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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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Anmiryam Budner of Main Point Books (Bryn Mawr, PA) has a way about her. A stealth please, try
that wins me over every time. I think you will like this book, you will appreciate this writer, this reminds me of something you might have done or might some day do
, she'll say. And there's no walking away from that.
Most recently I left Main Point Books with The World Before Us,
a novel of great complexity and intrigue by Aislinn Hunter. It is a story told in part by remembrancers—ghosts, if you like—who have gathered around a British archivist named Jane. Jane works in a small museum of vast collections—and that museum is about to close. Jane also endlessly works through a childhood trauma—the day the little girl left in her charge (Jane was fifteen at the time and slightly (secretly) in love with the child's father) disappeared on the estate of a Victorian asylum. Obsessed with the disappearance of little Lily, Jane is also obsessed with other mysteries of the asylum's late 19th century heyday. She ponders, researches, loses herself in the vortex of time.
Those remembrancers listen in. They remember their own pasts. They move the story forward.
Hunter is an author of many gifts. Her ability to conjure colliding periods, a musty museum, multiple distant lives, garden ruins is, I think, uncanny—she does it all so very well. Then there's the shape of her sentences, the sly inventiveness bent into even the most quiet of scenes:
... she reached a large glass case on thick oak feet. It contained a series of criss-crossed branches upon which Nathanial Hartford, Esquire, had supervised the wire mounting of two hundred and four hummingbirds in an attempt to display all the colours and designs of the species. The birds were caught in various stages of rest or flight, their wings closed or spread out like the slats of a fan. Most people paused here briefly, if they stopped at all, but Jane studied each bird in turn, the dark beads of their eyes, their long bills, flamboyant gorgets. Those of us who had followed her into the museum studied the birds too, and watched her, the care she gave each individual thing.
"When is a bird no longer a bird?" one of us asked.
This is a story that takes its time, that introduces large casts of alive and dead characters, that hinges around the questions that an archivist has about a character that appears to have gone missing from the history books, a character named N. The suspense is a researcher's suspense. The plot is not nearly as important as the themes—time, memory, regret, the cloister of the dead around the turbulence of the living. I was reminded, as I read, of Nova Ren Suma's The Walls Around Us
(about which I wrote here
)—another book told, at times, with the Choral We, another book in which the language is careful, inventive, and haunted.
It took me a while to finish World
. I've been lost inside a thicket of Too Many things. And even if, at times, I wished for a few less direct intrusions by those remembrancers, even if I wondered if the story might have succeeded with fewer characters, I always wanted to get back to this story. I wanted to see how this incredibly talented Hunter would pull her complex machinery off. I wanted to appreciate the particularity of this novelist, in passages like this:
And in the dark, in drifts of memory, we recall some of the people and things we have happened pon, moments that aroused us from the stupor of our lives—the plumes of a peacock unfolding under an elm, the bright platter of a sky coroneted by trees, a list retrieved from between an armoire and the wall of a house by the sea:
Flat of palm on abdomen
Shift of sheets
Hard shelf of his hips against the soft of mine
Curve of water glass against my lips—his hand trembling
Coarse planking of the wood floor
The hitch of a sliver
I bought two copies of Between the World and Me,
the Ta-Nehisi Coates National Book Award winner, this famed letter to a son. One for me and one for my nephew Owen, with whom I stood, not long ago, on the Yale campus during commencement. We were there in celebration of Owen's sister. The crowd had settled and was waiting. During the pause a near stranger accosted first me and then (this was my fault) Owen with her singular world view. It was hard, she said, to be a white man in today's world. It was hard. In fact, it was terrible.
Politely, with economical urgency, my nephew offered his perhaps not. Perhaps being a white man in this world is not the hardest thing to be. Perhaps, he said, laying out the logic.
I love my nephew. He teaches me many things— Rubik's cubes and emoji and a recipe for tortilla soup. But I love most the conversations between the funny stuff, the glimpses of serious that we allow ourselves, the guy he was at Yale that day, dissuading Privilege from her ideas about wronged privilege. And so I bought me a copy of Coates and I bought Owen a copy of Coates, and I suggested that we together read.
"Book club of two!" Owen declared. Indeed.Between the World and Me
is fearless in its construction, damning in its accounting, a sandblasting of "Dreamer" ideology, a history of racecraft. It is deliberately bold, self-awareishly extreme, the sort of testimony that rocks readers from a long sleep:
Americans believe in the reality of "race" as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism—the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.
Body is the word here. Living inside a black body is the question, the experience, the theme, the springboard from which Coates tells the story of his own coming into awareness as a quester, as a young man whose father beat him so that he might be strong, as a Howard University student who left the classroom for the library and found his heart inside The Mecca, as a friend whose friend was wrongly gunned down, as a father, as a husband, as an excursionist to Paris. Yes, Paris, beautifully rendered here.
Bracing and blunt, Between the World and Me
is a missile launched toward the heart of comfortable ideas. It is a cry out from a place of long darkness:
Do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.
But here in these pages readers will also find the salve of knowledge, the power of curiosity, and the potentiality of language—learned and deployed.
I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago—the craft of writing as the art of thinking. Poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts. Poetry was not simply the transcription of notions—beautiful writing rarely is.... Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.
Dear Book Club of Two member: I want to know your thoughts.
Dear World, Dear Privilege: We are standing on the precipice. Narrow, excluding points of view will not, cannot save us.
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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, Jeff Kephart
, Jeffrey Bihuber
, Jenepher Shillingford
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, Shadi Hamid
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Yesterday and now again today: the celebration of the Radnor High 2015 Hall of Famers.
I was privileged to attend yesterday's ceremony—to watch my brother teach a master class to exceptionally bright young mathematicians (and to see him reunite with his favorite high school math teacher, Mrs. Swanson), to listen to the appreciative crowd as the inductees were named in that glossy gymnasium, to see my classmate Josh Wurman after so many years, and to thank some of the many people who make these two days what they are.
This year's inductees
are remarkable—Jeffrey Bilhuber, a top designer whose clients include David Bowie and Anna Wintour, the best-selling author Kelly Corrigan, the military hero Mark Gibbons, the essential world affairs analyst and Islamist expert Shadi Hamid, the charming, internationally acclaimed choreographer Austin Hartel, the Yale scholar Maria Rosa Menocal, the multiple Academy Award winning Foley Artist John Roesch, the uber athlete Jenepher Shillingford, and the acclaimed scientist, meteorologist, and Discovery Channel storm chaser Josh Wurman.
But the Radnor High students are equally remarkable. Their eagerness to go into the thick of the Pascal Triangle, their respect for Shadi's knowledge, their roar when John's "Dark Knight" and "Frozen" were mentioned, their interest in process, their questions about careers.
Yesterday I asked Shadi if part of his felt responsibility was to offer hope in his analysis of ISIS and great discontent. The act of understanding, Shadi said, is a form of hope—a beautiful response in difficult days. But the students of Radnor High are also a form of hope—their connection to those who have gone before, their appreciation for a couple of hours spent with those who were once rising, questioning, wondering, too.
In a few hours, the second half of the program will commence. I'm dashing down to Penn to give a mini talk, then hurrying back to watch more greatness unfold.
A huge thank you to Mr Skip Shoemaker, Jeanne Lynam, Sharon Reardon, and the many others who create these immeasurable moments.
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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Big Blue Marble Bookstore
, Chester County Books
, children's book world
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, Joseph Fox Books
, Main Point Books
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Lately I've had cause (again) to celebrate the independent bookstores. That they exist. That their owners and their colleagues work so very hard. That they know books. That they believe in culture, literature, and ideas.
That they are endlessly innovative, funky, fun.
In and out of the shops I've gone. Toward the events they have supported. No single event has been like any other event. Every single store is its own vibrant cluster of possibility.
And so today, a photo thank you to the stores that stand at the heart of our communities. To Ann of The Spiral Bookcase, who lugged all those books out to those very special events at the Ambler Theater
and Laurel Hill. To Heather of Children's Book World, who sent One Thing Stolen
to our Philadelphia/Florence party at Radnor Memorial Library
(where I learned that the book was in its second, newly colorized printing). To Cathy and Anmiryam of Main Point Books, where we had the nicest Sunday afternoon. To Ashley at Penn Book Center, who placed LOVE in the window and talked to me for a long time one afternoon. To Michael at Joseph Fox Books, who supported the Free Library launch. To the glorious Bank Street Bookstore, which sold Small Damages
to this beautiful reader during that be-all-end-all conference
. To Caroline of Frenchtown's Book Garden, who organized our memoir retreat
at the Rat (where James Agee once wrote) as well as my morning at the art-filled Delaware Valley Regional High School. And to Stephanie of Harleysville Books, who brought out a crowd on a rainy night and who invited the great baker Ann to share her special treats (pretzel brittle, in honor of Philadelphia!).
I'll be visiting a few more bookstores—both the incredibly hospitable Barnes and Nobles and two more indies, Chester County Books and Big Blue Marble Books—in December, the dates below.
It's restorative, being around people who care about holding the world close and safe.December 3, 2015, 7 PMLOVE signingChester County BooksWest Chester, PA
December 5, 2015, noonLOVE signingBarnes and NobleDevon, PA
December 10, 2015, 12 - 2PM
Barnes & Noble signing
December 12, 2015, 2 PM
Big Blue Marble Bookstore
551 Carpenter Lane
Over the course of this week I have walked the glorious Victoriana streets of Frenchtown, NJ, taught memoir in a bar called the Rat, given an impromptu one-hour address to a gathering of New Jersey kids, encouraged the idea of urgency in 20 high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors, listened to the stories of the fourth and fifth graders of West Philly, hung out at the Water Works with a drone and a camera crew, met with my Wall Street client, and spent time thinking about the arc of corporate strategies and the lives of patients. Later today I'll make the drive to Harleysville, where we will talk about LOVE and where I will listen to the tales of others. Tomorrow and Saturday I will return to my high school and watch my brother be inducted into the Radnor High Hall of Fame. Not just my brother, of course, but nine others who have done remarkable (and I do mean remarkable) things with their lives.
Here's a video, if you'd like to meet these souls (and my brother).
All of this seeing and living and talking and listening takes place against the backdrop of a bruised and battered world. Not just Paris, not just the Russian airliner, not just Lebanon, but the screech of stump speeches, the war over refugees, the stories that are not getting told because of the stories that must get told.
How do any of us maintain our perspective?
I'm not sure I know.
I'm just sure that I have made a commitment to try to stay informed, to read the objective reports, to take into consideration multiple points of view, to not condemn a group of people for the actions of a small minority, to still believe, as my hero Terrence des Pres believed, that goodness is bigger than badness and still entirely possible. Also—and this is critical—to admit when I am wrong, to be willing to adapt, to conclude newly, to advocate more gracefully.
I am sad. I admit that I am. But if I allow the sadness to eradicate my hope or my faith in people, then I have been defeated.
I don't wish to be defeated.
And so I go out, I talk to others, I listen to others, I ask for their stories. I remain open to the possibility of good.
That is our responsibility, in these times.
On Homecoming Saturday, in the Kelly Writers House on the Penn campus, I spent 75 minutes in conversation with Buzz Bissinger. It was a dialogue of many dimensions and much quiet—and authentic—self reflection.
That conversation can now be watched in its entirety here
I'm not sure I'll ever be very good at simply moving forward with my own life when I am vividly aware of the terrible loss and hurt that has utterly rearranged the lives of others.
It doesn't feel right. But it's the only choice we have. Keep living.
And so, this week, there will be (between pauses, within silence) moments of study, moments of reflection, moments of celebration, moments of friendship, many interesting corporate projects, one unexpected audition, and three hours with some wet clay.
You are welcome to join us for the public events:
Today, November 15, on behalf of The Book Garden in Frenchtown, NJ, I'll be teaching a three-hour memoir workshop. Details are here.
There is room. You can join us.
Tomorrow, November 16, at the Delaware Valley Regional High School, I'll be talking about the writers' life to an assembly of students and then providing insights on crafting the college essay.
Tuesday, November 17, I'll return to my work with the fourth and fifth graders of West Philadelphia, who will be refining the essays they began writing last week.
Thursday, November 19, I'll be at the wonderful Harleysville Books for the November Book Club Happy Hour, talking about our city and the power of love, an especially important topic, I think, in these days. The details are here.
On Friday and Saturday I will be at Radnor High School, joining my brother for his Radnor High Hall of Fame induction ceremony. We are, I believe, the first brother-sister pairing on that wall. I am over the moon for Jeff and grateful to all those on the committee who recognized his contributions to his rarefied world of engineering and mathematics
Finally, the paperback of Going Over
, my Berlin Wall novel, is being launched this month, and in celebration there are currently ten copies being offered in this Goodreads giveaway.
Finally, finally, words of thanks to Chronicle Books and Junior Library Guild. This Is the Story of You
has been selected for the Guild's Book Club.
Like most of you, I imagine, I watched the news last evening and late through the night with a growing sense of sadness and chill. That there could be that kind of inhumanity. That there will be, now, yet another lasting legacy of loss. That every single pundit said essentially the same thing: This is the world now. The Russian airline. Lebanon. Paris. Random, heartbreaking ruin is here to stay.
What can I do, what can we do, are we to sit here and cower? We are all asking ourselves some version of the question, and I for my part wonder this: If, as we learn, the terror cells rely, at least in part, on social media to coordinate and trigger the attacks, do we, as a world, actually need social media as it exists right now?
Could we take away a primary organizing tool, at least for long enough to scramble the forces?
Certainly we once got along just fine without it. Didn't we?
What if we stepped away from the social media platforms in such numbers that the terrorists and their awful plans would be naked and exposed? What if we acknowledged that advertising our own needs, wins, losses, jokes, shoe sizes, garden weeds, disgust, caloric intake, presidential candidate rants is less important than providing terrorists with a platform for mass destruction? What if we simply said, Enough. Let us return to flesh-and-blood community, to traditional media, to town halls, to talking to one another instead of at one another.
Let us strip the terrorists of one of their most powerful tools.
(A friend has noted, rightfully, that the terrorists are perfectly capable of building their own tools. I guess I wonder if made-for-terror-purposes intranet feeds wouldn't be more easily monitored than looking for needles inside the haystacks of internationally shared feeds. And I also realize I'm probably being naive. But.)
It seems that this would be a whole lot easier than combing through the names and associations of countless disaffected soldiers of a bloody but poorly specified war. A lot less expensive (money, lives, collateral damage) than war. A lot more quickly implemented.
Social media is something that we have the power to reinvent, redirect, contain, use differently.
Given the quagmire that faces us, the dangers afoot, the lack of any other reasonable solution, isn't it worth trying? If we step away, for awhile, from the big platforms, the only people using them will be those who are using them for the wrong purposes. And there they will be, standing in the discoverable light.
As a veteran reviewer (veteran = old, in case you were wondering), I still think a lot (every single time) about the responsibilities of critics—particularly when it comes to memoir.
I thought my thoughts out loud this week, in the Chicago Tribune
's special edition on memoir. The link to the story is here
(For my Tribune
thoughts on the new Mary-Louise Parker memoir, Dear Mr. You,
Oh, I loved this risk-taking, let's think for ourselves, let's not bend to mere chronology memoir by the actress Mary-Louise Parker.
My thoughts about it, in the Chicago Tribune
She had been driven, with the other fourth and fifth graders, through rain and across the slick of leaves from West Philadelphia toward an old stone building in Bryn Mawr. She sat on the floor with a wide gold band on her head and a pencil in her hand. I was asking her (the others, too) to think about home—what it is. I was asking for specifics—the sounds in the streets, the light in the house, the color of the flowers in the pot. I was reading a little Julia Alvarez, a little Sandra Cisneros, a little Jacqueline Woodson, a little Charles Blow. Tell me what you are hearing, I said. Tell me which details make these memories of homes and houses particular for you.
Many hands up. Many questions. Many details.
Then, toward the end, I asked the children to imagine their someday house—where will you live when you are ten or fifteen years older than you are today? Some wrote a sentence. Some worked with their tutors to write more. This little girl with the golden hairband wrote, on her own, an entire page and a half.
She wanted to read it aloud.
I said yes. Quieted the room.
Her home of the future would have candy walls. It would have yellow, purple, orange, red, TVs, a place for everyone she loves. It would have (this was a final detail) bulletproof windows that were shaped like hearts.
Are you going to be a writer? I asked her. Oh, yes. She said. What do you read? I asked her. Junie B., she said, and (her favorite book of all) the dictionary.
Next week maybe I'll tell her that when I was her age I dreamed of being a writer, too. That being a writer is possible. That anyone who conjures candy walls and heart-shaped bulletproof windows is a heroine of mine. Next week, when she returns, with another story.
Over the past many days I've been building memoir workshops—the five-day, traveling, unusually unusual workshop
that I will launch next year (if you are interested, leave your name here), an online program being developed with a radically effective book-coaching friend, a two-evening program for the fourth and fifth graders of North Philly, the syllabus for my 2016 memoir course at Penn, and the two workshops I'll be delivering next Sunday and Monday in Frenchtown, NJ—one for Book Garden (you can still register
) and one for the local high school.
That building looks like this.
And it is far from done.
Thank you, Trey Popp, for sharing this story about my students and the characters they inspire in the new as-ever-gorgeous edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette
The focus of this particular essay is One Thing Stolen,
a novel Chronicle Books released this past April. One Thing Stolen
takes place partly on the Penn campus and partly in Florence, Italy. Its primary characters—Maggie Ercolani and Katie Goldrath—were named for students I loved (and love).
Meanwhile, in a forthcoming novel, This Is the Story of You,
my Mira Banul, the star of that story, carries the last name of my student Sean Banul. Mira must be especially strong as a monster storm devastates her world. She has a cat that waves. Sean gave me both strength and a waving cat. He gave me willing use of his last name.
Some people wonder why I write so many books. The answer: Because so many people and places inspire me. Indeed, my most recent students are already transforming the landscape of my imagination.
An excerpt from the Gazette
story is below. The entire piece can be read here
To be a Penn student is a privilege, absolutely, but privilege isn’t necessarily or even primarily the natural domain of the young people I meet. They are emergent, they are bright, they are headed toward something, but few among them have had it easy. The students who gather around the table in that Victorian twin have lost siblings, parents, teachers, best friends, faith in the bedrock, parts of themselves. They have been diagnosed, they have been uprooted, they have stood in danger’s way, they have endured violence and prejudice. They are, at times, the first members of their family to matriculate in college. English is not always their first language. Home is a word they are still defining. I say that I teach at Penn, but that is a preposterous shorthand. I show up, and I’m profoundly educated.
I am inspired.
We talked about LOVE
—but also, mainly, love
—in a gorgeous theater in downtown Ambler last night. I have Lauren Smyth, Cheri Fiory, Anne Frank, the Kiwanis Club of Ambler, the Upper Dublin and Wissahickon Valley Public Libraries, Kristine Weatherston, Kristine's Temple documentary film students, those Ambler-ites who shared their stories out loud, Ann Tetrault of Manayunk's The Spiral Bookcase, my husband, my father, and a wide community of others to thank for this evening in which a light mist accumulated outside and time unspooled within.
I believe, as a writer, in opening one's arms. In saying, This world belongs to all of us, and I want to hear your story, too
. And oh—we heard their stories.
Ambler is a town worthy of the recognition it is now receiving—bakeries, upscale restaurants, family restaurants, two theaters, two libraries, kind people. I will always be grateful for the invitation that brought me there, and I do plan to return.
Don't think I'll ever see one of my book titles up on a marquee again. I'm keeping that memory.
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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, Beltran Family Teaching Award
, Book Garden Memoir Workshop
, Buzz Bissinger
, Jennie Nash
, Margo Rabb
, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto
, University of Pennsylvania
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Look for me behind stacks of books. That's where I'm living lately.
Assembling the content for a traveling multi-day memoir workshop.
Preparing to teach the personal essay during a morning/afternoon at a Frenchtown high school. Knitting together ideas for a four-hour Sunday memoir workshop, next weekend, at the Rat (also in Frenchtown; places still available)
. Conjuring poem-engendering exercises for the fourth and fifth graders of North Philly. Building the syllabus for my next semester of teaching at Penn. Putting more touches onto the Beltran Family Teaching Award event
at Penn next spring (featuring Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, Margo Rabb, and A.S. King). Re-reading Buzz Bissinger so that I can introduce and then publicly converse with him at the Kelly Writers House this Saturday, for Penn's Homecoming
. Talking to Jennie Nash
about an online memoir workshop. Writing the talk I'll give this evening to kick off the LOVE event (featuring film students and Philadelphians) at the Ambler theater.
My writing (my novels) sit in a corner over there, where they have sat for most of this year. I'm sunk deep into the pages of other people's work. Their stories, their sentences, their churn: a thrilling habitation.
Every time I feel frustrated by a sense of career stall or perpetual overlook, I remember this: There are writers—truly great writers—who have gone before me, who have written more wisely, who have seen more clearly. I may want to be noticed, I may hope to be seen, I may wish to be important, a priority, first on a list, but honestly? Why waste time worrying all that when there is so much to be learned—about literature, about life—from the writers who have gone before—and ahead—of me.
James Agee. Annie Dillard. Eudora Welty. We could stop right there. Read all they've written. Make the study of them the year we live and it would be enough. It would be time well spent, time spent growing, time during which we learn again that aspiration must, in the end, be contextual. We can't hope to stand on a mountain's top if we don't acknowledge all the boulders and the trees and the ascent and the views that rumble beneath the peak.
My cure for my own sometimes literary heartbreak: Sink deep inside the work of others. Recall what greatness is.
Was so very happy to be there, among the Bank Street writers and thinkers. This is our panel—Vicky Smith, Tim Wynne-Jones, and Daniel Jose Older (and me).
We read a few pages from each of our books in the early part of this video—Daniel reads Shadowshaper, I read from One Thing Stolen, Tim reads from The Emperor of Any Place. And then we answer the truly thoughtful, provocative questions provided to us/for us by Vicky Smith of Kirkus Reviews.
A treasured day.
—a novel innovator, a proponent of risk, a teacher who, by his own accounting in Master Clas
s, challenged, abraded and applauded—recently passed away. He had been living in the aftermath of a stroke that had rearranged his language. He'd been living loved by his wife, the writer Diane Ackerman.
In honor of his passing I went back last night and re-read passages of Master Class
—a plea for originality, a template for the new. Perhaps I like this book so much because I side with West. I believe in the unusual mix.
But let's give the words today to Mr. West himself. A passage from his account of a final class.
From time to time I encourage them to see their work in an almost Dionysian way, at its most creative, trying to experiment in every sentence, not through wild excess but with timing, almost covert touches that will transform a phrase. Be concise to begin with, I tell them, and then stretch it out like elastic, filling in all the spaces.
I don't know what "authoritative" feels like, but I'm sure I'll never get there. There's always something more to learn, something more to see, some question I don't have answers for, someone with a better story. I'm reminded of that every day, and increasingly, as I travel around our city to speak to those who have worked on its behalf.
Yesterday, at Laurel Hill Mansion
, I met with the women who have helped ensure that this centuries-old home in Fairmount Park East still thrives. Musicians come to play in the summer there. People arrive and talk. Harry K. gives tours to visitors from Germany, California, and elsewhere. Sylvia, 91-years-young, recalls the work the Women for Greater Philadelphia did to open this house during the Bicentennial.
I took a few photos while I was there. That's Phyllis Kauffman looking out over the Schuylkill River from the Laurel Hill Mansion back porch. Phyllis was once a librarian in Pennsylvania's third largest library. Oh, does she, too, have stories to tell.
With special thanks to the very beautiful Ann of The Spiral Bookcase,
a joyful community indie in Manayunk that supports authors and their dreams—and readers, too. Ann graciously joined us yesterday. And you can meet her again this Thursday, at the Ambler theater, where we will be celebrating LOVE as the community's Let's Discuss It title.
(We'll be doing far more than that—celebrating Temple University film students, celebrating the memories of Philadelphians, celebrating libraries and librarians. It's a fest. Details are here.
Yesterday I introduced my friend Jennie Nash. It was the first post in a three-post series that spotlights Jennie's Author Accelerator, a singular program that helps steer authors toward their own finished books. Today, we're continuing that series with Jennie's reflections on process, structure, tone and voice. What gives a book lift, shape, foundation? What makes a story soar? Who is that soul with the voice in the cathedral, finally ready to sing?
As you read, please remember Jennie's offer—a discount to try out Author Accelerator for a month. The normal price is $199/month, which gives writers four deadlines against which they turn in ten pages for review. Jennie is offering a discounted price of $150 for the first months. Authors can write to Jade@Authoraccelerator.com and ask for the Beth Kephart special offer. That will be good through November 15, 2015.
Author Accelerator encourages authors to think before they write—to map out their desires as writers, articulate their hopes for their projects, ponder requirements like structure and tone. You’ve published eight books yourself. When did you begin to recognize, in your own work, the power of the authorial pause?
There has been a certain frantic-ness in my own work for a long time. I was one of those people who wanted to be published before I was 25, because I was restless for success. Each time I wrote another book I would think, “THIS is going to be my big breakthrough book!” I would set arbitrary and very ambitious deadlines for myself – like, “I have to finish this draft in three months.” That can sometimes be good for staying motivated, but if you never let the work breathe, or let yourself breathe, it’s hard to find your voice. All that pushing and striving didn’t help me to become a better writer, in the end, or to find any wider success. In fact, it was one of the things that led me to my biggest publishing failure – my last novel, which did not sell. I was so frantic to get the book done and out there and sold, and my desperation was my undoing.
When I began coaching other writers, I often saw that same frantic energy, and I began to believe that it was the thing that was harming them the most. Rushing to begin, rushing to finish, rushing to publish – these were the biggest problems I was seeing.
I began to build into my coaching process systems for helping writers to slow down and to THINK. I came to believe that taking the time to be intentional was the most critical step for any writer in any project.
It doesn’t mean you have to necessarily add time to the creative process; stopping to think actually savestime, in the end. I recently had a client complete a rough draft of a book in about six months of very intense work, but she was very intentional, and she followed the strategic process, and it worked out very well in the end. So pausing to be intentional doesn’t have to mean your process is slow.
We all think we know what some words mean. But maybe we don’t. How do you define structure?
Oh my goodness, this is such a hard question, because structure is such a complex thing! While we might start out by saying structure is the shape of the work – how it unfolds in time, what territory it covers – that is only one small part of it, the surface part of it that we can see, and perhaps graph or outline. Structure is much bigger than that. I think of it more like a writer’s intention for their story.
I recently heard Elizabeth Gilbert talk about creativity (because of her new book, Big Magic, which is an exploration of the creative process) and she said the most extraordinary thing about the beginning of that book idea. She said it took her awhile to start work on it because she didn’t know what the book was going to be. She knew that she would write about creativity, but she didn’t know HOW she would approach the subject. She said that she asked herself, “Does this book want to be a self help, `ten steps to creativity’ book, or `I travel around and interview creative people’ book, or a novel, or an academic neurobiology of creativity book? I had to find out what this book wanted to be.”
That is, in many ways, a perfect explanation of structure – deciding what the idea in your head is going to be, how it’s going to exist in the world, what your intention is for the work. You can see very clearly that Gilbert couldn’t start writing, and couldn’t sketch out a graph for the work or a table of contents or anything representing physical structure and shape, until she knew what the book was going to BE.
Once you make that decision, you create a kind of ecosystem for the work to grow into. It now has certain parameters and limitations. It is going to follow certain conventions – or perhaps break those conventions. That is when you can start looking at how it’s going to do its job. For memoir and non-fiction, you can begin to ask what is going to be in the book and what is going to be left out, where it’s going to start and where it's going to end. For fiction, you can begin to think about who is going to tell the story, where they’re going to stand in time and how much time is going to unfold in the course of the story.
Voice, to me, is an understanding about who your narrator is and where she stands in time and what her agenda is – her point, her purpose, the reason she is speaking to us in these pages. Voice, in other words, is not just how the narrator sounds or how she (or he!) speaks. It’s all the things the narrator believes and cares about and fears. It’s everything that makes the narrator who she (or he! or it!) is.
Every book has a narrator, which is obvious in fiction, but in memoir and non-fiction, it’s slightly less obvious. In memoir, the narrator is YOU, of course, but is it you, the twelve year old? You, the thirty year old? You, the person who has justlearned the lessons the story is showing, or you the person who learned those lessons last year, or you the person who is experiencing those lessons as they unfold? You have to chose one narrative voice and stick with it.
If an author intrudes on the established voice, we can hear it. If a different “you” shows up in a memoir when you didn’t intend her to, we can sense it. These small gaps result in a breech of trust between the reader and the writer, and once you lose trust, you lose everything. That’s why establishing and maintaining a consistent voice is so key.
Tone is how the voice comes across to the reader, what the attitude or stance of the narrator is as she tells the tale or conveys the information. A book can have a desperate and angry tone, or a sad and melancholy tone, or a light and joyous tone. For the longest time, I didn’t want to read Gone Girl, even though it was all anyone could talk about, because I felt very uncomfortable with the tone of the book. It felt frightening to me, slippery, dark, not to be trusted – and I didn’t want to go to that place. I finally did read it – and of course my sense of the tone was precisely correct. That book had a very strong tone!
Big Magic, which I just mentioned, has a very joyous, lighthearted tone. Gilbert talks about some dark things in the book, to be sure, but she does it in a way that is very safe, and ultimately uplifting. In many ways, that’s a triumph of her tone.
And there she is. That soaring tower. That beacon at the edge of Manhattan, collecting the city lights.
For the past two days on this blog, I've been interviewing Jennie Nash, a friend who has given authors a new kind of tool—and experience—called Author Accelerator. I've been interviewing Jennie because she has approached this business of book coaching and author support in an entirely new way. She's studied what hasn't worked elsewhere. She's created a program that rises above—provides content, individualized attention, and motivating ideas.
So here is the third and final installment of our series. We talk about characters, intention, and the publishing biz. Find Part 1 of our conversation here. Find Part 2 here. And don't forget Jennie's special offer: a discount to try out Author Accelerator for a month. The normal price is $199/month, which gives writers four deadlines against which they turn in ten pages for review. Jennie is offering a discounted price of $150 for the first months. Authors can write to Jade@Authoraccelerator.com and ask for the Beth Kephart special offer. That will be good through November 15, 2015.
What makes a character interesting, and how do help authors think about and manage complexity?
The whole reason we tell each other stories is to find meaning in the world, and in our lives. We’re desperately hungry for meaning – and when stories give it to us, you cannot tear us away. So it’s meaning that makes a character interesting. If we can see ourselves in a character, if we can learn something about ourselves by watching their struggle, we will not be able to put the book down.
The Peanuts cartoons are much in the news right now because the new Peanuts movie is about to come out, and if you read anything at all about Charles Schultz, you realize that his gift was being able to convey meaning in those tiny little four-panel comic strips. The fact that he and his characters became beloved is a direct result of the meaning he made. I mean, Charlie Brown getting his heart broken one more time by the Little Red-haired Girl ignoring him, or Lucy duping him – we all feel what Charlie Brown feels, and we feel it in our bones, because the same things have happened to us at one time or another.
So the question you are asking (I think!) is how I do I help authors make characters who mean something?
Everything goes back to intention. What point are they trying to make through this character or through this narrative? If the writer doesn’t know, she might as well quit right now. Once she knows, then it’s a matter of creating that structure (or shape or ecosystem) to best show that point.
And once authors do that, I teach them what meaning looks like on the page – how to let us into a character’s head, and into his skin, at every single turn. We have to know what a character thinks and feels, what meaning he makes of what is happening to him. So I point out where the writers are doing it, and where they miss the mark, so they can begin to build that muscle.
We often want to think, as writers, that our work comes to us intuitively—that we can’t see chapter ten until we’ve lived chapters two and three. How have you helped your clients tame their desire for fuzzy ambiguity in the name of a process that leads to a finished, polished work?
I have come to believe that while any given creative act is not linear (and not, therefore, able to be tamed) the creative process itself is somewhat predictable and knowable and it is, therefore, able to be tamed to a certain extent.
What I offer my clients is the benefit of my experience with the creative process. They may not have written a book before, or written THIS book before, but I have helped dozens and dozens, of writers through the process of writing a book and I am not surprised, or upset, or concerned by the things that happen on that journey. If someone wants to throw out six months of work and start all over again, I have seen that before. I know that it doesn’t have to be the death knell for the project. If someone drags his feet in finishing a book (which happens all the time!) I know that this is par for the course. Writers get spooked when the end is near and may need a little extra attention to get over the finish line.
I recently had a client who fell into total despair, for example, because she was convinced that her work was crap, that she was crap, that she would never be able to actually write a book -- but I have seen a hundred writers in that exact place before. Maybe they fell into that dark place three months earlier in the process than this writer did, or three months later, or a year later, but when it happens in the process is not the point. The point is that it happens, and that it’s normal, and that I have seen writers write their way out of it time and time again. I know this woman’s story and I know it is not crap, and I believe she can do it. So I help her find her way back to her story.
My clients often say that it seems as though I can see their book – envision it complete and finished and out in the world in readers’ hands – before they can, and I think this is actually true. I can see their book. And I hold that idea in my mind for them when they may not be able to. It’s almost as if I act as a bridge to get them over the chasm of doubt. They can’t see their book yet but I can.
The question that would naturally follow is, “Do I believe that anyonecan write a good book?” The answer is, yes – and no. I don’t think it’s about talent, whatever that is. And I know that it’s not about having a good idea, because there are a million good ideas. It’s about being willing to commit, being able to tolerate the chaos of the creative process, and being willing to hold in your head the needs of the reader even when you can’t yet see the complete book, or don’t know what’s coming in Chapter 10, or don’t know how you’ll get there. If you can do those things, then yes – I believe anyone can write a good book.
It bears saying that not all my clients publish their books or meet with commercial success. Publishing is a fickle thing, and so much depends on luck and timing. But what I have found is that finishing is the best part of the process by far. When a writer actually finishes the book, he feels a deep soul-level satisfaction that he can’t access in any other way. Talking about writing a book is one thing, but actually doing it is something else entirely. I consider it an enormous honor to be able to help writers get there.
Many years ago, on this day, I lost this beautiful lady, my maternal grandmother. Here we are, in her home at Guyer Avenue.
Grandmom, I always watch the skies on this day for you. They are full of your colors.
Patti Smith is on the cover of the current issue of Arrive magazine (the Amtrak magazine). That's really enough, by any measure. She's gorgeously photographed—silvers and blues.
Tucked inside that edition is an interview with me about Love
and about memoir. Greg Weber and I had the nicest conversation many weeks ago. Reading these words today brings all of that back to me.
I'm grateful. I'm so grateful that I think I'll ride Amtrak every day now, for months.
In 2016 I'll be rolling out a traveling memoir workshop series—a multi-day immersive event that will focus not just on finding the kind of truth I explore in Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir,
but on pinning it effectively to the page. We'll be conducting these workshops against the backdrop of especially beautiful places and using a surprising range of tools and readings to get to the heart of our stories.
If you are interested in learning more, please let me know with a comment here.
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Over the past two weeks I have acquired all these books. One is actually a loaner (thank you, Kelly Kelly Kelly for the borrow), one I've already written about here,
one will be integral to an afternoon at Penn in the spring, and the rest are coming toward me, nesting within me.
This is the benefit of being out in the world. And, most absolutely, being out of my own head.