The Centennial Visionary Series/In conversation with the Women's National Book Association

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Invited to speak to the WNBA as part of the nationwide Centennial Visionary Series, I'll be sifting back through time and my own work to create a collage of female voices. A river. A young girl deciding to keep her baby. A teen facing a progressive neurological disorder. A 1983 graffiti artist living on the west side of the Berlin Wall. A teen facing a monster storm. I may read a poem or two.

If you're near, I hope to see you. It's free, but a RSVP is hoped for.


my Chicago Tribune review of Kristen Radtke's extraordinary graphic memoir, IMAGINE WANTING ONLY THIS

Thursday, April 13, 2017

You want to know what words and art can do? What a woman, seeking, finds? What ruins tell us about what is yet to come?

Then buy your copy of IMAGINE WANTING ONLY THIS, the exquisite graphic memoir I review this week in the Chicago Tribune.

My review, along with images from the book and an audioclip can be found here. This will be your best internet diversion of the day. Do it.


Music of the Ghosts/Vaddey Ratner: My Chicago Tribune Review

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

In today's Chicago Tribune I review Vaddey Ratner's novel of Cambodian loss and love, Music of the Ghosts. 

The entire review can be found here.


on finding and keeping an agent: a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania

Friday, April 7, 2017

I had the great pleasure of moderating a panel about the art of finding an agent at the University of Pennsylvania/Kelly Writers House this past Tuesday. We had a packed house. We talked about agent origin stories, the evolving ways in which we package our work, the things we've learned from agents we've loved, and the importance of honesty, transparency, and abiding enthusiasm in those who represent us. Agents, the panelists said in many different ways, are those who are genuinely there for us.

The panelists were Carmen Machado, Stephanie Feldman, Josh Getzler, Sara Sligar, and Janet Benton. The idea for the panel began with Julia Bloch. The packed house was well-fed by Jessica Lowenthal and team.

You can watch a video recording here.


how do you feel about birthdays?

Monday, April 3, 2017

Chanticleer Garden opened this week and there I was, with my camera on Sunday, looking for proof of continuing good things. The earth there is still green. The flowering trees are getting ready to rip. The stowed-away tropicals are in the greenhouse yet, waiting for (trusting in) their time.

And so must we.

"How do you feel about birthdays?" my son asked me, Saturday, when he called to celebrate mine.

"They make me melancholy," I said. He agreed. But, he said, I should look at it like this: Birthdays are that one day a year designed to remind us of our friendships. The people in our lives. The stories they tell. The ways they make us better people. You have a birthday and (in case you've been obsessing over far less important things) you remember the loves in your life.

My son had called first thing on Saturday morning. We talked for more than an hour. Then, just as he'd promised, the day began to take on a new shape as I was remembered, and I remembered.

I wasn't melancholy anymore. I was simply grateful.


THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU, GOING OVER, and ONE THING STOLEN now available for pennies

Saturday, April 1, 2017

And so this is April 1, April Fool's Day, also (doesn't it fit?) my birthday, and Chronicle has written to say that two of my books, THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU (my Jersey Shore monster storm mystery) and ONE THING STOLEN (which takes place in Florence, Italy, and West Philadelphia), are now available across all digital platforms for mere pennies (well, $1.99 and $.99 to be exact) for the entire month of April. It's part of the Chronicle Eye Candy e-book promotion, and I've promised to share the word.

This just in: The same is true for GOING OVER. So. My last three novels all available through April for less than $2.00.

So I am sharing the word as I wish all of you many flowers following the showers this early Spring.

Links below:

Apple iBookstore


Apple iBookstore
Google Play


behind the scenes at Ceramic Innovations and Essential Earth, at the Wayne Art Center

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Yesterday afternoon I stepped away from the thick of editing a new book to help Bill take new pieces to the international juried show, Ceramic Innovations. This show and the accompanying Essential Earth Invitational Exhibition are the brainchilds of Brett Thomas, our friend and teacher and all-around exquisite ceramicist.

Brett, who thinks about the plasticity of the earth and the countless ways it can be dug out and shaped, has been building toward these twinned exhibitions for years. He's been traveling the country in search of the finest clay practitioners and spending time in art studios for Essential Earth. He's been searching for just the right judge—Chris Gustin— for Innovations. He's been coordinating with the leaders of the Wayne Art Center, where Brett teaches and where international and regional shows are showcased year-round in two beautiful galleries. Brett has had a vision. It has been realized.

So there Bill and I were, dropping off Bill's work, and there was Anna O'Neill, the Wayne Art Center programs and exhibitions associate who brings her love of art, her academic training, and her gentle fortitude to the work that she does. Surrounded by crates and boxes and pedestals, charts and notes, she and her associate were at work turning so many gorgeous, individual clay creations into a unifying show.

I saw enough of those pieces to know that these will be two very special exhibitions. I invite you to join us all. These events are free.

Ceramic Innovations
2017 International Juried Ceramics Exhibition

Essential Earth
2017 International Invitational Ceramics Exhibition

April 1 - April 29, 2017
Artists' Talk, April 1, 3 - 5 PM
Arists' Reception, April 1, 5 - 7 PM
Wayne Art Center
413 Maplewood Avenue
Wayne, PA 19087


William Sulit ceramics selected for new international show, Ceramics Innovations

Monday, March 20, 2017

Readers of this blog know happy I am for my artist-husband as he continues to develop his ceramics work—and following. Recently Bill's work was selected for a new international show, Ceramics Innovations, which opens April 1 at the Wayne Art Center, in Wayne, PA. This event was masterminded by Brett Thomas and judged by Chris Gustin and Jim Lawton. It runs simultaneous with Essential Earth, a show featuring some of the most important working clay artists of our time, curated by Brett Thomas.

More about the show is here. Bill's selected work for this show is shown in the third image.


I Hear America Talking: My Memoir Interview, with Birtan Collier

Sunday, March 19, 2017

My conversation with Birtan Collier, on the I Hear America Talking radio show. Thoughts on the form itself (in today's anti-truth world) and on the method-behind-my-madness teaching, both at the University of Pennsylvania and at Juncture Workshops.

The link is here.


My shift in focus at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the art of stone (at Bryn Athyn)

Saturday, March 18, 2017

For a few years now I've had the privilege of writing a monthly photo-infused column for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The intersection of memory and place was my thing—essays that ultimately formed the core of Love: A Philadelphia Affair as well as a six-month display at the Philadelphia International Airport. 

But this year I've shifted my perspective. I'm thinking about the conjunction of art and humanity, community and hope, enduring traditions and endurance. I've written about the history of ice skating in our city, as well as my years at the Philadelphia Skating and Humane Society. I've spent time with the musicians who perform (so gorgeously) once a month at St. John's Presbyterian Church. And a week or so ago I visited the two stone masons who are restoring the Bryn Athyn Cathedral, finial by finial. They had much to say about seeing (and believing in) that which is not yet there.

At a time when communities are endangered and art is excised from proposed federal budgets, it is up to us, I think, to embrace and support those who quietly go about making, creating, and restoring beauty—not for personal gain, not for notoriety, but because something deep within them stirs. This is the kind of beauty that I will be writing about now, for as long as I'm given the room. I am blessed to share today the photos and words that arose from one windy day on a timeless campus.

The link to today's story is here.


sending Handling the Truth to the White House

Friday, March 17, 2017

... with genuine hope that a way will yet be found to lead our country forward with integrity, transparency, and a deep compassion for the people (all of us with our vastly different lives and leanings) who are America and the landscape (earth, water, air) that we share.

Empathy is more powerful, ultimately, than any Big Data set.

And truth is liberty.


Juncture Notes: sign up to receive our next issue (all issues) free

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Juncture Notes is our monthly newsletter on the art and heart of memoir. We ponder the writer's life, the hard and the right of true stories, the memoirs we can learn from.

In this coming issue we are featuring, among other things, the work of five of our readers who wrote on the topic of wonder.

If you're interested in becoming a subscriber to this free newsletter, please sign up here.


EXIT WEST and all the stories that have lately revived my hope

Mohsin Hamid's new novel, Exit West, holds the whole of our world on its blue (star-specked) palm. The story of hard-fisted regimes and near apocalypse, escapees and plundered landscapes, dark doors and possibilities, Exit West is the story, too, of People as illuminated by two particular people: the young lovers Nadia and Saeed. They meet at a time of crumbling infrastructures, raging drones, ID searches, random violence. They take up the journey (through these dark, mysterious, escape-hatch doors) together. They live among other immigrants in foreign lands in subsistence circumstances, and they try (they both do try) to retain the feelings they believe they have for one another throughout the raw rub of it all.

Global and intense and palpable, sprinkled with this necessary, never-intrusive magic, Exit West is hard-hitting and heart-hurting, but never, for an instant, cruel.

I will never look at another image of a dislocated refugee and not see Nadia or Saeed or their fellow travelers. I hope every American reads this book, every European, too, and that we all have the same response. That we act on it.

Over and over and over again, Hamid smashes the conundrum of love and life, home and homelessness with long, binary sentences and short words. He writes philosophy into action and within action he posits tenderness. He makes powerful use of the conjunction and the multiple, the crowded and the stop:

That night a rumor spread that over two hundred migrants had been incinerated when the cinema burned down, children and women and men, but especially children, so many children, and whether or not this was true, or any of the other rumors, of a bloodbath in Hyde Park, or in Earl's Court, or near the Shepherd's Bush roundabout, migrants dying in their scores, whatever it was that had happened, something seemed to have happened, for there was a pause, and the soldiers and police officers and volunteers, who had advanced into the outer edges of the ghetto pulled back, and there was no more shooting that night.

Two pages later, returning his focus to the two characters that shoulder his novel, Hamid writes:

Saeed for his part wished he could do something for Nadia, could protect her from what would come, even if he understood, at some level, that to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you. He thought she deserved better than this, but he could see no way out, for they had decided not to run, not to play roulette with yet another departure. To flee forever is beyond the capacity of most: at some point even a hunted animal will stop, exhausted, and await its fate, if only for a while.
How lucky I have been to spend the last few weeks reading and re-reading books that teach me. Books that have forced me to ask myself what it is I think I am doing with my writing life...and what I should be doing. Paul Lisicky's The Narrow Door (unspool time to find the truth). Dana Spiotta's Innocents and Others (the novel as document, the document as story). George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo (be unafraid to do the things that will, inevitably, be questioned). Paulette Jiles's News of the World (make history now, make details crackle). Claire Fuller's Swimming Lessons (there are always many sides to one story). Debbie Levy's Soldier Song (picture books, the best of them, are as smart and as well-researched as anything on the adult table). Vivian Gornick's The Odd Woman and the City (memoir is as much about what you've thought as about what you've done). Amor Towles' A Gentleman in Moscow (nothing wrong, nothing at all, with a good, old-fashioned hero set down inside a good, old-fashioned, finely told story).

Don't despair, my friends. Great art is still among us.

Today I creep back into my own writing life. Edits are arriving on a book due out next summer. Having been emptied and defeated for so long by the news, I am bolstered, ready, hopeful, again, about the power of story.


choosing less: my essay in Family Circle (April 2017)

Monday, March 13, 2017

So grateful to Darcy Jacobs and Family Circle for sharing these thoughts about more and less.


George Saunders, Paulette Jiles: excellence prevails (and what it teaches me about writing)

Thursday, March 9, 2017

This is spring break week at Penn. My students are off doing their mighty things and I miss them—their questions, their engagement, their enthusiasm, their appreciation for the fine writers they are reading and for the work their classmates present.

"What will you be doing during break?" asked Emily (one of my Emilys), as we were concluding our day with the great memoirist Paul Lisicky. (Words about what Paul taught us, and a video of his fabulous reading, here.)

"I think I might be writing," I said.

And I have. If you can call lifting, bricking, and gluing writing. I have (again) deconstructed and reconstructed a novel that has plagued and delighted me for three long years. Here is proof of how imprecise this writing process is: This particular novel began in first-person past tense, moved to an omniscient third person, was rearranged from flashback intensive to chronologically told, was written again as first person, was then written in a present-tense free indirect, and now, friends, yes: It is a first-person present-tense chronological telling. Wasted time? Not really. With every rendition, with every read, I came to know my characters more. I discovered the dark and light in their hearts.

We writers. We do persist.

But, Emily, beautiful Emily, I'm not just writing during our time apart. I'm reading. The two go hand-in-hand. I'm reading the best of the best because that's how I learn, because we teachers are always teaching ourselves. We're bowing down to those who have done what we imagine we ourselves could never do, and we ask ourselves: How did they do that?

How, for example, did George Saunders write the profound Lincoln in the Bardo? Willie Lincoln has died, President Lincoln has come to the grave to visit, and the ghosts are all astir. Can we call them ghosts? Not really. They are those who have died and who have paused on their way to the next and final stop. They watch the president arrive. They mass together, float together, skim-walk. They have regrets about the ways they lived, about the things they'll never do. They wonder whether it is fair to have been condemned to be the people that they were. Are?

Reading Lincoln in the Bardo is like sitting on a stage in a theater in the round and having the actors perform in the seats around you. Reading Lincoln is like standing in for a hologram. It's bawdy, gorgeous, kind, tender, funny. It is supremely beautiful, pressing in from all sides. It is a story that took Saunders several years to write, yet a story that feels so at ease with itself that a reader can't imagine any struggle at all. Here's a passage, a bit of Bardo conversation by the grave. These characters would like a life do-over. Wouldn't we all?
Did I murder Elmer? the woman said.

You did, said the Brit.

I did, said the woman. Was I born with just those predispositions and desires that would lead me, after my whole preceding life (during which I had killed exactly no one), to do just that thing? I was. Was that my doing? Was that fair? Did I ask to be born licentious, greedy, slightly misanthropic, and to find Elmer so irritating? I did not. But there I was.

And here you are, said the Brit.

Here I am, quite right, she said.
Goodness, that's fine stuff. It's proof, like the work of Dana Spiotta (whose new Innocents and Others I celebrate here), that you can write way the heck out of expected forms and still land on the most humane story of all. That's not just a lesson for novelists, my friends. That's a lesson for memoirists. That's a lesson for people in general.

Now I turn to News of the World by Paulette Jiles, a National Book Award finalist, a worthy one. In a recent Guardian essay, "What Writers Really Do When They Write," Saunders wrote of the power of successive edits, the incremental discovery of a story and its heroes through the act of changing this imprecise word for that better word, for adding this found detail into a sort-of-nothing spot. Jiles, in this fabulous historical novel, offers example upon example of the right word, found:
The girl still didn't move. It takes a lot of strength to sit that still for that long. She sat upright on the bale of Army shirts which were wrapped in burlap, marked in stencil for Fort Belknap. Around her were wooden boxes of enamel washbasins and nails and smoked deer tongues packed in fat, a sewing machine in a crate, fifty-pound sacks of sugar. Her round face was flat in the light of the lamp and without shadows, or softness. She seemed carved.
I have more to share. I'm on a roll. I'll soon be reading Amor Towles's A Gentleman in Moscow, and after that some Vivian Gornick and after that Tim Winton, and I won't be done. We can't be done. Not with this.

Reading to write. Reading to live. That's what I'm doing, dear Emily.


in the language of reconciliation (and how to write a memoir): Paul Lisicky visits Penn

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

In the course of one week, I've been miraculously uplifted by two writers of annealing generosity and talent. There was Dana Spiotta at Bryn Mawr College last week. There was Paul Lisicky at my own University of Pennsylvania yesterday.

Glimmer. Gleam. Resurgence.

Paul came to speak with our students about his gorgeous memoir The Narrow Door. For more than two hours in the afternoon he stood at that lectern at the Kelly Writers House cafe and answered questions from those (Julia Bloch's students, my students) who had carefully read and wholly embraced his work. He spoke of emotional time, which trumps, in literature, chronology. He suggested the power of staring directly at that thing that you must see...and then turning away, to breathe. He spoke of writing until patterns reveal themselves, about inquiry nudging plot, about learning to work with uncertainty—about learning, indeed, that uncertainty does not necessarily diminish a coherent world view. He spoke of scenes bound together by images, of the responsibility not to replicate memories but to be active with them, to unspool the question; What does that memory have to teach me? Asked about the management and selection of detail, Paul spoke of reverberations, of the need for any chosen detail to deliver far more than the facts.

The Narrow Door, Paul said, is his archive of ongoingness. Writing the book forced him to be attentive at a time of dissolution and personal loss. It was, Paul said, a bit like falling in love again. "It kept me awake and alive at a time when I felt logy."

"You can't expose other people without opening up about yourself," Paul said. "You need self-implication, confrontation, inquiry. You need to ask questions about your own complicity in the story, in the scenes." Readers, Paul reminded us, can only participate in a story if there is no distance, if one has written toward the emotional heat of an experience.

Emotional heat.

Later, as a warm rain fell on a darkening campus, Paul returned to that lectern and read from The Narrow Door, and there it was again: his inarguable talent, his way of seeing, his ushering of us into his spell. Raw and real. That's what it was. That's where beauty and humanity live.

Greatness is community, it is a web. Julia Bloch, who directs our Creative Writing program at Penn so immaculately, said yes at once when I asked if Paul might come to visit us at Penn. Our students invested in his story. Our Penn people (and a dear friend of mine) made the evening come alive by what? By being there. The Kelly Writers House was, as it always is, a gracious host.

My students will soon be off for their spring break. They are driving across the country, singing in Florida, spending a few days in LA, going and being and doing—and thinking about, perhaps even writing some lines of, their own memoirs. Be safe, I say. Pay attention. Expectations and subversions. The world is open to you.

Paul's public reading was recorded. That link is live.


Innocents and Others/Dana Spiotta: She'll leave you exhilarated

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Long before my son enrolled in Dana Spiotta's undergraduate fiction workshops at Syracuse University, I was a Spiotta fan. No need for proof. I was.

You can't blame me, though, for confessing that my affection for Spiotta deepened as I learned more about her from my son. She's just really great, he'd say, repeatedly. She just makes stories fun. Saunders was fun. Critiques were fun. Spiotta's workshops were fun. I'd spent much of my motherhood hoping my son would make room for my kind of literature. And there was Dana Spiotta, liberating that kind of love.

Readers of this blog know that, in 2011, I declared Spiotta's Stone Arabia the book of that year, and that by many other estimations, I was right. Those who happened to be at a certain Phillip Lopate reading at Bryn Mawr College last year heard me gasp when Dan Torday (who managed to write this novel while creating and managing this exceptional series) announced that Dana Spiotta would be a Bryn Mawr guest in February 2017.

(Novella artist Cyndi Reeves was there. She heard me gasp.)

Given the history, you'd think I'd have been prepared for the Dana Spiotta I did in fact meet last Wednesday, but I was not remotely prepared. For her easy embrace of near strangers. For her willingness to confide about structure, process, economy, the pursuits of her immense intelligence. For her enormously endearing magic trick of not behaving like the most important person in the room.

Sure, as Spiotta noted during her time at Bryn Mawr, we all curate ourselves, whittle ourselves into the moment. But there's no faking Spiotta's brand of deep-leaning generosity.

Nor is there any denying the almost giddy power of Innocents and Others, Spiotta's newest novel. Recently nominated for the LA Book Prize, Innocents is a profound miracle—a mash up of artifactual nerdiness, filmic obsession, and unforeseen but somehow perfectly logical collisions of characters and ideas. I have no desire to try to describe this book, because the point is: it must be experienced. It must be yielded to on a cold winter day, when it's only you, the couch, the book, and a blanket. Ambition and fabules, listening and seeing, isolation and enduring friendships—you'll find it all here, alongside the arcane and the pop. You'll find riffs (and they don't for one second interfere with the novel's pacing) on rare facts of real life like body listening. This is a section taken from early in the book, from the POV of a woman who calls herself Jelly. Jelly practices the art of phone seduction:
It was when you surrendered to a piece of music or a story. By reclining and closing your eyes, you could respond without tracking your response. You listened. The opposite were the people who started to speak the second someone finished talking or playing or singing. They practically overlapped the person because they were so excited to render their thoughts into speech. They couldn't wait to get their words into it and make it theirs. They couldn't stand the idea of not having a part in it. They spent the whole experience formulating their response, because their response is the only thing they value.
Here, later on in the book, are thoughts about being an artist:
It is partly a confidence game. And partly magic. But to make something you also need to be a gleaner. What is a gleaner? Well, it is a nice word for a thief, except you take what no one wants. Not just unusual ideas or things. You look closely at the familiar to discover what everyone else overlooks or ignores or discards.
My friend Thomas Devaney was at the reading last Wednesday night. He had Spiotta's novel in his hand, but no words for it. It's just that good. It's just that wise. There's no actual point in talking about it.

Buy it, please, and read.


Juncture Notes 12, set for release

Thursday, February 23, 2017

In Juncture Notes, our free monthly newsletter, we celebrate classic and contemporary memoirs, the making of the form, memoir prompts, and the work of our readers.

Sign up here.


Pretending is Lying/Dominique Goblet: New York Journal of Books Review

My thoughts on a most-interesting new graphic memoir, in today's New York Journal of Books. Full review can be found here.


when music and community are our shelter: Musicalia, in the Philadelphia Inquirer

Saturday, February 18, 2017

I keep searching for beauty. It is our imperative. To keep finding the best of ourselves, the humanity within ourselves, the tenderness, the good.

And so I spent a few hours last Friday listening to the Musicalia Ensemble rehearse for its upcoming performance at St. John's Presbyterian Church—a free concert of international folk music, to be held at St. John's in Devon, PA, this Sunday 5 PM. I wrote about Iris, the piano-playing Cuban musician who created this exquisite series, and the Harvey sisters, whose cello and violin further elevate it, and the dedication to song that binds a community in need of a non-rancorous hour.

That story appears in this Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer.

All are welcome.


The Ever-Present Past: E.B. White and Terrence des Pres

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Today my creative nonfiction students at the University of Pennsylvania shifted my mood, as they do. Their tough-tender souls, their velocity of ideas, their endearing capacity for listening, their well-wrought, thoroughly considered words. Their nouns and verbs outpacing their adjectives and adverbs. Their piano melodies. These young people respect the work and one another; that's transparent. They put their souls into their words; I cheer them on. They do unexpected things elaborately well without ever getting precious in the process. 

We're talking about time in memoir this semester. Our conversation today turned to the ways that E.B. White, in his classic "Once More to the Lake," taps eternal weather and landscape to freeze and elongate the past, to windmill the present, to take us (tragically, beautifully) to a time that isn't but (in memory) is.

I promised the students that I would share this essay, which I created for my memoir video series, when I got home. So here I am, home, and here this is, for any of you who are reminiscing today, for any of you in a mood for words.

On Valentine's Day, the gift of memoir
EPISODE 6: The Ever-Present Past
(excerpted from my memoir video series)

E.B. White, “Once More to the Lake,” Essays of E.B. White
Terrence des Pres, “Memory of Boyhood,” Writing into the World

In his beloved essay “Once More to the Lake,” first published in Harper’s magazine in 1941, E.B. White recreates summers once spent as a boy near a lake by returning to the same terrain with his son.

At first the trip is speculation, a question White has about “how time would have marred this unique, this holy spot—the coves and streams, the hills that the sun set behind, the camps and the paths behind the camps.”

But once arrived, White settles in and discovers that the past is sensationally near. The past can be seen, smelled, touched. It is the first morning. White is lying in bed, “smelling the bedroom and hearing the boy sneak quietly out and go off along the shore in a boat.” He begins “to sustain the illusion that he was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father.”

It’s a tantalizing thought. A pleasant confusion. And now a vague, lovely timelessness sets in, only sometimes disturbed, say, by a noticeable change in the tracks of a road and the “unfamiliar, nervous sound of the outboard motor.” And yet, White allows the clocks to stand still, the illusion to hold, the dizziness to set in when, as he fishes with his son, he doesn’t “know which rod I was at the end of.”

“Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end….,” White writes. Persuasively.

But how long can we stop the clocks when we are living? How long can we pretend now is then? How long can we carry the comforting illusions in our head, the gentle perturbations? What brings us back to our own selves, our aging skins? For White it is a thunderstorm—a revival of familiar weather, everything the same about it, at that same lake, boyhood/manhood indivisible—White’s son takes his wet trunks from the line and pulls “around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment” and it is then, only then, that the years pass quickly in White’s fugue state, when he is reminded that he is a father now, that he is mortal, that time has passed, that time is always passing. As his son buckles the belt, White writes, “suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.”

The illusion has been pleasing. White’s illusion has, over the course of those brief pages, been our own. He has made time stand still by professing persuasive confusion about what time is, about who we are, about age itself, about the tremors of youth. He has made us young again by returning us to a younger version of himself. We have been grateful. And we have been shocked, with him, by a reminder of this: Time does not stop.

In the very final pages of Terrence des Pres’s collection of essays Writing into the World, time is held in the balance once more, but by a very different strategy on the page. Here, in “Memory of Boyhood,” a reflection on des Pres’s fishing days as a child in Missouri first published in Sports Illustrated in 1973, des Pres begins by acknowledging that he is not the boy he once was. “I no longer fish,” he writes, “and the boy who did is twenty years into the past.”

And yet, des Pres says, “memories of that time come constantly to mind. They return to me, or I to them, as if they were my source, a keel of sanity in a world more gnarled and rotted than—at a right-angle bend in the river—the gigantic pile of driftwood and tree trunks we used to call Snake City.”

Boyhood. Summertime. Water. Fish. Des Pres, like White in “Once More,” is recreated, renewed by the primeval. He is washed back into time. He sees, as he travels on, “a boy heading down to the river,” where, “with cane pole and worms” he would catch his fish.

That boy heading down to the river is now a third-person character. He is becoming nearly fictive. He is a dream sustained by memory. He is not des Pres, but he could not exist without des Pres. He is true, because he was. He is false, because he is no more.

We walk with him. Through the haze, toward the banks and fish, to the hours most loved: “He loved best to take his fly rod—a ferruled cane pole to which he’d wired eyes and a reel—and start for the river at dawn. To enter the wet gray stillness of day before sunrise.”

We remain within this ineluctable fiction, this timeless glory, until des Pres snaps his authorial fingers and brings us back to now. “The boy, of course, is myself,” he writes, “a self more vital, compact, pure, like wood within the inmost ring of a tree whose life has reached to many rings.”

The story continues, but now the third person is left behind in favor of first person. We learn more and more about the fishing of des Pres’s youth; the fishing becomes more treacherous, more gory, even brutal. Des Pres remarks on the savagery. He shows it to us. He suggests that “Joy was what counted, the rush of deep delight that came, I think, from rites that for a million years kept men living and in touch with awe.” He ends with this:

“That was the blessing of boyhood. It depended on a way of life now largely vanished and to which in any case I cannot return. Perhaps that is why I no longer fish. Except in memory, a grace that is lost stays lost.”

Des Pres, unlike White, will not return to those Missouri banks. He will see himself through the veil of a third-person telling. He will yearn for the self “more vital, compact, pure, like wood within the inmost ring of a tree.”

White and des Pres, in very different ways, have returned us to childhood. White by physically returning to the site of his boyhood and by creating an elastic envelope of time in which a father is a son, or a son is a father. Des Pres by concentrating his boyhood, by wringing it free of all but the sweet myth, by making himself a known fiction, by preserving the memory by submitting to the possibility that a grace that is lost stays lost. Neither writer pokes holes through the piece with dialogue. Both stay rooted in the primeval—the haze and the sun, the water and the fish.

All of which returns me to you: What are the components of your elemental past? What is your sun and your haze? Do you believe in the elasticity of time? If you were to write of your most primeval self, who would that self be? The third person girl you can just barely see through the neural fog? Or the little boy who sits beside you while you’re listening to me?

Find a quiet place. Grab a keyboard or a pen. Take yourself back to another time and write the elemental you.

Write it in past tense. Write it in present. Write it in first person. Write it in second or third.

Somewhere in there is the story you must tell.


what difference does it make to writers if public figures deny responsibility for their own actions?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

At Penn this semester I'm teaching memoir, as I do (until next spring, when I'll be teaching the art of literary middle grade and young adult fiction). But I am also overseeing two adult linked short stories projects, a responsibility that has me working very hard to ensure that I bring more than intuition and experience, preference and instinct to these young writers. It doesn't actually matter that I, years ago, published many short stories or that I publish novels with young protagonists at their heart or that I have reviewed, for papers like the Chicago Tribune, many collections of stories. A deep grounding in the history of critique is also a prerequisite for this teaching job, I think. Readers' guides for well-chosen works. Deep dives into craft books and craft conversations.

When we say yes to doing something, anything, we have to commit to doing it fully. And so, I read, take notes, suggest, and ponder.

This week while reading Charles Baxter's immaculate Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, I came across these words:
What difference does it make to writers of stories if public figures are denying their responsibility for their own actions? So what if they are, in effect, refusing to tell their own stories accurately? So what if the President of the United States is making himself out to be, of all things, a victim? Well, to make an obvious point, they create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading. Such narratives humiliate the act of storytelling. You can argue that only a coherent narrative can manage to explain public events, and you can reconstruct a story if someone says, "I made a mistake," or We did that." You can't reconstruct a story—you can't even know what the story is—if everybody is saying, "Mistakes were made." Who made them? Everybody made them and no one did, and it's history anyway, so let's forget about it. Every story is a history, however, and when there is no comprehensible story, there is no history. The past, under these circumstances, becomes an unreadable mess.
Incredible words, right? Written as if they erupted just yesterday, but they did not. Burning Down the House was first published in the 1990s, and Baxter begins this chapter, called "Dysfunctional Narratives," by talking about Richard M. Nixon.

What am I saying? Why I am putting this here? Because I suspect that the exhaustion so many of us are feeling right now is at least partially bound up with our sense of extreme confusion regarding the narrative we are watching unfold. How do we keep pace with it, untangle it, read it, learn from it, responsibly act on it, and keep moving in our own daily lives? How, especially, if so much of what is happening now rocks us with its strange familiarity (to use another concept Baxter later explores)? But weren't we here, already, once? Are we repeating our past?

Writers have responsibilities. As parents. As partners. As friends. As teachers. As assemblers and testers of narratives. As entertainers. As chroniclers of human (non-partisan, non-polarizing, finally binding) beauty. We are called upon to pay ever closer attention, and fatigue sets in.

And then we pick up a book by a writer like Charles Baxter. We think about what we will teach and how we will write. How we will carry the wisdom forward and on.

We carry forward, too, by the grace and goodness of friends. That work of art, that EXPLORE, in my office window there, in the photo here, was the gift of a Juncture memoir writer named Tracey Yokas. It has sat here, Tracey, right here, where I daily see it, since the moment I brought it home.

A sign of goodness. An unconfused narrative. Explore. Keep going. We can do this.


Janet Benton and Jill Santopolo: in times of chaos and concern, we need to honor one another's dreams

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The world is tilting. It is noisy and unsettled, roiling and in need of us, and we respond as we can, when we can, how.

In the midst of this now, we can't forget to honor each other. Our individual lives and ambitions matter just as much as they always did. Our dreams are still our dreams.

And so today I am sharing news of two adult debut novels—books that unfurled over the space of many years in the imaginations of two friends.

Janet Benton's Lilli de Jong (on sale in May from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) is the story of a goodhearted 19th-century Quaker who finds herself pregnant and without choices. Giving birth to her child in a charity for unwed mothers, Lilli refuses to abandon the little girl to an unknown fate, a decision that leaves mother and child in increasingly desperate straits. What doors will open to a smart, decent young woman with an infant in her arms? What compromises will Lilli make to keep the two alive? Where is kindness found?

I had a wonderful time reading Janet's book. It returned me to Philadelphia institutions that have fueled my own imagination and writing—that home for unwed mothers, the Blockley Almshouse, the clanging Baldwin Locomotives neighborhood, the Historic Rittenhousetown, the streets of Germantown, the marketplaces. Janet's research shows on every page, as does her deep understanding of motherhood and choice making, trust and its opposite. Lilli is a character you will root for and despair with, a writer (for Lilli is a writer and we are reading her diary pages) who crafts old Philadelphia like this:
Perhaps from gladness at escaping that harangue and at remembering how everyone is vulnerable to hardship, a tenderness welled up in me toward all the living. I found a stillness within our transitory state, relishing the passing folk intent on business or recreation, and loving the familiar clip-clop of horses, freshly curried and brushed, as they pulled grocery wagons house to house, stopping to deliver milk or ice or bread. The odors of meals escaped through windows, and hunger cut into me.
Jill Santopolo's The Light We Lost (on sale in May from G.P. Putnam's Sons) is a book about right now, a story about a woman's undying love for the man who knows and loves her best, but is never quite hers. This is a novel steeped in the melancholy of what might have been, a narrator who writes of her personal history from a suffused and brokenhearted present. This is a story that ponders the porous and saturating nature of love—the lines that can't be crossed, the lines that are, nonetheless, crossed. It is a novel of what if's, and it can't be helpeds. Lucy cannot rewrite the past, and maybe she doesn't want to rewrite or negate the past, even if the past hurts, even if the present cannot free her from her past. Short chapters, look back and ahead at once:
Sometimes we make decisions that seem right at the time, but later, looking back, were clearly a mistake. Some decisions are right even in hindsight. Even though everyone told me not to, and even knowing what happened afterward, I'm still glad I moved in with you that snowy day in January.
Why is it that books that break our hearts are books we love to read? Jill's book raises this question again, in all of the best ways.


Juncture Workshops and the voices of some of those remarkable writers we've met along the way

Monday, February 6, 2017

Last year, Bill and I launched Juncture Workshops—on a farm, by the sea. Our dream was to bridge truth to landscape, language to story, and writers to writers. All of that happened, almost miraculously. But what also happened is this: We met people who forever changed our lives.

Authentic souls.

Deep readers.

Outstanding writers.

Storytellers who had us laughing helplessly one minute and tearing up (gigantically) the next.

We're conducting four more workshops in 2017. Our newly updated web site shares the specifics on those workshops as well as images from our first gatherings. The site also unveils the faces and voices of many of those who bravely said yes to our bridge-building scheme.

With gratitude to each of them, we present the writers here, on this link


language as community: a morning spent among writers in the age of alternative facts

Sunday, February 5, 2017

I should have gotten up and gone to the front of the room and taken a real photo. One that honestly mirrored the rows upon rows (Lin-Manuel Miranda style) of those who had come together at the Institute of Contemporary Art during the hours of brunch on a cloudy Sunday to ask: How do we move from resistance to positing a more just society? And: How do we #writeourdemocracy? And: What do we do to capitalize upon the energy we have found, live and palpable, within each other? And: What can writers do that others can't? And: What must writers do that others might not?

But I didn't stand up. I was rooted in my chair—learning from lifelong advocates, taking a lesson or two in the awful art of gerrymandering, jotting notes on resources like Indivisible, and thinking about my own responsibilities as a woman who has fought, in her books and essays and teaching, on behalf of beauty and transcending purpose.

Writers make room for the dreams of others. Writers harness, to quote Nic Esposito and Linda Gallant from The Head and The Hand Press, the power of entertainment to create meaningful change. Writers are most effective when they tell the truth or when they imagine wholly and when they do not scream. Sometimes writers are at their very best when they offer a respite from the world—a metaphor's remove from the harrowing now, a chance to breathe freely again.

Over the course of two hours that could have stretched to many more, the writers in that room today (led by Nathaniel Popkin and Stephanie Feldman) discussed possibilities—questions, issues, tactics, strategies, resources. I am listing some of the primary elements of that conversation here. We're hoping they inspire you. To find out more about anything listed here, join this email list, and ask questions, make suggestions, say yes to what feels right to you.

Many Philadelphia writers have a felt responsibility to incorporate historic city texts into the conversations that swirl today. As part of that process, work is underway to publish the Philadelphia freedom texts that were read on January 15th during the WritersResistPHL gathering (more that gathering here). Interested in researching and sharing and, indeed, applying additional texts? Ask questions.

Many writers are concerned about purported proposals that would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Those who would like to participate in drafting a petition or speaking to representatives or framing the importance of the arts to legislators or patrons have an opportunity to get involved.

The Philadelphia-area writers traveling to the AWP conference in Washington, DC, hope to put on a united front—to get to know each other, to advocate with each other, to make a difference together. If you're planning on spending time at the AWP and would like to help organize a united front, check in through the email list.

Philadelphia-area writers and artists and musicians seeking to strengthen the power of their art and the utility of their concerns would benefit from collaboration and conversation with other similar groups across the city and nation. Start or join a conversation about linking your actions/our actions to the work of others via the list.

On April 1, on the Widener campus, an undergraduate-focused Writers Resist program will feature the voices of the young from campuses across our area. If you are a teacher or a parent who knows of undergraduates who would like to read or speak (or if you are an undergraduate!), ask questions.

Every protest march, every protest poster, is ultimately local. Politics happens on a local level, too—through locally elected representatives. Gerrymandering, in the words of the non-partisan organization Fair Districts PA—results in "politicians ... choosing their voters, rather than voters choosing their politicians." One of the most important acts of change will come from those who effectively speak up and out with the tools provided through this organization. There are resources out there. Ask.

If we're going to speak or write or be active, we have to have the facts. Many texts, articles, resources were noted today. If you were one of those sharing links, please share them via the list. If you have additional links to share, please do add those as well.

Many literary journals and bloggers have platforms through which to speak, or platforms from which they might now speak. Among those discussed at today's meeting were Cleaver, which offers a "Life as Activism" segment, the Shockwire Chapbook series developed by The Head & The Hand Press, and mainstream publications. Additionally, there is the Write Our Democracy program, noted above, created by the national WritersResist program—an opportunity for you to write an immigrant's story.

What do writers do? They write. Who can writers help, on a volunteer basis? Those who need some writing done. There are resources out there listing organizations in fields ranging from science and the environment to health care and immigration that could all use a voluntary press corps. If you'd like to help with this, or if you are an organization in need, let your interests be known.

Independent bookstores are sanctuaries, no matter the time of day or the season. But such bookstores have a special role to play today. If you are interested in helping bookstores develop material that might be shared with patrons, get involved.

Many individual writers and artists are hosting speakers, unveiling new exhibits, and launching books at this time—all opportunities to go beyond the typical book launch or lecture or show to bring people together and raise funds for the greater good. If you would like to help manage or create a single listing of such events, please ask questions on the Facebook page. If you would like to help develop a tool kit that might be disseminated at signings and events, please let us know.

Writers will only be effective as a group if the group mirrors our societies as a whole. Today we heard from two women who have embarked on a project designed to help them truly know each other. But what more can be done to ensure that the group that gathered today is sufficiently diverse in all ways? We'd love your ideas.

There was, believe me, more said and proposed and hoped for today. But this, I think, gets us started. I'll conclude this blog posting the way our meeting ended, with words by Calvino, as read to us by Ann de Forest, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium, written in 1985. Excerpting from the excerpt: "Think what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own, but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic......."


A VOYA Perfect Ten 2016: THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU (and kind reviews)

Saturday, February 4, 2017

I have become, like so many of you, a close watcher of the news. A woman waking up, panicked, in the middle of the night, wondering what will happen next to our communities, our environment, our economy, our trust in one another, our understanding of true versus false.

Returning from a birthday meal with my father, I checked in again, on the headlines. I didn't expect to find (within my email) news of the personal sort.

But, goodness, I am grateful for it. Thank you, VOYA, for the Perfect Ten 2016 citation. I quote here from the letter:

... This Is the Story of You—has been awarded the distinction of being a VOYA Perfect Ten 2016.  Each year, VOYA Magazine compiles reviews of titles that were awarded a 5Q and a 5P into our annual Perfect Tens list.  VOYA’s unique rating system is the only one that weighs both literary quality and teen appeal equally, a distinction that is of great interest and use to those charged with ordering and collecting reading materials for teens.

This list is relied upon by librarians and educators around the country (and the world) in their selection of titles to add to library and classroom collections.  It is an invaluable tool to our readership, and a lofty honor to those authors and publishers whose titles are selected.

The full reviews of all of the Perfect Ten honorees are included in ordering databases/systems of some of the largest book wholesalers and library jobbers in the country, for both public and school libraries.  The complete listing of this year’s Perfect Ten reviews will be available to all on our website (, including the full reviews and book cover graphics.  VOYA will be publicizing this year’s list via Facebook and Twitter. We are also publishing these reviews in our sister journal, Teacher Librarian.

As reviews editor, I understand how difficult it is for a title to receive a perfect 10 rating from one of our reviewers.  In fact, out of more than 1,100 titles reviewed last year, only 33 titles were awarded this honor.  That’s less than 3% of all titles reviewed.  Our reviewers are cautioned to consider and re-consider a number of issues before deciding on a 5Q 5P rating assignment for a book.  It is not a designation given lightly—nor is it given by novices.  Our reviewers are seasoned library and education professionals who work directly with young adult readers and have a broad base of understanding and appreciation for YA literature.

In sum, a VOYA Perfect Ten is a laudable accomplishment that very few titles can claim.  Congratulations again, and thank you for allowing VOYA to be part of celebrating your outstanding contribution to YA literature.

I would like to take this moment in time to thank as well Florinda and Sarah for their extremely kind reviews/citations of Story. The 3R's blog had this to say. Sarah Laurence, meanwhile, named Story one of the Best Contemporary YA novels of the year, here.

We live in bracing times. These acts of kindness, toward a story I wrote, are welcome glimmers of light.


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