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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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Those of you who thought I could not possibly get any older were wrong.
Another birthday nears.
But oh how sweet has sweet Tamra Tuller made these days of near senescence.
Tamra, I've never seen anything like this. It's a magnificent idea, perfectly packaged.
And together we have built three very pretty books.
Thank you for the years, the friendship, the stories. Honey. That's just right.
Above? That's Libba Bray reading from her forthcoming novel (Lair of Dreams
, due out in August) at Children's Book World in Haverford, PA—a scary little ditty that has Amy Sarig King and Gayle Forman shaking in their respective (albeit from opposing sides of the fashion world) boots.
Before them sit many of my neighborhood's finest writers. Also Sister Kim and her Little Flower students. Also bloggers and readers and enthusiasts and at least one bookseller from down the road and shall we go no further before we mention Heather Hebert, who makes it all happen, and with enthusiasm, and while I am at this, because heck, why not, can we locals all just pause for a minute and welcome Margo Rabb to our neighborhood, because she's here now, newly arrived from Austin, with her second YA novel (Kissing in America
) due out in May.
(Seems like I might be reading with Margo and two other fabs from Round Here soon, but more on that to come.)
What a performance these three gave—Amy and Libba gamely (respectively) playing the parts of a stoner and a slick boy in a choral reading from Gayle's new bestselling book, I Was Here.
Amy giving a thrilling preview of I Crawl Through It.
Libba forcing everyone else into scare mode, then zapping the conversation with four parts hysterical ad lib and one part Barbara Waters. And then plenty of talk about the F word, by which I mean (of course) Feminism.
The doors were open at Children's Book World, to dispel all that animal heat. The skies were ripped apart with rain. I headed home among storm-imperiled drivers and then I fell asleep. At which point I dreamed I was still with the gang, only we had moved onto a Friendly's Restaurant (note: Friendly's,
I lie not) and we were having high-calorie ice cream and nobody would speak to me. My offense, in my dream, was that I been me—asking too much, pressing too hard.
I woke just after I'd leaned over somebody's shoulder and read the texts that were circulating about me.
"Beth Kephart," it said, "is so annoying."
(With thanks to Temple University Press, and special thanks to Ann-Marie Anderson)
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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, Dorothy Allison
, Jamie-Lee Josselyn
, Julia Bloch
, Kelly Writers House
, Lily Applebaum
, Nathaniel Popkin
, writer responsibilities
, writer rewards
, Add a tag
Dorothy Allison is one of three Kelly Writers House Fellows hosted this semester by Penn professor and poet Julia Bloch.
Yesterday she sat among us, in conversation with us. There, beside Julia, she is.
Oh, I liked her. So very much. She's everything you've been told she will be. Iconoclastic. Irreverent. Touching. A firebrand of deep opinion and great craft cares who may believe in the act of revenge on the page, but only when the author holds him- or herself equally accountable for the unforgivable past. We writers, we survivors, may not be the heroes we think we are, Allison reminds us. We have responsibilities. Work that lasts is work that is rich with a felt sense of responsibility.
Any writer who believes that writing is a mere game—a toss-off and toss-up of the randomly odd, the relentlessly clever,
the tried and true brand—must spend a bracing hour and change in the company of Allison. Sitting beside my friend Nathaniel Popkin and just one row ahead of August Tarrier (Jamie-Lee Josselyn waving a hand from the near distance, one of my students a few rows back, Lily Applebaum at the mike ready), I filled my little notebook with Allison's words. I'm going to share a few of them here—transcribed as nearly as I could, but not always verbatim. Spread them, oh ye writers and readers who care.
In response to Julia's questions about craft (comments from across the conversation, gathered here): Craft sharpens the contradictions. It produces prose that takes the reader by the throat. Craft requires writers to read as writers, not as readers, and so we writing readers cannot merely wallow; we must assess. To make a reader care, the writer must keep paring the prose down, constructing the truth, acknowledging one's purpose. You are going for the long reach, not the quick tears. You want to haunt a reader six months on. The more talent you have, the more responsibility you have.
On writing with compassion: Recognize that you will never get it right. Recognize that those who survived, who got out of there alive, are in some ways the cowards, the ones who had to compromise. Hold yourself accountable for the choices you made. Recognize that you have a higher moral authority to tell the story right. This applies, by the way, to both writers of fiction and nonfiction.
On life's purpose: I don't want to be rich. I want a different world. I don't want the hatefulness of this world. I have a conviction about justice and social responsibility, a concept of citizenship at great variance with what I see in this world.
Paradise: is having an audience.
What the world is: We don't know what the world is until it is shown to us in story.
A story, much condensed (forgive me, Dorothy Allison, for this condensed version). In response to a question I asked about when Allison knew teaching was joyful, she first spoke of how she made sure to make teaching as hard for herself as it was for her students (amen to that, oh yes, amen to that), then told a story about one of the most talented students she ever had—a woman who didn't know where sentences began or ended, but knew vivid and had material. For nine weeks, Allison worked within a workshop and outside the workshop with this "baby" writer. That ninth week, they had a conversation about the writer's future. The student writer had a question: How much would she get paid for the stories she wrote? How much for a collection of stories? How much how much how much would she get paid—and how long would it take? Allison painted a picture of the future, spoke of the rewards that aren't numerical, finally confessed, when pushed, that her own most recent collection of words had received an advance of $12,500. "I earn that in tips a month," said this student writer. And that, pretty much, was it. The end of this genius writer's aspirations.
And so, Allison reminded us, one has to have more than a gift. One has to have desire. One has to cherish the audience, the chance to speak, the conversation—for that, in the end, is what matters most, that is the gifted writer's only sure provenance, that is where responsibility begins.
Let's get less caught up in the noise about books and more invested in making extremely fine ones.
I became obsessed with birds with the passing of my mother. The way they came to me. The way they called to me. The hollow of their bones. The other women, throughout time, who have buried their hearts in wings and feathers. This was the subject of my sixth memoir, Nest. Flight. Sky.: On Love and Loss, One Wing at a Time.
This is the subject, again, of One Thing Stolen,
the obsession that lies at the heart of that book.
And so when I began to read of Helen Macdonald's new memoir, H Is for Hawk
, already a bestseller in England, I became desperate for the time to read that book myself. Over the past two days I have done just that, then sorted through my thoughts to write a review for the New York Journal of Books,
where I'll now be penning my thoughts on literary adult fiction, memoir, and literary young adult novels.
The other day one of my students asked me to name my favorite memoir—an impossible question, of course. But now, whenever I'm asked that question, I'll be whispering Helen Macdonald's name. This is a book. Oh. This is a book.
The full review can be found here
Not long ago, while I was enthusing about my students to a friend, I was stopped by a gently lifted hand and a question: "But don't you always
love your students?"
But love, I wanted to say, is particular. Love is not an undifferentiated rush. Love happens because.
Because of who these young people are, because of the community they've built, because they are working proof of the power of unshackled hearts and vulnerability and the kind of imagination that becomes another way of saying compassion.
I love my students. I love these
Last week, while posting my HuffPo essay on My Spectaculars
and their expectations regarding the memoirs they read, I promised that we would soon hear from Sarah Gelbard, my graduate student who slipped into our classroom as an auditor that first day and (we're so infinitely glad) stayed. A few Tuesdays ago, I asked Sarah, who works with the Friedreich Ataxia Program at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, to read to the class a piece she had written for Arts Connect International,
where she was recently named content editor. I've been eager, ever since, to share this complete essay with you, especially in light of, well, everything. Including this.
Here is how Sarah's piece begins:
Disability is dealt arbitrarily; it is not a welcome present. Nobody goes to the gift shop, and says, “Ankylosing spondylitis— that sounds lovely!” Or, “I’ll take a brachial plexus injury for my brother on his birthday, with the red wrapping paper, please, and a free sampling of multiple sclerosis for me.” While I did not choose cerebral palsy, I do consider myself lucky to be a part of the disabled community. Through it, I have forged valuable connections with a great many, and we are allowed singular insight into the broad spectrum of human empathy. We encounter those who judge harshly, cruelly, fast to reject apparent otherness, and those who reach out seamlessly, kindly, fast to recognize apparent humanness.Here is how it continues. Please read this. Please share it. It matters. So does Sarah.
This morning I did that thing I love to do—plop on the couch, pull the fuzzy blanket to my chin, and read the New York Times online. It is one of my limited online reads. I value the words as much as the multimedia links.
Perhaps because I just finished writing and sharing a piece (in today's Chicago Tribune) on the empathetic imagination, perhaps because I teach memoir largely because I believe that teaching memoir is (or can be) akin to teaching compassion, perhaps because I have lived in shadows, too, been attacked, yearned for intervening empathy, the first two Times pieces I read today were compassion invested. The first, titled "The Brain's Empathy Gap" (Jeneen Interlandi), reports on studies designed to answer questions like: "How much of our empathy is innate and how much is instilled in us by our environment?" and "Why does understanding what someone else feels not always translate to being concerned with their welfare?" I recommend the read.
The second story, by Jessica Bennett, led me to this recent TED talk by Monica Lewinsky (yes, it was a busy week and I'm only catching up on this now; don't, as my student recently wrote, judge me), which I watched in its entirety. Brave, bold, bracing, Lewinsky reports from the depths of a personal hell and from the realities of a humiliation culture (as she puts it) that is shameful to us all.
Anyone who is out here in any public way—writing books, making songs, sharing ideas, blogging—knows that the risks are enormous. We see how a nano-second of inarticulate self-searching can become a Twitter storm. We see how a straying from the pact or pack opens the door to virtual mobster hatred. We see how a careless, insensitive Tweet can rearrange a life. And we see the opposite, too—how ideas or art or stories that do not conform to prevailing notions of cool, branded, or trending can go unseen, unheard, unheralded—which is, let's face it, a kind of humiliation, too.
Oh, it takes time to listen. Oh, it is so easy to judge. Oh, we can, from the protected privacy of our keyboard feel so empowered. Oh, anonymity is a sword.
But why build a world of cruelty when you can build a world of good? I laud Monica Lewinsky for asking that question. For standing up. For leaving the shadows.
editor Kevin Ferris and I have been working together through many columns now, and I am always—always—grateful for his generosity. He has a huge heart. He allows me to write from mine. I'm neither a journalist nor an academic, and I'll never be famous. Kevin doesn't mind.
This month I wanted to celebrate West Philadelphia, where part of my new novel, One Thing Stolen (Chronicle Books),
is rooted (much of the book also takes place in Philadelphia's sister city, Florence, Italy). I wanted to return to those images and places that inspired scenes in the book—and to Lori Waselchuk, a West Philadelphian who walked me through those streets two years ago to help me see them with insiderly eyes.
Lori is both a maker of art and a promoter of it. She is the force, for example, behind Ci-Lines, about which I wrote on this blog a few days ago.
To Kevin, who lets me love out loud, and to Lori, who gave me ideas that kept me writing forward, thank you. A note of thanks here, as well, to Hassen Saker, who offered kindness this week, and to Anna Badkhen, whose work inspired this blog
a few days ago.
When the link to this story is live, I will post it here.
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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, Chicago Tribune
, Cynthia Reeves
, Elif Batuman
, empathetic imagination
, Leslie Jamison
, Megan Stielstra
, Meghan Daum
, Add a tag
A few weeks ago, I built tall piles of my many essay collections (old and new) and began to ponder. Rediscovered favorite pieces by Annie Dillard, Patricia Hampl, Ander Monson, Rebecca Solnit, the World War II pilot memoirist Samuel Hynes, Elif Batuman, Megan Stielstra, Stephanie LaCava, Joanne Beard, others. Looked for insights into the empathetic imagination—how it has been managed over time, how essayists, historically, have gotten to the heart of hearts that aren't their own. I read, took notes, looked for patterns, began to write. It was a three-week process that produced just over 1,000 words.
I am blessed that the Chicago Tribune
took interest in this piece. I am blessed, too, that I was able to share these thoughts at Bryn Mawr College this past Thursday, in the classroom of the very exquisite Professor Cynthia Reeves.
The essay will appear in this weekend's Printers Row
. The online link is here.
Thanks to the generosity of Gretchen Haertsch (who wrote a very kind email a few months ago), I will be joining Arcadia as its Visiting Writer during this upcoming creative writing workshop. I'll be teaching the making of both fiction and nonfiction, read (from One Thing Stolen
, I suspect), and answer questions.
Please consider joining us. This summer program—one intensive weekend and four weeks online—will, I suspect, produce great yield.
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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, Chronicle Books
, FLOW: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River
, frontotemporal dementia
, Handling the Truth
, One Thing Stolen
, Patrick Fagerberg
, Taylor Norman
, traumatic brain injury
, Add a tag
In just a few hours, I'll be on the Bryn Mawr campus with my dear friend Cynthia Reeves
and her students to talk about Handling the Truth, Flow,
the empathetic imagination, the past and the present and—well—I have far too much planned for the hour and twenty minutes we have, but I guess that is who I have become. Persistent. Insistent. Still wrecked and unreasonable with the impossibility of it all.
But this one One Thing Stolen
thing before I go. The novel, due out shortly, is, as I have written here on Huffington Post,
about a neurodegenerative disease—about the slow peeling away of my Nadia's language and historical self. Nadia, in One Thing Stolen,
becomes trapped in a cycle of art making. She cannot stop herself.
A few weeks ago, Taylor Norman, a young and wondrously talented editor at Chronicle Books, took the time to send me this true story of a former lawyer whose traumatic brain injury resulted in the emergence of an unexpected artistic talent. This is art arising from injury and not disease. But it is, in so many ways, a story that yields insights into Nadia and into the question: Are we are in ultimate control over our artistic leanings, aesthetics, impulses? Can we definitively source the many ways that story, color, and shape erupt in us?
I would wager that we aren't, and that we can't.
From the story that Taylor sent that first appeared in the NY Daily News:
Doctors diagnosed Fagerberg with a traumatic brain injury. He suffered memory loss and had problems with processing language.
The accident ended his legal career. To cope, he turned to art therapy - and suddenly realized that he had a particular gift for painting.
"A little trigger went off and I became hooked. It became a compulsion," Fagerberg told KHOU, adding: "I see everything sort of in composition, so everywhere I look it's a painting."The whole story, and a video, can be found here.
I traveled in Saturday's rain to St. Andrew's Chapel on Spruce Hill in West Philly to see the temporary art exhibition Ci-Lines, by Brooklyn-based artist Aaron Asis. I traveled to see my friend, the great visual storyteller and art provocateur, Lori Waselchuk,
and to find community within a mostly shorn-of-purpose place.
I found even more than that.
An idea that had worked—the commanding uplift of blue stitchery (parachute cord) and the trace of nearly 1,000 art seekers.
The stories of historians, architects, seminarians. A story about a song.
Hassen Saker, a poet infused with sky.Anna Badkhen
, a writer of transporting nonfiction.
Lori and Aaron, the artists at work.
The chapel was cold. The afternoon light was a smear. The blue rope was illumination. "Like a loom," Anna said, and it was, and as the exhibit ended, as the stories and the community slipped back out into the rain, Anna and I stood talking about truth and honesty, about white space inside bold books, about what it might mean to be a citizen not of one country, but of the world. Not far from us, the knots of the blue rope were being undone. The weave was being let out of its loom. The blue was dissipating.
A camera paid attention to it all.
Readers of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir
know that—while I greatly vary the way I teach, the books I share, and the writers I invite to the classroom—there is one consistent essay I assign early-ish in the teaching season. A 750-word response designed to shake out ideas, ideals, and possibilities.
This year My Spectaculars produced such extraordinarily charming and elucidating responses to the assignment that I decided (with my students' permission) to knit together elements so that we might always have a record of Us. I've called the piece "How to Write a Memoir. Or (The Expectations Virtues)" and shared it on Huffington Post.
The piece, which begins like this, can be found in its entirety here.
I call them My Spectaculars. Together, we read, we write. We rive our hearts. We leave faux at the door. We expect big things from one another, from the memoirists we read, from the memoirists who may be writing now, from those books of truth in progress.
But what do we mean by that word, expectation?
It's a question I require my University of Pennsylvania Creative Nonfiction students to answer. A conversation we very deliberately have. What do you expect of the writers you read, and what do you expect of yourselves?
This year, again, I have been chastened, made breathless, by the rigor and transparency of my most glorious clan. By Anthony, for example, who declares up front, no segue: ......
(Read on, I exhort you. Find out.)
There is a single student voice missing from this tapestry—my Sarah. You are going to be hearing from her next week or so, after a page or two of her brilliance is published and cross-linked here. Trust me, you will be changed by Sarah's words.
For now, I leave you my students. Read, and you'll call them Spectaculars, too.
I read Shelf Awareness
like others take on their morning cups of Joe: religiously.
And so, just now, while taking an Awareness
break between invoicing and client calls, my world skipped a beat when I saw the words: YA Review: One Thing Stolen.
I had to put my hand over my heart to calm its sudden lurching.
But Kyla Paterno has been enormously generous to my Nadia and her Florence. A few words from the review here, below. The whole can be found here on Shelf Awareness,
an online books and bookselling magazine that reminds us (in every issue) of the power of kindness.
Nadia's gut-wrenching descent into her unexplained illness is explored through carefully crafted narrative and the later, cautious observations of those who love her. Kephart's novel succeeds on many levels. One Thing Stolen takes the bold approach of keeping the majority of the story, all of Nadia's descent, solely in Nadia's perspective. Readers cannot easily determine if she is a reliable narrator, or if parts of her story may be delusions.... Kephart applies a deft hand and instead looks inward and asks readers to come along with Nadia and experience the danger and beauty of her world. --Kyla Paterno
Those interested in receiving an ARC of One Thing Stolen
have a few days left to enter this Goodreads Giveaway.
This coming September, Temple University Press will publish a collection of my essays and photographs called Love: A Philadelphia Affair.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that I've spent the better part of yesterday and today with notes from the very gentle copy editor. Which is to say that I've spent these hours in rigorous mortification of myself.
Okay, so maybe that term doesn't make actual sense, but I'm just going with it, because, hey, might as well be myself. Or, I could fill the rest of this blog with commas that, shouldn't, be there. Or maybe I should just use the same phrase twice. (I'll use the same phrase twice.) And if I seem to be calling you by your surname as I speak to you here, why don't I just switch it up and go with your given name? Nothing like keeping a reader on her toes? His toes? Their toes?
And if I tell you that I'm moving toward you, you'll know what I mean. That I am moving TO you. See? I've just arrived.
It's not even what the kind copy editor has noted that remorses me out. It's what I see in myself, my old writing tics, my go-to poetics. It's me on the page, and golly by joe (I'm making more things up), I often wish I were other.Was
Why can't I write like Michael Ondaatje at his best? Why not Alice McDermott at her most precise? Why Why Why couldn't I have bought my Kitchen Aid sooner (KitchenAid?) and given my life over to olive oil cakes and fudgy brownies? Fudge-y brownies?
I want a do-over, Writing Life.
I want a better brain.
I had said, about this blog, that I would reduce my frequency
. Posting just Mondays and Thursdays now (unless there was personal book news to share). Making more time for Time. Easing away from increasingly desperate sense that more was expected of me than I could ever adequately deliver.
But yesterday and today, reading Anna Badkhen's memoir, Walking with Abel,
I realized that there will be some days, some books, that will require an interlocutory post.
I can no longer read everything I'm sent, write about everything I read, respond to every package that arrives on my stoop.
But I must write about books like Anna's.
I've written about Anna here before—the day I met her, in the living room of the home of the documentary photographer Lori Waselchuk
. I have written of her Afghanistan narrative, The World is a Carpet
. I have come to know her—only occasionally, but always meaningfully—in the time in between. We have discussed self-compassion. Bigotry. Chromites. New books due in August, about love. I was prepared, in other words, for Walking with Abel,
her story of living with a family of Fulani cowboys and starwatchers as they move herds across the country of Mali in West Africa. The wisdom of the Fulani is earth wisdom. It is in the sand they cross, the rivers that rise, the frogs that sing, the constellations that guide, the nudge of a cow. It is in the stories they ask for, and the stories they share.
Into their wisdom came Anna.
Here, in the early pages, she tells us what she seeks:
To enter such a culture. Not an imperiled life nor a life enchanted but an altogether different method to life's meaning, a divergent sense of the world. To tap into a slower knowledge that could come only from taking a very, very long walk with a people who have been walking always. To join a walk that spans seasons, years, a history; to synchronize my own pace with a meter fine-tuned over millennia. For years I had wanted to learn from such immutable movement.
Anna's immersion is uncompromising. She sleeps beneath a tree on blue plastic tarp, her backpack at her head. She wakes, one day, to a goat standing on her knees. She bathes in rivers. She churns the buttermilk. She holds the babies. She learns (perhaps I should have started with this) that language. She finds breathtaking beauty in her hostess:
She had no front teeth left and the remaining teeth were rotted and brown. She was narrowboned and gracile and she wore her long gray hair in cornrows woven so that two thin braids ran down in front of either ear and the rest bunched at the back of her head. The tattoo that once had accentuated her whole mouth and blackened her gums had long faded except for an indigo shadow on her full lower lip.
This is Anna making room for astonishment in the world—Anna who is both a migrant and an immigrant, a former war reporter who is capable of seeing beauty and who ponders, out loud, in Abel
, this: "Maybe a true writer of conscience was one who never put down a single word."
I am glad, we should all be glad, that Anna puts down her words (and her pale, evocative sketches of the homes she made on that swatch of earth). I am grateful that this book leans into memoir, yields Anna's own vulnerability as she tries to live in the aftermath of an ended love affair, that she uses both her heart and her eyes to see, that she writes, or seems to write, this book for the man who, in transient moments, made her happy, the man she carries forward, memories now, interludes, words. Who was he? Who were they? She tells us:
My beloved and I had been comrade voyagers before we became lovers, footloose storytellers who shared a supreme reverence for wordsmanship. We filled our notebooks with the beauty and the iniquity with which the world branded and buoyed us. We wished our stories to bring it to some accountability, some reckoning.
Anna, the world is better for your reckoning.
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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, Anna Badkhen
, Bryn Mawr College
, Cyndi Reeves
, GROW Magazine
, Laurel Restaurant
, Nicholas Elmi
, Philadelphia Flower Show
, Walking with Abel
, Add a tag
We're frustrated. Face it. We are. Our delayed trip to see our daughter. Our thwarted trip to see the sun. Our meeting that's been canceled. Our promise we can't keep.
This is our weather, and this is our now. We've tilted our planet on its axis, so to speak, and the planet was always going to be larger, and more powerful, than we are.
Today I was to have joined Professor/Writer Cyndi Reeves and her students at Bryn Mawr College to talk about memoir. I was to have later lunched with her and her teaching colleague. After that I was to have headed down to the Philadelphia Flower Show with my husband, looked at flowers and pots, and joined my friend Adam Levine for the official launch of his glorious horticultural magazine, GROW.
And finally, 8 o'clock, thanks to my brother and sister-in-law, I was to have dined at Laurel,
the "intimate French/American BYO restaurant by Chef/Owner Nicholas Elmi." (Top Chef viewers will remember him.)
All of that now jeopardized, junked, postponed, terminated by all the snow that falls.
"Peaceful out there," my husband just said, having opened the door and stood, for a moment, in the white plenitude. "Peaceful." I stop typing. Can barely hear the wind. Can almost hear a train on its track. Can see no one in the street, no car passing.Peaceful,
Make the day what the day can be, I remind myself. A lesson that my son keeps teaching. A lesson that the world is demanding that we learn—again. Make the day what the day can be. In this sudden wash of white time, I will write an essay about my students, My Spectaculars, and what they teach me (and us). I will count the eggs and measure the sugar and experiment, again, with my new KitchenAid. I will read the new memoir, Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah,
by my brilliant friend, Anna Badkhen, who walks the world to learn the world and who whispers one word, again and again: compassion.
Peaceful. To you, from me, while the planet reminds us how small we are, how temporary and shifting our plans.
I call my students The Spectaculars, and they are. As kind as they are bright. As funny as they are compassionate. They are particular, unrepeatable people. And yet—oh my. Our whole.
Teaching them, I am teaching me. Racing out ahead with books and dreams.
There is never enough time.
I watched "Whiplash"
last week and wondered how any teacher could be so cruel—and if cruelty hones. I watched "Birdman"
and considered the rewards of high narrative risk. I read Atticus Lish's Preparation for the Next Life—
and then sat with a student, just the two of us, and talked about the value of spending summers pumping gas and seeing life, the literary value of the un-rareified existence. I (and my students, along with the students of Lorene Cary and Max Apple) sat with the editor and writer Daniel Menaker and talked about how memoirs get made, how truth is shaped, the chronologies that must be broken (Lorene's blog post on that afternoon can be found here
But all of this wasn't enough, it's never enough, and so I began to read Ander Monson's Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries
—a book that delights in breaking rules, a book that, in the midst of all its subtitle promises, its wild accords, its politics and prose, releases thoughts like these:
The space between biology and biography is vast. Both are tests. They seek to understand a life. We might believe we write our own, that who we think we are gives us the right to tell ourselves as we believe we are. The telling of a self is fiction too, salesmanship, however unintentional, how in narrating I we change the I—we make it harder, stellar, starlike, more like shell than skin, how we hide all evidence to the contrary, believe ourselves impermeable.
We read the world, we watch the art, we ask the questions, we do our own small parts. We can't make art without receiving art. Last week, most of this long winter long, I ceded, I cede, to receiving.
In this, the winter of few things going according to plan, I begin to wonder: What is the point of any plan?
I'm not the only one asking this question. Oh, Boston. Oh friends in Boston. How do you do it?
Yesterday, I left the house in the cold and early dark, leaving myself five hours of extra time to get to my NYC client meeting an hour ahead of time. A six-hour cushion, in other words. But, oh, what a chase it became, as Amtrak dropped train after train and then left a single track open for trains headed into and out of Penn Station.
You go. No, you go. No, all right, you go. No, I'm happy to wait another hour. You go.
I made the meeting in time, but only after a mad dash through the train station that culminated in an encounter with a man of little means (and clear psychological demons), who turned around on the escalator leading to 31st and Eighth and (seeing I cannot imagine what in me) threatened to push me down the moving stairs. I held the badly bruised arm of the week's earlier accident
just out of reach and barely escaped the possibility of a mean tumble.
Getting home from NYC proved to be an odyssey of even greater proportions. The details don't matter. I was hardly alone (indeed, I was with my client and hundreds upon hundreds of others) as one train after another was cancelled, delayed, left on the tracks, neglected, checked in, then out of the You go, No, you go single tracking situation. Sure, I should have spent the time reading the fantastic Atticus Lish novel I recently downloaded. But at one point I gave up.
I became a simple, unexercised, bruised silly lump of Wait. A walking, mostly sitting exemplar of What is the point?
Today, believe it or not, I am headed back to New York, this time to see Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," starring Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Lindsay Duncan, Clare Higgins, and Martha Plimpton, then to take my son out to dinner. It's my early birthday present to myself (aided by my father's Christmas gift). The play's closing weekend.
I will not be taking Amtrak.
I love my students. That's absolute. I learn from them, I learn with them, I want, for them, the best of all worlds or, at least, the best of this
Teaching is my great privilege. It is my deep pleasure.
And so I am not in the least complaining about the students I love when I raise my tired head from the snow and bitter winds and aches of this winter, and ask: Must the graduate schools and post-undergraduate opportunities and fellowship institutions and grant-giving bodies to which my undergraduate students are applying be so increasingly—is the word cruel?
or perhaps just insensitive
?—in the requirements they place on those of us who write freely—and frequently—on the behalf of students?
Should not the time of adjuncts, who teach not for financial gain but because it is good for the soul, be somehow valued, too? No. Should not the time of every
teacher be valued?
Why, for example, must we Recommenders take what increasingly feels like examinations on behalf of our students—eight-part or ten-part essays per chosen institution, each single essay introduced by quantifying questions, and none of the essay writing transferable to any other application related to that student? Why must we, for every school, every institution, fill out a bevy of computerized forms (remember your passwords!) before we are allowed to send in the letter that we have already spent an afternoon crafting, the letter in which we speak with open hearts about students we (I use the word again) love? What was the point, I would have loved to ask that Veterinarian School, of asking me to write that essay about myself (for hadn't I just written nine essays about my student?)—that essay in which I was asked to assess my own self as a teacher, grader, person in the world? Really? Or, what was the point, Oh School in a Foreign Country, of not allowing me to email the forms—of requiring me to walk through weather to the post office, to stand in line for twenty minutes, and to pay the four dollars and something to mail a letter I might have simply sent via electronics? And: I know you would like me to send my letter on official university letterhead, I know you are saying that the words I just spent hours writing won't count—will be quickly dismissed—unless they are on official letterhead, but: I'm an adjunct. I don't have official letterhead.
I repeat: Should not the time (and resources) of those who teach somehow be valued, too?
I'm wise enough, human enough, not to penalize students and their dreams for the onerous nature of the process. But I do want to ask, as gently as I can:
Why is this process becoming ever more onerous? Could one not anticipate some sort of backlash, in which teachers simply throw up their hands and say, No more. Please. No more of this. I cannot possibly create another new account for another institution so that I might send in a form.
We're here, as teachers, because we love (love!) our material and our students. We are doing all we can to help them move toward their dreams—in the classroom, outside of the classroom, and in our letters.
Think of us when you design your forms, create your frameworks, ask us for more, and then again more. Think of us. I beg you.
In the midst of a difficult winter, I look for signs. Or, I read the signs newly. Collisions. Rejections. Reversals. Silence. Extended cold fronts. Impossible expectations. An unanswered rapping on that door, this door, that door, too.
One can either walk the same line, ducking and swerving and hoping, or choose another path.
Why not choose another path? Focus brightly on the new, rather than darkly on all of that which might have, perhaps even should have, gone another way.
I'm making changes. I'm going to spend more time in the kitchen, say, and less time at the computer. I'm going to fill my own imagination with the possibilities of olive oil cakes and double roasted chickens. I'm going to read more so that I can teach better. I'm going to buy only those books I actually wanted to buy and when even those books aren't the books I'd hoped they'd be, I'm going to set them aside.
Life is too short.
Finally, I'm going to show up here less often, perhaps just twice a week, perhaps Mondays and Thursdays, to talk about books and life and the lessons of teaching.
It's a privilege, being out in the world with you. I'm going to work against overstaying my welcome.
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By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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Maybe the pre-publication months are the hardest months on writers. Best to shrug them off, develop distractions, think on next stories, next things, new recipes.
Earlier this week, through the nervous silence (and a search for tea for two guests at Penn), came news of a Booklist
star for One Thing Stolen
, as well as some very generous words from School Library Journal.
I also learned that Chronicle will be sponsoring a Goodreads giveaway, beginning on March 1st. More on that can be found in the sidebar on my blog.
For now, I share highlights from the book's three early trade reviews:Fans of Jandy Nelson’s dense, unique narratives will lose themselves in Kephart’s enigmatic, atmospheric, and beautifully written tale. — Booklist, Starrred Review“Kephart’s artful novel attests to the power of love and beauty to thrive even in the most devastating of circumstances.”—School Library Journal"Kephart has crafted a testament to artistry and the adaptability of the human mind. Set in Florence, Italy, the birthplace of the Renaissance, Kephart transports readers across the ocean from Philadelphia, Pa., to the cobbled streets of Italy." — Kirkus Reviews In other publishing news: This kind review of Handling the Truth, in Assay Journal, by Renee D'Aoust.
And Love: A Philadelphia Affair (Temple University Press, August 2016) has an official cover and flap copy, which I will share here when the time is right.
With enormous thanks to the Temple University Press team—Micah Kleit, Ann-Marie Anderson, Gary Kramer, Joan Vidal, Sara Cohen, Kate Nichols, Debby Smith, and Director Mary Rose Muccie—I share a first look at the cover art for Love: A Philadelphia Affair
, my collection of Philadelphia-themed essays and photography, due out from the Press later this summer.
Southwest Philadelphia, Fairmount, Woodlands Cemetery, Wissahickon Creek, Old City, Memorial Hall, City Hall Tower, Locust Walk, South Philadelphia Sports Complex, Wayne Art Center, The Martha Street Hatchatory, Port Richmond, Free Library of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fairmount Water Works, 30th Street Station, Stone Harbor, Glenside, New Hope, Mural Arts, Eastern State, Bush Hill, Chanticleer Garden, Hawk Mountain, The Devon Horse Show and Country Fair, The Schuylkill Banks, DanceSport Academy, Beach Haven, Valley Forge National Historical Park, Reading Terminal Market, Wilmington, DE, Stone Harbor, the Poconos, Hawk Mountain, Lancaster, PA—my memories of and reflections on these and other elements of this region have all been collected here, along with my black and white photography.
This book owes a huge debt to Kevin Ferris and Avery Rome of The Philadelphia Inquirer,
who invited me to write, idiosyncratically and happily, for their pages.
I thank Amy Rennert, who ushered this project through all those terms I'd never understand on my own.
The Temple team has worked enormously hard to get the book out in time for the Pope's visit to our city; copies will be available by then. It will be here and near during the Democratic Convention. And it will serve as a companion book to Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River,
another Temple University production.
The official catalog copy, as penned by the great publicist, Gary Kramer:
From the best-selling author of Flow, comes a love letter to the Philadelphia region, its places, and people
A Philadelphia Affair
Philadelphia has been at the heart of many of award-winning author Beth Kephart’s books, but none more so than the affectionate collection, Love. This volume of personal essays and photographs celebrate the intersection of memory and place. Kephart writes lovingly, reflectively, about what Philadelphia means to her. She muses about her meanderings on SEPTA trains, spending hours among the armor in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and taking shelter at Independence Mall during a downpour.
In Love, Kephart shares her love of Reading Terminal Market at Thanksgiving, “This abundant, bristling market is, in November, the most unlonesome place around.” She waxes poetically about the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, the mustard in a Salumeria sandwich, and the coins slipped between the lips of Philbert the pig.
Kephart also extends her journeys to the suburbs of Glenside and Ardmore, and beyond, to Lancaster County, PA, Stone Harbor, NJ, and Wilmington, DE. What emerges is a valentine to the City of Brotherly Love and its environs. In Love, Philadelphia is “More than its icons, bigger than its tagline.”
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of 20 books, including Going Over, Handling the Truth, Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, and Ghosts in the Garden. She has been nominated for a National Book Award, has been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, and has won the national Speakeasy Poetry Prize. Kephart writes a monthly column on the intersection of memory and place for the Philadelphia Inquirer and is a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune. She teaches memoir at the University of Pennsylvania and blogs daily at www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com
Philadelphia Region/General Interest/Urban Studies
112 pages, 39 halftones, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2”
Cloth ISBN 978-1-4399-1315-4 $24.50
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I moved a lot as a child—and then, at last, settled in.
In this weekend's Philadelphia Inquirer,
I'm writing about the place that has been close to my heart ever since that eighth-grade move, the town of Wayne, PA, which has beguiled me, supported me, and, of late, returned old friends to me.
With gratitude to all those fellow Radnorites and shop owners and librarians: this
. While this Wayne story and my South Street/Magic Gardens
story were written too late to be incorporated into my forthcoming collection of essays and photographs, Love: A Philadelphia Affair,
both essays live close to my heart.
Meanwhile, this past week I've been watching intense movies, reading an extraordinary book, talking to the esteemed editor Daniel Menaker, sharing a glass of wine with the great Debbie Levy, and learning from my Class of Spectaculars at Penn. I'll reflect on all that in the Monday edition of tomorrow's blog.
Anyone interested in receiving a free ARC of One Thing Stolen
can now enter the giveaway on Goodreads.