Personal Essays: A New-Found Interest in the Time of Covid

Exploring Personal Essays
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Do you subscribe to Writers’ Digest’s newsletter? Once upon a time—maybe as far back as the 50s or 60s—that magazine got delivered to my mailbox. When I was living in New York City, I didn’t miss an issue because I could pick it up at the corner newsstands. Today, though I don’t always open their mail, it is comforting to see it in my e-mail box. Since I started writing to publish, it has occasionally served me well.  Their magazine named my SharingwithWriters blog to their 101 Best Websites list one year. My move-loved poetry book, Imperfect Echoes, earned an honorable mention in one of their contests. I keep reading it (and entering contests)  to keep up with the industry I love.
Recently I noticed an essay contest. I don’t remember ever seeing a RD essay contest! And then I noticed they were offering a webinar on writing personal essays. That was new to me in the context of creative writing, too, though I started writing as a journalist as was surely familiar with them. And then I ran across this letter I recently sent to my grandkids who live in Colorado accompanied by a very heavy box of Childcraft books. (It went book rate, of course!)
 It occurred to me that my #WritersontheMove audience might enjoy my little trip back to my childhood and maybe even tell me how I might change it to become a “personal essay.” You know, what it needs to become a personal essay.  


Literature in the Time of Covid
To Travis, Sarah, Lance, James, and Alexa:
Lance, (my husband, your Papa Lance) is on a book-buying, book-sharing roll. Perhaps because he is more or less glued to his computer in this time of Covid-19, that is to say, glued to for shopping and entertainment. Perhaps it is because we are cloistered and therefore keep finding nooks and crannies in the house we’ve lived in for fifty-three years that beg to be tidied and—maybe—decide some of our treasures would be better off given to another generation. Naturally, many of those are…well, books!
That brings me to Childcraft. It strikes me as the perfect thing to have around the house during our Covid isolation. After all, it served my brother and me quite well before we had what we now call TV!
It is a series of twelve encyclopedia-size books covering everything from nursery rhymes to child psychology, meant—I assumed—for my mom and dad. I had two favorites. The one full of fairy tales—everything from Grimm to Hans Christian Anderson. They were illustrated with drawing that were colored almost as if they had been painted in pastels. Quite different from the full color children’s books you have today.
There were two other books, big and flat. Just large enough to act as a base for all the others to sit on in our bookcase.  They were full of “real” stuff like industrial machines, musical instruments, and African animals. They were more like our real color photographs of today, too.
These books are copyrighted 1945. Your Grandma Birdie bought them from a door-to-door salesman—maybe the same one who sold things like encyclopedias back in those days. I was in the 3rd or 4th grade when they had little money, but she managed by paying a little each month. She called payments like that “will call.”  
These books did not molder away on a shelf. She read them to my brother and me often. We also played games using the intaglio imprints on the covers that illustrated what was within each volume. She had us cover our eyes and she would put her hand over one of the images and we were to tell her which one she was hiding. It was a little like playing peek-a-boo. Who was hiding, Jack-Be-Nimble or Little Miss Muffet?
I followed her example with our children and perhaps with our grandson, Travis, (your dad) who was often at our house. That Childcraft set probably made fifteen moves with us, from state to state, as our lives changed. When you open the box, you will see they have been well (lovingly!) used, but they are still in good shape, made of sturdy materials, slick paper, solid printing as books were made in those days when publishing was treasured, publishing was king, publishing didn’t think so much about its bottom line as about the value of books.
We had libraries back then, of course, but Childcraft was our own library. We didn’t have to hike through the snow of winter or the heat of summer to find something great to read. Our library was to be used, to be read, to be saved and now to be passed along to the third generation.
Great Grandma Carolyn
More About the Contributor:
Carolyn Howard-Johnson was an instructor for UCLA Extension's renowned Writers Program for nearly a decade. She believes in contests and reading literary journals as excellent ways to learn more about craft and branding writing careers. Her favorite awards are Woman of the Year in Arts and Entertainment given by members of the California Legislature, “San Gabriel Valley Women Who Make Life Happen” given by the Pasadena Weekly, and an award for her work promoting tolerance with her writing given by Glendale’s Character and Ethics Committee. She has been publishing poetry and fiction for years and loves passing along the tricks of the trade she learned from marketing those so-called hard-to-promote genres with her acclaimed HowToDoItFrugally Series of books for writers.
Carolyn is a frequent contributor to Karen Cioffi’s respected #WritersontheMove blog. 


Terry Whalin said...


Thanks for the interesting personal essay. Years ago I was a subscriber to Writer's Digest magazine and read each issue cover to cover. I've not been a subscriber for years but I do see their online articles from time to time and appreciate their work and training.


Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Ahhh, yes. Writers Digest! Thank you, Terry, for recommending WD and my personal essay to our “WritersontheMove team! And our readers, of course!
Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Karen Cioffi said...

Carolyn, what an interesting post. As a kid, we always had books in my house. As soon as I was serious about writing, I subscribed to Writer's Digest magazine and The Writer magazine. Now, I subscribe to the WD's blog posts. They offer a lot of great information. I even wrote an article for WD.

lastpg said...

What a terrific post. Thank you, Carolyn. I enjoyed your essay very much. I must put writing personal essays on my To Do list!

deborah lyn said...

Fabulous post Carolyn! I love personal essays & am so glad you brought the subject up.
Our son announced at dinner one night when he was 4, that he wanted to be an aeronautical engineer! After we got over our initial shock of this absolutely serious comment, we remembered he had started reading each volume in our Children's Encyclopedia set cover to cover.
Childcraft and this set of encyclopedia's are treasures. Thank you for mentioning them, sharing your letter and a reminder about entering contests.
BTW - he did become an aeronautical engineer and has enjoyed a wonderful career!

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