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1. 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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2. 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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3. The One Thing Stolen Teacher Guide

Jaime Wong of Chronicle Books masterminded one heck of a wonderful teacher guide to One Thing Stolen, the new novel which yesterday received its first official review, the Kirkus. The guide is now (as of this very minute) available online, here.

With thanks to Jaime and to the designer who made this guide look so lovely — and to the programmer who made it available.

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4. Relief: The Kirkus Review of One Thing Stolen

“Rivetingly captures the destructive effects of mental and physical illness on a likable, sweet-natured teen.”—Kirkus Reviews

Something very bad is happening to 17-year-old Nadia.Ever since her family relocated to Florence for her father's sabbatical, she's been slipping out at night to steal random objects and then weave them into bizarre nest-shaped forms she hides from her family, and she's losing her ability to speak. The first section of the novel is related by Nadia in brief, near-breathless, panicky sentences that effectively capture her increasing disintegration. Switching smoothly between entrancing flashbacks of her promising past—"It was so easy, being me"and her painful, confusing present, which includes visions of a "fluorescent" boy with a pink duffle, real or imagined, Nadia relates her story in fragments. Her parents, remarkably slow to realize Nadia isn't just having trouble adjusting, finally contact wise, nurturing Katherine, a doctor, for help. The narrative switches to the voice of Maggie, Nadia's beloved friend and soul mate, who joins the family in Italy to help Nadia and to find the duffle boy, whose existence—or not—has become critically important. It is he who narrates the final brief section. With Nadia's jumbled personality slipping away, the change of narrative voice is especially disquieting, offering few guarantees of a happy outcome. Disturbing, sometimes unsettling and ultimately offering a sliver of hope, this effort rivetingly captures the destructive effects of mental and physical illness on a likable, sweet-natured teen.

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5. when you can still call it yours

when it still belongs mostly to you and the handful of souls who have made time to read.

when it is as beautiful as this, all thanks to the design and editorial team.

before anything else can be said or done.

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6. trusting in the tomorrow we can't see

Recently, on Facebook, I made the announcement (pronouncement?) that I was going to worry less. The declaration prompted a fabulous chain of tongue-in-cheek responses, confessions, questions. The storybook stuff of the social media machine.

But I was serious, more or less. I had awakened one day to the (obvious) realization that all the anxiety and worry that has accompanied my every waking hour has gotten me precisely nowhere. No better positioned as an author. No higher up on the chain of corporate commands. No richer and no younger.

What would happen if I stopped chasing the world and let it come to me? I wondered. What if I said that, for the next twelve months at least, I will proactively pursue—nothing. I will live my days fulfilling pre-existing responsibilities to family, friends, clients, editors, and students. I will finish the book-length projects that were promised, but not angst over new ones. I will do the work that arises of its own accord, write the columns I love writing, write the reviews that I love writing, teach the students I love teaching. Leave the in-progress novel where it is, simply in-progress, off to the side, rising like yeast. Expect nothing. Push back. Wait.

Leave the days to fate and to chance and to all the other forces that are at play out there.

A few weeks into this new frame of mind, and I can report this: Life is infinitely sweeter. In the hours I once spent searching for new work or scribbling novel lines, I'm reading—books I've chosen, books that assuage, alert, and teach me, books that I share here, books that are broadening my vocabulary. In the hours that once were noisy with demand I'm engaged in deeper conversations with new friends and old ones—about life, children, teaching, stories that matter. I've let that part of my mind that held onto disappointments or perceived betrayals, that wondered why not, that couldn't quite parse the hurts go white as today's snow.

I trust in the tomorrow I can't see.

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7. weather

As millions of us on the east coast wait out the blizzard headed our way, I send out thoughts of safe travel, warm homes, good books at hand.

This is Alaska, this past June, where clouds and fog came in deep and thick, then vanished, leaving skies of radiant blue.

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8. Remembering South Street and celebrating Isaiah Zagar, in today's Philadelphia Inquirer

Last Friday I pushed away from the desk, went out into the air, and returned to South and Gaskill Streets. I rediscovered some of my own history. I talked with Julia Zagar about her husband's remarkable mosaics (Isaiah Zagar, Philadelphia's Magic Gardens). I remembered.

The story is here, in today's Philadelphia Inquirer. Huge thanks to Kevin Ferris and to Amy Junod, page designer, who used six of my photographs for this piece. I'm sort of overwhelmed. I'm very grateful. Thank you.

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9. Everything I Never Told You/Celeste Ng and Citizen: An American Lyric/Claudia Rankine

There are books that fill you with the clamor of something new—the risk of them, the innovation.

There are books that silence you—how honest and aching and true, how beautifully levered down into the soul.

This morning I am silenced by Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng's impeccable first novel about a daughter whose inexplicable death cracks open the vault of a family's secrets and regrets. A novel about children submitting to their parents' dreams for them, and the woeful consequences. Bill Wolfe had named this his favorite book of the year. So many others, too. Believe anyone who tells you that you must read this book. Believe me. You must.

Ng is a master of the omniscient voice. A brilliant webber of divergent perspectives. A calm creator of sentences. A woman capable of writing with enormous clarity and tenderness about racism, silence, the terrible burdens of doing one's duty, the steep weight of holding that science book in your hand because your mother wants you to, the wretchedness of being the less-loved child. How do you take a heartbreaking story and still leave the reader with hope? You do it by writing through a powerful knowing not just of the past but of the future, too.

I am one of those people who writes in her books—outlining, defining, questioning. I did not write inside Ng's pages, preferring to keep them pristine. I turned back the ear of but one, knowing it would be the page that I shared, the thing that lies most at the heart of this novel. That word "different" and how we use it or abuse it in our lives.

Sometimes you almost forgot: that you didn't look like everyone else. In homeroom or at the drugstore or at the supermarket, you listened to morning announcements or dropped off a roll of film or picked out a carton of eggs and felt like just another someone in the crowd. Sometimes you didn't think about it at all. And then sometimes you noticed the girl across the aisle watching, the pharmacist watching, the checkout boy watching, and you saw yourself reflected in their stares: incongruous. Catching the eye like a hook. Every time you saw yourself from the outside, the way other people saw you, you remembered all over again. 

I was reading Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric the same time that I was reading Ng. I was thinking of how many times I have likely gotten it wrong in my own language—despite all these years now with my own Salvadoran husband, all these years fighting labels in life and on the page. Even those of us who should fully understand the nuances of prejudicial language can, horrifyingly, get it wrong, and will again. I mean to take nothing away from Ng's magnificent novel by including words from Rankine in this post, but they do, I believe, go together. They must—both these books—be read.

You are twelve attending Sts. Philip and James School on White Plains Road and the girl sitting in the seat behind asks you to lean to the right during exams so she can copy what you have written. Sister Evelyn is in the habit of taping the 100s and the failing grades to the coat closet doors. The girl is Catholic with waist-length brown hair. You can't remember her name: Mary? Catherine?

You never really speak except for the time she makes her request and later when she tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person. You assume she thinks she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person.

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10. talking about failure memoirs, in this weekend's Chicago Tribune

In my memoir class at the University of Pennsylvania, we're focusing on failure/mistake memoirs, and what they teach us. To get my own self into a teaching place, I spent considerable time during Christmas and the first weeks of the new year, studying the books that I am teaching—and thinking.

The Chicago Tribune kindly gave me room to put that thinking on its pages.

I'm thrilled to also be able to share that Daniel Menaker, the author of My Mistake and an esteemed editor in his own right, will be visiting Kelly Writers House for a publishers lunch and then my class on February 24th, at Penn.

The Tribune essay can be found here.

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11. When the poem is the elegy and the elegy is the memoir: Gabriel: A Poem/Edward Hirsch

This morning, before the gears on the work-a-day-world began to turn in earnest, I read "Gabriel: A Poem," Edward Hirsch's book-length elegy for his departed son.

It is hallowed and hollowing, a work of pristine mourning. Memories seamed and broken. Threads that fall away until we see the soul of the boy himself— adopted, challenged by tics and relentless recklessness, the bright splash in a room. He is a child no one can keep safe from himself. A child who goes out during Storm Irene to a party he sees advertised on Craigslist. A child who does not return and cannot be found for four terrible days.

And then he must be buried.

It ransacks the soul, reading a book like this. We peel away as the lines peel away; no periods at the end of any line, no finished sentences. We look and we cannot stop looking until Gabriel, and his searching father, are a part of us.

It is a poem. It is also memoir. Like Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming it suggests, again, another form for the hardest and most important stories lived. The most important things lost and lifted to the page.


In his country
There were scenes
Of spectacular carnage

Hurricanes welcomed him
He adored typhoons and tornadoes
Furies unleashed

Houses lifted up
And carried to the sea
Uncontained uncontainable

Unbolt the doors
Fling open the gates
Here he comes

Chaotic wind of the gods
He was trouble
But he was our trouble
With thanks to Nathaniel Popkin, whose craft essay in Cleaver Magazine last week reminded me that I had meant to buy and read this.

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12. Writing people: lessons from Charles D'Ambrosio

Yeah. I'm bowled over by Charles D'Ambrosio's Loitering: New and Collected Essays. One. Hundred. Percent. I mentioned this yesterday. I may well mention it again. Read the book, and learn.

Lesson of the day. How to write a person. I don't know that I've ever seen it done any better than this. From the essay "Winning":

Al tended the bar at night. He'd been in the merchant marine and ate with a fat clunky thumb holding down his plate, as if he were afraid the whole place might pitch and yaw and send his dinner flying. He was dwarfish and looked like an abandoned sculpture, a forgotten intention. His upper body was a a slablike mass, a plinth upon which his head rested; he had a chiseled nose and jaw, a hack-job scar of a mouth; his hands were thick and stubby, more like paws than anything prehensile. Sitting back behind the bar, smoking Pall Malls, he seemed petrified, the current shape of his body achieved by erosion, his face cut by clumsy strokes and blows. His eyes, though, were soft and blue, always wet and weepy with rheum, and when you looked at Al, you had the disorienting sense of something trapped, something fluid and human caught inside the gray stone vessel of his gargoyle body, gazing out through those eyes.

Abandoned sculpture: fantastic. A forgotten intention: genius. Something fluid caught inside a gargoyle body: are you kidding me?

I, for one, have some work to do before I can ever be fully satisfied with anything I write. The bar has been D'Ambrosio raised.

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13. my "advice to writers" and Charles D'Ambrosio

It is perhaps fitting that today, as I set off to Penn for the inaugural spring 2015 memoir class, Jon Winokur is posting my contribution to his "Advice to Writers" series, found here.

Six questions, six quick responses. Here, for example, my thoughts on writer's block:

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I suffer from a lost faith in my ability to solve hard literary problems. And then I chip away at them.

But really, always, my advice comes down to reading more than you write and living more than anything else, and so may I amplify today's post by encouraging, nay, insisting, that those of you who want to write memoir or essays or memoristic essays and have not read Charles D'Ambrosio's essays get a copy of Loitering: New and Collected Essays, newly out from the fabulous Tin House Books. D'Ambrosio is a supreme master of the form—witty, willing to fail, eager to digress, self referent while avoiding self-absorption (see my thoughts on Rachel Cusk's Outline, here), devoted, in his words, to capturing "the conflicted mind in motion."

Buy this collection, watch him work.

Off to teach failure and mistakes at Penn. Things at which I'm expertly good.

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14. On reading OUTLINE by Rachel Cusk, and thoughts on a new generation of scouring fiction

Chloe Aridjis, Jenny Offill, Samantha Harvey, Catherine Lacey, Rachel Cusk: Lately I've been reading authors like these, women unafraid of breaking form or muddying expectations, women writing sentences that scour. They are books in which the characters choose, in some way, to be alone—to isolate themselves inside their own thoughts, to sever themselves from social conventions, to tell stories that, without resort to war or torture, somehow carry knives.

This morning I finished reading Outline, Rachel Cusk's story of—well—what is it, exactly? It is the story of a writer who has gone to Greece for a week to teach; yes, it is that, at one level. But mostly it is about a woman who moves through the world under the assault of other people's stories. People who find themselves, in her presence, talking through the cyclone of their own lives, presenting themselves as they wish to be presented, asserting their right (right?) to be heard, smudging and aggrandizing, begging to be understood, until, ultimately, their stories devolve into self-circling harangues. The people our narrator meets, the people who natter on, hardly need to be encouraged. Given room to talk, they do, exhibiting, ultimately, that something selfish, stingy, mean of propulsive monologue. We have all been on the other side of such a thing. We understand. There is almost a comedy to it.

But Cusk is after far more than a set piece, a commentary on rampant self-absorption. Cusk ratchets the ambush of monologue to high tension in Outline. She makes, of these disconnected interludes, a story with an arc. She uses her scheme to explore essential questions about the lies we tell ourselves, the responsibilities we negate, the desire we have to blame other people for the unhappiness we feel or the success we have not had or the mess we have made of marriages or parenting. Her narrator is a woman who "did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything." She is a woman rarely asked about herself, but when she does comment on the stories she is told, she brings an outsiderly wisdom, a pausing perhaps. We know the outlines of who she is (a writer, a divorcee), in other words, but far more important is how we come to know what she thinks.

Here, for example, she is responding to an insufferable woman's complaints about marriage:

I replied that I wasn't sure it was possible, in marriage, to know what you actually were, or indeed to separate what you were from what you had become through the other person. I thought the whole idea of a 'real' self might be illusory: you might feel, in other words, as though there were some separate, autonomous self within you, but perhaps that self didn't actually exist. My mother once admitted, I said, that she used to be desperate for us to leave the house for school, but that once we'd gone she had no idea what to do with herself and wished that we would come back.

Here the narrator muses on desire:

I said that, on the contrary, I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible. One could make almost anything happen, if one tried hard enough, but the trying—it seemed to me—was almost always a sign that one was crossing the currents, was forcing events in a direction they did not naturally want to go, and though you might argue that nothing could ever be accomplished without going against nature to some extent, the artificiality of that vision and its consequences had become—to put it bluntly—anathema to me. There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that, I had decided to want nothing at all.
A rosy world view this is not. Easy entertainment—it's not that, either. But it is fierce and different and part of a new world order in fiction written by women. A movement to which I think we must pay quite close attention.

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15. The Mud Angels of One Thing Stolen

A long time ago, when I began to write the book that became One Thing Stolen, I thought of it as a book called Mud Angels. Perhaps because it is the story of a rescue—of more than one rescue. Perhaps because parts of the tale take place against the backdrop of the November 1966 flood that destroyed so much of Florence.

Today, when there is so much rain where I live, when my own car nearly slid into a stone wall earlier this morning, I share a few minutes of the Florence flood and of those mud angels who inspired my work on One Thing Stolen. This is an unusual, hybrid video that tells the important story.

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16. THE GATHERER/Poems by Judith Bowles (and a story)

I can't remember the year. I remember the sweep of stairs and the white-light room at the Philadelphia Ethical Society, just off Rittenhouse Square. I remember the people—Mike Dunn, of KYW News, Tanya Barrientos, an Inquirer writer who later forged an amazing communications career, a blonde who raked her stories with lists, James Rahn, the workshop leader, others. And there in that class of journeying writers was Judith Bowles, a woman who had lived an extraordinary life, raised famous children, and had remarkable powers with words. She had lived in Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Wyoming, Manhattan. She remembered her mother. She wrote stories whose quietude I can still hear in my head, though I don't remember the plotting, a typical disorder, since plotting has rarely engaged my heart or my ear.

But Judith Bowles engaged me. Even as the class dissipated and we writers went our own ways and Judith moved with her husband to somewhere near DC. Even then, we continued our friendship. Old-fashioned letters. Christmas cards. And then, this year, Judith's card to me announced the publication of her first book of poems. Her moment now that her girls, and their children, are grown.

This is The Gatherer, published by Turning Point Books. Which I, grateful, have read this afternoon.

These are poems about earth that is "foggy soft" after a "snapped back" rain, about mason jars "like picture books/wild with color," about Edison's death chair, and about an Uncle Charlie who sizes the young girl up:

... After my horseshow he wanted
to know why I slumped
the minute the judges appeared
and at swim meets why I dove
deep off the side of the pool.
He said that I swallowed up
luck. He'd learned from watching
I didn't want to win. No other grownup
talked to me like that.

These are poems about a homemade life and about earrings (and a poem) "restored from shards," and about a "wild blue place"(this is my favorite poem) in which Judith practices the absence of her mother. Look:

... The sky there was wide, sharp,
attentive and as if from that wild
and very blue place
came a soft little gesture
that suited my hand.
It's a rite I still practice dozens
of times every day where my thumb
rubs my forefinger in smooth tiny
circles that say we're each here.
(Wild Blue Place)

Reading The Gatherer is like having Judith back in the room with me, her steady grip on elusive things. Reading The Gatherer is a pleasure I urge on every one of you.

Congratulations, Judith Bowles. It was worth the wait.

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17. Philly is Number 3 on the New York Times "52 Places to Go in 2015" list, and I'm feeling pride

Not as if I haven't been saying that myself (well, sort of), right here, and in the Inquirer, and in my books. But huzzah. This is the New York Times speaking, not just some homegrown booster.

I am taking particular pleasure in this because I have had the privilege of working with some of the people who are making the radical difference. Let's put Brandywine Realty Trust high on that radical difference list, and Brandywine CEO Jerry Sweeney himself, who has quietly and collaboratively helped engineer a renaissance along the Schuylkill River Banks (through the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, which he chairs), in University City, and in the downtown nexus. Let's talk about outdoor artists like Jane Golden and Isaiah Zagar. Let's look at my alma mater and employer, the University of Pennsylvania, which keeps the greening coming.

In naming Philadelphia right after Milan and Cuba on its list, the New York Times, in its January 9, 2015 story, said this:

The making of an urban outdoor oasis.

A series of projects has transformed Philadelphia into a hive of outdoor urban activity. Dilworth Park, formerly a hideous slab of concrete adjoining City Hall, reopened this past autumn as a green, pedestrian-friendly public space with a winter ice-skating rink (and a cafe by the indefatigable chef Jose Garces). Public art installations, mini "parklets" and open-air beer gardens have become common sights. The Delaware River waterfront was reworked for summer 2014 with the Spruce Street Harbor Park (complete with hammocks, lanterns and floating bar) becoming a new fixture, following the renovation of the Race Street Pier, completed in 2011, and offers free yoga classes on a bi-level strip of high-design decking and grass. The city’s other river, the Schuylkill, has its own new boardwalk. To top it off, this spring, Philadelphia will get its first bike share program, making this mostly flat city even more friendly for those on two wheels. Nell McShane Wulfhart

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18. I had been missing my city.

Today I returned.

I took a very long walk toward the southern edge of things, then began to weave (east west east west) back north. There was enough sun. There was ample chill. There were long-timers who stopped to tell me things.

I had three cameras, a pair of sneakers, an old coat. The best day of January, by far.

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19. The Last Flight of Poxl West/Daniel Torday: Reflections on a book I haven't finished because I haven't wanted it to end

I had a good plan. My plan was this: read and reflect on Daniel Torday's much-acclaimed debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, in time for Daniel's birthday. When you can make a big day even better, why not?

The problem was—the problem is—that I'm enjoying the book too darned much. Sure, I could have stayed up a little later over the weekend reading and gotten a few more pages in. I could have kept reading even now, in this frigid morning dark, beneath the blanket in the family room. But I don't want this story to end. If I read more pages, and read them too fast, then this story will end.

Noble thoughts, right? Little good they do for Daniel (who, by the way, directs the Creative Writing program at Bryn Mawr College). Daniel's birthday has come and gone, and his book is due out soon.

So let me then crawl out of my self-indulgent shell, raise my head for a moment, and say, "Wow." Because what an adventure this book is—the story of a former Royal Air Force bomber who happens to be Jewish, who isn't even a Brit, who lives in America now, touting his bestselling, big persona memoir. His memoir is right there, in the accordion folds of this book, layered in against the adoring accounts of his "nephew" Elijah, who hasn't just been privy to the book's making; he is (wait for it) in the acknowledgments.

Elijah Goldstein, future professor, has seen his name in print.

(Damn, that's intoxicating.)

These, then, are the ingredients of Torday's book—Poxl's memoir, Elijah's recounting of the making and marketing of the memoir, and a couple of red herrings along the way, but we don't really care, not yet; we're just busy reading about Poxl's mother in a city north of Prague (who posed for Schiele, that outlaw artist, imagine how that messed with her head), Poxl's passive-seeming father, Poxl's flight to Rotterdam, Poxl's love indoctrinations with a prostitute, London during the blackouts, those planes....

Okay. That's where I've gotten—so far. I was going to read another chapter before I posted these words, but it's freezing out there, and I'm going to want this book to dive back into after I return from my upcoming trek to the city for a (dear) client project.

But wait. Before I go, I'm going to give you this: A few words from Poxl, who, as you will see, is an enchanting storyteller—the kind who strikes that right balance between not hurrying and not tarrying, the kind who knows when to quiet a scene and when to razzle it up, who also has a fine little knack for that universal philosophizing that memoirists (even those who may not be telling the truth—not judging here, just saying) get down pat. Poxl is walking through a park in London. It's the height of fear and damage:

Where my outings to Prague had been comprised of the joy of thousands of people forever rushing at me—I learned that to live life is to lay oneself down to a wave, to feel as best one could the direction the current was flowing and then allow one's body to go slack and have the wisdom not to fight it lest one drown—London at night during that anxious period of the war was tensile as the thin frozen sheet atop a moving river.

The Last Flight of Poxl West will be released in March by St. Martin's Press.

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20. the importance of the imagination, in memoir (Jen Percy on Brian Turner)

Brian Turner's immaculate memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country, is reviewed today in the New York Times Book Review by Jen Percy.

The book itself is so well worth reading. (My thoughts about it are here.)

But the review is also a glory, opening with this paragraph about the importance of the empathetic imagination in memoir. Empathy may be nearly impossible to teach. But it does differentiate the great memoirs from the merely articulate ones, the we stories from the me tales. It's what should matter most to the makers and readers of memoir.

Jen Percy speaks of all this with bright, crisp words. Her entire review can be found here.

There’s a persistent idea in our culture that what we experience is “true,” while what we imagine is “untrue.” But without exploring the possibility of imagination in nonfiction, we leave out a fundamental part of the human experience — digressive wanderings, the chaotic interior self and, most important, our empathy. Empathy, after all, starts as an act of fiction. We must think ourselves into the lives of others.

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21. next

I'm blaming it all on my friend, Karolina. To Krakow in May. Because I must.
I found the photo above here.

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22. does the entire book lie within its first two sentences? Herman Koch and a Kephart experiment

The only thing benign about Herman Koch's The Dinner is the title—which, like almost everything else about the story, is designed to throw the reader off. "My Dinner with Andre" this is not. Politics, culture, morality, and childrens' lives are at stake (only the first three were at stake in the movie). The questions: What would we do to protect a child who has committed a heinous act? What would we do if we had somehow (implicitly, explicitly) encouraged or modeled or genetically produced an evil creature? Who do we love and why do we love them and what does familial happiness look like? At what cost, secrets?

All this unfolds over the course of a meal in an expensive restaurant. Two brothers and their wives have come to High Civility to discuss a horrific, seamy event. Paul, whose jealousy and creepiness are transparent from the start, tells us the story. He tells us who he is, even as he repeatedly cautions that many parts of the tale are not our business.

It's a brutal, brilliant book (compared to Gone Girl, I think it greatly supersedes it). It's not the kind of book I typically read, it oozes with contemptible people and scenes, but I was riveted by Koch's ability to see his vision through—so entirely relentlessly. And then I got to the paperback's extra matter and an essay by Koch himself called "The First Sentence."

For me, a book is already finished once I've come up with the first sentence. Or rather: the first two sentences. Those first two sentences contain everything I need to know about the book. I sometimes call them the book's "DNA." As long as every sentence that comes afterward contains that same DNA, everything is fine.

Koch's first two sentences, in case you are wondering, are: "We were going out to dinner. I won't say which restaurant, because next time it might be full of people who've come to see whether we're there." And absolutely, yes. The entire book is bracketed within them.

I believe in the power of first sentences, too. I think about them as setters of mood and tone. I wondered, though, whether I could say, about any of my novels, that the entire story rests within the first two sentences. I decided to conduct a mini-experiment. I grabbed a few books from my shelf. Opened to page one. Conducted a self-interview and assessment. I had to cheat in one place only (Dr. Radway), where more than two sentences were required. Otherwise, I'm thinking Koch is onto something here. (And if it is true for my books, I suspect it is true for yours, too.)

From within the fissure I rise, old as anything. The gravel beneath me slides. — Flow
Once I saw a vixen and a dog fox dancing. It was on the other side of the cul-de-sac, past the Gunns' place, through the trees, where the stream draws a wet line in spring. — Undercover
In the summer my mother grew zinnias in her window boxes and let fireflies hum through our back door. She kept basil alive in ruby-colored glasses and potatoes sprouting tentacles on the sills. — House of Dance

There are the things that have been and the things that haven't happened yet. There is the squiggle of a line between, which is the color of caution, the color of the bird that comes to my window every morning, rattling me awake with the hammer of its beak. — Nothing but Ghosts
What I remember now is the bunch of them running: from the tins, which were their houses. Up the white streets, which were the color of bone. — The Heart Is Not a Size
 From up high, everything seems to spill from itself. Everything is shadowed. — Dangerous Neighbors
My house is a storybook house. A huff-and-a-puff-and-they'll-blow-it-down house. — You Are My Only

The streets of Seville are the size of sidewalks, and there are alleys leaking off from the streets. In the back of the cab, where I sit by myself, I watch the past rushing by. — Small Damages

There was a story Francis told about two best friends gone swimming, round about Beiderman's Point, back of Petty's Island, along the crooked Delaware. "Fred Spowhouse," he'd say, his breath smelling like oysters and hay. "Alfred Edwards." The two friends found drowned and buckled together, Spowhouse clutched up tight inside Edwards's feckless arms. — Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent

We live with ghosts. We live with thugs, dodgers, punkers, needle ladies, pork knuckle. — Going Over

If you could see me. If you were near. — One Thing Stolen

Sidenote: In every case, the first two sentences of my books existed within the book in draft one. Sometimes they weren't posted right up front in early drafts. But they always eventually got there.

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23. crossing from relentlessly clever toward zealously humane (reflections on Rivka Galchen)

This past weekend I read the first 100 and last 100 pages of a much-acclaimed YA novel that felt, as I later wrote to a dear friend, relentlessly clever. The boom bang gee whiz zip of it all. The personality identifiers that soon became that scratch in the vinyl of the song. The politically correct issues wedged into something nearly other worldly. This novel has one extremely fine sentence and immaculate image after the other; I understand where the applause is coming from. And yet I felt wearied as I tried to ride its waves. I wanted it to settle down, somehow. Ripen quietly for a moment or a scene. Cross the border from the unexpected image toward the unexpected truth.

Early this morning, on the other hand, I finished reading American Innovations, a collection of short stories by Rivka Galchen, a writer well known and widely regarded for her astonishing forays into the absurd. Galchen frames her stories within the nearly recognizable. She tilts them off the screen. She bends and folds and breaks her landscapes and people until you're pretty sure, as her wide-eyed reader, that you've arrived at a surrealist museum.

Still, Galchen's tales alight from all-too-human insecurities, aloned-ness, confusions over purpose. Sure, there are streaming oddities and uncomfortable hilarities and the smack of white space at the end of it all—but Galchen is priming us for something bigger than the circus. She is making room, within the flurry, for the ascension of uncommon truth.

I'm quoting from the story "Once an Empire." Our lives-alone narrator has just returned from a movie. It's after midnight. She looks up toward her apartment where, strangely, but soon it hardly seems strange at all, her "stuff" is leaving her. The ironing board has walked off gently:

Next, with surprising nimbleness, my brown velveteen recliner climbed down, then passed by me in a stump-legged gallop. My wood-armed Dutch sofa shuffled graceful as a geisha. My desk chair seemed to think it had wheels, which it doesn't. A green-globed desk lamp went by. An ordinary plastic dustpan. A heavy skillet, scorched. My things. They were all heading east. With an enviable sense of purpose. An old set of Russian nesting dolls from my father, the ladder I used to reach my storage loft, a forgotten feather duster (blue), a pine cabinet with round hinges, two high kitchen stools I had painted, one of which had a yellow splatter I liked to run my fingers across.... "Stuff" is such a childish word. Sheets passed as if floral ghosts. My books rustled by like a military of ducks. My mother had never liked my books. She'd said they kept me from real life, by which I think she meant men, or money, or both. Always accusing things of precisely the crimes they haven't committed.

In other hands, this cleverness of image might have been enough — the Disneyesque escape of things from an apartment. But in Galchen's hands there is something deeper here — that "With an enviable purpose." That pause to comment on the word "Stuff." That interstitial bit about the mother, the clue about real life, that powerful "Always accusing things of precisely the crimes they haven't committed." Here, in the landscape of the strange, the strange is still background, while the human heart is foreground.

This (in addition to her wild imagination) is Galchen's special talent.

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24. how do we make our hard stories matter to others?

As I prepare to teach memoir again at Penn, I think about the hardest lesson of all—how we make the thing that has happened to us matter to others. The details alone—their accumulation—are but a record, a report. They will not tremble the hearts of perfect and imperfect strangers until they, as Saint-Exupery says here, are reconceived as transcendent matter.

Every week men sit comfortably at the cinema and look on at the bombardment of some Shanghai or other, some Guernica, and marvel without a trace of horror at the long fringes of ash and soot that twist their slow way into the sky from those man-made volcanoes. Yet we all know that together with the grain in the granaries, with the heritage of generations of men, with the treasures of families, it is the burning flesh of children and their elders that, dissipated in smoke, is slowly fertilizing those black cumuli.

The physical drama itself cannot touch us until some one points out its spiritual sense.

Antoine De Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand and Stars

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25. One Thing Stolen: what I'm learning as Glenda Cowen-Funk reads the book

There must have been some magic involved.

There (on a dark street at the National Harbor on a cold night) I stood with Ginee Seo and Sally Kim of Chronicle Books; we'd just emerged from a wonderful meal. There, coming toward us, was Paul W. Hankins, whose Twitter handle reveals him to be a "reader, writer, wonder-er, and teacher of English/AP English Language/Composition at Silver Creek High School," though everyone already knows him for his passionate advocacy of youth, words, and innovative teaching. A conversation that began (in person) that night continued on Twitter and Facebook and soon the conversation was embracing one Glenda Cowen-Funk, a supreme teaching goddess and master/mistress, who began to tell me stories about the way she teaches her high school students in Idaho.

You want to know how to teach The Great Gatsby? Ask Glenda. You want to see Beowulf come to life? Rush travel your way to her classroom. You want to know how lucky I am? Glenda has been reading One Thing Stolen. She's been reading, she's been musing, and I've been learning from her.

Yesterday I asked if some of Glenda's beautiful musings about the book might be shared more broadly. Generously, Glenda said yes. And so, with deepest appreciation for teachers who bring such enormous creativity to the classroom and such kindness to writers, I share Glenda's thought-provoking words.

One Thing Stolen is a nest of words, pieced together to build a shelter. Like Laurie Halse Anderson does in SPEAK, Kephart has created a character who cannot speak, only she does, punctuating streams of consciousness." 

— Glenda Cowen-Funk, NEA Master Teacher Project, NBCT, Teacher at S. D. # 25, Highland High School, Pocatello, Idaho

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