surely the books I packed (and the books I later acquired) reveal something of who I am. I settled on a 12-book limit; if I read them all (because I’m so good at limiting myself to what I already own, right?), I could visit the library or Book Train and replenish.

I read only one of those 12 books.

I slept with “Looking for Alaska” beside me the night I learned my sister died. It’s one of my comfort books, a go-to novel for whatever emotion I experience. But when I was ready to read, I turned instead to Joan Didion. “The Year of Magical Thinking” mirrored my experience, in some way, as Didion worked to understand the new shape of her life.

I bought many more books during the four-and-a-half months my bookcases and I were apart. I visited the library–conveniently located just behind my office–more times than I could count. I developed a habit of visiting my local bookstore when in mourning. And though my reading time now competes with my outside time, I’ve spent many hours with my nose between hundreds of pages.

Now I’m again faced with the 260-plus books I own but haven’t yet read, not just the nine in that cross-country dozen. It’s comforting to be surrounded by these friends, old and new. But I look back over this list and wonder, perhaps there’s something calling me to them, now, after all.

  1. Looking for Alaska by John Green
  2. Page One: Inside the New York Times and the Future of Journalism by David Folkenflick
  3. Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden
  4. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger
  5. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
  6. The Science of Yoga by William J. Broad
  7. My Kind of Place by Susan Orlean
  8. Love Illuminated by Daniel Jones
  9. The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild
  10. Between the World and Me by Ta-nehisi Coates
  11. My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossell
  12. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Yeah, and OK, I also ended up with a couple of books as gifts or books that I didn’t mean to bring just yet, but had to because I forgot to pack them. Best-laid plans and all.

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2017 in concerts


  1. Nina Gabianelli in Thunder River Theatre Company’s inaugural Diva Cabaret, March 20, 2017
  2. Cory Henry, Downstairs at Little Nell, March 31, 2017
  3. Universal Sigh, Steve’s Guitars, May 28, 2017
  4. Ryan Adams with Infinite Stringdusters, Red Rocks Amphitheater, Morrison, Colorado, June 20, 2017
  5. Brothers Keeper with John Popper, Fanny Hill at Snowmass, June 22, 2017
  6. Widespread Panic, Red Rocks Amphitheater, Morrison, Colorado, June 24, 2017
  7. Reckless Kelly, Ute Theater, June 27, 2017
  8. Drive-By Truckers, Fanny Hill at Snowmass, June 30, 2017
  9. Ryan Speedo Green, Paepcke Auditorium, Aspen, July 9, 2017

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A semicolon is a purposeful pause


The idea probably started with the sort of hypothetical discussion that populated my college years: If you were to get a tattoo, what would it be? My answer was tongue in cheek: A semicolon, because it’s my favorite punctuation mark.

That’s true, by the way. The semicolon is a thing of beauty when used correctly. It links two related ideas that could otherwise stand independently. But it’s often misused, and as an editor such abuse makes me mad. I once quit reading a book by an author I liked because he abused my dear semicolon over and over again. Years later, when the book was reissued (and re-edited) as “Through Painted Deserts,” I avoided it for fear that rogue semicolons would still run rampant. (I eventually picked it up and was relieved to see an editor pulled Donald Miller’s punctuation into line. It became my favorite of his books.)

My sister created a triptych of semicolons for me to embody this obsession. That was a fair alternative to inking punctuation on my skin.

But the idea didn’t fade. One morning I awoke from a stress dream; I’d gone to a tattoo parlor but couldn’t decide where I wanted to be marked. Shortly thereafter, I moved in with a roommate who had a white tattoo on her inner wrist.


The semicolon took on additional meaning with time. I gave up living alone and relocated with that roommate. My work life had changed in the months prior, and 60-hour weeks became common. I’d retreat to my apartment, exhausted and feeling sorry for myself. My many friend groups would (reasonably) assume I was with someone else. I adore alone time, but you can have too much of a good thing. I needed a roommate.

And a reminder: Slow down. Breathe. Pause.

If I were to move forward with this tattoo, it must be in a spot visible to me, a signpost to trigger self care.

For years, the idea remained just that, locked away in my mind (and released for occasional conversation). But it never faded. As Project Semicolon gained traction, friends were quick to share it with me. I was momentarily disappointed that the tattoo I daydreamed about had become a trend. But then, it’s to benefit an issue I feel strongly about: suicide awareness and prevention. Although I don’t lean toward suicidal ideation, I’ve long dealt with depression. I have a number of friends who have been directly affected by suicide. And while talking about it isn’t a miracle cure, it’s a big step. That’s why I’m quick to discuss depression and treatment. So yes, this was a mark I could proudly bear.

If I could just deal with my needle phobia.

Last year for Christmas my sister sent me a T-shirt and sweatpants from To Write Love On Her Arms. The shirt read “music is a safe place,” and the pants hit even closer to home: “love is the movement.” I told her they made me long for a semicolon tattoo.

Six months later, I realized I was out of reasons not to go through with it. I declared getting inked a 35th birthday present to myself. If I didn’t go through with it, I would drop the idea forever.

I proceeded through the necessary steps: Select an artist. Interrogate him about ink colors. (We settled on pink instead of white for a variety of reasons.) Book his next available appointment, nearly two months out. Exhale with relief: I would have six weeks to decide if I would go through with it.

The next day he emailed. He had a cancellation the following afternoon. Did I want it?

I said yes, but I wasn’t sure I meant it. Anxiety seemed to course through my veins that day, tempered only slightly when I popped a Xanax about an hour before my appointment.

Should I do something so permanent when I feel like I’m in such transition, I texted my friend Melissa, who would accompany me. Recent years had been filled with change, including the end of a significant relationship, many changes at work and my decision to look for a job elsewhere. Melissa may have been the perfect companion for this errand; in addition to being my yoga teacher, she is a therapist by training.

I think it’s perfect, she replied. You’re living in a semicolon.

I took a deep breath and extended my arm. I got inked.

The next part of my sentence is about to begin. Today I leave a state I’ve called home for the past 14 years. It’s the state where I was born, and where I’ve spent most of my adult life. It’s the state where I’ve chased dreams and built my career.

The next part of my sentence begins in Colorado.

I’ll relocate my career, my books and my two orange cats to Glenwood Springs. There, the cats will adapt to gazing at snow and aspens instead of drought and pine trees. I’ll pursue my own adventures, as the outdoors and entertainment editor of the paper and as a 35-year-old Southerner making her way in a different land.

As I do, I’ll carry on my body a quiet reminder: Slow down. Breathe. Take care of yourself and others. 2016 reminded me, even when it’s uncomfortable, there’s beauty in a semicolon.

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2016 in concerts

  1. Dixie Chicks, Barclayard Arena, Birmingham, England, April 29, 2016
  2. St. Lucia, Saturn, June 9, 2016
  3. Sloss Fest: Ryan Adams, White Denim, Anderson East, Sylvan Esso, Burning Peppermints, Sloss Furnace, July 2016
  4. Dixie Chicks, Atlanta, August 2016
  5. Beyonce, Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Oct. 2, 2016
  6. Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite, Mendelssohn Symphony No. 1, Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Alys Stephens Center, Nov. 19, 2016
  7. Jeffrey Butzer & T.T.Mahony perform Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Saturn, Dec. 11, 2016
  8. Vivaldi’s Gloria, Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Alys Stephens Center, Dec. 16, 2016

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Moving sale!

I’m moving! (More on that later, I promise.) And that means I have stuff to sell. All items must go by Dec. 31. Interested? Email me at cj AT carlajeanwhitley DOT com.



Wooden patio table and chairs: $150 OBO

This table and chair set is hefty and in good condition. Must pick up from my home.

Couch with pull-out bed, $20

There’s nothing fancy about this couch–it includes cat scratches on the arms and some stains on the cushions. But it’s sturdy and comfortable. Cat and green quilt not included. Must pick up from my home.
Frye Jackie Button equestrian-style boots, size 6.5: $150 OBO SOLD

Used washer and dryer: $100 for the pair or $60 each (Reserved for MM)

The washing machine emits a loud screech at the end of some cycles, but otherwise works fine. The dryer is in good working order. Must pick up from my home the final week of December (not earlier).

grillWeber 18″ kettle grill: $35 OBO

Good used condition. I’ve kept the grill covered, so it has few flaws. The handle is misshapen because someone put hot tongs on it and it melted a bit (duh!), and there’s a trace of rust on the clips that support the ash pan. Must pick up from my home.
Otterbox Symmetry Case in Blue Floral for iPhone 6, $25

Good used condition, shows wear at the corners.
wandering-yogiLululemon Wandering Yogi halter tank fuschia size 6: $20

This flattering top is in very good to excellent used condition. I’ve worn it several times, but I don’t see any snags or pilling. The front v-neck includes a small mesh panel for additional breathability, and the top has space for bra inserts (not included).

pure-focusLululemon Pure Focus tank black swan size 4: $20

This top is in great pre-owned condition. The only area that appears to be pilling at all is along the seams, as pictured. Questions? Ask!

inside-outLululemon inside-out tank, size 4 (I think): $20

The bra is on the outside of this tank, which makes it easy to change even after a sweaty practice. There’s no size marker inside the bra cup, so I’m not 100 percent sure it’s a 4. You’re welcome to try it on to see.

pure-focusLululemon No Limits tank with sports bra purple size 4: $20

Used, but no noticeable pilling.

New Smartwool Women’s striped chevron glove, Moab rust: $15

These gloves are new with tags and retail for $38. They’re beautiful, they’re just longer than I wanted.


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Learning lessons through Sweet Home History

I love a good story, and as a result I’m a sucker for history. But that’s a love I didn’t discover until my mid-20s. I’ve spent the decade since alternately lamenting that we’re taught history before many of us care about it and catching up on all I have to relearn.

But Alabama history was never part of my formal education. Because I grew up in Florida, I studied that state in fourth grade. I left that state at age 21. Now, my bookshelves are filled with books about Birmingham and Alabama. My family has been in this area for two centuries, and I’m eager to understand it.

That’s why my friend Rachel Callahan asked me to help with her daughter Ali’s Alabama history curriculum. We brainstormed reading material over coffee, but soon another idea developed: What if I joined them as they traveled to historic sites from the state’s past?

Last month we launched Sweet Home History, a part of AL.com’s Southern Girls Project. I’ve gathered snippets from the articles published so far in the StoryMap above. Join us as Ali, Rachel, 5-year-old Noah and I learn about the state we call home.

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FAQs: Cat yoga in Birmingham, Alabama at the Greater Birmingham Humane Society

Roll onto your right side, coming into a comfortable fetal position for a final moment of rest and relaxation.

Roll onto your side, coming into a comfortable fetal position for a final moment of rest and relaxation.

Cat yoga? What’s that?

It’s as simple as it sounds: People doing yoga in a room that contains cats.

So the cats don’t do yoga?

Nope. The cats do whatever they want. They’re cats. (But in my opinion, they’re awfully yogic creatures. They don’t need my help. I need theirs. Speaking of …)

Why cats?

A few reasons. First, I’m a cat lady, and I’m not shy about it. Remember actress Cara Hartmann’s fake eHarmony profile video from a few years back? (If not, watch it here.) Yeah, OK. I’m not quite as intense as her character, but I really love cats. They make life better. They’re zen little creatures, seriously. One of my cats likes to sit in my lap and purr when I meditate, and she helps keep me centered.

But no, they’re not the best at the physical aspect of yoga. You’ll catch them in a pose now and then (especially savasana), but my cats usually like to play, rub my ankles and bat at my hair during my home practice.

It makes me laugh, and I want to share that experience with others. So, cat yoga it is!

Why yoga?

I could write a book about that. (I kind of have.) But in short: Yoga helps me slow my mind, calm my breath and take each moment one at a time.

What happens to the money?

I’ve built the Greater Birmingham Humane Society’s cat yoga program in such a way that the teacher gets paid a stipend and the organization keeps the rest.I want teachers to have the option of being paid because we’re often asked to work for free.

You can learn about the programs your money would fund at gbhs.org.

So long as I teach this program, I will decline payment. That means GBHS receives 100 percent of the money from the public classes I teach in its facility.

OK, I’m convinced. How much is it?

Classes are $15 each.

When? Where?

Join us the third Sunday of each month from noon to 1 p.m. (ish) at the Greater Birmingham Humane Society. That’s 300 Snow Drive, Birmingham, AL 35209.

How do I sign up?

Visit the GBHS website. If the date isn’t posted, registration hasn’t opened. We expect most classes to sell out, so register in advance. Space is limited.

How do I know when registration is open?

I’ll notify people on my mailing list as soon as I’m aware it’s up. Sign up here.

What should I wear?

Comfortable clothes you can move in. They don’t have to be “yoga clothes.” The most important thing is you’re comfortable and your shirt won’t flip up and show everything when you move into downward facing cat.

What will take place?

Join me and the felines in the GBHS conference room. The number of cats will vary class to class; GBHS selects them from one of its colonies, and the staff takes into consideration the cats’ moods that day. Eight cats joined my birthday party. Six visited the first public class.

I’ll start by explaining the rules of cat yoga. No. 1: Let the cats come to you. No. 2: If you’d rather play with cats than move through the poses, cool! Play with the cats. (You’ll catch me doing the same.)

The class itself lasts one hour. We’ll start slowly, with breath work and gentle stretches, and move into a more active practice. The style I teach is called core strength vinyasa, and it emphasizes softening before moving into a pose. That helps us experience our full range of movement. I don’t get as much into the details as I would in a typical class–you can join me for those some other time. But I remain true to this teaching. It’s a physically challenging practice, but I offer lots of stopping points along the way.

Challenging? Does that mean I shouldn’t come if I’ve never done yoga?

Nope! I’ll coach you in making smart choices for your body on this day. I always say, if you’d like to spend the entire class in child’s pose, I think that’s a great option. That’s especially true in cat yoga, when you might have a feline friend to cuddle.

What’s in it for the cats?

Important question! GBHS uses this program as a way to help socialize the cats. They get to spend time with people in a free environment. It also introduces people to adoptable pets. At least one cat found her furrever home at our October class, and others found advocates who intended to lobby friends to adopt them.

Cat yoga? In Alabama? It’s a thing – and you can join me

OK crazy cat lady, I want to know more about you–and your cats.

I’ve been owned by cats all but maybe six months of my life. The first cat I remember, Rugrat, was so gentle he let my sister and I use him as a pillow. Our next family cat, Tuffy, was a pale ginger tabby. We adopted him when I was about 5, and he lived until I was in college.

I’m currently loved on and bossed around by a pair of ginger kitties, McCartney Jane and Harrison Vann. Mac is the best Christmas gift I’ve ever received, thanks to a former roommate. I was three days catless after my previous cat, Emma, died suddenly. I’d spent those days crying myself to sleep and insisting that no one should give me a kitten. Fortunately, Abi didn’t listen.

On Christmas Eve, 2009, an aunt mentioned that she knew someone with a male orange kitten up for adoption. I thought, “Hmm. Maybe if that cat’s still available when I’m ready, I could adopt him. What would I call such a cat? How about McCartney? Ooh, but what about a female ginger cat named McCartney?!”

I arrived home that afternoon, and Abi was at the end of the hall holding an orange kitten. “I got her for you, but if you’re not ready, she can be the house cat,” she said.


Abi confirmed.

“Well, hello, McCartney.”

Although she’d been at Abi’s parents’ house for a couple of days, Mac knew we belonged together as soon as we met.

I thought I was a one-cat girl because Emma demanded all my attention and was unsure of other people. (She was a tortoiseshell. It’s the normal tortitude.) But years after Abi and her pets, another roommate moved out and took her cat with her. Mac was lonely. She begged for attention every time my new roommate and I came home. I tried to entertain her with toys and puzzles, but it wasn’t enough. That’s where Harry came in.

A new friend requested that I like the Facebook page of a rescue for which she volunteered. When she sent me the link to Have a Heart Animal Rescue and Adoption, Harry’s was the cover photo. I was done.

Mac didn’t like him at first (what cat likes a stranger cat at first meeting?), but they both slept in my bed that night. Now I often catch them cuddling and bathing each other. He’s a momma’s boy and she’s a momma’s girl (totally different things). He irritates her sometimes; at least once a day, Harry tries to wrestle and Mac hisses to remind him that it’s never, ever a good idea in her estimation. He’s a typical baby brother and a love muffin.

I want more Mac and Harry!

Of course you do. They’re the best. You can follow them on Instagram @beatlecats (although I don’t update that often). Look to the right for links to all of my social media; they make regular appearances.

Why don’t you adopt more cats?

I live in a small house, about 750 square feet, with a roommate. Until I have space for another litter box, two cats is my limit.

And how did this get started, again?

I asked for birthday party ideas and my friend June suggested cat yoga. You can find the complete story here.

Got more cat yoga questions? Post ’em in the comments.

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Filed under Autobiography, Bits & Pieces, Cat yoga, Reasons why, Yoga

‘Take it easy on the -ings’

Do you find yourself using the same writing tropes over and over? Once a tendency comes to my attention, I see it everywhere. A former colleague always caught instances of “that” when the word should have been “who.” Once I learned the distinction between passive and active voice, I noticed improper usage everywhere.

As I read Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer,” I am overwhelmed by usage–or improper usage–of the tools he details. This week, my journalism students read tools five and six, “watch those adverbs” and “take it easy on the -ings.” They then edited one of their recent stories to reduce the number of -ing words, and I did the same.

I struggle to avoid discouragement with such reflection. I would like to think my work is awesome as is, but the truth is, I want to grow. This process can be uncomfortable, but it moves me closer to my end goal.

My most recent email newsletter including 41 -ing words. Forty one! I’ll admit, I didn’t edit the newsletter before I sent it, but I was horrified by that statistic. (I didn’t count words such as “thing.”) Four of those 41 were part of proper titles, so I couldn’t edit them out.

A quick edit, though, reduced -ing words to 19. That’s still a lot, in my opinion, and I retained some to indicate an ongoing pursuit. But I think the end result is stronger. You can read the original (and sign up for the newsletter) here. Here’s the edited version:


MailChimp has been good to me. I’ve used it for more than two years, and I registered in preparation for my first book’s release. Self promotion doesn’t come to me naturally, but publishing and sales go hand in hand. I sucked it up and launched an email newsletter.

Two years later, I’m not any more comfortable with this promotion. Email newsletters intrigue me, but mine has made me feel like I’m in sales mode. (There’s a reason for that.)

However, I subscribe to a few writer newsletters that rely on TinyLetter. These newsletters are text based, simpler than the flash-and-dazzle of so many others. I appreciate MailChimp and subscribe to a number of newsletters that use that service well. But TinyLetter, which is a MailChimp product, feels truer to my writerly ways.

That inspired me to shift formats. I don’t have a new book to sell you, but I do believe there’s value in an email newsletter. Moreover, I benefit from the act of writing this thing. So welcome to “Read, Write, Breathe (repeat).” I intend to send this thing weekly, but we’ll see. It will be a way to share what I read and write as well as things that help me breathe more easily.

Let’s get started.

Charlotte Donlon’s “The Three Rs” is one of the reasons I’m now on TinyLetter. Charlotte’s weekly newsletter highlights reading, writing and arithmetic from her days spent as a writer, MFA student, wife and mama. I’ve never hit reply on an email newsletter as often as I have on hers, and it’s been a great way to peek inside my friend’s process.

Three Cents by Manjula Martin leaves me with so much more to read, I don’t know when I’ll get through it all. (That’s a good problem to have.) She focuses on creative work, money and love in this monthly-ish newsletter. I don’t know Manjula personally, but I sometimes feel as though I do, thanks to these emails. I’m ridiculously excited for the January release of her book, “Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.”

On a similar note, I’ve preordered “Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace.” I’m resisting the urge to repeatedly email my local bookseller and ask if it’s arrived. (The book doesn’t publish till Sept. 13. Patience, CJ. Patience.) Need a healthy dose of feminism to tide you over? I’m reading “Rad American Women A to Z,” and it’s awesome. Think of it as a children’s book about women who make a difference. I bought it in the fine Asheville, N.C., bookstore Malaprops, and it originated with the lovely San Francisco bookstore City Lights. That’s an awful lot to love.

I finally read Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.” I bought the book upon its release a decade ago, but I’m prone to collecting books faster than I can read them. I picked and chose and a few chapters to teach from last semester. This semester my University of Alabama students will read most of the book during class. I have told them repeatedly, this is a book I want you to keep. It’s a treasure of writing insight and exercises.

I believe so strongly in “Writing Tools,” in fact, that I’ll spend this semester completing the homework I assign. I wrote about that on my blog, so I won’t repeat myself here. I’ll add, though, that life as a professional writer sometimes means I focus more on inching forward than I do on the craft itself. (Sad, but true.) This is part of why I teach.

In recent weeks, I’ve poured most such energy into my journal. Journal writing used to be my favorite form of therapy, but I’ve gotten away from it in recent years. Now I start each day with 10 minutes of writing, and I haven’t yet found the words to explain how glad I am. (I’m working on it.) This Dixie Chicks blog entry is one result of that morning exercise. I’m sure some of my journal entries will end up online, but it’s beautiful to create space in which I can ramble without worry.

But of course, I still write to live, and you can find a few recent examples in reviews of “I’m Still Here” and “The Dollhouse.” As for my “real” job, I’ve spent my recent days on others’ columns and my podcast more than writingYou can find those podcasts here. I also used my recent trip to see the Dixie Chicks in England as inspiration for the travel story “How does Birmingham, England, compare to Birmingham, Alabama?”

Fall draws closer, but it’s still about eleventy billion degrees in Birmingham. Sitali breath is an antidote to the heat, as well as any anxiety you might face. I taught it in Friday’s class at The Yoga Circle, and I ought to incorporate it into my pre-sleep rituals. Learn more about that breath from Yoga Journal.

Thanks for reading. Based on the word-count indicator at the bottom of my screen, I had plenty to say!

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Do as I say, and as I do: Why I’ve assigned myself a semester of homework

Yes, I still prefer to write by hand. I wrote this week's homework in my journal before typing it for this post.

Yes, I still prefer to write by hand. I wrote this week’s homework in my journal before typing it for this post.

Even teachers have plenty to learn. Last week I began my seventh semester as a college instructor, and my third semester teaching advanced news writing and reporting.

A pattern has emerged over the years: The first time I teach a course, it’s a little bumpy. I’m excited but adapting to new curriculum and expectations. That semester is always special because I’m learning how to teach the course as the students learn from taking it.

The second time around, my confidence grows. I have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. The course is a bit stronger than the first time out, and there’s some magic that comes from that alchemy, too.

But there’s a danger in returning to the same material. When life and my “real job” demand more of my time, I’m tempted to coast in the classroom.

That’s a double-edged sword, at least in my opinion. A stronger command of the material means I’m better prepared to pass the knowledge onto my students. But I can’t check out of the process. Every job has its ups and downs, of course, but I want to be all in with my students every semester.

They teach me, too.

Students motivated me to join the Society of Professional Journalists, a move that paid for itself with the first event I attended. Now I serve as my chapter’s president. Thanks, students. That move bettered my life and career.

This semester’s class will add another layer to my learning. I spent the end of the summer revisiting past lesson plans and evaluating how I could improve the course. (My spring students sparked this process with helpful suggestions in the end-of-semester evaluation. We really do read those things.) I read the textbook, Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools,” and selected exercises for homework and in-class assignments.

As soon as I finished my reading, I began again with page one. I’m going to spend the next three months completing homework assignments alongside my class.

I’m prone to climbing on my soapbox, especially when it comes to writing and reporting. To me, journalism is like breathing, a sentiment I shared in the first class period. And so I’ve also lectured the students about the value of this book, and why I hope they’ll hold onto it long after semester’s end. I purchased my copy a decade ago, although I’m sorry to say I’m only now beginning to take advantage.

We read this week about beginning sentences with subjects and verbs; ordering words for emphasis; and using active verbs. We’ll discuss those tools at some length in tonight’s class, but I asked the students to complete a private assignment for tool 40, “draft a mission statement for your work.”

They emailed those mission statements to me, and I’ll use them as a reference point throughout the term. I’m copying my own statement below. It’s imperfect–everything is–and basic. I intend to return to it and refine it throughout the semester and my career. But I hope it’ll serve as a touchstone as I navigate my job, and some sort of accountability as these 16 students and I grow together.

Features are sometimes seen as puff pieces, strictly positive and shallow depictions of topics meant to entertain, not inform. There’s value in pure entertainment, but I want more. My goal is to report on stories that help readers understand their communities. That may mean a deep dive into an arts organization’s value, or a news feature that adds context to a breaking story.

I am to do this using the medium best suited for the story. That may be a traditional news article–my specialty–but could also take forms such as audio, video, slideshows, lists or social media. I want to maximize the available tools.

Because my beat is broad, it can be difficult to home in on specific assignments. Therefore, I’ll set aside time at the end of each month (perhaps two to four hours) to examine opportunities in the month ahead.

I also hope to rely heavily on a narrative approach and refine my use of writing tools, such as those outlined in Roy Peter Clark’s book by the same name.

I intend to write about class throughout the semester, both to create transparency for my interested students and to hold myself accountable as I seek my own growth. My goal is to continue growing as a reporter even as I encourage others on their paths.

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Filed under Autobiography, Journalism, Teaching