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.


not losing; not remaining lost (writing back into the world)

Saturday, January 28, 2017

For many of us, these are difficult days. The news is a barrage, and we spin. Fingers in dikes. Calls to friends. Writers Resists. Private little sit downs. On what do we focus? And how?

Last year was a strange time for me in many ways. I'd trusted what had not earned my trust. I'd relinquished momentum, and hope. Between the personal and the political, I felt the world seize up, and it remained seized up for far too long.

One can remain lost, or one can fight to regain one's footing. In swelling uncertainty, I turned at last to books—reading into the stacks that had accumulated around this house (a reading binge that I wrote of here). I turned, too, to the class I teach at Penn (memoir) and to two semester-long student projects on short fiction; one must prepare, one must read deeply, one must sit and helpfully (peaceably) think. Finally, then, I returned to writing, something I had to remember how to do. It's always like that, with writing and me. I have to remember how it gets done.

I rewrote a novel, word by word, and it is so much better than it was. I reconfigured a long-standing project and began to talk with an editor about its shape. I condensed a book I'd been writing into an essay I sold. I returned to a second, fledgling novel and wrote it through in a mad three AM daze. Wrote that book inspired by someone, for someone, with an abiding sense of purpose.Wrote it, and it made me happy; it was (again) a form of peace.

We can't control so much of our lives, but we can shape, at least in part, how we spend our time, our love, our thoughts. We can hold onto the negative, or we can burst through—shaping stories, giving stories, building communities. We achieve little when we stay inside the darkness. We live when we don't remain lost. Focused within ourselves, we can then focus on the news and decide just what we'll do, who we'll be, how we will manage the barrage.


the Us of Us at Writers Resist

Monday, January 16, 2017

"Friday the Thirteenth," was written in 1970 by Allen Ginsberg. Hillary Clinton made her remarks for the United Nations 4th World Conference on Women in 1995. Jameson Fitzpatrick wrote "I Woke Up" in 2016, and Toni Morrison published Beloved in 1987, and Octavius V. Catto and others prepared the Address of the Colored State Convention to the People of Pennsylvania in 1865, and James Baldwin released The Fire Next Time in 1963, and Che Guevera offered his thoughts in Socialism and Man in Cuba in 1963, and Mia Mingus wrote "Wherever You Are is Where I Want to Be: Crip Solidarity," and then there was Langston Hughes in 1936, with "Let America Be America Again."

You put your heart down on a page, the long excursion of your worries, your cracked skies of hope, your insistence, your chides, and then you put your name beneath those words, and finally you say: Here. This is for you. Take.

Yesterday at the National Museum of American Jewish History, in my city of often raucous love, as part of the worldwide #Writers Resist initiative, the words crafted by others became the words of Us, and by Us I mean the three dozen writers and producers and musicians and editors who took the stage. I mean the Us who crowded that standing-room-only auditorium, breathless and leaned into and moved. I mean the Us who came wrapped in the arms of parents and those who strolled or wheeled in and those who didn't know what they were getting into and those who had no idea who might come. Would anybody come? We were Us yesterday, and the words we shared belong to Us, and we claimed them, not for our own individual advancement, not to be a lit star, not to curry praise for our inspired performance, our own ingenious orchestrations of words, but because Us is the legacy we share, the legacy we must carry forward if we are to be decent and good and wide thinking and effective and, yes, that word again, inclined toward hope.

Forgive me, writers, but at times, is this not true?: We take the stage, we stand beneath the lights, and we want outcomes for ourselves. We want to be remembered for and as ourselves, taken seriously for and as ourselves, asked, for and as ourselves, to sign the books waiting in the lobby. Our books. With our names right there on the pretty covers. But that wasn't writers yesterday. Yesterday we remembered that our first job, always, is empathy. Our first responsibility is to slide inside the wrappings of others and imagine ourselves to be them, and so we did, and I will never forget the feeling that I had, the feeling that you gave me yesterday, of sitting there and briefly standing there, and transcending.

Thank you, all of you. Thank you, Nathaniel Popkin and Stephanie Feldman and Alicia Askenase, for bringing us together. Thank you, PEN America and Erin Belieu, for bringing the power of the word to the people.

Now we continue on.


Dear Mr. Springsteen:

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Later today I'll be joining with three dozen other writers and artists and editors and lovers of language in my city, Philadelphia, to read your words on behalf of Writers Resist. I'll invoke the authentic, there's only one of you you, I promise. Thank you for giving us words to hold onto.

When the way is dark and the night is cold
One sunny mornin' we'll rise I know
And I'll meet you further on up the road.....


"Original Philadelphian": an indepth interview with Joe Glantz

Monday, January 9, 2017

I've spent time talking with Joe Glantz through the years. Reading his funny, history-fueled quips. Remarking on his range of quotable thoughts. And so I was happy to sit and answer these beautiful questions on books that span the whole of my career—memoir, essays, novels for young readers, a corporate fable, that autobiography of a river, teaching. We talk about process, hope, and the young people who inspire me. We talk about silence and its opposite.

It's all here, with thanks to Joe Glantz. Check out the whole series here.


Writers Resist: To Speak for all Americans, with Compassion

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Many of us are wondering how to speak. How to gracefully and meaningfully, with sincere compassion, express our concerns about rising hate crimes, disingenuous distortions, and threatened curtailments of First Amendment rights.

Recently, PEN America, under the leadership of Erin Belieu, crafted an initiative called Writers Resist, an event that will bring writers and artists from across the country together on a single Sunday afternoon in cities across America. In New York, American poets Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove will kick off an event featuring writers ranging from Colum McCann and Rick Moody to Jason Reynolds, Esmeralda Santiago, Andrew Solomon, Jacqueline Woodson, Meg Wolitzer, and many more. In Philadelphia, thanks to the leadership of Nathaniel Popkin, Stephanie Feldman, and Alicia Askenase, a group of remarkable writers will likewise lend their voices to this cause.

I am very honored to be among those writers. To share the literature of our beautifully diverse nation alongside Ron Silliman, Lauren Grodstein, Liz Moore, Thomas Devaney, Jon McGoran, Carmen Machado, Dan Biddle, Lorene Carey, Lise Funderburg, Nic Esposito, the three organizers, and so many others.

I know I will learn a lot that day. I plan to listen, closely. We hope that you will share word of this event, whatever city you are in, and join us, if you can.

Philadelphia Writers Resist
National Museum, American-Jewish History
5th and Market Streets
January 15, 2017
2:30 - 5:00 PM


STORY OF YOU a Top Ten NJ Book (alongside Bruce Springsteen)

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Okay. It's my blog, so I get to do this. It's a new year and I will try to behave, posting things of general interest far more than I post about myself. But friends, I must take a minute and present unto you this:

My name is in a Top Ten Books list alongside the name of the Boss.

You don't believe me? I hardly believe myself. But here is This Is the Story of You so generously included in a top NJ books list at NJ.Com. I've got a link and everything.

Thank you, New Jersey. Thank you. And thank you, Lara Starr of Chronicle for letting me know.


"Nobody reads" and book excellence (beware: multiple titles are herein celebrated)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

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 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 Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey. Handed to me in a Frenchtown bookstore (Book Garden), by my friend Caroline, the store's co-owner, this gem has sat here waiting for me, and oh my gosh, once I began, I could not stop. Truly exceptional creative nonfiction and utterly lovely details about the snail. And time. And illness. And solitude. I am in love with this book.
When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats, and whens and their impossibly distant kin how. The search is exhaustive; the answers elusive. Sometimes my mind went blank and listless; at other times it was flooded with storms of thought, unspeakable sadness, and intolerable loss.
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."


seeking end-of-year perspective, from 95 feet above the city

Saturday, December 24, 2016

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.


when the big book of the moment is not your cup of tea, but a gem of an essay collection is

Thursday, December 22, 2016

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.


setting politics aside in favor of community

Thursday, December 15, 2016

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.


a most extraordinary review of THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU

Monday, December 5, 2016

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.

My favorite words from the review:

What I enjoy so much about Beth Kephart's books is the depth of emotion her characters experience. It is not that horrible things happen to them, but that they are unashamed to feel so much on every page. In Kephart's novels, people say what they think and what they mean. They look at the world and ponder what they see. They insist on taking part in their surrounding community. They are real - everyone Kephart creates is achingly, breath-takingly real. In some ways, they are more real then the rest of us, which is something to aspire to I think, as readers, as writers and as people. 


sunburst after darkness: at long last, I'm writing again

Sunday, December 4, 2016

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.


Craft Forms 2016: celebrating artists among friends

Saturday, December 3, 2016

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.


an honor, an excerpt, my husband's clay

Thursday, December 1, 2016

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.


Alone in a Hurricane? Video responses to gorgeous questions inspired by the storms of now and THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU

Thursday, November 24, 2016

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.


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