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Literature, life, reflections on books read and books written. Photography and videologs are integral to the postings.
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A few months ago, I sat on the couch in my family room reading and re-reading middle-grade books. I had reached an end of sorts with young-adult fiction—had grown concerned about the divisions, the animosity, even, that had grown up among and between YA camps and were splitting writers from writers from (ultimately) readers. I wanted to feel the simple magic again of being a reader in a young person's world.
I read to be alive to the stories themselves. I read in search of binding patterns. I read, and I thought.
This essay, now published on Printers Row/Chicago Tribune, reports back on the thoughts I had.
Sometimes everything falls into place. A dear friend becomes an agent. She sells (she does!) a book (two books). She forges a link to another special person. A conversation begins.
Who hasn't listened to an All the Wonders podcast and thought, Oh, my. What intelligent questions. What a happy dialogue. What a voice that Matthew Winner has. Who hasn't secretly hoped for the chance to be a guest?
Thanks to my agent, Danielle Smith, thanks to the sale of that book (those books), thanks to her generous linking of me to Matthew Winner (a writer, librarian, husband, dad, and All the Wonders wonder), I had my secret hope answered. I'm episode 272, and during our conversation I talk about the making of sentences, the intrusion of the writerly impulse, the story called THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU, and, well, my new news. Matthew reads from my book. So do I.
All of that is here.
Thank you infinitely, Mr. Winner
and, of course, the remarkable Ms. Danielle Smith.
A few weeks ago, my last day at my father's house, I took this photograph.
An empty house. An empty room.
A journey ended.
This afternoon my father and I joined our beautiful realtor, and my friend, Marie, in an office down the road. We were handing over the keys to my father's house. A lovely young family is moving in. They will make this home their own.
A journey begun.
Thanks to all of you who have joined me on this journey of deep discovery, sometimes frustration, and, today, peace. So much is wrong with the world. The sale of this house to this family is not one of those things.
With thanks to Don Bain (for letting me know) and to those who captured this moment on film. Forever grateful.
These words feel particularly relevant today, in this world that keeps breaking our hearts.
When I left the vagaries and (often) cruelties of corporate America behind this past May
, I wasn't only leaving something. I was stepping toward something new. We've called it Juncture Workshops
. You know what it is—an intense focus on memoir and how it might be taught in ways that radically reinvent both community and self knowledge, literature and the single sentence.
Over the past few days we've been laying the groundwork for a new Juncture element—a series of brief video interludes that introduce (in Series 1) paired memoiristic essays (unexpected pairings, pairings that delight me, pairings I've not taught before) that reveal both the inner workings of memoir and the essential eruptions of memory.
We're filming our first one tomorrow. We'll be releasing the whole as a set on a teaching platform toward summer's end. I post this now because it's exciting to me—to discover these connections, and to share them.
At the Kutztown Folk Festival, Bill and I found hay balers, glass blowers, pot throwers, hex signs, the son of a Lebanese immigrant who has perfected leather. We found people, together. Open sky. A little peace.
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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, Claudia Rankine
, Deca Aitkenhaed
, Eileen Myles
, Heidi Julavits
, Joan Silber
, Maggie Nelson
, Sarah Manguso
, Ta-Nehisi Coates
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I write less here on this blog than I used to. The conversation I am having is mostly with myself. When my son calls and asks how I am—when friends ask—I have no news, no funny anecdotes, I am mostly absent. Perched on the edge.
I am reading, I am writing, I am reading more. I am reading memoirs or novels that might have been memoirs or books on the meaning of story. Eileen Myles (Chelsea Girls
). Alison Bechdel (Are You My Mother?
). Maggie Nelson (The Argonauts
). Decca Aitkenhead (All At Sea
). Sarah Manguso (Ongoingness
). Heidi Julavits (The Folded Clock
). Ta-Nehesi Coates (again). Claudia Rankine (again). Joan Silber (The Art of Time in Fiction
Every time I slip inside these books I am living, for a spell, as other. Walking, as they say, in others' shoes.
The news is crisis. It is a madness that requires us to absent ourselves from ourselves so that we might occupy the heart and mind of others. White. Blue. Black. Whatever color it is: take your own off, put another on, and see. Feel. Think.
Two weeks ago I taught memoir to a group of six who, in their glorious differences, were gorgeously one. Tonight we will have dinner with friends who know and love us. In between I am seeking, in the books I read, a path toward greater empathy and knowing. So that when I return to me I'll be bigger than I was. More capable of making some kind of earthly difference.
I made a mistake this past semester at Penn. I failed to go see Eileen Myles. She was there, in two-day residence, and I might have grabbed a seat when Al Filreis was doing one of his famous Kelly Writers House Fellows interviews, but I allowed my overwhelm (and the late SEPTA trains) to rule me.
So I didn't see Myles talk. And my students—David, Nina—they shook their heads. David said, Here, borrow my book, but of course I would not take it, for he'd written his own words next to hers and his whole body spoke of admiration. Nina said, She really was so good, she really was (Nina's gorgeous big eyes looking so sad for me). I shook my head, apologized.
Then I bought Chelsea Girls
. I shook my own head at me. Because Myles writes like somebody smart might talk—rapid fire, scandalous, self-enthralled and self negating. She is beautiful and demanding. She needs and she takes. She hopes her poetry is part of her goodness, she steals from her affairs, she thinks a lot about what she wears (orange pants and bleachy shorts and Madras shirts and nothing), she has a lot of sex. And by the way, this is not memoir (it says novel on the cover), but the character is Eileen Myles and in the novel Eileen Myles does a lot of stuff (gets her photo taken by Robert Mapplethorpe, say) that Eileen Myles actually does in real life.
What I liked most: the nearly inscrutable ineluctable gorgeous stuff that forces your reading eye to stop. Sentences like these:
The whole process of your life seemed to be a kind of soft plotting, like moving across a graph which was time, or the world.
You knew she was a good person because she held back at moments of deepest revelation. She did not spill, and I always felt that to push her a bit would be sloppy and expose my own lack of a system of conduct.
You can't force a story that doesn't want to be told.
It's lonely to be alive and never know the whole story. Everyone must walk with that thought. I would like to tell everything once, just my part, because this is my life, not yours.
What I think: Like Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, Paul Lisicky, Sarah Manguso, others, Myles is a form breaker, a smasher-up of words, a funny person with a serious talent. I should have seen her talk.
It was dark this morning when I began my work. I wasn't looking up; I was looking inward. Traveling the curve of time toward my childhood.
Toward this memoir I am making.
I needed proof of something after a while. A box where memories are kept. And so, still not looking up, still only looking in, I left one room for the other.
My eyes adjusted to present time. My words to present tense.
July 3rd. Four-thirty A.M. May the violence cease. May the skies be all the color we need. May the skies unite us.
We continue, at Juncture, to reach out beyond our own borders. Here is our first full-scale ad, which will run at a large conference in August.
Last semester, in my classroom at Penn, we focused on home—how the stories of our lives (and how we tell those stories) ultimately tangle with this construct.
As part of the Beltran Family Teaching Award program
, I invited my current and past students to write of home for a special publication my husband and I designed. When Anthony Ciacci, a student from a previous year, responded with his essay, I was thrilled—loved the piece so much that I whispered its existence into the ear of Trey Popp, a Pennsylvania Gazette
editor and friend. (Trey kindly visits my class each year to talk about editing and publishing, and I've been blessed to find my students' work appear in the Gazette
pages, including these pieces.
The rest, as they say, is history. This week, in the ever-gorgeous Pennsylvania Gazette
, Anthony's piece, modified slightly for print, appears with its own lovely illustration and shine (read the full story here
). I could not be more proud—nor more happy. Anthony is a big-souled guy, an extraordinary brother, a faithful son, and a talent. We need hearts like his at this time.
And so, with memoir, I begin again. Writing toward an idea. Teasing remembrance. Stuck in the morass of something I can almost see.
One wrong sentence in ten long pages requires a rewriting of those ten pages. One wrong sentence is the false note that proves the premise wrong, casts doubt upon the entire enterprise. If I can't get that sentence right, then I can't get that memory right, then I can't settle on meaning.
When we say we love to write, we are also admitting to being half in love with the wars we spark within ourselves.
Yesterday, as part of this week-long teaching at the Rosemont College Writers & Readers Retreat, Carla Spataro asked me questions about themes (and food) and then invited me to read. I chose to share what I think of as postcards from my books—the opening words from stories—Small Damages, Going Over, One Thing Stolen, This Is the Story of You, Flow—that take place around the world.
The video captures some of that. I am grateful for the conversation.
Juncture Workshops has a new web site to accommodate our growing number of offerings. (We've added a Cape May, NJ, workshop; we'll be conducting a one-day workshop in a major garden next fall; and we'll be offering videos and online instruction by year's end. The new site makes room for all of this.)
I share the link here.
And: Those of you interested in joining the conversation are welcome to sign up for our newsletter (through the Juncture web site). The fourth edition features thoughts on the place of poetry in life stories, brilliant commentary by poet/memoirist Brian Turner, new "homework," a reader response, and memoir commentary and critique. It's free.
Existing subscribers, please look for the next issue within the coming 24 hours.
Not long ago, in Cape May, I came upon this scene. Two dear friends talking up in the abandoned lifeguard chair. Side by side, and then some.
This is friendship. This is conversation. This is what we hope for, even when we sometimes disagree. To return again, to lift our feet again, to sit with another and watch the sea.
This afternoon I joined my father at the family home for one more clean out. It was the attic this time, my sister's things, the leftover tools in the furnace room. Enough to fill the garage, once again, with bags and boxes and mountains of trash.
Every cleaning has offered its reward. This time the reward was gigantic, and unexpected. My parents' wedding album. Stuffed on a shelf in an attic beside an old microscope and beneath a box of bleached sand dollars.
I snapped these photos quickly.
Aren't they beautiful? And didn't my grandparents have style? And look at the kiss my grandmother gives my mother.
Yesterday I met my dear friend Debbie Levy (our friendship tracing back to a happy pairing at an Alexandria, VA, bookstore) at Longwood Gardens and, over lunch with one of her good friends, celebrated the good news in Debbie's life.
Last week, I walked Valley Forge Park with my dear friend Nazie Dana (our friendship tracing back to early young adulthood and a crazy/lovely architectural magazine venture) and, through paths carved out of tall grasses, reflected on much that has happened since we saw each other last.
Today I will walk the Radnor Trail with my dear friend Ellen Brackett (our friendship tracing back to our college days), and, as we pass the signposts of history, we will speak of sons and ideas and homes.
This is how I spend these days. In mourning since Orlando, absolutely. In celebration of the love there very much still is.
If I were to name the single window in my living room, I would name it "self portrait."
"self portrait," lowercase, because we can't take ourselves that seriously, but still, here, is the microcosm of me. A lamp my mother gave me. A skull I bought for my husband. Growing things, courtesy of my father. A polymer bowl, bought from the shop that now features the clay of this skull-loving ceramics genius. Up above, a ring box from when I was a kid, a glass hummingbird, a glass sea horse, a pair of ornamental ice skates because I could once land a double lutz. A car carved by a friend of my son. Art from Krakow. A small bit of porcelain that I'd given my mother and then gave back to myself, in the long year of cleaning her house. A fan from Spain.
The world beyond. The neighbors with whom I've become friends again.
Sometimes the living takes long.
It occurs to me that you might have noticed that I'm posting less frequently on the blog these days. In part, that is to spare you.
In part it's because I'm devoting so much time to reading and planning the Juncture memoir newsletter, which is sent out to our list once a month. Juncture Notes is free, and you can sign up here
to read my interviews with memoirists, my reflections on the form, and the work that our readers send in, among other things. (Juncture Notes also features the original work of my multi-media artist husband. His clay. His photographs. His 3-D images.)
But much of my absence here on the blog can be directly tied to the image above. I call these the Juncture Workshop files. It is a long-ongoing project—a massive effort to cull, save, sort the memoir thoughts I have, the excerpts I love, the exercises that occur to me in the middle of each night—all so that I can teach most effectively both at Penn and at the five-day Juncture memoir workshops we're conducting in McClure, PA, in September, and in Cape May, NJ, in November.
(More details on both here
I'm not close to done. I'll never be done. I've just ordered eight more books—and a new bookcase. In fact, within two weeks one room out of the seven rooms in my house will be devoted solely to memoir—to the hundreds of memoirs that I own, to the files I am building, to the essays of those who are joining our workshops.
Call me obsessed.
It's all right.
I get that all the time.
At the gym where I Body Combat on Saturday mornings and sneak in thirty-minute-CNN enhanced workouts two or three additional days each week, I qualify as the most poorly dressed. I have one pair of work-out pants. Four T-shirts, two of them now dryer-reduced to ten-year-old-girl status. Having been recently reminded of my poor fashion sense by a far-better heeled friend (it was suggested, firmly and more than once, that I would highly benefit from a stylist who would tell me with emphatic speed that black turtlenecks are out
), it seemed time to get new T-shirts. Yesterday, as I waited for what turned out to be a beautiful conversation with Melissa Jensen and Cordelia Jensen (and the fabulous Ashley) at the Penn Book Center, I headed over to the Penn Bookstore to buy two replacement alum shirts.
And then I was stopped—completely stopped—by this. Story,
center stage, in the window.I need to thank someone,
I whispered, to the young man at the information desk inside.
I am not a writer you'll find
at many of the big shows. I'm not on the traveling circuit. Infinitely more interested in writing the next, in writing it better, in reading the work of others, in sharing what I find out, I don't do what most writers do to advance my personal career. And so I feel particularly blessed when the utterly unexpected happens. When those who read the books I write take the time to tell me about the experience. When my love for my city is acknowledged in humbling ways.
When my high school invites me to speak to the graduating seniors on commencement day
. When my alma mater (and employer) turns a book I wrote into window art. When people I respect—Melissa, Cordelia, Ashley—share fragments of their worlds.
There are so many measures in a writer's life—indeed, in any life. The trick, I think, is to stop and notice when something beautiful happens—however unquantifiable. And then, of course, to say thank you.
Grand Prix night at the Devon Horse Show. The hats and fascinators are out in force. The speed demons get the sand to churn. The reverend waits to sing the national anthem, and the bugler checks the time. The horses fly. The crowd is electrified.
Leaving, I see a Radnor High School friend. "Are you ready for next week?" he asks me.
"Yes," I said, with rare confidence. "I am."
On Sunday afternoon, my husband and I sorted through the last of the tools in my father's house, leaving that beautiful home virtually empty—a year-long odyssey of epic proportions.
Once back at my own house, I began to do what had long needed to be done. There had been books in piles everywhere. Books in bins. Stories I couldn't write because of all the mental and physical clutter. The quantities of things were overwhelming. Simplifying meant taking some 450 books from this little house—driving many bags of them straight to The Spiral Bookcase
in Manayunk, an independent that specializes in books both new and old and that is run by the generous Ann Tetreault.
While my husband built our new bookcase, I carried the remaining books—these books, oh these books—from room to room. I decided: Novels and nonfiction on one wall in the family room. Picture books, middle grade books, young adult novels, and all things Horace Kephart and Daniel D'Imperio (my great grandfather and beloved uncle) on the other family room wall. Poems and journals in the case to the left in my office. Grammar, reference, and natural history books in the case to the right. My own stuff (the books, the anthologies, the literary magazines, and a few favorite corporate projects) in the shelves to the left of my desk, overseen by my muse, the giraffe, who came all the way from Africa to be with me and whose name is She. She has been worried about me lately. She's more at peace now.
And then, in the new bookshelves in the room we have officially christened the "Juncture Workshop"
room, the memoirs, the essay collections, the hybrid novels/memoirs, my Tin House collection, and those novels by authors whose work I have collected in multiples. A few pieces of clay that Bill and I have jointly made (he throws the shapes, I glaze). My four bright binders stuffed with teachable memoir excerpts and essays—all the material that will inspire those five-day workshops
on a farm and by the sea. And room for the many books yet to come.
I feel lighter, less bundled up inside my own head, more ready for whatever is next, anticipatorily efficient. Just a few days ago, I had to dig through triple-stacked shelves or those heavy, bottomless bins to find the book I needed. Over the past year, I bought multiple copies of books I already had, because I could never find the original source. I bought way too many e-books (I'm not the biggest fan of e-books) because the boats of books had swelled.
I'm breathing now.
Last evening, at the 120th commencement of Radnor High School, I watched 293 beautiful students cross the stage at the Villanova Pavilion. Listened to families and friends roar for them. Admired the teachers and administrators, librarians and coaches, band leaders and artisans who have helped lead them to now. There was Adam Thomson, a young man who grew up in my church. There was Morganne Boulden, whose father, Tom, was (back in our own Radnor day) and still is a deeply appreciated friend. There were the builders of non-profit foundations, the athletes, the painters, philosophers, mathematicians, the seekers and doers—each one special.
Principal Dan Bechtold, Superintendent Dr. Michael J. Kelly, and students Andrew Ciatto and Katie Wakiyama—thank you for making last night so entirely memorable for me. A condensed version of my remarks will run in this Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer,
on the front page of the Currents section. For now, this, below. For always, congratulations.
The sky was on fire when I rose to write these words. A swell of orange. A streak of flax. Mad and wonderful cinnamon reds. The sky was on fire, but there was also, oddly, rain, and the comfort of bird talk, and the huff of an old bus traveling the road just beyond. A school bus, in its end-of-school-year rounds.
I sat on my couch and I thought about you. I thought about your journey to now, to this place beneath this famous dome. Your classmates beside you. Your admirers in the stands. Your teachers and coaches and administrators near.
Your mortarboards crushing your coifs.
Your tassels eager for the toss.
When the Barnes and Noble (Devon) wrote to ask if I'd participate in the first national Teen Festival this weekend, I said yes, of course.
And then we began to talk about what I might actually do.
It's been decided. I'll be reading from This Is the Story of You
—something I haven't done, save for a paragraph here or there. And then we'll set my book aside and spend some time talking and thinking about memoir—and your seaside/vacation-centric memories.
The event specifics are here. We hope you'll join us and help make this national festival a success.
June 12, 2 PM
Teen Book Festival
This Is the Story of You
Reading and Writing Workshop
Barnes and Noble
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In 2009, CE Morgan's All the Living
showed up on my doorstep for review. I didn't know who this writer was. I had no expectations. But, as I wrote then, I was very quickly awed:
But here was a first novel so self-assured and unto itself, so unswerving in its purpose, so strummed through with a peculiar, particular, electrifying sound, that I found myself reading in a state of highest perplexion, and also gratitude and awe. Maybe the gratitude came first, for All the Living is a novel about the hardest things—about grief and lonesomeness, about desiring much and staying true, about loving through and forgiveness. It’s a novel that makes you think on all of that newly, and that spares nothing and no one in the process.
Recently Morgan published her second novel, The Sport of Kings,
and it is getting the kind of attention a writer of this caliber should. I plan to read it. I have not yet. The purpose of this post is to share an interview CE Morgan conducted with Commonweal
magazine. She's not one to talk too much about her process. This interview provides a rare glimpse. I highly recommend that the interview be read in its entirety, here.
But for now, I share some of the fragments of the conversation that have me thinking on this day—and will keep me thinking for a very long time.On moral beauty and evil:
I think of moral beauty as what is the good and the just—terms perhaps best defined by their opposite: evil. Evil is the willingness to do damage to the other; its maximal expression is murder, but it includes a great deal of subtle and not-so-subtle injuries as it advances to that extreme. Evil acts reduce the other to an object, a being to its component parts, and obliterate subjectivity. Evil’s breeding ground is a lack of empathy. So I locate moral beauty in an other-regarding ethic. Or perhaps it’s better to say it’s not located
anywhere, because it’s not a static entity. It’s love, and love is not a feeling but an action."On the power of lack:
"I often think there are three primary responses to suffering—rage, intoxication, or growth. We either want revenge for our pain, or we numb ourselves with the endless array of intoxicants available to us, from drugs to overwork, or we grow in empathy. Emptiness can transform into spaciousness; lack can become an agent of social action. But I think many of us struggle to remain on that third path without backsliding into the other two. I do." On writing the other:
"The injunction to justify race-writing, while ostensibly considerate of marginalized groups, actually stifles transracial imagination and is inextricable from those codes of silence and repression, now normalized, which have contributed to the rise of the racist right in our country. When you leave good people afraid to speak on behalf of justice, however awkwardly or insensitively, those unafraid to speak will rise to power."