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Best American Essays 2015
, Caroline Paul
, Christopher Castellani
, James Gleick
, Kendra Atleework
, Mary Oliver
, The Art of Perspective
, The Gutsy Girl: Escapes for Your Life of Epic Adventure
, Time Travel
, Add a tag
I shall get to the end of this story momentarily, but I will begin with this: The other day, while running on one of those machines at the gym, I was accompanied by a young friend with whom I most often disagree. We sit on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Her tendency is to yell (she'd be the first to admit this; she's adorable when she admits this), while my tendency is to ask questions and listen. She is smart, fierce, interesting, and I don't mind. In her advocacy for the positions that will soon represent the U.S., I listen for facts I might not have otherwise encountered.
We were fifteen minutes into our workout when the conversation escalated. "You're what's wrong with America," she said, loud enough for the entire gym (okay, maybe only our section) to hear. "Nobody in this country reads."
"Are you suggesting I don't read?" I said, and for the first time in any of our conversations, I heard defensiveness creep into my tone. I thought of the hours upon hours, every day, that I spent during the election year—reading, watching, and listening. So many hours that my life had become knotted up with the news, that my conversations were always tilting toward the political, that my home life was growing obstructed by my dark glaring over the dinner table at a husband who was not responsible for the world tumult. So many hours that I was no longer reading the books that gave me comfort—the true works of art that stand above, and beyond.
I gave away so much time in 2016 to learning the issues and refining my point of view that I didn't just lose all kinds of professional ground. I lost one of the things that gives me joy—peaceful times with books that rise above the cacophony.
In this past week, in the post-Christmas quiet, I have returned, with force, to these many books that have been sitting here. I have a semester of memoir to teach at Penn, an honors thesis student whose fiction I will guide, four upcoming Juncture memoir workshops
to plan for, and a number of book projects of my own. I don't know what will happen with any of this—I have not met my students, I have not advertised the workshops, I am perched on the ledge of essential revisions—but I do know that I can do nothing that I'm supposed to be doing if I do not sit and read.
And so I have been reading, and now you have reached that place in this post place where I list some of the books I have been curled up with these past few days. One after the other, these books have made me glad. For their intelligence and craft. For their beacon shimmer. For the inspiration that they give me.Everywhere I Look
, Helen Garner. For my thoughts on this collection of essays, go here
.Best American Essays 2015
, edited by Ariel Levy. Within these pages I found old favorites (Roger Angell, Isiah Berlin, Sven Birkerts, Hilton Als, Justin Cronin, Rebecca Solnit, Zadie Smith, Anthony Doerr, Margo Jefferson) and new voices (Kendra Atleework, Tiffany Briere, Kate Lebo). Here is Atleework, in a gorgeous essay called "Charade," writing of her mother just before she died. Such simple words here. And so very moving.
A few months before, she was beautiful—you could still see it in flashes. Her hair was thick and blondish, and her body was round in some places and slender in others. Her hands, always cold, held pens and typed and cooked scrambled eggs. Her eyes were blue and her heels were narrow. She looked a lot like me.The Art of Perspective,
Christopher Castellani (Graywolf Press Series)—a refreshingly smart examination of narrative strategy and literary point of view. This may be a craft book, but there is, within the pages, a kind of suspense as the author presents his own quandaries about a story he might write. I could quote this entire book. But this should give you a taste for Castellani's smarts:
Why bother to write if you don't have a view worthy of sharing? I think we judge the literary merit of a text not merely by how closely we relate to the characters' experiences—that's the relatively easy part of the author's job—but by how strongly the author's ultimate vision compels us, provokes us, challenges us, or makes new the everyday.The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure,
Caroline Paul illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. I'll be honest. I did not know about this NYT
bestseller until I read about it in Brain Pickings
. I bought it for my niece (to be perfectly honest), and I was just planning to scan enough of it so that we might speak of it later. Well. Hold the scissors. I could not stop. This is a memoir/history/how-to/diary journal with pictures, all in one. But it's not just the cleverness of the design that strikes me hard. It's the cleverness of the prose. Paul begins with a story from her youth, when she set out to build a boat out of milk cartons:
I envisioned a three-masted vessel, with a plank off to one side (of course) and a huge curved prow that ended in an eagle head. So I set about collecting milk cartons. I collected from my school cafeteria. I collected from my friends. I collected from my family. I soon became familiar with the look on their faces when I explained I was building a milk carton pirate ship. It was actually a combination of looks, all rolled into one. Hahaha, what a crazy idea, the expression said. And Good luck, kid, but I don't think it's going to happen. And, Well, at least I'm getting ride of my milk cartons. Then at the very end of this facial conga-dance, I always caught something else. Actually, that sounds like FUN. I wish I could do that, the final look exclaimed.
(Sorry, Niece Julia, I did not write in your book or dog ear its pages. I hope you like it as much as I do.)Upstream: Selected Essays
, Mary Oliver. Truth Alert! I just got this book yesterday, and I haven't finished reading yet. But I do love the three essays I've read, and I want to share this small bit from the first page. This is from the first paragraph, right at the end. It goes like this:
What a life is ours! Doesn't
anybody in the world anymore want to get up in the
middle of the night and
(Just like that, Oliver breaks into a song. Huzzah!)Time Travel,
James Gleick. Full Disclosure, Which is Bigger Than a Truth Alert. I bought this book for another niece, Claire, because I have a little tradition with Claire that includes the purchases of books. What are you seeking? I asked her this year. She said science, nonfiction, a good memoir were her new cup of tea (a good memoir
! did you see that?). I bought her a copy of this book and me a copy of this book, because I'm teaching concepts of time this year in my Penn classroom, and I might as well make myself cool and contemporary. Claire, I have not broken the spine on YOUR copy of this book. I hope we both love it and can talk of it someday.
Finally, sitting here during my many months of not reading much but that which I had to read, has been a book mailed to me by Carrie Pepper, a book called Missing on Hill 700
. This is Carrie's tribute to a brother lost in a firefight during the Vietnam War. She was thirteen when the telegram arrived. Her family ultimately crumbled from the news. Carrie's decision was to seek out news of the brother she had lost, and through the letters and photos that others send, a mosaic of a life emerges—a mosaic and also hope that Tony's remains will finally make their way home. The subtitle tells you much about Pepper's heart and purpose: "How Losing a Brother in Vietnam Created a Family in America."
For my final 2016 Philadelphia Inquirer
column, I took a train to the city with the men I love and stood at Cira Green, looking down, across, into, and through.
I was seeking perspective of a personal and political kind following a tremulous year.
My thanks to Kevin Ferris, who allows me to seek and speak in my hometown paper on a monthly basis.
Happiness to you all. Peace in this season. Hope.
Time has not lately been my friend. I'm way behind on reading. I've got stacks of books here, begging for attention. I've got books behaving (for all the world to see) like furniture.
A few days ago I began to read the big book of the moment, an adult novel that has received every manner of acclaim, both from the prize givers and the lists. I wanted to love this book. I'd spent good hardcover money on it after all (something I thought about, something I must consider), and my friends were (mostly) enthralled. I chose it from the overwhelming pile, and I tried, believe me, I tried. Between sheets of baking cookies. While my husband watched Alaska shows. While I waited for the food shopping crowds to thin. I tried. I read. I tried.
Dutifully, I read. The story was important; I felt that on every page. But oh, those sentences. So relentlessly declarative. So devoted to moving the plot along at such a feverish pace that characters felt far more like symbols than people and scenes felt more like stage sets and philosophy felt stylized, rushed.
The book was an idea. But was it a book
? And what kind of snob am I, to be asking such a question about a novel of what will be enduring prestige?
Had I, in the rush of my real life, in the daily swell of recommendation letters, bill writing, house cleaning, research, present wrapping, food buying, novel writing, forgotten how to read?
I needed to find out. I needed to get up early (this very morning) and reach for another book and determine whether I had lost my readerly touch, my patience, my gratitude for stories on the page. I chose Everywhere I Look,
the new essay collection by the Australian Helen Garner. I opened up. I took a breath. I settled.
I settled and swelled. It took just a single page to believe in books again.
"When I was in my forties I went on holiday to Vanuatu with a kind and very musical man to whom I would not much longer be married, though I didn't know it yet," Garner writes—the fist lines of the first essay, "Whisper and Hum." She hates the tropics, she tells us, in the very next sentence, then:
And what I hated most was the sight of a certain parasitic creeper that flourished aggressively, bowing the treetops down and binding them to each other in a dense, undifferentiated mat of choking foliage. I longed to be transported at once to Scotland where the air was sharp and the nights brisk, and where plants were encouraged to grow separately and upright, with individual dignity.
Can't you just see it? Don't you marvel at how she chooses to introduce herself? As almost not married, as oppressed by density, as longing for sharp air and dignity?
I'm halfway through this collection now. I'll write more of it in the January edition of Juncture Notes, our memoir newsletter.
I'm just here, on this blog, to say, Thank you, Helen Garner. Thank you, very much. For shaping and breaking and delineating your life in ways that bring about a pleasant startle.
Finally, a word on the photo: That is a photo I took in Berlin, a city for which we mourn over this holiday weekend, a city I came to love during my travels there and during my subsequent research for the Berlin novel, Going Over.
We keep getting our hearts broken out here by losses, individual and obscene, suffered at the hands of cruel ideology. We don't know what to say. We remember the wild beauty of a place shedding a dark history and hope for that wild beauty to carry forward, while those who have been lost are remembered widely.
I've been spending time with people.
Maybe that sentence would sound odd in the ear of a passing stranger, but those who know the contours of my life would understand. In my little house, all hours of each day, I work at words while my husband, in the basement, works on clay. Two artists with a grown-up son. Friendships (such cherished friendships) conducted primarily by email, letter, and phone. The contours.
But lately I've been making a point to go out and be. To join the members of my church in a Sunday afternoon Hunger project. To spend time at art shows, among other artists. To slip inside a neighbor's house for a long conversation. To join a gracious, extended family for Thanksgiving Eve dessert (so delicious in all ways), following a nine-dish meal built for my family of three. To spend a Sunday afternoon with a former student, listening to Colson Whitehead then walking the streets of Ardmore. To say yes to an invitation this very evening to welcome a famed, beloved writer to her new home an hour or so from here.
When the headlines blare news that is so much bigger than anything one person can affect, it helps to get out into the world and be.
Yesterday afternoon, my husband and I went to the Wayne Art Center, where so much good has happened for my husband's ceramics career
(and where I have had so much fun being bad at mud), to buy a wedding gift for friends. On our way out, we stopped in on the ceramics studio—quiet now, for winter break, but still percolating with friends. The clay community at this center is built of teachers who know deeply and share what they know, kiln experts who care for every fired piece (placing each just so, glad for good results, concerned about cracks), students with talent, students on the verge, students (well, maybe just this one student) with only a handful of mini pots to show for their name.
The clay community is built of people who know one another, look toward and out for one another, tell and listen to stories. Age doesn't divide us, nor histories, nor income, nor resumes. People are who they naturally are. We wear ragged clothes. We get dirt in our hair. We screw up. We succeed. We trade words for art, advice for gratitude, concern for truth. We're glad for the good that happens to another. We're sad when life tilts the other way.
I've been spending time with people. I've been reminding myself of all the good out here, of what happens when people set politics aside in favor of community. When a show of force is sublimated to the power of the heart.
I have spent this day in two ways only: At an early hour I Skyped with Ms. Tina Hudak and the young men of St. Albans Lower School of Washington about freedom, walls, inspiration, and building scenes and fictional time during a phenomenal conversation inspired by my Berlin Wall novel, Going Over
. I was deeply impressed with those young men. With their recognition, among other things, that whether a wall is metaphorical or physical, it counts. It separates. It divides.
The rest of the day I have been writing my column for the Philadelphia Inquirer,
finding it particularly challenging, this time around, to say just what I wanted to say. I fought with words until the words gave in and, at last, relinquished story.
Just as I was completing that work, news came in via Twitter of a GuysLitWire review of This Is the Story of You
. The review,
written by author and critic Colleen Mondor, is an absolute masterpiece of writing about writing, and I am so deeply taken by the artistry of it.
Taken by it.
Grateful for it.
On a day when words came slow to me, Colleen's words arrived as a salve. This is a deepest kindness.
I know this to be true about myself: I can't find peace unless I'm engaged in the never-entirely peaceful struggle of writing.
I need to be inside a story. I need to find faith that story can matter.
And now at last I am forty pages into a new book that has required me to listen very carefully, to imagine very deeply the life of a young woman I've come to care enormously about. A book that has sent me down exquisite research trails. A book that I want to wake up to.
Engaged with my own work again, I can engage more deeply with my community.
We have to be whole to give of ourselves wholly.
We seek community. We find our way toward those who share our passions. Last evening I had the pleasure of joining my husband, William Sulit, at the opening reception for Craft Forms 2016
, an international juried exhibit featuring textiles, metal work, ceramics, jewelry, wood, furniture, and basketry held at the magnificent Wayne Art Center.
This year's exhibit was curated by Stefano Catalani, Executive Director of the Gage Academy of Art, and what a show it is. One could spend a lot of time appreciating the materials, hand work, stories.
And one could bask, as I now am at this early morning hour, in the friendships strengthened or rediscovered last evening. Many of our clay friends were there—all dressed up and mud free. But so were friends from other spheres of my life—Bill Thomas, the Executive Director of Chanticleer,
with whom I worked on the book, Ghosts in the Garden
; Peter Archer of Archer and Buchanan
, an architect of great talent whom I first met so many years ago when we both worked for the same firm; Susan, a former family neighbor. The Wayne Art Center is a world of windows and light, ideas and the people who have them. It is led by Nancy Campbell, who achieves much and dreams forward. It is a welcoming place at a time when we could all use a little more welcome.
Today, from 1 to 2:30, Stefano will discuss his selection process and some of the artists—my husband among them—will talk about the pieces that were selected for the show. The event is free and open to the public.
Bill's selected piece is right there in the middle of the room, by the way. A close-up image can be found here
I struggle, perhaps I always will, with striking the right balance. How much do we talk about ourselves out here? How much do we turn our attention to others? What does a small personal moment mean against the backdrop of grave concerns or else-where suffering?
I don't have the answers.
But here, today, is this:This Is the Story of You
, my young adult novel about the consequences of a monster storm, was named to the 2017 TAYSHAS Reading List today, and I could not be more grateful on behalf of this quiet book that means to much to me. Thank you, TAYSHAS, and thank you, Taylor Norman of Chronicle Books, who is so consistently kind to me. The link to the full list is here
An excerpt from Nest. Flight. Sky.,
a Shebooks memoir about the loss of my mother, appears on the beautiful literary site, The Woven Tale Press, today. Woven Tale is like a book you want to read—beautiful considered and laid out. That link is here
Finally, my husband's work will be featured in a major exhibition that opens tomorrow. This international show, Craft Forms, has its home at the Wayne Art Center, and tomorrow night I'll abandon my ordinary, often wrinkled, not exactly glamorous garb for a dress and heels to help celebrate the opening night. The link to my husband's work is here.
On this Thanksgiving Day, I have family, friends, earth, and sky, books and those who read them, stories and those who inspire them to be deeply grateful for. I have the eight dishes I'm making for our family of three, and the graciousness of our neighbors, with whom we will share dessert.
And I have Christine Alderman to thank for questions that forced me to go deep into my novel—This Is the Story of You—
to find lessons for right now. What are the responsible responses to our times? What is the place of hope and empathy in a country fractured by opposing points of view, distrust, and fear?
Here, on Book Club Advisor,
those questions and my attempts at answers can be found. The lighting in my little office was odd, but maybe that's because I'm a little odd. So please forgive all that blue tint and think, with me, about the power of empathy.
Christine, thank you. For everything.
In the struggle of right now, as I work to understand what I might do to strengthen fractured communities and identify (and work toward) hope, I make room, as well, for beauty.
I sit with a neighbor I love and talk.
I listen to the students who inspire.
I look for the sun when it rises and the sun when it falls.
I prepare my home for the return of my son.
I celebrate the news, and the dreams, of friends.
Here beside me as I type sits Moments of Being: Reflections from an Ordinary Life
, a collection of essays from Katrina Kenison. You know Katrina because you read her hugely popular blog
, or because you have read her three books (Mitten Strings for God, The Gift on an Ordinary Day, Magical Journey
), or because you have met her in your travels as a student or a friend.
You know Katrina.
When Katrina decided to assemble these—shall we call them letters? yes, letters—first written to readers on her blog, she chose to build a book that is as physically beautiful as it is soul leavening. Gorgeous paper. Beautiful spine. Careful typesetting. It's all Katrina, through and through, in a book that asks us to stop, to see, and to appreciate. Here, for example, is Katrina reflecting on a party she threw in her peaceful home:
There was a moment, a kind of Mrs. Dalloway moment, when I just stopped, stood stock-still, and looked around at the loveliness of the scene. The men were in the kitchen drinking beer. The women were outside, chatting. The boys were juggling—a skill they all learned together in sixth and seventh grade and suddenly, spontaneously, decided to revive at ages seventeen and eighteen. Clubs flew through the air. A fiercely competitive badminton game was in progress. A group of girls sat at the picnic table, deep in conversation....
Today, I promised myself this: More time for fun. More spur of the moment parties, before it's too late and the younger generation is up and out and gone for good. More fires outside, more s'mores, more reasons to celebrate the joy of being alive, of raising children to young adulthood, of spending time with those young adults—who, after all, are still learning from us, each and every day, what it means to live a good life.
We have a responsibility, this Thanksgiving, to love out loud, to yield the floor, to listen. We have a responsibility to look for and find beauty, because that will strengthen us, that will enliven us, that will help us find not just hope but a right path forward.
There is beauty in Katrina's way of seeing, her way of being. You can order her book directly here.
In the early days of November, at dawn, I walked along the sea.
I had been away from myself for a very long time. Anxious about the world, saddened by unkindness and untruthfulness of both the personal and political sort, not at all certain whether I would ever again find joy in many of the things that I love most.
I'm still anxious. I'm still saddened. But I cannot remain, I realize at last, inside this held breath, this paralysis. I'm no good to anyone if I'm no good within myself.
And so I again am taking refuge inside story. I am returning, in my imagination and in fact, to a young woman I came to know last spring—to someone whose dignity, voice, and absolute compassion deeply heartened me.
I will wake up thinking about her. I will write for her, perhaps just a sentence very day. I will move forward and again forward because her story must be told, and because I know how to do that telling now, and because language creeps back in.
I recently wrote of my time, this past Tuesday, at Conestoga High School
, where I met with teachers and administrators during a district-wide Artistry of Teaching program.
I entered my teaching classroom early, as I tend to do. The room, shared by teachers of English, was perfectly fringed with books. The walls were lined with lists of favorite books, quotes from favorite books, evidence of conversations being had about Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award finalists, banned books, classic books, new YA titles.
I was moved, deeply moved, by this shared library—this proof of deep, border-smashing literacy among the young, as encouraged by the not-as-young. We read to find out. We read to know. We read to feel. We read to understand what it is to be another.
Yesterday I participated in a gorgeously-rendered Artistry of Teaching program for the T/E School District. Walked the hallways of my son's old high school. Saw again some of his favorite teachers and remembered why I loved them. Sat briefly at lunch with the great artist/writer Judy Schachner. Stood among teachers and thought out loud about how memoir breaks down walls, opens lives, provides a place of refuge—and might be taught.
The world was about to change, dramatically change. My heart was folded up inside my chest. I kept talking about bridges, about true stories as solace, about the yield that comes with trust. The teachers wrote sideways, from fiction to truth. They wrote of loved places, first memories, extruded and inverted details. They wrote. We talked. We hoped out loud.
The Artistry of Teaching program was an act of faith. It was a demonstration of our commitment to the children who come next. The power and the promise of them. The things they yet will teach us about goodness and grace, community and resilience, bridges and not walls.
The thing about the sea is that it's theater. Dawn and the people gather, waiting for the break of sun. Dusk and the people return, their friends, or memories, near.
All eyes on the horizon. All bets on the sun.
This past week, in Cape May, New Jersey, there was weather, there was light. The dolphins traveled in pods. The birds sliced silhouettes. The hours changed. Nine memoirists had joined us for our second Juncture memoir workshop, and in between the exhilaration of their work, their metamorphosis, our conversation in an old painted lady, I traveled to the beach, alone.
While we were gone, a two-part essay/interview about my memoir-teaching work and book (Handling the Truth)
appeared in the November issue of The Woven Tale Press. (Part 1. Part 2.
) I have Richard Gilbert to thank for the intensely intelligent appraisal of Handling
, and for the questions, which moved and engaged me.
Thank you, Woven Tale, Richard, Sandra, and Angelica.
Thank you, Sea Changers.
Today I share news of an upcoming one-day memoir workshop, to be conducted next October 15, 2017 at Longwood Gardens. Information is available here.
Sign-ups begin in a week. Class size is limited. I'm thinking we all could use a turn in a beautiful place. I know I could.
Meanwhile, in this hard right now, when violent forces swirl, afflict, threaten, when words (abused, thwarted, erased of meaning) take on a life of their own, I have been pondering democracy and private lives lived out in public places. I wrote about the dark of that and the possible light in that for today's Philadelphia Inquirer,
a story that can be found here.
I centered my search for meaning in a famous Philadelphia square.
What a time it has been. What lessons still rush in, at any age.
In the deep mist and midst, we prepare for our nine writers, soon to join us by the sea for the second Juncture Memoir Workshop.
I have read their beautiful early essays. I have learned about their hopes as writers. I have added Springsteen and White and a Nest to a reading list, transformed assignments, reassigned hours of the day, and now we look ahead to waves and weather and community, eager for all the good that will come.
And good shall come.
Autumn, it seems, is finally setting in around here. The breeze carries a chill. The leaves are color. My son is home, for a few essential days. He comes by when I am standing here. A kiss on the cheek. Hey, Mom.
How hard it is to anticipate how much we'll miss our children when they are grown up and mostly gone.
But today, this Sunday morning, everything I need is right within reach—my husband, my son, our small home. We'll eat cookies, take a walk, watch a movie, talk—and that is all, because that is all we need.
I arrived home just after midnight.
I still had visions of Tulsa in my head.
conference expertly curated and managed by Eilis O'Neal, on a very pretty University of Tulsa campus. A group reading with Chloe Honum, Sherry Thomas, Brenna Yovanoff, Will Thomas, and Toni Jensen that will always resonate as warm, real, affirming, proof that no one genre corners excellence, that great writing is great writing, period. A chance to work with the rising memoirists of Tulsa, to sit in the audience of Robin Coste Lewis and Angela Flournoy, to hear the winners of the Nimrod contests (my friend Ruth Knafo Setton, Chad B. Anderson, Markham Johnson, and Bryce Emley ) read from their chosen work. A most extraordinary gathering at a generous and intrinsically fascinating home. A delicious (that will now always be her word) conversation with Poet Laureate and long-time Nimrod editor and champion Fran Ringold. A chance to talk to the very wonderful Jeff Martin of Booksmart Tulsa,
whose organization ignites readers nearly once each week as it brings in authors like Stephen King, Hisham Matar, Brando Skyhorse, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jonathan Lethem, Ransom Riggs, James Gleick, Geoff Dyer, Stewart O'Nan, Adam Haslett and, yes, I know you were waiting for it: Michael Ondaatje. A Sunday morning spent with my friend Katherine, and her four-month old twins.
In between, the walking. Into the urban streets of Tulsa, early morning, where I saw the proud Art Deco, the proliferating churches, an old Sunoco sign dangling from a top-floor of a brick building. Over the bridge—with Ruth and then alone and then with Katherine—to stand beside the minor league ball park, to watch a U-Haul truck spin in the sky, to walk among the food trucks (Mexican street tacos, jumbo corn dogs, garlic fries, spicy pickles, grilled bacon fluffernutter), to find the Blue Dome, to imagine the streets as poet Markham Johnson encouraged us to imagine many years ago, in the wake of a devastating race riot, to recall the iconic lore of Route 66 (and indeed, I bought the Springsteen memoir on my way home).
"I Believe in Good People," a sign in a closed store read.
I believe in Tulsa.
We may still be riding the waves of our Field Notes memoir workshop
but we're also eagerly anticipating our time by the Jersey shore, this coming November.
We have one spot left in this gorgeous painted lady.
Write to us here,
if you have interest.
The workshop was over. We stood there on the gravel road between the cabins we'd lived in, worked in, worked through. We stood there post-portraits, post-jazz hands, post-laughter, post-tears, and there were questions, still.
Mostly: How do we carry forward what has happened here? How do we write our stories through? Find the time? The calm? The self assurance?
I will write to you, I said, I promised. I will try, for myself, to remember how.
Often my life is not my own. There is no calm, no well of time, I do not see myself in any mirror. I can go on like that because I must go on like that, but then: I miss the words, I physically miss them. I feel an empty spin inside my soul until I can't help it anymore. I rise early to claim a sentence for myself.
Except: Days, weeks, months have gone by since I have written anything real. Except: The sentence that I write is obvious, flat. It is not art, and it is art I need, and so I turn to others. Just now Olivia Laing is sitting here. More Annie Dillard. Old James Baldwin. The first Ta-Nehisi Coates. I take what I need and my hour of me is up, but something, inside, stirs.
The next day I rise early again. I take out my flat sentence. I spin it around with a spoon. I work it until it holds some music for me, until it suggests what the next sentence might be. So now there are two sentences, maybe three, and for the next several days, in this earliest of hours, I read those sentences, I sink into their rhythms, I probably don't even know the story yet. But I've got me a song to sing through the rest of the day, when the client calls, or the work comes in, or I make a trip for oil or pepper. I've got me a song, a steadying place, and when the call I'm waiting for comes in late, or I'm put on hold, or the dinner simmers, there it is: my song.
The song is. I keep it close. It is a mystery, and it is something mine. That something alive, to return to.
We write our stories slow, from a centering place.
We spent a week on a farm being cared for by the earth and those who know it best.
We will never forget that land, our hosts.
I tell that story in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.
I write a first draft, but it isn't good. Plank, by plank, I take it apart. A new prologue helps me see what the book might be; it gives me a sail and a chart. A shift in tone pushes me to go more real, less arch. A shift in tone places into question every single anecdote and scene.
I stand at my desk. I plop into my rocker. I sprawl on the couch. I sigh.
I have no business being a writer, being a teacher, I'm giving this whole thing up, say I.
Maybe others write a brilliant first draft.
Those others are not I.
Oh, bless that Taylor Norman of Chronicle Books, forever uplifting, forever near. Her email of yesterday shared this news that the 50th anniversary of the terrible flooding of Arno will be honored in San Francisco's own American Bookbinders Museum.
This was the natural and cultural catastrophe that inspired my novel One Thing Stolen (Chronicle Books
). This forever-proximate possibility of culture (and the art of the mind) being lost to forces beyond anyone's control.
As Matthew barrels down on this earth, as natural disasters hovers, as we keep looking for more credible ways to feel secure, this story of the Arno spilling into and across a great city, into the rooms of great museums, into the basements of churches, into homes and shops is pressingly relevant. This story of those Mud Angels who brought their wings to the resurrection of that place still matters.
We depend on one another to see each other through. To dig down into the muck and salvage beauty.
My praise, then, to the American Bookbinders Museum. And my thanks to Taylor, for letting me know.
I have carried Olivia Laing's The Lonely City
from place to place this past month. Laing is a thrilling writer. A form breaker. A true, adult, expansive thinker. In Lonely
she weaves together her personal story with the lives of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and others.
I'm going to be writing about this book in the next issue of Juncture Notes, so no need to say much more about it here. For today, I simply want to quote from the end. Here Laing is speaking about the healing power of art. She holds in her hands the works that others have made. She finds, in them, necessary connection. We live at a time of jarring national discourse, social media degradations, easy, anonymous strikes.
But art speaks of and for the honestly questing self. It speaks not just for the artist but to those seeking proof that their own yearning is neither aberrative nor, somehow, wrong. Loneliness is human. It binds us to each other.
When I came to New York I was in pieces, and though it sounds perverse, the way I recovered a sense of wholeness was not by meeting someone or by falling in love, but rather by handling the things that other people had made, slowly absorbing by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.
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A few weeks ago we got the stupendous news that my husband's work had been juried into Craft Forms 2016,
an internationally recognized premiere contemporary craft exhibition showcased at the Wayne Art Center from December 3, 2016 through January 28, 2017.
This year's juror is Stefano Catalani, Curator of Art, Craft & Design at the Bellevue Museum, who will be here to lecture on the chosen works on December 3rd, at the Wayne Art Center.
I am infinitely proud of William Sulit, this husband of mine, who disappears for many hours of many days into the basement to create sui generis
work with extraordinary care. His work has sold well at Show of Hands in Philadelphia, where the gallery owner extended Bill's solo show an additional two months and has now maintained a dozen pieces for the shop. Bill's work will again be exhibited at Jam Gallery, in Malvern, PA, this November.
And this selection into this international show represents yet another turning point in Bill's clay career. I married an artist, through and through, and nothing makes me happier than to see his work make its way into the world.
I'm off to Oklahoma to teach memoir (among other things) at the Nimrod Conference
(and to see my beautiful Katherine and her twin babies). I'll be back next week with news on what I learned while away (and my thoughts on the extraordinary National Book Award finalist The Turner House,
by Angela Flournoy, with whom I'll share a Saturday panel).
All best to all of you in the meantime.