Today, we’re highlighting Melissa Pennel, author of Questions You'll Wish You Asked: A Time Capsule Journal for Mothers and Daughters.
Melissa’s mother passed away unexpectedly, and she realized she hadn’t had a chance to ask everything she wanted (and needed) to know.
So she created the keepsake she wished she’d had, something to help families capture their memories and pass on their knowledge and legacy.
Read on to hear how writing has always been her companion and helped her process life’s ups and downs.
Melissa, your first book is called Questions You'll Wish You Asked: A Time Capsule Journal for Mothers and Daughters. It’s a beautiful journal with questions for daughters and mothers to discuss together.
That book got released in November 2020. What’s been happening since then? Have you gotten positive reviews? Emails from readers who enjoyed the book? An unexpected number of book sales? What’s been going on for you?
It’s been pretty incredible to watch the journey of that first book. I’ve gotten some really powerful reviews, like one saying that the book was a gift for a dying mother to leave to her young kids. That one moved me so much. I imagine some future moment when a then-grown child opens the book and flips through it to see her mom’s answers…and that visualization is so incredibly powerful. It’s what keeps me creating.
The sales figures have been really amazing too, and they’ve been the reason I can afford to keep going. Seeing the unexpected sales of that first journal showed me just how needed a project like this was in the world (something I didn’t know when I created it!).
Since then, you created a whole collection of journals—a journal for fathers and daughters, fathers and sons, grandmothers and grandchildren, and more. You’ve been so prolific! Why did you decide to create more books? What inspires you to keep going?
I always wanted this sort of journaling to be available to every family relationship but felt called to start with the mother/daughter journal because my relationship to my own mom was so front and center. Part of why I made so many versions (including the inclusive parent/child version that doesn’t assume gender or even that the parent is blood-related) is that I wanted to make sure anyone in a family can share this type of keepsake. I’m now working on a version for “Treasured Mentors and Important Relationships” because people kept asking for one to fill out with other important guides in their life. I am so grateful to have people asking for additional versions, and I keep that “30 years from now someone opens these pages with gratitude” visualization in mind to get through the oft-tiresome process of self-publishing.
Now that you’ve created numerous books, do you feel like the process gets easier each time? Or not so much?
I do feel like it’s easier! I’ve learned so much with every single journal, and —even though at the moment I was tearing my hair out—the lessons each book taught me only made the ones that followed easier.
Tell folks about your creative process. Do you have a particular place where you especially like to write? Do you listen to music or work in silence? Do you close the door to block distractions or leave it open? How do you get into your groove and get things done?
As a mom of very young kids (a one-year-old and an almost three-year-old), I want to name the biggest aspect of my creativity process: support. I have a very supportive partner who I share childcare with and I pay a nanny to be at my house for 25 hours per week while I work. If I did not have these things, I don’t know how much I could have gotten done in the last year.
After time, the biggest part of my creative process is permission—giving myself constant permission to WANT to be away from my kids creating. I definitely have a “motherhood is martyrdom” and “moms should always want to be with their kids no matter what” conditioning that comes between me and my creativity. So naming these thoughts, questioning them, and then reframing those ideas are paramount to anything I create.
For example, I have some mantras recorded onto my phone that I listen to every day in the shower: “It is safe and good and right to have a juicy independent creative life! My kids thrive when I thrive, and writing/publishing/creating is my happy thriving place!” Those are the “invisible” primers for my actual creative space: a closed door, a small desk tucked behind a baby gate, and a sound machine drowning out all sounds nearby. LOL.
Our clients often tell us, “I would love to write a book, but my life is so busy. It’s hard to find time to do it.” What’s your advice to writers who feel like they “never have enough time” to create a book?
I think time is a real and difficult challenge for many of us. That being said, I think two things are true at once: We do only have so much time, and we find time for the things that are really important to us.
I love Liz Gilbert’s analogy that we should treat our creative projects like we might treat a secret love affair (if we were to have one, ha!). Meaning, people find the time to have affairs: They steal away in stairwells, sneak out for late night phone calls, make up stories about where they are in order to steal a kiss. I have a friend who is a mom of young kids, and she pretends to be in a work meeting once a week—but she’s actually using that time to work on her novel! She could just ask her spouse to watch the kids while she writes (which she sometimes does) but something about the illicitness of this “meeting” time has been helpful to her. She just hit 45K words, and her “affair” is definitely becoming a book.
You’ve stated that your life philosophy is “living the questions.” Share more about this. What does “living the questions” mean to you?
This phrase was inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke, a poet whose quote I will share:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Though Rilke directs us to not seek the answers, I think part of the point of asking questions is to understand each other and ourselves in new and different way…while also recognizing that we can never fully grasp each other or make the impermanent permanent.
But by attempting to connect with each other (showing up truthfully in a journal and in life), we are embracing the messy middle of human existence; we are willing to live in the liminal space between mortality and immortality, between answers and questions.
So much of your writing is born from a place of grief—losing your grandparents, your mother, and other important elders in your life. Is writing part of your healing process? Do you find writing cathartic? What happens to your heart, mind, and body when you write?
Even as a kid who could barely write, I filled my early journals with scribbles, somehow already sensing that writing could be a witness and relief. I feel like writing is the only thing that has remained consistent in my entire life…throughout many moves, various relationships, a serious drug addiction, getting sober, different careers, becoming a mom, confronting loss…writing has been my companion throughout all of it.
Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking,” and I have always related to that! It makes a lot of sense that I now find purpose in giving other people tools to find the same.
In addition to writing, you run a coaching practice (FollowYourFireCoaching.com). Have your clients enjoyed your new collection of books? What kind of response have you gotten? What have people told you?
These journals were a completely unrelated tangent to the coaching work (and writing) I was doing back in the summer of 2020, and that scared me a little when I first began talking about them. I’ve never really had a “niche” as a life coach, but I knew this journal was outside of the topics I usually coached on and wrote about. But it was in sharing this journal with my (small but engaged) following that began to show me how needed a project like this was, because they were so supportive. It definitely showed me to trust my people and my nudges!
We often tell our clients, “When you write a book, you’re going to grow as a writer, but you’re also going to grow as a human being, too.” You may develop greater patience, concentration, discipline, or perhaps learn how to manage time better and set firmer boundaries. Do you feel you’ve grown as a human being? How so?
This is the exact type of question I just want to build a treehouse within and live! Such a great idea to ponder. I think that writing (and then deciding to publish that writing and share it with others) is an exercise in a few things. One is trust: trusting that ideas want to be born through us for some reason, and we don’t have to know what that reason is. Another is an exercise in letting go: giving birth to a project, sharing about it with love and earnest excitement, and then letting go of the outcome/sales/opinions/crickets.
Even as I write this, I’m asking…how do you do that, Melissa? How do you tell people how to actually let go? Because I struggle with not being attached to how people receive my work. (Especially the very-tender Questions You’ll Wish You Asked journals—the bad reviews that occasionally trickle in can burrow into my not-super-thick-skin.) But this process truly is an exercise in being who I want to be in the world: someone who creates and keeps creating no matter if people think my projects are wonderful, terrible, pointless, or revolutionary. Every day I recommit to living the “why” so hard (LOL) that I am able to move beyond the super-sensitive-shit-sandwich days that inevitably come as a creative person.
Have you enjoyed working with the Get It Done team? What’s been your favorite part of the experience?
I adore the Get It Done team so much. A big reason is that you’ve always promoted the idea that whatever we are individually capable of is exactly enough. Whatever idea we have, however much time, however big or small our budget or dreams for the final project, the Get It Done team has always reinforced that just being moved to create a book at all is enough to do it.
And by helping us see that whatever we have to offer is already valid, we are (individually) pushed over the edge of “enoughness” into a place where true and beautiful creations can be born because we’ve given ourselves that permission…we’ve stopped waiting for it. I think the work you’re doing by paving the way for so many people to create is truly having world-rippling changes. So, do I adore the Get It Done team? Ummmm, yes.
What’s next for you? More books? A card deck? Another kind of project? Or, perhaps, a well-deserved break?
I don’t schedule myself breaks, because I genuinely love creating and publishing so much but also because I sort of quit this job every day; once I’m done for the day I’m done, and I don’t work overtime for myself—a boundary that’s important for me as a self-employed mom (and admittedly productivity-obsessed person). At “quitting time,” I sign off completely and allow whatever I did that day to be enough (a Get It Done value for sure!).
I have quite a few projects in the works, but my dearest project to date is one I just released called The Motherless New Mother’s Pregnancy Journal: Prompts, Practices, and Affirmations to Guide the Mom Who Is Missing Her Own. It’s got everything a thoughtful pregnancy journal might have but with the motherless daughter in mind, and it’s the journal I most needed when I was pregnant.
I have absolutely no idea where the motherless pregnant moms are (do you?), but because I believe so strongly in following the creative nudges that won’t leave me alone, I brought it into the world. I trust that it will find the right people.
Please share anything else you feel inspired to share on writing, books, publishing, life, loss, grief, or anything else.
I think being willing to give weight, time, and space to your inner creative is one of the bravest things anyone can do. I hope that my story can be an example for anyone on the fence about creating something they’re unsure truly needs to be born or uncertain it needs to be born through them.
If it won’t leave you alone, then it does.
It’s calling to you for a reason! Can you answer?
Melissa, congratulations on bringing this beautiful book into the world!
Everyone, go support Melissa’s work. Buy a copy for yourself or for someone you love. Or check out one of her other journals (she’s written 13 books!)—perfect for humans with relationships of all kinds.