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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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In the Philadelphia Inquirer
today I'm thinking about serenity—how we need it, where we find it—at Andalusia, along the Delaware River.
A link to the story is here
A link to my blog post about the children I met and taught at this Biddle mansion is here.
Meera Lee Patel
(illustrator, innovator, gentle soul) entered my life through a quiet door, sending me glory in the midst of worry, kindness in the form of a small book, goodness in the form of a nest.
And then, this week, her newest creation—Start Where You Are: A Journal for Self-Exploration
. It's a book of quiet urgings. It yields room to reflect. It asks us to breathe, to clear our minds, and to move forward.
It gives us the words of others, and it gives us Meera herself, who, in her introduction, writes:
I spent a lot of my years longing for the past or waiting for the future to arrive, confused about where I was and where I wanted to go.... I welcomed distraction. I ventured down various paths for the sake of going somewhere, even though none of them took me close to where I wanted to go.
By simply going forward, Meera says, she wrote, and is still writing, the story of her life.
I don't know how your summer is going, but mine is somewhere between cataclysmic and silent. Or maybe both things at once. I don't know where you are in your life, but I stand at the bottom of a mountain looking up, bewildered and saddened and determined to push on.
Meera's book whispers, Push on. Push on. It's as lovely as she is. It's now available from Perigee (Penguin Random House). It's another Meera gift.
How lucky am I?
What an incredible line-up.
I will learn so much.
I am grateful.
Thank you, Jennifer Brown, Bank Street, and all those writers, reviewers, librarians, teachers, thinkers that I will learn from soon.
You can register at Bank Street College
. And I hope you will.
This, up there—the gorgeous woman seated beside Tom Snyder—is Marciarose Shestack.
The first woman to anchor a prime time daily news show in a major market (famously rivaling Walter Cronkite in the ratings). The face of ABC, KYW, Noon News, and her own "Marciarose Show." A film and theater critic. A woman who regularly sat with presidents. A credible and beloved analyst of culture, history, and politics.Marciarose
—still gorgeous. Once my mother's friend, and, today, my own.
How grateful I am to her, then, that she has accepted my invitation to join me on the Free Library of Philadelphia stage as I launch Love: A Philadelphia Affair
(Temple University Press) on October 7, at 7:30.
I hope that you will join us—and take this opportunity to meet this Philadelphia legend on a night dedicated to Philadelphia love.
With thanks to Andy Kahan, always, for opening the door.Love
will go on sale on September 7.
Hugely grateful to Hobart Rowland at Main Line Today
for including One Thing Stolen
in the Big Summer Read edition of his magazine. And happy to be spending time there with my friends Kelly Simmons and Daniel Torday.
A link to the full story is here.
Gratitude is here but also where nobody but me can see it.
Long before I was writing essays for the Inquirer
or novels enriched by my city I was a 25-year-old marketing coordinator for Cope Linder Associates, a Philadelphia architecture firm. I got the job in part because of my great uncle's role in the creation of the Waldorf Astoria, the Pierre Hotel, and dozens of other major buildings (I had a degree in history from Penn, but I could talk architecture in interviews). I stayed with the company not just because of the friends I met along the way (one friend became my husband), but also because of the opportunities I was given. Organize the photo library. Write proposals. Research potential clients.
And go in and out of libraries on behalf of projects like Penn's Landing. I found the Philly firsts that are inscribed along the plaza. I collected the art and wrote some of the captions for the placards. It felt like a big deal then, and today, returning to the old plaza by the Delaware River with that very same husband I felt a surge of Philly pride.
I may be so much older.
I still love the same things (and man).
Images of two people who shaped my childhood and taught me so much about grace and love.
Philadelphia. I love her. I write about her. I celebrate her. But don't think that I can't see. This can be a hard-knock city. It doesn't always love you back.
Today I'm remembering a moment I will forever cherish. Dangerous Neighbors,
my Centennial novel, being featured as part of a First Book celebration. Mayor Nutter, standing beside me, signed my books for 120-plus young people who had never owned a book before.
I was honored.
I always am.
So very grateful to discover (thanks to dear Starla) these words today from Jennifer Louden
, a personal growth pioneer, national magazine columnist, TV guest, and teacher.
Handling the Truth by Beth Kephart
Kephart’s writing is swoon worthy and her insights incisive but what makes this a book worth owning is the way she shares her shivers of insights into how to do the tricky work of memoir writing. She puts into words what feels like the most slippery thing I’ve ever tried to do. 5 stars!
The fourth edition of Handling, new updated, is due out within days.
Indeed, it was hot. Indeed there was more water percolating up from our own skin than flowing past in the Delaware River beyond. But for three hours yesterday afternoon, at the gorgeous historic Biddle estate, Andalusia, I had the great pleasure of working with the young environmentalists and active citizens of the Fairmount Water Works' Project Flow as well as the teens of the Texas Aqua Squad.
Together we explored the grounds, hunted for magic, metaphor, and simile, collected turkey feathers, studied a recreated grapery, discovered portraits of George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte, searched for colors, listened to the 1886 words of Biddle's Aunt Kitty, pondered departures and returns, and interviewed one another.
To those who spoke as shadows, the color red, the everything of green, an albino snake, and so much more, to those who listened to their partners so well that they could tell their stories for them, to those who said I can't and then discovered I can, thank you.
Let's be weird together. Always.
(With thanks to Ellen Schultz and Connie Griffith Houchins.)
I have been an inveterate gift giver, a trait I inherited from my mother. For as long as I can remember, I have scoured my world, looking for that something someone else might want or cherish. As a child I made the gifts—bead rings, macrame necklaces, collections of polished stones, photographs from the pin-hole camera I built as a third-grade project. As I got older and began to work—at the family garage sale, at a Hilton Head gift shop, at a sweaty insurance company, through every semester at Penn, right up through the birth of my son and then, within twenty hours, right after—I thought of my paychecks in terms of two things: the bills I had to pay (if indeed I had any bills to pay; I didn't at the age of ten) and the gifts that I could buy for others.
It has given me great pleasure to give. But this summer, working with my father on sifting through the innumerable possessions of a long-loved family home, I have begun to think differently about things. I have begun to capitalize the word. And I have thought about all the Things I've bought for so many people throughout the years. Where are those Things now? Did they become, after the initial glimmer, trouble? Something to put away. Something to store. Something to work around. Something to consume—space.
Yesterday, celebrating our son's birthday in NYC, I do what I always do when I arrive (can't help myself)—I cleaned. Not because he doesn't do that himself—he does, of course. But because it is part of my mom genetics. As I worked my way through this studio basement apartment, I saw the too-many shirts I have bought him in the past, the too-many shorts he would now not ever wear, the too many.
I've loved and I've given, but—what of all this too much, too many?
We show our love in many ways. By being there, by listening. I want to find more ways, going forward, to show my love by giving only that which is absolutely needed, or to give something I have made, or to make it possible for someone to experience something they might not otherwise experience. A considered meal. A show. A day in a museum. A trip to see a friend. A trip simply to see. A clean space. An open window.
I'm sure I'll falter along the way. But I want to get better at this.
Less stuff. More experience. For their sake.
who is no longer a kid, who has brightened my life immeasurably, made the days count, given me just cause to try and to try again better. This one who does not believe in failure, who amasses friends at every turn, who sets out toward a dream, who seizes the day, who is working a dream job for a dream company in his dream city, and who reminds me (when the world seems unkind) of all the beauty in it.
Next time it will be better, he says. And next time he is right.
To celebrating with him in just a few hours.
When Adventures in YA Publishing invited me to write a craft essay, it took me some time to center in on a topic. The truth is, I haven't been writing a whole lot lately. I've been spending time with my father. Spending time with my friends. Thinning out my house to be sure that it holds only things I feel are essential. Reflecting on this career, this publishing life, next steps.
Turns out, that waiting and living was my topic after all. Today, at YA, I'm thinking out loud about what we do with all that time when we aren't actually writing. How not writing (at least for a while) has improved my books. How not writing makes us more alive to what might (at some point) be written about.
My full thoughts are here. Thank you, Adventures in YA Publishing.
How proud I was this evening to accompany my husband to the Wayne Art Center (about which I have written here
), where he won a first award—a student award—for his work, "Industrial Landscape." This is an evolution of work that is exquisitely considered and well made, and a happy validation of the long hours he spends planning and building these pieces.
For a glimpse at an earlier collection, please go here.
So I got all dressed up. Wore heels for the first time in forever. Almost fell off the heels. Had fun seeing two of my own pieces on display. Which I'd entered just for fun, though, once I got there and saw the serious talent, I died a thousand deaths, then decided to stop dying and had the aforementioned (twice) fun. I don't think I'm good at this. Seriously. It's just — a community. I love the community. And sometimes the glaze does nice things.
So, hats off to my husband. I honor the originality of his vision. And the care with which he builds things.
Not long ago, in Krakow, I discovered the living legacy of Pope John Paul II. I reflect on that, and on the anticipated arrival of Pope Francis to Philadelphia, in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.
The story can be found here.
With thanks, as always, to Kevin Ferris and the thoughtful design team at the Inquirer.
And with thanks to dear Karolina, whose impassioned stories about her childhood home, Krakow, led me across the waters to that beautiful city. And with thanks to Philadelphia, this city that I love.
will be available in September from Temple University Press, in time for the Pope's Love is Our Mission visit to Philadelphia. I'll be launching the book officially at the Free Library of Philadelphia on October 7, then celebrating again at Radnor Memorial Library and Main Point Books.
It would make me happy to see you.
Look for my story this weekend in the Philadelphia Inquirer's special Papal Visit issue.
October 7, 2015, 7:30 p.m.
Launch of Love: A Philadelphia Affair
Free Library of Philadelphia
Benjamin Franklin Parkway
October 20, 2015, 7:30 p.m.
Radnor Memorial Library
A Celebration of One Thing Stolen
and Love: A Philadelphia Affair
114 W. Wayne Avenue
Wayne, PA 19087
October 25, 2015, 4 p.m.
Love: A Philadelphia Affair signing
Main Point Books
1041 W. Lancaster Avenue
Bryn Mawr, PA
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, Amy Rennert
, Andrea Spooner
, DIana Nyad
, Find a Way
, Jessica Shoffel
, Little Brown Books for Young Readers
, Small Damages
, The Thing About Jellyfish
, Add a tag
When Jessica Shoffel speaks, I listen.
She's the sort of person who makes you feel seen. The sort who, as a Penguin publicist, didn't just oversee the campaigns of mega-watt writers like Laurie Halse Anderson and Jacquelyn Woodson, but also took time to read my novel Small Damages
, to tell me how the story worked within her, and to create a glorious press release
and campaign on its behalf. The sort who stood with me through a difficult time. The sort who found me alone at the Decatur, GA, book festival and included me in conversations, in a dinner, in a memorable hour with Tomie dePaulo.
The sort who makes time in a hugely busy life to reach out to young people who have experienced loss, to run marathon races
on behalf of medical research, and to talk to a dear family member, Kelsey, about what it is like to work among books. Jess is smart and gracious and kind and hard working. She is there. She is present. She is with you; she is for
you. She is a rare kind of sisterhood.
And so when Jess wrote a few weeks ago to tell me about a book she had just read in her new role as Director of Publicity for Little Brown and Company's Books for Young Readers, when she said it was my kind of book, I didn't for one instant doubt her. Can I send it to you? she asked. Of course, I said.
And so it arrived. And so I have read it.
This book—this gorgeous, intelligent, moving, seamless, award-destined, Andrea Spooner edited book—is a debut middle grade novel by Ali Benjamin called The Thing About Jellyfish
. Everything about this story enwraps, engages, enraptures. Its frizzy-haired, science-leaning, universe-scanning narrator who has lost her former best friend. Its obsession with the jellies that bloom incessantly within our seas, leave the big whales hungry, endanger us with their undying stings. Its child-hearted hopes and its big-minded mix of science and mystery. Its neat division into paper parts—purpose, hypothesis, straight through to conclusion. Its language—just the right bright, the right curious. (I could quote from every single line and prove that to you; Ali Benjamin never writes anything less than a wonderful sentence.) The science itself—impeccably (never intrusively) filtered into this story about friendship, family, school, and school teachers who care.
And then—watch—Diana Nyad appears. Diana Nyad, the endurance swimmer who refused to give up on her dream. The endurance swimmer who braved the countless jellyfish stings and made it to the other side. Symbol, hero, character. There she is, in this most exquisite book.
(For more on Diana and her relationship with my friend and agent Amy Rennert, read here
. And look for Diana's much buzzed memoir, Find a Way
, out in October).
In this summer of contemplation, this summer of weighing the odds, of wondering through the writing again, of maybe or maybe not trying again, of not knowing, it is a glorious thing to be reminded of what is possible with books. The thing about The Thing About
is what says about what possible is.
I am in the midst of a most emotional summer, and I'm just letting that be. Not building walls around my feelings. Not afraid to sit and reel.
This afternoon I've been reading Patti Smith's new memoir, M Train
, due out in a few months. I will tell you right now that this book is fierce beauty if ever there was fierce beauty. This book is cloud sweep, glistened web, vast and aching, a room in which to cry. I can't say more than that for awhile now. Just. Oh, my goodness. This book.
I stopped in the midst of my reading to return to an interview Smith did with Rolling Stone
magazine in 1996, a few short years after Smith's beloved husband, Fred, passed away from heart failure. The interviewer has been speaking of how Smith "literally disappeared during the 1980s." Smith has talked about the greatness of that period, how the couple traveled America, lived in cheap hotels, loved. He would study flying. She would write poems and stories the world wouldn't see for years.
Now the interviewer asks Smith about the transition from that period of rock and roll stardom to "almost complete anonymity." Smith's response, in part:
Because people don't see you or see what you're doing doesn't mean you don't exist. When Robert [Mapplethorpe] and I spent the end of the '60s in Brooklyn [NY] working on our art and poetry, no one knew who we were. Nobody knew our names. But we worked like demons. And no one really cared about Fred and I during the '80s. But our self-concept had to come from the work we were doing, from our communication, not from outside sources.
Necessary words for those of us who are still waiting for that big (or small) break, for those of us whose time seems to have come and gone, for those of us deliberately stepping off the trammeled path to think for a bit, to reconceive.
In my fourth book, Seeing Past Z: Nurturing the Imagination in a Fast-Forward World,
I wondered out loud about what might happen if we stopped competing with and through our children. If we gave them time to become themselves, to work together to build ideas and worlds that are never judged, prized, awarded.Seeing Past Z
was based on the many years I spent teaching children in my home and at a local garden. It was about the beauty of just being together, imagining together, writing together, and not mailing our poems, songs, stories out into the world for "greater" validation. I never re-wrote the children's work, never rewrote the work of my son. What they created they created. They took the pride of ownership. They gained.
From the opening pages of Seeing Past Z:
I want to raise my son to pursue wisdom over winning. I want him to channel his passions and talents and personal politics into rivers of his own choosing. I'd like to take the chance that I feel it is my right to take on contentment over credentials, imagination over conquest, the idiosyncratic point of view over the standard-issue one. I'd like to live in a world where that's okay.
Some call this folly. Some make a point of reminding me of all the most relevant data: That the imagination has lost its standing in classrooms and families nationwide. That storytelling is for those with too much time. That winning early is one bet-hedging path toward winning later on. That there isn't time, as there once was time, for a child's inner life. That a mother who eschews competition for conversation is a mother who places her son at risk for second-class citizenry.
The book was ahead of its time. It sold but a few thousand copies, was remaindered quickly. A few years later the slow parenting movement rolled in. Books about the importance of play and the dangers of the parent-governed resume grabbed headlines. Helicopter parenting was caught in the snare. The family counselors, the social scientists, the psychiatrists sat on the talk-show couches and asked, What have we done to our young?
Yesterday The Atlantic
ran an important story by Jen Karetnick titled "Behind the Scenes of Teenage Writing Competitions."
The story reminds us of the damage that can get done when teens (and those who oversee their paths to glory) write to win, write to build their resumes. The work is shaped (not always by the teens themselves) to beat the odds. The resumes grow, often at the expense of less-privileged children who don't have writing mentors and editors at their side. And programs designed to help these young people step toward the light are compromised by work that may or may not be the students' own. From the story:
This destruction of self-esteem and erasing of voice is exactly what Nora Raleigh Baskin, author of the new book Ruby on the Outside, fears. Having taught for almost 15 years at organizations including Gotham Writers Workshop, Raleigh Baskin has seen those mindsets trending. She refuses to critique manuscripts to send off to literary magazines or to judge competitions on the grounds that budding writers’ voices shouldn’t be “held up against a random opinion. This is the time for exploration and for encouragement … Writing is all about process and setting these arbitrary achievements takes away from that.”
For some young writers, that pressure can be far more insidious than the pain of rejection. The competitive spirit may persuade parents to hire well-known writers to tutor, edit, or even rewrite their children’s work. It may even lead minors down the path of plagiarism.
As parents and teachers, as writers and people with more than a few wrinkles by their eyes, let us do what is right by our young people. Let us not rewrite their stories. Let us not allow them to think that winning is more important than knowing. Let us remind them that honesty, authenticity, goodness is the ultimate aim, not stars or unearned privilege. Let them find out who they are.
When, for example, I asked my young people to create a character, I gave out no stars. When I served as the Master Writing Teacher at the National YoungArts Foundation a few years ago, I did not go to upgrade the students' work; I went to provoke them with new prompts, new readings, new conversations, to encourage them to dig deeper within their own souls. And at Penn, where I teach a single course once each year, I am not rewriting my students' work, not rewriting their essays. I am pressing them to take each idea and every line farther—for their own sake. I am rewarding hard work and careful thought. I am rewarding personal growth. I am disappointed by those who take short cuts. Because it only hurts them.
One last word on this. Lately I have been going through many boxes from my youth. Reading, with a terrible blush in my cheeks, my early poems. People, they were awful. They were worse than awful. They showed no promise.
But they were mine. Never rewritten, never edited, never smoothed out. It took time time time for me to find my own way, and I'm still struggling. Having never taken formal creative writing classes, having taught myself through the books I've read and the friends I've made, I may still be behind the curve, but I am me behind that curve.
Let the young be themselves. Their breakthroughs will have more meaning.
Being an old woman now, being a veteran of hope and disappointments, promises made and not always kept, I've seen things. I've felt things. I've wondered.
Many conclusions I've kept to myself. Some I've shared privately, quietly, with friends. Never in a bookstore gathering, nor on a panel, nor in a public forum, nor in a passive-aggressive social-media way have I thought it okay—from a human perspective, from the perspective of career advancement, even—to strike back or out at others. To put one writer or book down in order to promote another. To laugh at the person not in the room, or at the person sitting just a few stools down.
These are books we are writing, and if we are writing them for the right reasons, we're not writing them to win, we're not writing them to be famous, we're not writing them to put ourselves on an endless tour away from home and family. We're not writing so that we will own the headlines. We're writing because within the deep of us, something stirs—idea, character, language. The stuff of the soul.
Good luck in our own careers doesn't earn us entree to prideful pronouncements. Bad luck shouldn't put us on a battleground. Envy shouldn't fuel our conversations.
Our country trembles. Our planet stands at desperate risk. Dangers lurk and hearts are broken. People are dying too soon and for no other reason than that they were in a church at a wrong time, or on a beach when terror came, or in a museum when someone raised a gun, or in a hotel when a plane fell.
May we write books that explore, expose, ponder, transcend, heal. May we live, as authors, with the ambition of doing some measurable good in this world.
One year ago today I was on a small boat in Alaskan waters and the sky was our fireworks. Tomorrow, my husband, father, and I will have the great pleasure of reuniting with the two sisters we met on this trip—women who exemplify so much that is important, women who, even a year on, carry the traditions of friendship forward.
To our country tonight. To the safety of all those we love, and strangers, too. And to the friendships that sustain us, on Independence Day.
We lost the great Kent Haruf way too soon. I was privileged to review his final book for the Chicago Tribune—privileged to have the excuse to go back and read Haruf interviews and profiles in preparation for the assignment.
Oh, he had so much to say. I wish he were still here, saying.
My full review can be found here
I met Mary Lee Adler in Miami. She was (in her smart, loving, embracing way) overseeing the young writers of the National YoungArts program.
Making sure they were heard. Making sure they were seen. Making sure they were experiencing all that week-long program had to give them.
But here's the thing: If those YoungArts writers did nothing more than meet Mary Lee, their week in the Miami sun would have been worth it. I've rarely enjoyed conversation as much as I enjoyed my conversation with this reader/maker/doer. I've rarely felt so privileged.
A Vanderbilt graduate with an English degree, a woman who has traveled the world, a woman who doesn't give up on love or its possibilities, Mary Lee is also a sculptor—a maker of exquisite urns, among other things.
Today I'm celebrating Mary Lee and her artful renditions of the everlasting. Please visit her web site
to learn more.
I confess: I am the last person in America to read Leif Enger's Peace Like a River.
The last person to wake earlier than the usual early to get more pages in. The last person to brim up over the magnitude of this book's heart. The last person to sit very quietly still after the final sentence was sung and wish that the book had not been read yet—that it was still out there, rewarding discovery, still out there, beckoning.
For what a book is this book about an asthmatic boy and his literary sister, their miracle-stirring father, their outlaw brother, the minor and major sacrifices one makes when protecting love against the provable facts of a crime. This story about the wild west, the Valdezes and Cassidys, the crags in the earth that burn unending fires, the storms that blow in the snow or simply blow the snow, the quality of icing on cinnamon raisin buns. The stars:
They burned yellow and white, and some of them changed to blue or a cold green or orange—Swede should've been there, she'd have had words. She'd have known that orange to be volcanic or forgestruck or a pinprick between our blackened world and one the color of sunsets. I thought of God making it all, picking up handfuls of whatever material, iron and other stuff, rolling it in. His fingers like nubby wheat. The picture I had was of God taking these rough pellets by the handful and casting them gently, like a man planting. Look at the Milky Way. It has that pattern, doesn't it, of having been cast there by the back-and-forward sweep of His arm?
Magnificent, right? Magnificent. And not an ounce of the angry in this book, which is not to say there is no moral complexity or confusion. Not a whiff of cynicism, which is not to say that this ageless/timeless book is devoid of brave impartings. When I think about why I love this book so much, I think it has something to do with this: it is not afraid to be alive with the wonder of our living.
Am I right? Perhaps. For when I set off to read more about Enger, I came upon this excerpt from a Mark LaFramboise interview
. Wonder is his topic—the importance of holding fast, and holding true, to the mysterious.
There is no greater lesson, I believe, for anyone writing right now. We seem in all-out pursuit of edge and bitterness, declarations of the apocalyptic. But aren't our very best books sprung from respect for natural and man-made loveliness?
Q: Although the narrator tells the story in retrospect, we see the world through the eleven- year old eyes of Reuben. How were you able to capture the wonder, fears, and curiosity of such a young protagonist?
A: First, my parents gave me the sort of childhood now rarely encountered. Summers were beautiful unorganized eternities where we wandered in the timber unencumbered by scoutmasters. We dressed in breechclouts and carried willow branch bows, and after supper Dad hit us fly balls. It was probably most idyllic for me as the youngest of four, since three worthy imaginations were out beating the ground in front of me; who knew what might jump up? Now I see that same freedom in the lives of our two sons, whose interests cover the known map. It's easy to witness the world through the eyes of a boy when you have two observant ones with you at all times. But the ruinous thing about growing up is that we stop creating mysteries where none exist, and worse, we usually try to deconstruct and deny the genuine mysteries that remain. We argue against God, against true romance, against loyalty and self-sacrifice. What allows Reuben to keep his youthful perspective is that he's seen all these things in action -- he is the beneficiary of his father's faith. He is a witness of wonders. To forget them would be to deny they happened, and denying the truth is the beginning of death.
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Lidia Yuknavitch is fearless—a trait I typically admire. Her new book opens with an exquisite scene and then slowly peels away to fractions. My reflections on it all are here, in the New York Journal of Books.