lock and key

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Autumn, it seems, is finally setting in around here. The breeze carries a chill. The leaves are color. My son is home, for a few essential days. He comes by when I am standing here. A kiss on the cheek. Hey, Mom.

How hard it is to anticipate how much we'll miss our children when they are grown up and mostly gone.

But today, this Sunday morning, everything I need is right within reach—my husband, my son, our small home. We'll eat cookies, take a walk, watch a movie, talk—and that is all, because that is all we need.


the glories of Tulsa (and Nimrod): a photo diary

Monday, October 17, 2016

I arrived home just after midnight.

I still had visions of Tulsa in my head.

A Nimrod conference expertly curated and managed by Eilis O'Neal, on a very pretty University of Tulsa campus. A group reading with Chloe Honum, Sherry Thomas, Brenna Yovanoff, Will Thomas, and Toni Jensen that will always resonate as warm, real, affirming, proof that no one genre corners excellence, that great writing is great writing, period. A chance to work with the rising memoirists of Tulsa, to sit in the audience of Robin Coste Lewis and Angela Flournoy, to hear the winners of the Nimrod contests (my friend Ruth Knafo Setton, Chad B. Anderson, Markham Johnson, and Bryce Emley ) read from their chosen work. A most extraordinary gathering at a generous and intrinsically fascinating home. A delicious (that will now always be her word) conversation with Poet Laureate and long-time Nimrod editor and champion Fran Ringold. A chance to talk to the very wonderful Jeff Martin of Booksmart Tulsa, whose organization ignites readers nearly once each week as it brings in authors like Stephen King, Hisham Matar, Brando Skyhorse, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jonathan Lethem, Ransom Riggs, James Gleick, Geoff Dyer, Stewart O'Nan, Adam Haslett and, yes, I know you were waiting for it: Michael Ondaatje. A Sunday morning spent with my friend Katherine, and her four-month old twins.

In between, the walking. Into the urban streets of Tulsa, early morning, where I saw the proud Art Deco, the proliferating churches, an old Sunoco sign dangling from a top-floor of a brick building. Over the bridge—with Ruth and then alone and then with Katherine—to stand beside the minor league ball park, to watch a U-Haul truck spin in the sky, to walk among the food trucks (Mexican street tacos, jumbo corn dogs, garlic fries, spicy pickles, grilled bacon fluffernutter), to find the Blue Dome, to imagine the streets as poet Markham Johnson encouraged us to imagine many years ago, in the wake of a devastating race riot, to recall the iconic lore of Route 66 (and indeed, I bought the Springsteen memoir on my way home).

"I Believe in Good People," a sign in a closed store read.

I believe in Tulsa.


celebrating my husband's most-excellent pottery news (Craft Forms)

Friday, October 14, 2016

A few weeks ago we got the stupendous news that my husband's work had been juried into Craft Forms 2016, an internationally recognized premiere contemporary craft exhibition showcased at the Wayne Art Center from December 3, 2016 through January 28, 2017.

This year's juror is Stefano Catalani, Curator of Art, Craft & Design at the Bellevue Museum, who will be here to lecture on the chosen works on December 3rd, at the Wayne Art Center.

I am infinitely proud of William Sulit, this husband of mine, who disappears for many hours of many days into the basement to create sui generis work with extraordinary care. His work has sold well at Show of Hands in Philadelphia, where the gallery owner extended Bill's solo show an additional two months and has now maintained a dozen pieces for the shop. Bill's work will again be exhibited at Jam Gallery, in Malvern, PA, this November.

And this selection into this international show represents yet another turning point in Bill's clay career. I married an artist, through and through, and nothing makes me happier than to see his work make its way into the world.

I'm off to Oklahoma to teach memoir (among other things) at the Nimrod Conference (and to see my beautiful Katherine and her twin babies). I'll be back next week with news on what I learned while away (and my thoughts on the extraordinary National Book Award finalist The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy, with whom I'll share a Saturday panel).

All best to all of you in the meantime.


loneliness does not mean one has failed (Olivia Laing, The Lonely City)

Monday, October 10, 2016

I have carried Olivia Laing's The Lonely City from place to place this past month. Laing is a thrilling writer. A form breaker. A true, adult, expansive thinker. In Lonely she weaves together her personal story with the lives of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and others.

I'm going to be writing about this book in the next issue of Juncture Notes, so no need to say much more about it here. For today, I simply want to quote from the end. Here Laing is speaking about the healing power of art. She holds in her hands the works that others have made. She finds, in them, necessary connection. We live at a time of jarring national discourse, social media degradations, easy, anonymous strikes.

But art speaks of and for the honestly questing self. It speaks not just for the artist but to those seeking proof that their own yearning is neither aberrative nor, somehow, wrong. Loneliness is human. It binds us to each other.

When I came to New York I was in pieces, and though it sounds perverse, the way I recovered a sense of wholeness was not by meeting someone or by falling in love, but rather by handling the things that other people had made, slowly absorbing by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.


books and mud: remembering the flooding of the Arno (and One Thing Stolen)

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Oh, bless that Taylor Norman of Chronicle Books, forever uplifting, forever near. Her email of yesterday shared this news that the 50th anniversary of the terrible flooding of Arno will be honored in San Francisco's own American Bookbinders Museum.

This was the natural and cultural catastrophe that inspired my novel One Thing Stolen (Chronicle Books). This forever-proximate possibility of culture (and the art of the mind) being lost to forces beyond anyone's control.

As Matthew barrels down on this earth, as natural disasters hovers, as we keep looking for more credible ways to feel secure, this story of the Arno spilling into and across a great city, into the rooms of great museums, into the basements of churches, into homes and shops is pressingly relevant. This story of those Mud Angels who brought their wings to the resurrection of that place still matters.

We depend on one another to see each other through. To dig down into the muck and salvage beauty.

My praise, then, to the American Bookbinders Museum. And my thanks to Taylor, for letting me know.


brilliant first draft? hardly.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

I write a first draft, but it isn't good. Plank, by plank, I take it apart. A new prologue helps me see what the book might be; it gives me a sail and a chart. A shift in tone pushes me to go more real, less arch. A shift in tone places into question every single anecdote and scene.

I stand at my desk. I plop into my rocker. I sprawl on the couch. I sigh.

I have no business being a writer, being a teacher, I'm giving this whole thing up, say I.

Maybe others write a brilliant first draft.

Those others are not I.


reflecting on the land that feeds us, in today's Philadelphia Inquirer

Sunday, October 2, 2016

We spent a week on a farm being cared for by the earth and those who know it best.

We will never forget that land, our hosts.

I tell that story in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.


how we keep on writing, how we center inside our song

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The workshop was over. We stood there on the gravel road between the cabins we'd lived in, worked in, worked through. We stood there post-portraits, post-jazz hands, post-laughter, post-tears, and there were questions, still.

Mostly: How do we carry forward what has happened here? How do we write our stories through? Find the time? The calm? The self assurance?

I will write to you, I said, I promised. I will try, for myself, to remember how.

Often my life is not my own. There is no calm, no well of time, I do not see myself in any mirror. I can go on like that because I must go on like that, but then: I miss the words, I physically miss them. I feel an empty spin inside my soul until I can't help it anymore. I rise early to claim a sentence for myself.

Except: Days, weeks, months have gone by since I have written anything real. Except: The sentence that I write is obvious, flat. It is not art, and it is art I need, and so I turn to others. Just now Olivia Laing is sitting here. More Annie Dillard. Old James Baldwin. The first Ta-Nehisi Coates. I take what I need and my hour of me is up, but something, inside, stirs.

The next day I rise early again. I take out my flat sentence. I spin it around with a spoon. I work it until it holds some music for me, until it suggests what the next sentence might be. So now there are two sentences, maybe three, and for the next several days, in this earliest of hours, I read those sentences, I sink into their rhythms, I probably don't even know the story yet. But I've got me a song to sing through the rest of the day, when the client calls, or the work comes in, or I make a trip for oil or pepper. I've got me a song, a steadying place, and when the call I'm waiting for comes in late, or I'm put on hold, or the dinner simmers, there it is: my song.

The song is. I keep it close. It is a mystery, and it is something mine. That something alive, to return to.

We write our stories slow, from a centering place.


Juncture Workshops: One Final Spot Left in Cape May, NJ

Monday, September 26, 2016

We may still be riding the waves of our Field Notes memoir workshop but we're also eagerly anticipating our time by the Jersey shore, this coming November.

We have one spot left in this gorgeous painted lady.

Write to us here, if you have interest.


Juncture Notes 07: coming soon

Saturday, September 24, 2016

We're still in a bit of a farm-induced haze here at Juncture. Missing those writers we came to know on that slice of Central Pennsylvania earth. Imagining those stories flowing forward.

Our next issue of Juncture Notes will feature the scenes from and lessons of that workshop, as well thoughts on a new bestselling memoir. We'll send it out to our list in a day or so. If you'd like to be on that list, just sign up here. Juncture Notes, which combines Bill's art with my memoir obsession, is free.


there is power. there are people.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

I walked the famous streets of Washington, DC, yesterday in a melancholy mood. Those beautiful buildings. That Anselm Kiefer in the lobby of the National Gallery. That Sally Mann, so young, on the walls. That chocolate growing on the trees at the Botanical Gardens. That First Ladies' garden. Those reflecting pools.

So much stands on the verge right now. So much at risk. Nothing to be taken for granted. Who do we trust and what do we trust them with?

There is power. There are people. Every single soul I met yesterday was a good people. The security guard at the National Gallery who loved my RBG canvas bag (a tote created to celebrate the launch of Debbie Levy's I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark. I'll tell her, I said.). The lady at the gift shop who helped direct me toward the right door, outside of which I would hail a cab. The cab driver himself, who helped me with his heavy door and promised me, as the afternoon traffic swelled, that we would eventually get there. Emi, who greeted me at Politics and Prose, Debbie who hugged me when she arrived, her family and friends, who made me feel as if I were one among them. The guy at the Metro station who helped me get a Metro card when my debit card wouldn't work. The woman beside me on the subway train who explained the one tracking delays in the underground tunnel as we sat there, going nowhere. You'll make your Amtrak train, she said. And she was right.

Every single person I met was kind, easily so.

Couldn't we all be kind, easily so?

And trustworthy?


farm scenes. images from the inaugural Juncture Workshop.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

It's been almost a year since Bill and I first began to talk about the creation of a landscape-immersive writing workshop series and eight months since we started planning in earnest. We chose a western Pennsylvania farm for our inaugural experience, a place where we believed that the history, authenticity, and land itself would yield, reflect, demand, transform. A place where hard work is earth work. Where routines dictate, except, of course, in all those cases, at all those times, when human beings have no actual authority.

We write about life, when we write memoir. This is life.

We had come to know these writers in the days leading up to the week. Or, we thought we had. But as each arrived, waved their hands, threw her arms around us, settled in, we learned so much more. About them, but also (inevitably) about ourselves.

There were lessons for us all.

We were fed the food of the earth at a time when every drop of water counted. We sat in circles on soft couches and hard chairs and trusted. We leaned forward or sat back. We were intensity. We were calm. We couldn't find what we needed to find and then (miraculously) we did.

I will write more of this soon. The next issue of our Juncture workshop newsletter will carry this story forward. For now, this post is an act of gratitude. A thank you for those who came, those who believed, those who, by making a commitment to the group and to themselves, by doing the asked thing even when the asked thing was a hard thing, grew.

Before our very eyes.


the past cannot be grasped, and yet we memoirists try

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Starting tomorrow, at a farm in Central Pennsylvania, it will begin. The inaugural Juncture Workshops memoir program.

The cows and the pigs and the chicks and the peacocks and the horse are ready for us, we're told. The sky and the hills. The fresh air and the peace. Those writers.

We will spend one day focused on uncertainty and time, as all memoir writers must. Recently I read Olivia Laing's gorgeous To the River and found, nested within, this paragraph. It will be shared with the writers, but also, I'm thinking, why not share it here, with you. For this is how it feels to be alive. To have hoped for something. To have almost had something. To have lost something. To allow that lostness to linger.

This is life, and this is memoir, with thanks to Olivia Laing:
It felt as if my blood had turned to mercury. I lay on the bed almost weeping, suddenly overwhelmed by the past few months. I hadn't thought I was running away, but now all I wanted was to turn tail and fly, back into the woods, the dense, enchanged Andredesleage where no one could find me or knew my name. Why does the past do this? Why does it linger instead of receding? Why does it return with such a force sometimes that the real place in which one stands or sits or lies, the place in which one's corporeal body most undeniably exists, dissolves as it were nothing more than a mirage? The past cannot be grasped; it is not possible to return in time, to regather what was lost or carelessly shrugged off, so why these sudden ambushes, these flourishes of memory?


Hillbilly Elegy: because the solutions to our problems begin with us

Thursday, September 8, 2016

In his New York Times bestselling Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance examines the world of "poor, white Americans" through a very personal lens: his own. Now a major author with a Yale Law School degree and excellent job, a husband to a beautiful wife, a man with a home and two dogs, Vance was also the child of a five-times married, often radically behaved, addicted mother who moved Vance from home to home and raised him within a culture of violent self defense and trauma.

How Vance became a cultural emigrant, as he puts it, is a major part of the story here. But Vance is also deeply interested in understanding what is possible, still, for the community that gave him his roots. He is focused on the relationships (with his sister, his grandparents, his aunt, the Marines, his professors, his Usha) that rescued and sustained him. The opportunities he was given and the legacies he'll always carry forward. He's interested in setting aside easy excuses so that others might fulfill a greater purpose.

The prose is straightforward, and that works perfectly here. The self reckoning is credible, generous. The lessons are important, especially in this election year. Vance is not an apologist. He is not a condemner, either. Yes, Vance, admits, he was helped by schools and grants and outreach. But mostly he was helped by his gun-toting, loud-cursing grandmother who loved him in steep ways and gave him a centering place during raucous teen years.

Who we are as people, Vance argues, reflects the ways in which we have been cared for. That caring begins not with a law, not with a sentence, not with rules and regulations, but with a sense of personal responsibility for the generation of now, the generation of tomorrow. We build our communities person by person, and while candidates matter, while institutions can help, none of it will reach anyone who has not, in some way, been seen or loved.

Here he is, toward the end:

I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother. We make young men consume cotton undergarments to protect a sister's honor. But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?

Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.
See. Love. Bluster can't save us. Kindness can.


on friendships, jealousies, and theft in art (The Art of Rivalry)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Art of Rivalry has had my attention these past few days. Sebastian Smee on, to quote the subtitle, "Four Friendships, Betrayals, And Breakthroughs in Modern Art." Freud and Bacon. Manet and Degas. Matisse and Picasso. Pollock and de Kooning.

Most of the time it's just not pretty (the lives, I mean, not the book itself, which I loved). Most of the time, in fact, it is painful as the early friendships and conversations and comradely hope dissolve into jealousies and theft, unfair advantages, unforeseen attacks from the right or left. One artist will lean toward another, helpful. The other artist will admire, acknowledge awe, then take—acts of stealth and planned disturbances. The artists will goad the other artists on, and the work will advance, the volcanic pressures between them will yield new forms, but oh, the cost of it all. Borrowed ideals, lovers, friends, techniques. Smash ups. New work. Bold work. Despair. It is hard to watch, even at this distance, because the lessons here are not just historic. Such rivalries, in every discipline, still and always abound.

I felt particular empathy for Matisse in the face of a younger Picasso who wanted much, who drew close to Matisse for his own advantage, who leaned on the generosity of the older artist, then locked himself away in the hopes of emerging as top dog/best. Writes Smee, about Picasso's breakthrough Demoiselles, which borrowed heavily from ideas and discoveries of Matisse (ideas/discoveries that Matisse had overtly, generously shared with Picasso, ideas/discoveries that Picasso absorbed by paying close attention to Matisse's work), "The most credible account (of Matisse's comments after seeing Picasso's canvas) was him saying, more mutedly but with evident bitterness: 'A little boldness discovered in a friend's work is shared by all.' The implication being that while he, Matisse, had dedicated years of experiment and honest inquiry to making a high-order aesthetic breakthrough, here, now, was Picasso, stealing ideas he didn't fully grasp in order to produce a painting that was deliberately and senselessly ugly—all for the sake of looking equally bold."

From the evidence presented by Smee, at least, Matisse had every right to draw the conclusion he had, and every right to watch, amazed and not quite certain what to do, as Picasso continued to abuse their friendship in search of ever-greater stature. But what Smee's book also makes clear is that "winning" in art is hardly ever a satisfactory outcome. The victor becomes the target, the next big thing to push aside, the isolated genius who is no longer just one of the guys (all the primary artists in Smee's books are guys), but a force that (in order to be reckoned with) must in some way be destroyed.

de Kooning, for example, outlasts, outwits Jackson Pollock. He gets to be the Numero Uno Artist of the time. He even sleeps with Pollock's last girlfriend. He wins! But here is winning, not just for de Kooning, but for so many artists, dead and alive. Winning is its own form of loss:
But he was far from content. Even as the adulation peaked, he seemed increasingly harried, frustrated, and petulant. Alone at the top, he behaved as if under permanent threat—just as Pollock had. He was pining, too, for lost comrades—"imaginary brothers" gone missing. He was missing Gorky, his old sidekick, long dead. And he was pining, obscurely, for Pollock. More than anyone else, Pollock would have understood what de Kooning was now going through; what it was like to be at the top of the pile; what forces buffeted you up there and made you want to drink yourself to oblivion.
Moderation is not a sexy word. The quiet conversationalist is rarely the headline maker. The giver is not the victor, not most of the time anyway. Greatness comes at incalculable costs. The Art of Rivalry offers object lessons in how art gets made—and in how life might have been (might be) better lived.


on looking past the work we've made and, also, the opposite (in Decatur)

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Devon Horse Show grounds are empty, but the gates are open. No, not empty, we discover; there is a single contractor working within. With his permission we walk, in and out of the stables, the new buildings, the old ones. I find a ladder and Bill climbs it into a secret place. I think an abandoned sink is lovely. Also a discarded, woven hat. Also emptiness as countered by the milk of contained light.

In the sun it is hot. In the shade it is perfect.

What are we searching for on this Labor Day?

I have been reading Olivia Laing. I have been reading (I seem to endlessly circle her) about Virginia Woolf. Her ecstasy. Her mourning. Her river and her pocketful of stones. I have been reading, too, about artists, jealousies, rivalries. Bacon and Freud. Manet and Degas. I have been thinking of the panel I was on, just yesterday afternoon, at the exquisite AJC Decatur Book Festival, and all the things I didn't say, and the friends who came to see me, and the ease of our stupendously fine moderator, Terra Elan McVoy, who brilliantly coined perfumes for us and wove a silk thread between stories for us and wondered about our books as films and decided This Is the Story of You isn't really a film, not yet a film, though perhaps it is an Indie. Yes. Always. I am, will be, the Indie. Slightly out of step and over to the side and stewing inside the next act of making something, my preference, always, for the thing that is not yet made, as opposed to the thing that is.

Do we read our books after they are published (beyond when authorial responsibility calls us to), we were asked. No, I said. No, emphatic. For there is no fixing the book then, no new chance, and I always wish that my books were better than they were, and I am always trying, until they are printed (ask any editor of mine) to make them better than they are, than they will be, but yesterday, when I was feeling, I'm not entirely sure why, sad, there was a girl in the line after the panel who asked me to sign her books. "You are my favorite author," she said, and I was stunned by it, set back, this gesture of hers, this kindness extended. Words that pinned me to the present time, for that present time, in that moment. With me on one side of the table and this beautiful girl on the other, for just that moment or two, I was me, with the books I have made, in the present, in the moment. I was not looking past them.

Not in that split of time, anyway.


Write It for the Young at Heart/ten-part video series

Friday, September 2, 2016

A few days ago I shared here a video essay from my new series, "Write It for the Young at Heart." The topic? Complexity, and why it matters in the YA/MG sphere.

Today we're releasing all ten videos in a series that takes an honest look at topics that should matter to all writers. The place of truth in fiction. The role of research. The importance of a centering place in the stories we write. The (shocking!) reality that not all teens sound the same in real life (and therefore should not sound the same on the page). The stuff teens say about the stuff they read. And etc. I weave my own journey into the essays, excerpt passages from books that teach us, suggest a few prompts, goad and celebrate.

That's all here, lodged on Udemy. Available with a discount using this code.


finding the channel in the river of life

That channel sign, my friend Debbie Levy said while boating me along her gorgeous Wye River, marks the deepest part of the river. Stray too far from the channel, and you risk a grounding.

Navigational truth, of course. Also a metaphor. There are safe zones and muddy margins. The places you know you ought to be and the diversions that attract you.

I've spent much of this year working on something(s) new. On possibilities that may or may not carry forward. On books others may or may not read. On priorities that are assuredly my priorities, but will they become priorities for others? Can what I hope for become the thing that others hope for, too?

For someone with an obsessive need to somehow know the future, or, at least, to effectively shape it, this decision to leave the known, safe path for the unknown and unsure is (certainly) a danger. This is a new life with new rules and measures. There are, I will be honest, floundering, big-question, what am I doing days.

But here is what saves me: The time I spend with the people I love. The time I spend in the air and breeze. The time I spend with the books I choose to read. The time I spend writing the books I want to write, without wondering what might happen to those pages when I believe they're done.

The deep part of the river is the life itself. The mind at flow-forward ease.


Embrace Complexity/Write It for the Young at Heart (video series)

Monday, August 29, 2016

A month ago, we shared our first video series on the making of memoir, a Udemy offering that can now be found here.

This past week, we filmed a series of ten video essays all relating to the big challenges, themes, and opportunities that present themselves to those writing for the young at heart. These essays reflect the thinking I've done over the past many years on topics ranging from the question, What is excellence? in this category, to the essential truths in all fictions, to the development of authentic voices and complex characters. Some of the pieces are adapted from keynote talks; most of the material is brand new, fashioned from the challenges I've faced as a writer, from the conversations I've had with teen readers and fellow prize jury members, and from my ongoing dialogue with the leading practitioners of YA and MG.

The full suite of videos is now available through Udemy, here.

Today I'm sharing this single episode from the series. I'm focused on complexity here—why it is important, and how it is achieved. I hope you'll find the time to watch it through. If you like what you see, perhaps you'll share it with a friend. If you'd like to receive an update when the series goes live, you know where to find me.


(Soon) Headed to the AJC Decatur Book Festival

Friday, August 26, 2016

Three years ago, I was there, at the AJC Decatur Book Festival, one of the happiest book events there ever could be. I arrived alone. I stepped into the hotel lobby and I wasn't anymore. Suddenly I was in the company of Jessica Shoffel (my Jessica Shoffel, I like to say) and Doni Kay, who walked me to the Little Shop of Stories (the epicenter of this event), sat with me over tea, invited me to meet Tomie dePaolo (images of all that here), to have dinner with him later. The next day I took an early morning walk and discovered the tour de force that is Diane Capriola out and about, so we talked. I needed some shoes, so I bought a pair that remain my favorite to this day. A few hours later, I sat beside the very brilliant Stacey D'Erasmo (a writing heroine, truly) and, before a packed house, we talked about memoir and intimacy as if no one else was in sight. I found Nancy Krulik on a stage after that. A long conversation with the smart DJ MacHale was had in the ride back to the airport.

Two days I'll never forget.

Next weekend I return to Decatur, this time to sit on a Terra Elan McVoy moderated panel with writers Ami Allen-Vath and Alexandra Sirowy. The topic will be Aftermath stories in the realm of young-adult books. I'll be talking, specifically, about This Is the Story of You.

Word is that my dear former neighbor, Shirley, will be there in the audience mix. That, perhaps, one of my favorite rediscovered friends of high school, will be there with his literary daughter. I'm looking forward to you, Decatur, and I thank Chronicle Books and Lara Starr for making it possible for me to be there.

My event is here, should you happen to be in town.

Sunday September 4
2:00 PM
Teen Stage
Ami Allen-Vath, Alexandra Sirowy, Terra Elan McVoy
AJC Decatur Book Festival


On finding your memoir in the kitchen: dinner is served

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Today on Huffington Post I'm sharing (in words) one of my seven video essays on the art of memoir. Here I'm thinking about those memoirs that begin in the kitchen and about the writers (MFK Fisher, Mary Gordon, Lavinia Greenlaw, Diana Abu-Jaber, and Chang-Rae Lee) who lead the way.

The link is here.


going deeper

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

There is, in fact, no master plan, but this is what is happening: I'm growing.

No, I'm not referring to the physiological impact of the morning oatmeal cookie (butterscotch!). I'm referring to my spheres of interest, the books I'm reading, the ways I'm paying attention to the news, the bravado I displayed when I buckled down to learn how to throw a clay pot on a wheel (to learn, not to master; hardly master), the expanding repertoire in the kitchen. Hisham Matar's The Return has taught me some of the history, geography, and politics of Libya (and disappeared dissidents). Rebecca Mead has taught me Middlemarch and George Eliot. Katie Roiphe has taught me John Updike, Maurice Sendak, Dylan Thomas, and James Salter (among others). Scott Anderson, with his glorious New York Times Magazine essay, has taught me the antecedents of contemporary Middle East. Viet Thanh Nguyen is teaching me, with his Pulitzer winning The Sympathizer, the Vietnamese experience of war.

The world is complex. The news requires perspective. Life is once. I'm going deeper.


restlessness at summer's end

Saturday, August 20, 2016

End-of-summer restlessness. Too much of the politics. Too much of the heat. Too much of the bad-behaving swimmers. Too much, even, of the books that (despite a major early-summer purging) have again piled up around here (she is insatiable, this Beth is, she can't help herself with books, but sometimes, too, the books box her in). Her mind seeks a vacation, a respite from the known—the small house and the home-cooked meals, the familiar routines, the same walk over the same asphalt beneath the same trees, daily.

Saturday. August 20. 7 AM.

What will she do?


Art in the Dark, at Longwood (Nightscape)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Next October (2017) I'll be leading a one-day memoir workshop at Longwood Gardens, using the topography and installations as literary prompts. Bill, my Juncture comrade in arms, will be with me, collecting images of the writers at work in those exquisite 400 acres.

We walk Longwood differently now when we go. Last night we went to experience Nightscape, the extraordinary sound and music show that runs from August through October. It's a seduction. A magic experienced in the dark of night among others whose voices you hear, whose passing bodies you're aware of, but whose faces mostly remain obscured. Trees and fronds are canvases. Long walkways. Ponds. Flowerbeds. You find your way. You look up. You stop to see.

To be outside in the dark living art in summer is a very good thing. To have the company of Matthew Ross, one of the most endearingly well-read, widely traveled, smart people you'll meet, is a big bonus. To have the rain begin, a soft pattering, as you walk the lit bridges is sweeter than I can say. The smell of earth rising at your feet. The hush of other passersby. The moon still in the sky.


the beauty question (reflections after reading Rebecca Mead on Middlemarch)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

I have made light of it, of course. I have said, within the past week, even: If only I were beautiful, Then. I wouldn't feel so unsettled as I sit before a camera, filming essays about memoir I've given my whole heart and head to. If only I were beautiful, Then. That driver wouldn't have cut me off; it was my turn after all. If only I were beautiful, Then. She would have never dared. If only I were beautiful, I'd be something.

No self-respecting woman is supposed to say such things, think such things, wallow so ungraciously. I know that. But the thoughts come unbidden, and there they are. Mucking around with me.

How easy it is to cast blame on those things I cannot control. How undignified not to stand up to the superficial me, not to embrace all my good fortune first and only. But there it is. I am.

Earlier this week, while reading the intensely intelligent memoir, My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, I found myself all caught up in the beauty question again. Mead is pondering George Eliot's appearance—the images she finds as she conducts her deep research into the life and mind of this complicated writer. Eliot did not, it seems, impress others as a beauty. She was possessed of a large nose and jowly facade. She was not svelte. She was not to be found in the fashion pages.

But, Mead writes, something happened when Eliot spoke. Something that contested the physical facts of her matter:

... a first impression of her hideousness, [Henry James] said, soon gave way to something else entirely. "Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her," he continued. "Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking."

Sara Jane Lippincott, Mead tells us, first found Eliot to be "exceedingly plain, with her aggressive jaw and her evasive blue yes.... Neither nose, nor mouth, nor chin were to my liking; but, as she grew interested and earnest in conversation, a great light flashed over or out of her face, till it seemed transfigured, while the sweetness of her rare smile was something quite indescribable."

Mead ends that paragraph with, "Ivan Turgenev, a friend of Eliot's, said that she made him understand that it was possible to fall in love with a woman who was not pretty."

Mead's entire book deserves your time. Mead's deft examination of how Eliot's biography shaped her fiction. Mead's brilliant assertion of the power books have to help us read our own lives. Mead's never-intrusive insertion of her personal journey as a repeated Middlemarch reader.

And, finally, Mead's lesson—Eliot's lesson—that, in a world of static images, Facebook portraits, video essays, beauty is not a closed one thing. Beauty moves.


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