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1. One Thing Stolen: A Booklist Star and a Goodreads Giveaway

Maybe the pre-publication months are the hardest months on writers. Best to shrug them off, develop distractions, think on next stories, next things, new recipes.

Earlier this week, through the nervous silence (and a search for tea for two guests at Penn), came news of a Booklist star for One Thing Stolen, as well as some very generous words from School Library Journal. I also learned that Chronicle will be sponsoring a Goodreads giveaway, beginning on March 1st. More on that can be found in the sidebar on my blog.

For now, I share highlights from the book's three early trade reviews:

Fans of Jandy Nelson’s dense, unique narratives will lose themselves in Kephart’s enigmatic, atmospheric, and beautifully written tale.  — Booklist, Starrred Review

“Kephart’s artful novel attests to the power of love and beauty to thrive even in the most devastating of circumstances.”—School Library Journal

"Kephart has crafted a testament to artistry and the adaptability of the human mind.  Set in Florence, Italy, the birthplace of the Renaissance, Kephart transports readers across the ocean from Philadelphia, Pa., to the cobbled streets of Italy." Kirkus Reviews 

 In other publishing news: This kind review of Handling the Truth, in Assay Journal, by Renee D'Aoust.

And Love: A Philadelphia Affair (Temple University Press, August 2016) has an official cover and flap copy, which I will share here when the time is right.

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2. One Thing Stolen: A Star, A Goodreads Giveaway



" target="_new">Goodreads
Book Giveaway

    alt="One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart" src="http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/feeds/posts/https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1415587864l/22042751.jpg" title="One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart" width="100" />

    Thing Stolen

          by https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/218105.Beth_Kephart

" style="text-decoration: none;">Beth Kephart


            Giveaway ends March 15, 2015.

            See the https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/128591
" style="text-decoration: none;">giveaway details
            at Goodreads.

      https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/enter_choose_address/128591" class="goodreadsGiveawayWidgetEnterLink">Enter to win

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3. reducing my frequency

In the midst of a difficult winter, I look for signs. Or, I read the signs newly. Collisions. Rejections. Reversals. Silence. Extended cold fronts. Impossible expectations. An unanswered rapping on that door, this door, that door, too.

One can either walk the same line, ducking and swerving and hoping, or choose another path.

Why not choose another path? Focus brightly on the new, rather than darkly on all of that which might have, perhaps even should have, gone another way.

I'm making changes. I'm going to spend more time in the kitchen, say, and less time at the computer. I'm going to fill my own imagination with the possibilities of olive oil cakes and double roasted chickens. I'm going to read more so that I can teach better. I'm going to buy only those books I actually wanted to buy and when even those books aren't the books I'd hoped they'd be, I'm going to set them aside.

Life is too short.

Finally, I'm going to show up here less often, perhaps just twice a week, perhaps Mondays and Thursdays, to talk about books and life and the lessons of teaching.

It's a privilege, being out in the world with you. I'm going to work against overstaying my welcome.

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4. on the difficult topic of recommendation letters: a modest proposal

I love my students. That's absolute. I learn from them, I learn with them, I want, for them, the best of all worlds or, at least, the best of this one.

Teaching is my great privilege. It is my deep pleasure.

And so I am not in the least complaining about the students I love when I raise my tired head from the snow and bitter winds and aches of this winter, and ask: Must the graduate schools and post-undergraduate opportunities and fellowship institutions and grant-giving bodies to which my undergraduate students are applying be so increasingly—is the word cruel? or perhaps just insensitive?—in the requirements they place on those of us who write freely—and frequently—on the behalf of students?

Should not the time of adjuncts, who teach not for financial gain but because it is good for the soul, be somehow valued, too? No. Should not the time of every teacher be valued?

Why, for example, must we Recommenders take what increasingly feels like examinations on behalf of our students—eight-part or ten-part essays per chosen institution, each single essay introduced by quantifying questions, and none of the essay writing transferable to any other application related to that student? Why must we, for every school, every institution, fill out a bevy of computerized forms (remember your passwords!) before we are allowed to send in the letter that we have already spent an afternoon crafting, the letter in which we speak with open hearts about students we (I use the word again) love?  What was the point, I would have loved to ask that Veterinarian School, of asking me to write that essay about myself (for hadn't I just written nine essays about my student?)—that essay in which I was asked to assess my own self as a teacher, grader, person in the world? Really? Or, what was the point, Oh School in a Foreign Country, of not allowing me to email the forms—of requiring me to walk through weather to the post office, to stand in line for twenty minutes, and to pay the four dollars and something to mail a letter I might have simply sent via electronics? And: I know you would like me to send my letter on official university letterhead, I know you are saying that the words I just spent hours writing won't count—will be quickly dismissed—unless they are on official letterhead, but: I'm an adjunct. I don't have official letterhead.

I repeat: Should not the time (and resources) of those who teach somehow be valued, too?

I'm wise enough, human enough, not to penalize students and their dreams for the onerous nature of the process. But I do want to ask, as gently as I can:

Why is this process becoming ever more onerous? Could one not anticipate some sort of backlash, in which teachers simply throw up their hands and say, No more. Please. No more of this. I cannot possibly create another new account for another institution so that I might send in a form.

We're here, as teachers, because we love (love!) our material and our students. We are doing all we can to help them move toward their dreams—in the classroom, outside of the classroom, and in our letters.

Think of us when you design your forms, create your frameworks, ask us for more, and then again more. Think of us. I beg you.

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5. Headed back to NYC to See "A Delicate Balance." I will not be taking Amtrak.

In this, the winter of few things going according to plan, I begin to wonder: What is the point of any plan?

I'm not the only one asking this question. Oh, Boston. Oh friends in Boston. How do you do it?

Yesterday, I left the house in the cold and early dark, leaving myself five hours of extra time to get to my NYC client meeting an hour ahead of time. A six-hour cushion, in other words. But, oh, what a chase it became, as Amtrak dropped train after train and then left a single track open for trains headed into and out of Penn Station.

You go. No, you go. No, all right, you go. No, I'm happy to wait another hour. You go.

I made the meeting in time, but only after a mad dash through the train station that culminated in an encounter with a man of little means (and clear psychological demons), who turned around on the escalator leading to 31st and Eighth and (seeing I cannot imagine what in me) threatened to push me down the moving stairs. I held the badly bruised arm of the week's earlier accident just out of reach and barely escaped the possibility of a mean tumble.

Getting home from NYC proved to be an odyssey of even greater proportions. The details don't matter. I was hardly alone (indeed, I was with my client and hundreds upon hundreds of others) as one train after another was cancelled, delayed, left on the tracks, neglected, checked in, then out of the You go, No, you go single tracking situation. Sure, I should have spent the time reading the fantastic Atticus Lish novel I recently downloaded. But at one point I gave up.

I became a simple, unexercised, bruised silly lump of Wait. A walking, mostly sitting exemplar of What is the point?

Today, believe it or not, I am headed back to New York, this time to see Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," starring Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Lindsay Duncan, Clare Higgins, and Martha Plimpton, then to take my son out to dinner. It's my early birthday present to myself (aided by my father's Christmas gift). The play's closing weekend.

I will not be taking Amtrak.

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6. please join us at Kelly Writers House as we host Editor/Writer Extraordinaire, Daniel Menaker


Dear friends,

We hope you’ll join us next Tuesday, February 24th, for a noontime
conversation with DANIEL MENAKER. Over the course of his career, Daniel
has been the fiction editor of THE NEW YORKER and Executive
Editor-in-Chief at Random House. Now he works with Stonybrook
Southhampton’s MFA program and consults for Barnes & Noble—so rest
assured, this is a man who knows his books. The conversation will be
moderated by BETH KEPHART. RSVP now to wh@writing.upenn.edu or call us
at 215-476-POEM. We’d love to see you here, next Tuesday.

All the best,
The Kelly Writers House

The Sylvia Kauders Lunch Series presents:

Tuesday, Feb. 24th | 12:00pm | Arts Café
Kelly Writers House | 3805 Locust Walk
No registration required - this event is free & open to the public

DANIEL MENAKER is a fiction writer and editor, currently working with
the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton and as a consultant for
Barnes & Noble Bookstores. Daniel was a fiction editor at THE NEW YORKER
for twenty years and had material published in the magazine frequently.
In 1995 he was hired by Random House as Senior Literary Editor and later
became Executive Editor-in-Chief.

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7. clipped by a van on a wintry day — and then

I left the house early yesterday morning with the hopes of catching one of the trains that now run at random, unpredictable hours during this winter of snow and ice.

The poet Anne Waldman was at Kelly Writers House. I'd experience her, then meet with a student, then conduct my three-hour class.

The day didn't turn out quite as I had hoped it would. There is a four-lane road (Lancaster Avenue) that I must cross to get from my house to my train station. There were no cars coming from the west. There was one car coming from the east. He stopped. Waved me on. I waved back at him indicating I could wait. He insisted. And so I walked across the street, thanked the man in the waiting car with a wave, and was struck—such a noise it was—by an old van that had barreled in from a seeming nowhere. That fourth lane. In from the east.

I had not seen so much as a glint of it.

It was hard, at first, to make sense of who or where I was. Just a woman who had lost her hat, a woman whose iPad and iPhone in their bright red bag had taken a huge brunt of the hit. A woman with sudden, terrible pain, but I was standing, wasn't I? I was standing. It wasn't my head. It wasn't my legs. I was upright, talking, consoling the man and his wife who had hit me — Don't worry. Don't worry. Thanking the man who had waved me over for stopping. Thank you.

I need to take you to the hospital, he said. Let me take you to the hospital.

I can't, I said. I can't. I have to teach.

You need the hospital.

I can't. It's just my arm. I don't think it's broken.

I saw how hard you were hit. You need the hospital.

I'll go to the hospital down at Penn.

He agreed to let me go. He pointed to my hat, still on the road. To the van's side mirror, that had been clipped off by the impact with my arm. A second later, I thought. A second more. A nano more of anything, and— Don't think about it. Don't you dare what if this, Kephart.

The train finally came. I climbed on. Sunk into my seat. Held the flame of my triple-sized arm. I didn't realize how much I was trembling until a woman sat beside me and I turned and I said that I'd just been hit by a van. I don't know what impelled me, really, why I felt the need to share, but that is what I said.

Angels of mercy. That's what the day became.

To this woman, my seat mate, who arrived at 30th Street Station with me, who insisted on a taxi, who rode the taxi with me, who paid the cab driver to take me to the HUP emergency room against every single one of my protestations, who wrote afterward.

Thank you.

To the student who passed the news quickly on to all my other lovelies (Prof Kephart may be late).

Thank you.

To my students, my beautiful students, who sent their healing words.

Thank you.

To my friends at Temple University Press writing with kindness (and good news).

Thank you.

To my neighbor who heard the news from Temple and wrote with love.

Thank you.

To my husband and my father and my son on the phone, and, therefore, close.

Thank you.

To the x-rays that revealed no broken bones. To the doctor who provided the splint, the ice, the pain killers, and released me just in time to make it to class, to teach memoir.

Thank you.

To my students, again, for our wholly imperfect perfect day.

Thank you.

Do you know how lucky you are, Beth Kephart?

Yes, I do. Yes. I do.

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8. In today's HuffPo: writing toward fear, as I wrote toward One Thing Stolen

I have made reference to the challenges that beset me (self-afflicted, surely) as I set out to write One Thing Stolen. Today, in Huffington Post, I'm write of the fears I was writing toward during the process.

The piece begins like this, below, and carries forward here.

There is a girl who only just recently knew who she was, what she wanted, the dimensions of now. A girl who has a retro-minded best friend and a reputation for ingenious ideas about night snow, urban gardens, and the songs that rise up from Philadelphia streets. She has a mother and a brother, both loved. She has a father obsessed with the Florentine flood of November 1966--that unforeseen spill of the Arno River, that mud that clawed through homes and stores and across the face of Cimabue's "Crucifix," among so many other treasures. This girl has moved with her family to Florence. This girl is losing herself.

It's hard to say, precisely, when she began to peel away. When an obsession with nests and nest building became her terrible secret. When thieving erupted as a necessary part of her existence. When words began to clot and clog and answers became elusive.

It's hard to say when all this started. It's impossible to know how it will end.

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9. if you want to leave behind something lasting, don't middle-of-the-road your art

In this frigid northeast cold—when I am deliberately not writing books, when I assert through seeking, when I am teaching which is to say wholly focused on the work and hearts of others—I have, among other things, been watching my favorite moving art form: the documentary.

Last night: "Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow," a portrait of the artist Anselm Kiefer by Sophie Fiennes.

This morning: "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," by Alison Klayman.

These two artists could not be more different in temperament—the first nearly monk-like in his approach to living and seeing, to directing the crews that enable him to fulfill his fantastic visions; the second commanding the world and his assistants through the stage of Twitter and communal politics and irreverence. And yet both remind me (again) of this: only those who walk the cliff line, who don't comfortably retread or remake, who work with vulnerability toward the new, who are willing to say "I don't understand but perhaps someday I will"have the power to unearth, disturb, and shift points of view.

What kind of artist do you want to be?

As a non-artist in this right now, as someone who has stopped her own work to consider, to ask, What is it all for? What am I capable of?, these documentaries force me into a deeper self-appraisal.

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10. An upcoming memoir workshop, via New Directions Program

A number of you have written to ask for the details of this upcoming all-day memoir workshop, which I will be conducting on behalf of the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis on April 23rd.

Details have just been released and are visible above. Registration is available here.

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11. I splurged (time in the afternoon, and two new cookbooks)

By 1 p.m. yesterday afternoon, I'd been sitting at my desk for nine hours, more or less—a long stretch of work following a long week of work, following a long month of — well, you get it. I'd not exercised. I'd not dressed for the world.

I pushed back.

My husband was at the pottery studio. The house was still. I had a few hours before I was to meet my friend, the great Kelly Simmons, to celebrate her completion of a novel she has bravely tangled with. There was time, I realized, to do the things that I take comfort doing—laundry, sweeping, food shopping, wine buying, maybe I'd even procure for the house (so stark with winter) a little calla lily color.

I dressed, went out, explored, harvested in small quantities, carried everything home, then went out again and arrived at the designated meeting place—the Valley Forge Flowers barn. I was a few minutes early. That gorgeous, open, airy space was full of light, but hardly any people.

And so I found myself with time. And so I sat with two of the Barn's gorgeous cookbooks on my lap. And so I turned the pages. Mused.

I tend to be an instinctive cook—remembering my mother's ways, guessing at the proportions, settling in with perhaps two dozen known dishes. I do own cookbooks. I consult them sometimes. But mostly, and especially lately, I have locked myself into familiar grooves.

One of these cookbooks — Sunday Suppers: Recipes and Gatherings by Karen Mordechai — was so magically presented that I felt as if, in looking at the photos and the dishes, in touching the soft pages and the quiet typography, I had entered an undamaged world, a place where intelligent conversation and sweet, small touches contained the whole of life. The second — The Newlywed Cookbook by Sarah Copeland — had absolutely the wrong title for a woman soon to celebrate her 30th wedding anniversary, but absolutely the right content: "fresh ideas and modern recipes for cooking with and for each other."

In both books I found recipes I not only believed in, but believed myself capable of. In both books I found the promise of allure. Of moments yet to be made and remembered.

Buying both would have been a major extravagance for one who lives (and increasingly so lives) with measured care. Buying neither would have been a lost opportunity—a vote against magic.

I voted for magic.

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12. memoir is not this:

This week at Penn I taught a book that, though it has been marketed widely (and successfully) as memoir, though it looks back over an important life, fails to meet most of the standards we should be setting for the form. It was the first time I'd deliberately chosen to teach a book that doesn't work as well as it might. We can learn, I think, as much by kindly examining the choices an author might have made as by the choices that appear on the page.

While preparing for the class, I discovered these words by a reviewer of our chosen book—words that epitomize everything I strongly believe memoir is not.

Memoirs are endeavors wherein the author says to the reader: "Here's what happened to me." The authorial motive, more often than not, is a combination of the memoirist's need to get something off his or her chest (or out of his or her gut), along with the need to tell everybody: "This is how I became the person I've become."

Here's what happened to me. Getting something off one's chest. Here is how I became me. Those are slight and merely autobiographical objectives, reflecting a writer interested in one soul thing—himself. Memoirists need to do far more, and the best of them do. Here, in my review of Alexandra Fuller's new Leaving Before the Rains Come, I think again out loud about what real memoir is.

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13. reviewing Alexandra Fuller for the Chicago Tribune

The thing is, I could have written a book about this book. I'd have dedicated a long chapter, at least, to a comparison, side by side, of three particular present-tense scenes in Fuller's first memoir played out against those same three scenes, now recorded with the reflective and rearranging past-tense of this new third memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come.

Fuller is an exquisite writer. Memories shift.

I wrote what could fit, the full review here.

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14. what our readers teach us, with thanks to Serena Agusto-Cox, an early reader of One Thing Stolen

Writing, we tunnel in. We go to dark places. Walk contorted paths. Stumble. It takes a long time before we re-emerge, our eyes blinking into the sun.

Hard to know, in all that desperate making, if we have created something whole. We wait to hear from those who have read.

This morning I am so very grateful to find these words from Serena Agusto-Cox.

Her review begins like this:
One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart, which will be published in April, has crafted a testament to artistry and the adaptability of the human mind.  Set in Florence, Italy, the birthplace of the Renaissance, Kephart transports readers across the ocean from Philadelphia, Pa., to the cobbled streets of Italy.  Nadia Cara is a young teen who builds nests by weaving seemingly incongruous materials together, making things of beauty.  She’s an artist on overdrive as other parts of her life disappear and flounder amidst the detritus of memory.  She knows that she’s struggling, she knows that she is becoming someone she does not want to be, but she also knows that she is powerless to stop it.

And can be read in its entirety here.

Thank you, Serena.

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15. Joy in the wings: Daniel Menaker and Jeff Hobbs to spend time with us at Penn

Yesterday, on my way to teaching at Penn, I took a small detour to see a Paul Strand exhibit in the Fine Arts building. Then climbed the steps. Took out my phone. And snapped this shot through the window.

Damn, I thought. How lucky am I to be a spring semester adjunct here. This campus. This place. This Creative Writing arm of an English Department USA Today just ranked second in the nation.

Last year, Avery Rome and I joined forces and hosted Michael Sokolove (Drama High) as a special guest. Michael thrilled our students, taught us many things. This year, I'm enormously blessed to be hosting Daniel Menaker, who edited fiction for The New Yorker for 25 years and served as the Executive Editor in Chief of Random House, acquiring books by some of my favorite writers. In his various editorial capacities, Daniel has worked with Alice Munro, Elizabeth Strout, George Saunders, Charles McGrath, William Trevor, Norman Rush, Katha Pollitt, Colum McCann, Amy Bloom, Antonya Nelson, Salman Rushdie—and many others. He has also written a memoir I loved, My Mistake. I wrote about that here—a blog post that initiated an unexpected conversation.

Daniel will be at the Kelly Writers House on February 24, beginning at noon, when he and I will be talking about the vagaries of the publishing industry. The larger community is welcome. At 1:30, my class will join with Lorene Carey's class to talk in private about My Mistake.

After Daniel was in touch regarding my words about his book, Jeff Hobbs, the wholly compassionate and deep-seeing author of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, got in touch about this blog post, in which I spoke of how I was incorporating his book into my teaching plan. Jeff, who lives in California, offered to come visit my class as part of a larger east coast tour. When the dates weren't quite working out as we had hoped, a Skype visit was planned instead.

And so my students will have the opportunity to meet two authors whose books and lives inspire. My students—who are teaching me words like "jawn" and authors like Maira Kalman, teaching me narrative photography and the nuance of talk, the pronunciation of complex cloud forms and the Black Scholes equation. We are learning memoir new, and we are learning it together, and I am beyond delighted that the neon lyric of our conversation will be further radicalized by Daniel and Jeff.

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16. we can only write toward our obsessions

A photograph taken in the Santa Croce Cathedral, October 2012, while researching the book that would become One Thing Stolen.

To the left, the mosaics of colored glass tell us stories, suggest a beginning or an end.

To the right, no colors, no stories, just a little framing and the blast of temporal sun. My story, the one I was writing, lived somewhere in there. Still amorphous, still radically strange, but beckoning. It hurt to look at it. I could not stop looking at it. It suffered itself into being.

I suffered, too.

Now, less than two months from the book's launch date, I ponder this strange existence of wading through the formidable dark toward a fledging, heartbreaking story, while thinking not at all about what the market will actually bear. What is the category? What is the tagline? What is the label? This book has none. I have flirted with doom. And persisted.


Because we can only write toward our obsessions.

Because we must be who we are.

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17. when a writer is found inside the pages of her own novel: Elizabeth Hand in RADIANT DAYS

I suppose, as with books, there can only be one single beginning to a blog post. The problem here is that I don't know which beginning to choose.

I could start with my introduction to Elizabeth Hand, through my friend Collen Mondoor—Read Illyria, Colleen whispered, and I did. I wrote of it here.

My appreciation for that book and its author fueled a friendship with Liz, so much so that once, too long ago, this Maine-besotted writer traveled all the way to Philly on book tour and spent some time with me. We walked the parking lot of a strip mall on a rainy day. Up and back. Up and back. The rain in our hair. It could have gone on all day.

Then Liz went back to her world and I to mine. I knew that she was working on a book that mattered deeply to her—a book that had her hero, Arthur Rimbaud, at its heart. I knew that she was studying the man, translating his poetry, finding a way to make this French poet of the late 19th century come alive (this young genius declared a genius by the genius Patti Smith) for teen readers today. I knew about the project, but mostly what Liz and I began to write of then were our lives off the pages—hers in her rural world, mine in suburbia. Lives. This is what we spoke about.

So here is another beginning. A week or so ago, a padded envelope appeared at my front door—a gift from the Viking editor Sharyn November. We'd been talking about books that matter. I was naming titles, she was naming titles, we were having the kind of conversation two lovers of books have; it was that simple. Here, in this envelope, were books that Sharyn loved. There, in the mix, was Elizabeth Hand, her Rimbaud book, Radiant Days.

Which I finished reading this morning—a smile on my face. For Liz has done it, found a way to tell this story about a renegade poet of the 1870s and a 1978 painter, also renegade, who has dropped out of Corcoran to find her way. She's armed herself with cans of spray paint.

Time melts for these two characters. They meet—and Liz makes it believable. Washington, DC, and Paris bend, and the scenes are impeccably drawn, believable. Uniting the two is a former rock star named Ted Kampfert, a homeless guitarist who says, among so much else, "Magic isn't something you do. It's something you make. And if you don't make something and leave it behind, it's not just that it's gone. You're gone."

This book, Liz Hand, is magic made.

Here is Merle, musing on the wonder of this otherworldly collision with Arthur Rimbaud:
I wasn't sure what had changed—if Arthur's presence had somehow altered the sidewalks and back alleys around us, the way his poem had shaken something loose inside of me, something I couldn't articulate and maybe couldn't even paint: not so much a different way of seeing the world as a different way of feeling it. Maybe because when I was with him, I didn't need to explain who I was; maybe because he seemed even more out of place in the streets of Georgetown than I was. With him, I felt the way I did when I gazed at The Temptation of Saint Anthony—as though the world held a secret that I was on the verge of discovering. 
Here is part of the world they inhabit, during their one glorious burning night:
Behind the Dumpster a narrow alley wound between an overgrown hedge and a brick wall, so encrusted with ivy it was like burrowing into a green tunnel. Moonlight seeped through the tangled branches overhead, and there was a pallid yellow glow from the upper windows of a nearby row house. After twenty feet or so the alley widened into a tiny courtyard surrounded by buildings in varying stages of decay. Cracked flagstones covered the ground, along with dead leaves and several plastic chairs that had blown over. Small tables were pushed against the rear of a warehouse, its windows boarded shut. A tattered CLOSED sign flapped from a door chained with a padlock.

Note: I might have also launched this blog post with the news that I had been holding, in my hands, another graffiti novel. I don't know how many of them there are, but Merle, Liz's contemporary character, has herself a mean tag (Radiant Days) and glorious command of color and meaning. I wished, as I read Liz's powerful graffiti passages, that my Ada (of Going Over) could time warp and meet Liz's Merle. That they could stand together and talk about art and about the people who are missing from their lives.

Because, in meeting Merle, I know that I am also meeting, anew, Liz Hand—a brilliant woman whose life has been seeped in art and Rimbaud and who makes unusual and therefore lasting books because she (and this is rare) can.

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18. must truth always be held within the unrelenting I? Falling Out of Time/David Grossman

David Grossman's elegiac Falling Out of Time is not a memoir. It is not a memoir even though it comes from such a deeply personal place—the loss of the author's own son, an inconsolable grief. The book is, instead, a Greek chorus of a book—a concussion of voices, of grieving parents, of thoughts that wander through the dark night of loss. A Town Chronicler and a Centaur, a Duke and a Midwife, a Woman in the Belfry, an Elderly Math Teacher, a Woman in Net—each character spiraling down upon the empty place where a child no longer is. The "noneness."

They walk the night. They look for signs. They ask their wives or their husbands how they will ever again love each other "when/in deep love/he was/conceived."

They rehearse their history:

Two human specks,
a mother and her child,
we glided through the world
for six whole years,
which were unto me
but a few days
and we were
a nursery rhyme
threaded with tales
and miracles–

Until ever so lightly
a breeze
a breath
a flutter
a zephyr
the leaves—

And sealed our fates:
you here
he there
over and done with,
to pieces.
 I read the book late last night and this morning, in preparation for my Tuesday class at Penn, where I will be talking about (among many other things) the various forms of memoir. The graphic memoir. The second person memoir. The third person memoir. The photographic memoir. The poem as memoir.

Grossman's book is not a memoir, as I have said. But it is a suggestion of a form that memoirists might use—a place where truth might be put and rallied after. I'm exploring that idea as I prepare for Tuesday. I put it here, to share with you.

And in the meantime, I step away from my studies today and prepare for a bit of a party in New York. We have been celebrating, this week, my father's special birthday. May the festivities continue.

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19. Teaching the Teachers FLOW as part of the William Penn Foundation funded education program

Last year I shared the extraordinary news that my river autobiography, Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River, was selected as a core element in a William Penn Foundation-funded program designed "to improve environmental education in Philadelphia middle schools."

The first sweep of teachers is now meeting every Saturday morning at the Water Works (pictured above) to build the sweeping curriculum that will change the way children learn in my city. This morning, I'm joining my dear friend Adam Levine there on site to contribute to this program. Adam will be sharing his huge knowledge of secret city water ways and streams that have become sewers. I'll be teaching the teachers how to teach Flow, giving them writing exercises and critiquing ideas.

And so into the frosty cold we go....

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20. Peter Turchi on the value of sideways drafts, in A MUSE AND A MAZE

Last Friday evening, at an intimate salon, I had the privilege of hearing Peter Turchi, author of Maps of the Imagination, tease us toward his gorgeously crafted new book, A Muse and a Maze.

(Read that title fast, and you'll get the point.)

Like the best of books, this one won't be easily classified. Puzzles and magic abound. Commentary on obsessions. Quotes on sentence rhythms. Forays into slow time. A slice from Bruce Springsteen (yes, my friends, that Bruce Springsteen). A few helpful definitions illuminating genres, puzzles, and mysteries. I'm not finished reading yet. It's not the sort of book one rushes. But an hour or so ago I came across Turchi's reflections on the real purpose of multiple drafts, and I knew that I could be accused of gross selfishness if I did not stop and share. I live for the next draft with my own work. I've gone horizontal-vertical-down-out-up, and if one were to apply aesthetic measures to my draft sequences one would shake one's head in pity. One Thing Stolen, my new novel, is the perfect example of a book that took more than a little swish and swirl (and more than a few tears, but I did not drown) before it found itself. But that is a story for another day.

With no further ado, then, Peter Turchi:
To learn to dwell in our work is to use drafts to explore, with the understanding that our movement toward the final draft of a story or poem or novel is likely to include not only lateral movement but backward movement, and circular movement, and movement we can't confidently describe. Because to insist to ourselves that each draft carry a story toward closure is, necessarily, to limit the possibilities. Every choice must then at least seem to be an improvement on what's currently on the page, part of a straight-line progression, rather than an alternative to what's on the page, movement within a larger plane. We need to allow ourselves to pursue hunches, to discover, in the words of Robert Sternberg, nonobvious pieces of information and, even more important, nonobvious relationships between new information and information already in our memory.

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21. the after gift of publishing the South Street/Folk Art Story

Once each month I contribute a story and photographs to the Philadelphia Inquirer, stories about the intersection of memory and place. Most recently I traveled back to the Gaskill Street trinity I'd shared with my husband early in our marriage and remembered, with the help of Julia Zagar of Eye's Gallery and Isaiah Zagar fame, the neighborhood and its evolution. I wanted to know what parts of my memory could be validated. I wanted to know, among other things, how others remembered the wow of art that lived just down the street from me—the rag-rug lady, the Christmas party thrower, the man who had painted his car, his street, his telephone pole the colors of Woodstock.

Had it all been just a dream?

I meandered, took photos, wrote, and the Inquirer published that story here.

After that, the story kept changing.

Friends and strangers got in touch with memories of the rag-rug lady I'd mentioned in the tale. Others remembered, for me, parades. Others said, I live there now or I lived there then. Reconstitutions. Plastic memory.

And then this past Thursday, I returned from a job to a phone message from a certain Ruth Drake, now living in Woodstock, New York. Call me, she said.

So I did.

Ruth Drake, as it turns out, held all the missing pieces of my story.  She had been told by a friend about the Inquirer spread. She had heard, in the lines read to her over the phone, reference to the man she had married and loved—that artist referred to, in my story, as Bud Franklin.

My husband, Ruth Drake said. (Bud) Franklin Drake.

And there it was—the full name I'd been searching for. And there was more, now, so much more, that Ruth was saying—about her husband's degrees from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, about his one-man shows, about that crazy car with the mattress spring crown and the flower-power colors that was parked out on our street. Ruth remembered with me the rag-rug lady—Ella, she said, who had been raised in a lighthouse. She affirmed the existence of the man who had lived across the street and filled his home with a Christmas tree so huge it had to be stuffed in through an upstairs window. She said that Bud had planted morning glories in a pot on their stoop and encouraged them to grow skyward, and oh, how they did. She said that she, Ruth, had gone off each morning with her corporate gloves to her corporate work and then come home to Bud's great spirit.

We'd been neighbors all those years ago. He'd painted the neighborhood, even painted a bump on the street. He'd led parades. His art was his power. I was young and watched, an outsider. I didn't know half of how lucky I was to be there then.

(Bud) Franklin Drake lived a fascinating life. Ruth hinted at the details as we spoke. At years spent in Manhattan while Ruth worked on Wall Street. At a painted Cadillac limo that attracted the eye of (among many others) the Rolling Stones. At the Drakes' colorful entry to Philadelphia in that same Caddy—Mayor Rizzo's police surrounding that car until well-heeled Ruth and her petite mother emerged and asked, sweetly, "Is there some trouble, officers?"

There was so much to tell, and Ruth told it so well, and I promised I would complete my Gaskill Street story here. (Bud) Franklin Drake wasn't just the wild-hearted artist on a street where I lived years ago. He was a well-respected, studio-famous artist whose work can still be found here, on the Franklin Drake Gallery.

Often it's not the words we write that make the difference. It's the conversations they stir.

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22. all the different ways we have to tell the story of our lives: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?/Roz Chast

I know I was supposed to be watching the Super Bowl, gauging the plumpedness of those laced-up game balls, but I, beneath my furry blanket on the long stretch of the couch, could not take my eyes from Roz Chast's bestselling, award-winning graphic memoir, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Chast's illustrated story of her parents' later years is devastating and also beautiful and finally heart crunching. An only child of two people who have lived inseparably for years, Chast finds herself challenged by the encroachment of their needs and by the intensifying quirks of her parents' respective personalities. The domineering, almost bullying mother. The talks-too-much-and-can't-fix-a-thing-and-has-a-holy-soul father. They live in a four-room Brooklyn apartment crowded by lifelong detritus. They live increasingly afraid of stepping outside. They rely on Roz, but Roz is hardly enough. And when they finally agree to move into an expensive assisted-living facility, things don't get a whole lot easier.

But like Gary Shteyngart's Little Failure, the memoir we'll be unpacking in tomorrow's English 135 at Penn, Chast doesn't allow her confusion to rise to clanging bitterness. Doesn't allow her own disappointment, weariness, frustration, beleaguered condition to transmute into hateful spite. Doesn't tell her story to trump or exploit. She is just telling it as it was—the good she can remember, the empathy she feels, the anger that flashes, the hurt places in between the loved places, the ambiguity she will always feel about her mother and the love she'll always feel for her dad.

It's not a tirade, in other words. It's an archeological dig.

It's here, it's gorgeous, it proves (again, like Edward Hirsch's Gabriel proves, again) how many different ways there are to tell the stories of our lives.

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23. do not be thrown off your rails

There are a million things that can throw the writer off her own rails. Fear that she is being eclipsed. Fear that she is unheard or unseen. Fear that she is second tier or third tier, maybe even fourth. Fear that the Elite will always and forever be the Elite, an unbreachable club. Fear that she can't or fear that she won't or fear that the wrong reader, with a decade's old complaint about her style, personality, or hair, will one-star the book to death in every public forum.

Two weeks ago I learned that two of my books are being sent off to the No More Farm, their publisher, Egmont, going out of business.

Just yesterday I learned that a book that had been destined for foreign translation will no longer be translated. I am not, as it turns out, a star in Germany.

I could be thrown from my rails. I won't be thrown from my rails.

Because, in the end: I remember this. We are writing because it is what we feel impelled to do. We are doing (unless we are rushing or lazy or writing for the wrong reasons) the best that we can. Our measure, as human beings, is not the number of prizes or the number of books written or the number of books sold or the number of stars given but the number of times we actually stepped outside of ourselves and lived bright, thought big, made connections, reached over the fence toward another.

One of the reasons I love teaching at Penn as much as I love teaching at Penn is that it gives me zero time to worry about accolades or counts. I'm just worried about knowing as much as I can about how stories get made. Desperate (and it's all consuming, it takes every spare moment) to find the words and books and exercises to whisper down the lane.

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24. Moravian Writers' Conference: blessed to be joining the community

Many years ago, I found and read a book I loved, In Hovering Flight, and wrote about it here.

I never anticipated that Joyce Hinnefeld, that novel's author, would one day lead the writing program at Moravian College and create, as well, an extraordinary writers' conference that last year featured both Laurie Halse Anderson and Ursula Le Guin. I never imagined that I'd receive an email from the beloved teen author/Bethlehem Area Public Library Executive Director Josh Berk that contained both a question and a bridge.

But both things have happened, and this June I will have the great pleasure of spending time with Joyce as well as Josh, as I participate in the Moravian Writers' Conference as a keynoter and panelist and (to make it all even more glittering) in conversation with the very special guest A.S. King. (King, we're gonna have to take our glorious private conversation public. You ready?) There are so many opportunities for area writers during this three-day (June 5 through 7) event—so many terrific writers, teachers, publishers participating.

(Another special bonus: my friend Nic Esposito of The Head and The Hand Press will be participating in the publishing panel.)

I invite you to learn more about all the presenters and the line-up here.

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25. in exacting, excruciatingly lovely detail: Rainey Royal/Dylan Landis

Sometimes I bring a pen to the books I'm reading and scrawl across the margins—outlining and exclaiming, starring the sentences. Sometimes (very rarely) I know, after the very first lines, that such an undertaking would be pointless. Every detail would be starred. Every terrible, haunting surprise.

Every sentence.

I did not write in Rainey Royal, the Dylan Landis novel, because I would not have left a page untouched. I'd have lost the lines beneath the multiplying stars.

Details matter to Landis, and for her teenage angsty artful Rainey, for Rainey's duo of best friends, for Rainey's terrible and charming father, her Rainey's house full of musicians and cast of teachers who can do nothing to protect her from the hands of her father's live-in best friend, Landis offers details of a precisely feral sort. This house where Rainey, now motherless, lives among her father's "acolytes" and within her father's rudderless command (so many straying hands). This school where Rainey gets away with murder, and wishes she did not. This couple that Rainey, on a dare, robs. These streets where she walks where she must be as tough as the world thinks she is. This best friend of hers who may be sleeping with her father. Is she sleeping with her father?

I saw it all.

Rainey's adolescence will either break her, or she will make of all its pieces art.

Here is Landis, making art:

The grandmother is tethered to earth by the steel wheels of her chair and the absence of one leg. Her remaining leg, and her upper arms, are buttery loaves of flesh. Yet Rainey looks at the high cheekbones and flawless hairline, the elegant ledges of brows and lips carved as gracefully as Tina's, and takes her in as shapely. Someone has pinned up the grandmother's thick silver hair with curved combs, and gold hoops hang from her ears. Rainey repeats to herself: She has no idea. It is the source of her beauty.

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