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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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By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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, Adam Haslett
, Anmiryam Budner
, Bryn Mawr College
, Cynthia Reeves
, Imagine Me Gone
, Kelly Simmons
, Main Point Books
, Phillip Lopate
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It was meant to be. There Cyndi Reeves and I were, in the lobby of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, catching up with each other ahead of a Bryn Mawr College sponsored dinner with Phillip Lopate. That was all wonderful enough, but then there came Anmiryam Budner, of Main Point Books, with a box of Better Living Through Criticism
, written by A.O. Scott, who was slated to speak at the theater later that night.
A. O. Scott, I said? Really? For I had, not long before, reviewed Better Living
for the Chicago Tribune
, and, before, that, simply loved reading Scott's movie reviews for the New York Times
. A.O. Scott. A literary celebrity.
Two friends, a literary celebrity, dinner plans with the nation's great essayist, and then a conversation with Anmiryam in which she pronounced that the book Cyndi and I must read next (we always ask and she always tells) was Adam Haslett's Imagine Me Gone
. Anmiryam is an impassioned book reader, which is what makes her such a stunning book seller. From her lips to our hearts, these books.
Cyndi and I were in. Soon our friend Kelly Simmons was in as well. We'd all buy Haslett's newest, and then we would discuss.
Books and friendship. Like coffee and cream.
Maybe you'll be in, too. Maybe we could all discuss? Because Haslett bears discussion. For now I would like to share with you the most exquisite passage in a book built of exquisite passages—a story about the long-lingering affects of a father's mental unwellness. Here is Michael, the oldest son, who has some of his father's imbalance. He's talking about fear. It's devastating because it's so true.
What do you fear when you fear everything? Time passing and not passing. Death and life. I could say my lungs never filled with enough air, no matter how many puffs of my inhaler I took. Or that my thoughts moved too quickly to complete, severed by a perpetual vigilance. But even to say this would abet the lie that terror can be described, when anyone who's ever known it knows that it has no components but is instead everywhere inside you all the time, until you can recognize yourself only by the tensions that string one minute to the next And yet I keep lying, by describing, because how else can I avoid this second, and the one after it? This being the condition itself: the relentless need to escape a moment that never ends.
This week I'll be giving three different talks on three very different topics. I've been in the midst of preparations.
The first, this Tuesday evening, is a keynote on behalf of Historic RittenhouseTown
, birthplace of paper in British North America and home to David Rittenhouse, a polymath of such considerable renown that Philadelphia's largest square bears his name. I'll be talking about my recent visit to this historic site (the topic of my Sunday Inquirer
story, a link to which is here
). But I'll begin by reflecting on my own relationship to paper. Which necessarily involves my reflections on my life as a writer. Which means that I must confess what a poor writer I was.
I may have been an angsty adolescent, but my darkest secret involved nothing more than this: a box of watercolors, a drugstore paintbrush, a Bic pen, and a series of blank books with Naugahyde covers. I painted the pages of those books to buckling saturation. I waited, impatiently, for them to dry. Afterward, alone on my roof or in the shade of a tree, I Bic-scratched into those multitonal hues such awe-invoking grandeur as this:
A daffodil dons her yellow skirt,
Smoothes out the ruffled pleats of the hem,
Places her fringed bonnet on her tiny head
. . . and goes out for tea.
On Thursday I'll be joining Leadership Philadelphia, an organization dedicated to mobilizing and connecting the talent of the private sector to serve the greater needs of the community. I'll be part of a much larger agenda, offering thoughts on home and a writing workshop to the 120 members of the current core class.
Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/20160508_Before_we_write_the_words__papermaking_is_its_own_story.html#3pMPqLCegIF7QgBX.99
Over the weekend, I'm on a very secret mission. But I can't talk about that one yet.
It's been an eleven-month process. The beautiful house where I grew up has been sorted through, sifted, packed up, remade, restored, stripped to its all virgin hardwood floors, repainted, polished to a glow. All systems are new. The windows charm. There's so much here. You just have to walk through it.
Five bedrooms. 3,600 square feet. Radnor Township schools. Marie Gordon, realtor. We're ready.
Caveat: That good-looking young man, my nephew, does not come with the house. Well, not unless we get an excellent offer.
In reading In Gratitude,
Jenny Diski's devastating final work of literature (she passed away just days ago), I come upon these words. She's reflecting on her evolving sense of what kind of writer she would grow up to be. She has, I think, settled on the writing life's deepest pleasure: the lasting satisfaction of doing the work itself.
Later it was a novelist, when I realised that novelists lived exactly as I wanted to live. At home, with a couch to sleep on when I lost the thread, and a beloved typewriter. Lunches and literary parties, not so much. Fame? Maybe. My finished book in its jacket in a bookshop window. Yes, but something told me it wasn't a satisfaction that would last for long. One look, one pleasure and then Oh Christ, what about the next book? Or most simply a writer alone in a room and a couple of inches of typescript. Looking at it, half-done, two-thirds finished. I did that. Lying on the couch with a cigarette and half closing my eyes to see enough of the manuscript waiting to grow.
When Kevin McElvaney of WHYY Articulate TV (my incredibly well-produced Articulate segment about memoir and Philadelphia can be found here
) asked me to share the best advice I'd ever been given, I, being me, could only think of the worst. Turns out I wasn't the only one whose mind triggered back to the advice that was not followed.
So here (link
) we are—fashion designer Wale Oyejide, photographer and blogger Conrad Benner, poet Alyesha Wise, singer/songwriter Rodney Anonymous, and me—reflecting on what we did not listen to, and why not listening mattered.
Wale Oyej—reflecting on what we refused to listen to.
Mark Haddon, a name that needs no introduction, has a devastating new collection of short stories debuting next week.
I was lucky enough to review the book for the Chicago Tribune Printers Row
Click the link to read the full review.
I've been a blogger slacker; I confess. It wasn't meant to be this way.
But I've been rolling through and over rugged landscapes in these past weeks, and sometimes it's better to think and to do, rather than to speak.
But now I'm speaking:
Following thirty years of chasing projects in corporate America I am calling off the chase. I loved what I did, the people I met, the meaty, beautiful, complex projects I was entrusted with, the client projects that still sit proudly on my shelves. But in recent years too much has changed—a disheartening disrespect and disequilibrium has entered in. It's a demand and disappear environment out there these days. It's phones ringing after dinner with early AM deadlines, nights tapping away, and the next-day news: Whoops. Sorry. We were wrong. Didn't need that project after all. Didn't need you.
I have lived my life putting my family and friends first, my students second, my corporate clients second, too, and me a distant something. I would do it all exactly the same way again; I have no regrets. But going forward I know what I want, where I am happiest, what I must be, must have. More time with books. More time with people who write and read with noble purpose. More time spent beneath a blooming, bursting cherry tree, or on a farm, or by the sea.
More time being the me I need.
Not long ago, in New York, I sat with someone I have grown to love, the great editor, Lauren Wein. Later, writing to me, she wrote words that ricocheted through me. After so much frank unkindness from corporate America, after too much time spent in the claw and crawl of it all, I had this sudden sense of being seen.
seeing you i thought again what i thought the other time---beth has such SHARP EDGES. in the very best way. your virtual presence is so much about generosity, encouragement, positive reinforcement--for other writers and artists, for your family, for your students. in person, the other side comes out. and it's equally compelling---it raises the stakes somehow, in the best way! it's still positive, lyrical, poetic Beth, but there's also a tension there--the sense of an oppositional pull. the bold, unexpected shoes to complement and subvert the elegant, basic black.
Being seen. How simple that sounds. How great the journey.
In which Serena Agusto-Cox of Savvy Verse and Wit discovers the breadcrumb clues I've been leaving for readers all along, book to book. So many thanks for this truly gorgeous review of This Is the Story of You
From the end of the review:
This Is the Story of You by Beth Kephart will astonish you with the resilience of young people, their drive to make things right, and their ability to withstand more than expected, but it is in the final pages that the true mystery is resolved. I will say this, I’m not often surprised by book endings or mysteries, but Kephart exceeded my detective skills for the first time in a long while. (I had suspicions, but not a fully formed conclusion.) Readers who love to immerse themselves in realistic places and explore humanity won’t be disappointed. Kephart is a talent at creating places that come alive and characters that grab hold of us emotionally.
**You’ve probably already suspected this is a contender for the best of 2016 list at the end of the year!**
Beautifully researched and written by Melissa Hart, in an issue (May 2016) that is chock full of incredible stories.
Thank you, Melissa, who is, by the way, the author of the brand-new earth-observant Avenging the Owl,
and The Writer.
One Sunday afternoon, at Books of Wonder, I met Cordelia Jensen
, whose reputation as a writer and teacher of enormous integrity precedes her.
One recent afternoon at Penn, I sat with Melissa Jensen and we talked. So many surprising connections between us, at least two shared students, a love of story, the start of a friendship.
We write for teens because we remember being one, because we love the ones we've met along the way, because the dialogue is rich, because of the friends we make along the way.
On June 4, 2 PM, at the Penn Book Center on the Penn campus, Cordelia, Melissa, and I will be talking with teens—and with those who love them (or those who simply love a good story).
We'll be talking to each other, too.
We hope you'll join us.
We're grateful to Ashley, for hosting us. This will be the Penn Book Center's first teen event.
In our tiny but (dare I say it?) much-loved house, there are two bedrooms, one kitchen, one place for me to work, two rooms full of books and a basement and then again a garage where my husband does his thing.
This is a view of the basement. This is Sunday morning, 7:50 AM, as my husband prepares for his first solo clay show, opening in early June at the Show of Hands gallery on Pine Street. Bill has dozens of pieces of extraordinary originality and craftsmanship being cued up for the show. This shape is but a very early iteration (trust me when I tell you it will look nothing like this when it is done).
Meanwhile, Bill and I will be down at the Clay Studio in Old City on Friday evening, for the Clay Studio National
reception. The show, which honors "the best contemporary ceramic art being made in the United States now" features a collection of pieces culled from hundreds from across the country. One of Bill's architectural pieces will be on display.
I'll be signing THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU
, my Jersey Shore novel (Chronicle Books), tomorrow, Saturday, April 30, 2 PM, in celebration of Independent Bookstore Day. Hope to see you at Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr, PA.
I love the sea, I love the shore, I wonder about storms and now, the mysteries of family and friendship.
I wrote of these things.
I hope to see you there. Not a reading, just a signing. Come any time between 2 and 3 PM.
It was wall to wall. It was genuine heart. It was Kelly Writers House celebrating the Honors thesis writers. That's Julia Bloch, who directs us all (directing only me would be a full-time job) (oh, we love her). That is Nina Friend. That's David Marchino.
We had thirty seconds each to introduce these students with whom we have learned. My words were these, below.
Congratulations, Nina and David. And so much love.
Nina Friend observes. She listens. She cares. She has, for many years, wondered what “serving” really means, also “waiting.” To write this thoughtful and deeply engaging work of narrative nonfiction, Nina has read widely, spent countless hours in the company of leading restaurateurs, major novelists, and a wide variety of servers, even donned a waitress apron herself. You may think you know what a server does. But you won’t know the half of it until you read Nina’s explications of stigma and community, addiction and freedom. With fierce, often delicious language, Nina pulls the curtains way back on a world all of us would do well to ponder—and appreciate—more completely.
In hunting down his family mythology, David Marchino has traveled far—sitting again, after years of absence, with his own elusive father, sifting through the artifacts of an enflamed past, returning to neighborhood cemeteries and family homes in an effort both to remember and to understand. To all of this David has brought a giant heart, an eye for the telling detail, and a steadfast compassion for the people in his life. David may be the product of a home that will always throb with mysterious unknowns. But David is, first and foremost, his own person—a magnificent, blue-rose tattooed writer who teaches us, with this memoir, that love, in the end, wins hardest, fastest, most.
And so—reading of each other, to each other—we said goodbye today at Penn. These are my mighty fourteen who dared to take on the memoir beast...and won. The mighty fourteen who provoked my tears—and allowed me to cry them.
And that, above, is Cole Bauer, our Mr. Music Man, whose guitar work accompanied the gorgeous Beltran audio recording on home
. Cole is a singer-songwriter who packs in the crowds at a local bar on Monday nights. Cole is the guy who wrote, throughout our time together, with hope-restoring heart. It's uber cool to love those who love you. Cole reminded us of that every time we met.
Then go ahead and buy your copy of "Small Town," here
We'll be releasing Juncture Notes 02 shortly. Talk about memoir, the lives of memoirists, and the stories we think you'll love—all mixed in with my husband's ceramics/photographic artistry.
If you're interested in receiving a copy, sign up through the Juncture Workshops site, here on the blog, to the left.
It's an increasingly interesting thing—this writer/teacher role I play. I've been at it long enough to note the shifts in student needs and expectations, to be able to predict, better than I once could, what books, passages, and lines will inspire, which exercises will illuminate and which will stress, which days will quiver with hope, and which with longing.
But I can never summon, in the my mind's eye, the particular
students who will find our classroom at 3808 Walnut on Tuesdays each spring. I can never predict the stretch of soul and commitment. When I first met Nina Friend last year, I saw beauty and height, enormous kindness and care, a young writer who could certainly place a sentence (or several, more) on the page, that generous type who shared her mother's cookies and who always offered more.
When Nina set out to write her honors thesis with me this year, we both knew that food would be involved, as well as Nina's passionate interest in the lives of those who serve. Over the course of many months, Nina went from restaurant to restaurant, from book to meeting, from interviews with famous people to serving herself. She wanted to see, as she writes in her thesis, beyond the performance. She wanted to know who was happy as they served—and when and why. She asked whether "serving others can coexist with serving oneself."
A supreme perfectionist, a writer who deeply cares, a young woman who asked for more and more critique—and who absorbed it, faithfully, returning each time with a thesis of ever greater grace and magnitude, Nina has gone behind the lines in her thesis—a work that will change its readers and remind them always (a perpetual nudge) to look harder at the person announcing the day's specials.
Nina, like David Marchino, whose thesis is featured here,
has given me permission to share some of her work with you. I'm scurrying out of the way so that you can meet Nina and her cast of characters yourself. This is from the chapter called "Community."
Crisp and golden, it’s propped in the middle of a silver platter that’s been in the family forever. A heap of crumbled bread forms a moat around the centerpiece. Stuck together with orange juice, flavored with parsley. The first cut slices the bird on its side. Succulent. Soft. A ladle filled with gravy. A spoonful of stuffing. Two helpings of pecan pie. Chocolate mousse. Whipped cream.
* * *
When Ellen Yin opened Fork Restaurant eighteen years ago, she wanted the
space to feel familial. The mosaic floor was laid down by a neighborhood tile guy. A local ironworker made the chandeliers. A fabric designer in the area crafted lampshades. Tony DeMelas says the restaurant instantly became “a community of artists and love.”
When Yin decided to revamp the restaurant in 2012, she called up Tony to create
a mural. Something to hang over the brown velvet couch that stretches across an entire
side of the restaurant. Tony was honored to be able to create something for the restaurant
he worked in.
When Tony was working on the mural, Chef Eli Kulp would drop by his studio.
Just to keep him company. Just to be there. “He was very hands-on,” Tony says. Kulp
was the only chef that has ever influenced Tony’s work. He was infatuated with the way
Kulp composed his plates. The way he could make a rib look like a log in the woods with
flowers blooming out of it and mushrooms growing from tiny cracks. His food was
sculpturesque. Tony says, “I’d look at [Eli’s plates] and go, ‘[If] you just blew this up and
abstracted it…and put it on a canvas, you could sell the hell out of this thing.’”
Tony’s mural hangs above the extra-long couch and reflects its color onto the
dark wood tables. Yellows and oranges and light greens and white and brown. A forest of
tree trunks, abstracted.
Tony used to walk past the painting hundreds of times every day as he hustled
from Fork’s kitchen to his tables, balancing plates in his arms. Customers would come in
and sit down and admire the mural. They would say things like, “Oh, it’s so much bigger
than in the pictures!” They would be waited on by Tony – with his square, tortoise-shell
glasses and eyes that feel like he’s staring into your soul – and they would have no idea
that the humble man taking their orders was the artist who painted that masterpiece.
* * *
Community can be built into a place. But it’s the people within that place who
decide whether community flourishes or dies.
You have heard me speak of my two honors thesis students. Tuesdays we'd meet. Through the week we'd talk or write. Sometimes I'd see pages. Sometimes I'd wait for pages. Always I was here and they, my students, were where they had to be: sifting, thinking, wording, revising, making the story what it had to be.
David Marchino, the guy who taught me jawn and green hair, bamboo and patience, the healing power of a boyhood friendship, taught me even more than that with his memoir, He Will be Remembered: A Father's Crowded Life
. In these tight, proud, poeming pages, David recalls the father he loved, lost, and recovered, if only for now. The cemeteries where the dead appease the living. The religion of his parents' cocaine. The power of a recovered briefcase. The voices of plead and promise. David speaks through namesakes. He tunnels through memory. He comes out the other side, burnishing truth with myth—the opposite, too.
David has given me permission to share the opening pages of his memoir with you. I do that here, with deepest respect for the journey David has taken and the words he has produced. With the greatest possible sense of honor that he allowed me to stand on the sidelines and cheer him on.
David Marchino. Writer. True.
From the (near) beginning:
He is not hard to find. He may arrive when you speak his name, or when you curse it. A magician whose default state is disappeared. His greatest trick is presence. My father—eight years gone—now back. Ta-da.
He looks worn, like he’s spent the last few years disappeared in a pothole. Like his body has finally exhausted its last expanses of youth. The man is tired. His arms, his legs, his skin. He’d been virile once, you could tell. I remembered how the skin tightened around his biceps, how he’d make the panther on his arm roar. He’d always been a little slight—not more than five-and-a-half feet—but now he looks unsteady.
“Hello, Sonny,” and I am fourteen again: his grip on the back of my neck, his prickly lip on mine. Love that said I have you.
When he hugs me, I want to say I feel that slip away. His blustery love, the years gone. But I only feel in my arms a man who has stagnated, and he, in his, a son he no longer knows.
He sits me on his couch. He lies to me. He paces the floor and sips beer after beer. “Only four a day now,” he says as his eyes grow rheumy and soft. Hustling is still a part of his to day-to-day, only now there is safety. He is a supplier, never out on the streets for more than fifteen minutes and raking in more cash than he’s ever seen. I don’t doubt this. For the past eight years, I’ve had no significant contact with my father, but he came sporadically every now and again. A phone call at two in the morning, a wet whiskey-rasped voice. The few times I heard my father cry. It was desperation. He’d been dealing and had cut someone short. Word got around. They’d put the gun in his mouth. They’d hit him with a bat. The shapeless, omnipotent they were on the hunt for him. He was going to die.
I’d cry with him during these calls—I’m not sure a son can do anything else in that situation. But, when he hung up and I was left with just the dial tone, I felt sure Dad would be okay. He wrote the story of his life, circumstances be damned. My father was legend, was myth, was Roman God. As long as someone believed in him, he could never be lost.
He asks about a lot, never sitting down with me. It’s as much interrogation as it is plea. Questions are fired off with no space given to answer them. They are formalities more than anything else. He does not want my answers. He prefers his own. He reads our reunion as permission to rewrite the past, prune the truth to his liking. It is the hand that gripped my neck as a child and directed me, as though it clutched the handles of a bicycle. It reaches out for the past eight years of my life.
It’s desperation, I realize. We fear the unknown—the late-night creaks that resound from the basement as we try to sink into bed, the voices we are certain we hear calling our name as we make our way through a soulless alley. That is true fear: incalculable, unreadable. As my father looks into my eyes after all these years, he sees it in me. I am a void wrapped in his orange-ish, freckled skin. I come to him a changeling, a severed connection he is frantically trying to reestablish. We fictionalize what we do not know—an admission of ignorance and an appeal for enlightenment. A construction meant to give shape to the unknown. The gentle blue of the sky draped over the endless, infinite, abyss of space. To fit my life into some predetermined mold is, for my father, a means to close the gap between us. He pretends to know his son. It is easier that way....
Tomorrow, the work of Nina Friend.
We've been so thrilled by the response to Juncture Notes
—the writing elicited by our prompt, the questions about memoir, the interest in our five-day memoir workshop
. We're now at work on our second release, which should go out in a week or so. If you're interested in receiving a copy, just click on the link to the left of this blog post (or on the workshop link above). That's the sure-fire way of beating the spam filters, or so we believe, anyway.
One of the questions we've been receiving relates to the art that is folded in with the words. That art is, as many of you have guessed, the work of my partner in life and in this Juncture enterprise, William Sulit. I've shared his work
in many media from time to time on my blog. Bill's work was recently selected for the prestigious Clay Studio National exhibit, beginning on May 6th. We'll soon be celebrating his first solo show—in ceramics—at Show of Hands Gallery
in Philadelphia, beginning on June 3 and ending July 24.
Bill will be creating or sharing original art in each issue of Juncture. Here, above, is a taste of things to come.
Sign up if you'd like to see (or read) more.
There are just four spaces now left at our inaugural memoir workshop. Please let us know if you are interested.
Maybe it's because I lead but one class during the one semester at Penn that teaching carries, for me, such weight. I begin planning for January in August, often earlier. Choosing the books we'll read, plotting our course, interacting with potential students. I pack as much into every class as our allotted hours allow. Pressing in with ideas, exhortations, readings. Bringing guests like George Hodgman (via Skype), Reiko Rizzuto, Margo Rabb, A.S. King, and Trey Popp into the fold. (Next year we'll be hosting Paul Lisicky, and focused on the art of time in memoir.) Using multiple media, stretching the idea of memoir, expecting much. Finding the good while searching, too, for all that is still possible.
And, this semester, leading two remarkable thesis candidates—Nina Friend and David Marchino—toward work so extraordinary that, I believe, it will represent their calling cards for years and years to come.
Teaching is standing before a class, then stepping aside. It's managing the ripples and waves while keeping the craft on course.
Three more weeks. And then these students will be off on their own, carrying our lessons forward, glancing back, I hope, not just as writers, but as people who value truth, empathy, conversation, and a greater knowing of themselves.
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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, Crash Course
, Cynthia Kadohata
, Fever at Dawn
, Lauren Wein
, Peter Gardos
, Robin Black
, The Thing About Luck
, This Is the Story of You
, Add a tag
This Is the Story of You,
my monster storm Jersey Shore story, launches tomorrow. Out into the world.
Whoosh. There you go.
But in the days leading up to now, I've been spending time with the stories of others. For who among us will ever believe that our own work is the
work? Who should
believe that? Who does not think that, at the end of it all, the best thing about being a writer is finding the excuse to curl up with someone else's fine tale—the story another loved, hoped for and through, and found a way to launch?
Today I want to celebrate:
Cordelia Jensen's Skyscraping,
a novel in verse to which I have previously alluded on this blog. Before I met Cordelia a few weeks ago in New York (odd to be meeting her there, for she lives not far from me here), I knew that she was my kind of writer—soulful, attuned to language, serious about producing lasting work. Skyscraping
tells the story of Mira, who learns the secret of her parents' marriage during her senior year in high school and needs to find a way to forgive her father before he is gone from her world. Some novels in verse are just novels written with shorter lines and white space. This is a novel in actual
verse, written by an actual
poet, who has pondered this story for years. This is a novel whose narrator understands time and stars, the cosmos and the particulate, but is never safe (no one is) from hurt. Mira is speaking here about her mother, who has been absent for much of Mira's life:
I used to imagine she saw us as a train
she could ride at will,
instead of a station,
fixed, every day.
I wonder now if maybe
a family is neither of those things
but something stable,
yet always changing,
because the people inside it are.
Peter Gardos's Fever at Dawn
, sent to me by Lauren Wein, an editor you know I love. It's a story based on the real-life tale of the author's parents—Hungarians who, in 1945, find themselves in Swedish hospitals miles apart. They are not well. They have been seared by death camps, racism, horror. They allow the letters they write to one another become their most extravagant form of hope. Miklos sends a blurry photograph to Lili, so that she cannot see his metal teeth. Lili stashes the political book Miklos has sent—unread. They know nothing about each other, actually, until, increasingly, they are nothing without each other. They are seducing each other, even as Gardos, in a book that seems (but isn't) utterly simple, seduces us:
That evening the men sat out in the courtyard with the radio on the long wooden table. The light bulb swung eerily in the wind. The men usually spent half an hour before bed in the open air. By now they had been playing the radio for six hours without a break. They had put on sweaters and coats and their pyjamas (stet) and wrapped blankets around themselves. They sat right up close to the radio. The green tuning light winked like the eye of an elf.
Finally, Cynthia Kadohata's National Book Award winning The Thing About Luck,
which wrapped me around its many fingers this weekend. Let's just say this: Anyone who thinks writing for teens is easy should spend some time in the company of this book, which has everything to teach about mosquitoes, wheat harvesting, combines, and dinners on the road—all within the frame of one of the most likable narrators yet written, a young girl named Summer, who discovers, over the course of many exotic bread-basket weeks (yes, I know what I just wrote), that luck is made, not found:
I don't know. I mean, maybe computers and cell phones and rocket ships are more magical, but to me, nothing beats the combine. That's just the way I see things. In a short time, the combine takes something humans can't use and then turns it into something that can feed us.
Before I go, I extend Happy Book Launch greetings to Robin Black, whose collection of essays, Crash Course,
debuts tomorrow in grand style. Robin will be taking the stage with grammar queen Mary Norris, at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
This past Wednesday afternoon and evening I had the distinct pleasure of spending time in the company of the great essayist and Columbia University professor (and head of the graduate nonfiction program), Phillip Lopate, his wife, his daughter, and members of the Bryn Mawr University creative writing program.
(Thank you, Cyndi Reeves and Daniel Torday, for allowing me to crash the party.)
Between the cracks of many deadlines here, I've been reading from the books I bought that evening. I have, of course, read Lopate through the years; who can teach nonfiction without owning Lopate volumes? But I did not own, until this Wednesday night, To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction,
which is, in a word, a glory. Perhaps it is because I agree so steadily with Lopate's many helpful assertions, perhaps it is because I, in my own way, attempt to teach and, in books like Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir,
carry forward these ideals about the rounded I, the obligation to the universal, the curious mind, the trace-able pursuit of questions, that I sometimes read with tears in my eyes passages like this one, from "Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story:"
In attempting any autobiographical prose, the writer knows what has happened—that is the great relief, one is given the story to begin with—but not necessarily what to make of it. It is like being handed a text in cuneiform: you have to translate, at first awkwardly, inexpertly, slowly, and uncertainly. To think on the page, retrospectively or otherwise, is, in the last analysis, difficult. But the writer's struggle to master that which initially may appear too hard to do, that which only the dead and the great seem to have pulled off with ease, is a moving spectacle in itself, and well worth the undertaking.
There are just two more weeks left in this semester at Penn. My beautiful honors thesis students are finalizing their work and, soon, will not just hold their glorious books in their hands, but have the time to reflect back on all the lessons learned. My Creative Nonfiction students are writing letters, Coates and Parker and Rilke style, to those they feel must hear them, while also working on 600-word portraits of one another. Joan Wickersham, the extraordinary writer of both nonfiction
is headed to our campus, Tuesday evening, 6 PM, Kelly Writers House—and if you are anywhere near, I strongly suggest you make the time. She is a national treasure.
Teaching is exhausting, exhilarating, necessary, confounding, essential. I learn that again, year upon year. I stagger away—made smarter, in so many ways, by the students I teach.
Early morning, opening this outrageously wonderful gift
from Taylor Norman (Chronicle Books), in celebration of the launch of This Is the Story of You.
A 20-minute walk in the rain to the delayed train.
Train time spent with Diana Abu-Jaber's Life Without a Recipe,
a very beautiful memoir launching from my first editor and house, Alane Mason, W.W. Norton, this month.
A walk in the lessening drizzle to Penn where, on my way to a meeting, I discovered Story
in the front window of Penn Book Center, where I'll be joining my Jensen friends (Cordelia and Melissa) for a Saturday afternoon reading and discussion on June 4th.
A conversation with my teaching and writing colleague, that very same Melissa Jensen. "Pure sunshine," one of my students said of her, and oh she is.
The privilege of watching my students conduct a conversation about Between the World and Me
. One by one, they wrestled with the readers' guide questions I'd prepared, felt free to disagree, voiced their opinions with precision—and deep respect. A discussion unbounded—content and craft.
The moment when I read out loud from Dear Mr. You,
Mary-Louise Parker's collection of letters to the men in her life. The students had read "Dear Daddy." I shared, then, this, from "Dear Oyster Picker." Parker's father has been given little time to live. Parker is standing in a bookstore, on the phone with her dad, wanting to be all right, not being all right. These are the final words of this essay, and the book:
I said well, okay, I'm standing in this really awesome bookstore. You'd love it, I said. He gave a sigh of longing and said, oh my, tell me, they have anything interesting? I said yeah, tons. I'll send you a book from here, how does that sound. He said that's wonderful, that's just tremendous, thank you sweetie. I told him I was sending him some candy too and he thanked me, said he'd be on the lookout for it, and he then said, tell me, what are you writing now? You working on anything? I said oh Daddy, just little things, I don't know, and he said okay, but listen to me
just write, keep writing, promise me that you will.
The walk back to the train in brightest sunshine. The train ride home with the gloriously multi-gonzo talented Lorene Cary. The deliberately lengthened walk from train to home so that I might talk, as I love to talk, with Debbie Levy.
The infusion of unforeseen support and hope and kindness on Twitter, on Facebook, on email, regarding the launch of Story
. Thank you.
A dinner with my husband, where we lifted our glasses to sea and storm and, then, sun.
A call from Danielle.
Sometimes you don't have to throw a party for a book. The party is simply all bound up in the day that you have lived.
Thank you, universe.Just write, keep writing
Yesterday the mysterious box arrived with the warning—and I did heed—DO NOT OPEN UNTIL 4/12.
But now it's dark and dawn here, and opening is legal, and so I've bladed through, popped the lid, and dug between long strands of confetti to find the words of Taylor Norman, the Chronicle Books editor of enormous wisdom and heart who, following the departure of dear Tamra Tuller, saw This Is the Story of You
through to this day, launch day.
I've staggered back. I've shouted Oh My Gosh to the sleepy house. I've tremblingly carried this gift (which includes chocolate, by the way) to my husband, and shakingly exclaimed: "Roller skate keys. Like the kind my Mira wears around her neck as she skates from one end of her barrier island to the other, ahead of that monster storm."
(I did have to explain, just like that, for my husband, bless his magnificent heart, has not read Story
And then I said: "The key gives Mira a key-shaped bruise on her chest. The key is real, and symbolic."
And then I said: "That Taylor Norman! Oh my gosh. That Taylor."
Wow. That's what I keep saying as I type these words, my fingers still trembling.
To beaches and those who love them. To friendship in the wake of catastrophe. To our Modes, whatever they may be, that carry us from one end of things to the other. World, we give you This Is the Story of You.
To Taylor, I say again: Wow. And thank you.
This coming September, on an old farm in McClure, PA, a group of very-wow
writers will be sitting at a big old table in a fabulously idiosyncratic barn talking about Hope Jahren's Lab Girl
to kick off Juncture's inaugural memoir workshop.
My thoughts about this near-perfect memoir are here today
, in the Chicago Tribune.
There are just four spaces now left in our workshop. If you're interested in the workshop or in the newsletter, please click on this link and let us know.
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I would have preferred a sharper photo. I could blame my fatigue at the near end of that day—my hands slipping, or my eyes watering, or something. Instead, I'll declare this photograph of Joan Wickersham reading at Penn's Kelly Writers House to be infused by the light Joan carries with her. As she works. As she reads. As she considers. As she listens.
Joan was at Penn to read from three works—nonfiction (The Suicide Index
), fiction (The News from Spain
), and poetry (Vasa Pieces,
parts of which appear in Agni 82
). Her coming was, for me, a highlight of this semester—a chance to hear from a writer whose work has long inspired and thrilled me. A chance, too, thanks to Joan's invitation, to spend an hour or so alone with her over steeping, seeping cups of berry tea. We talked advertising youths, Lab Girl,
place in memoir, the confounding role of adjunct teachers, Philadelphia then and now. I discovered, in Joan, that rare, wonderful thing: a person as gloriously complex and broadly thinking in person as she is on the page.
And then there she was, reading. Words I'd read twice, sometimes three times before, but delivered newly. A culminating sequence from Vasa Pieces
—new work inspired by the sinking and resurrection of the Swedish warship, Vasa
. Beautiful pieces made thrilling by their emergence from history and their threads of urgent now. The first poem setting the tone, revealing the "must" of this work—the role the Vasa
played in the imagination of Joan's husband:
... I imagine you down there,
reading and re-reading the story of Vasa,
memorizing every picture, puzzling over the order—
the heeling ship, the sinking ship, the risen ship,
the sunken ship, the battered risen ship again—
clinging to the table leg, pretending it was a mast.
Poems continuing on through ships (and lives) gone wrong, through autobiographies redesigned by survivors, through shipworms and felt absence.
Until Joan lifted her head. And even then, her spell was not broken. The light still broke behind and through her.
I want to thank my students who attended for allowing this moment into their lives. I want to thank Jamie-Lee Josselyn, that lovely vision in green pants, for her beautiful introduction. I want to thank the Kelly Writers House for being home and hearth to both talent and soul, for being that place that students can and do turn to when the world feels raw and bright minds are the cure.
I want to thank Joan for the afternoon, and for the inspiration of her commitment to the work itself. The work, above and beyond all else.