when diversity is not a strategy but an essential element of the story being told: Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

We Need Diverse Books. We absolutely do. Books that don't merely place a "non-mainstream" character into the story for the sake of inclusion. Books that go much deeper than the announcement of, or allusion to, skin color, origin countries, sexual preferences. Books that don't operate as if conforming to PC checklists. Books that function outside the circle of slogans and tell real stories.

Truly diverse books are books in which the culture and cultural heritage and economics of the characters are essential to the story being told. They explore wide ranging personages, languages, histories, orientations, dreams. They are steeped in the particular social and personal pressures faced by very particular (and particularly well-drawn) characters. They introduce characters that seem to live not just on the page, but off it.

Middle grade/YA novels such as Ann E. Burg's Serafina's Promise, Thanhha Lai's Inside Out and Back Again, Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming, Kwame Alexander's Crossover, A.S. King's Ask the Passengers, and Patricia McCormick's Never Fall Down and Sold have, among many other titles, introduced lasting, fully dimensional, diverse characters to younger readers. With her second stunning middle grade novel, Blue Birds, Caroline Starr Rose has made another important addition to this canon.

Blue Birds is a novel in verse that explores a little-known chapter of American history concerning the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke. It's late in the 16th century. English explorers have arrived to Roanoke Island, off Virginia. Conflict and distrust erupt among the native tribes and the English.

Into this setting Rose has placed two young girls—Alis, from England, and Kimi, a Roanoke who has watched the English bring disease and disaster to her world. Out on her own, Alis discovers the natural beauty of the place. Watching, Kimi must decide whether or not to trust this fair-skinned creature. Will Alis and Kimi be able to peel back the social prejudice and befriend one another? Will they be able to step over the great divide that rises whenever individual people are presented with difference? And what will they do—what can they do—as tensions mount in their respective communities?

Rose has given us a complex story, a real and researched story, a story that, despite its roots in late 16th century America, feels contemporary. The questions about other are neither dodged nor trumped, and they never feel commercially strategic. The questions arise because such questions naturally do, because this is the story Starr is telling. And look how gracefully and honestly she tells it:

Why do they dress as they do?
To speak their language,
does it feel as it sounds,
like sharpened rocks on  your tongue?
What makes their skin
the color of a snake's underside?
Why do the men not keep their faces smooth
but grow hair from their cheeks?
Do they ever bathe?
For their strong odor lingers
long after they've gone.

Though they
have brought us heartache,
must all of them
be enemies?
In bringing readers Alis and Kimi, Starr has not just brought us a distant era. She's brought her readers a way of sinking in with real questions about difference—and a credible suggestion that such differences might be overcome.

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Writing about Mental Health, One Thing Stolen, and New Hope for Frontotemporal Dementia

Monday, March 30, 2015

Tomorrow evening I'll be down at Penn, at Kelly Writers House, participating in a 7-Up program that promises to be provocative. The theme is mental health and literature. The evening, a Junior Fellows Program, was knit together (so ably) by Hannah White. You can find more about the evening below, and of course you are welcome to come.

In trying to develop a presentation that fits within the given seven minute boundaries, I'm aware of all that I won't have time to say about the medical research and stories that have been released in the months after I finished writing One Thing Stolen, a novel that has a rare neurodegenerative condition—frontotemporal dementia, primary progressive aphasia—at its heart.

(Generally speaking, FTD is a category of conditions brought on by the "progressive degeneration of the temporal and frontal lobes of the brain." Some patients afflicted with the "language subtypes" of FTD erupt with new artistic capabilities—a sign, it is thought, of a brain attempting to compensate for those parts of the brain that are no longer working as they once were.)

I would like, then, to summarize four key stories here—stories that validate the hope that readers will find in the final pages of Nadia's story.

In writing One Thing Stolen, I grounded my hope in the work of (and email conversations with) Bruce Miller, MD, who directs the UCSF Memory and Aging Center and whose work on FTD "emphasizes both the behavioral and emotional deficits that characterize these patients, while simultaneously noting the visual creativity that can emerge in the setting of FTD."

But in my novel, Penn doctors are at work as well, and just days ago, on March 20, Penn Medicine researchers announced, and here I'm quoting from the press release, the discovery that " hypermethylation - the epigenetic ability to turn down or turn off a bad gene implicated in 10 to 30 percent of patients with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and Frontotemporal Degeneration (FTD) - serves as a protective barrier inhibiting the development of these diseases. Their work, published this month in Neurology, may suggest a neuroprotective target for drug discovery efforts."

Later on in the release, this quote from Corey McMillan, PhD, research assistant professor of Neurology in the Frontotemporal Degeneration Center in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania:  "We believe that this work provides additional data supporting the notion that C9orf72 methylation is neuroprotective and therefore opens up the exciting possibility of a new avenue for precision medicine treatments and targets for drug development in neurodegenerative disease,” says McMillan.

So all of that is number 1. Hope, again.

For number 2, I encourage you to read this deeply moving essay by Daniel Zalewski in the March 30 issue of The New Yorker. Titled "Life Lines," it traces the journey of a former New Yorker illustrator whose brain, attacked by a virus, now lives in the ever-present now, most of her hippocampus destroyed. Researchers are studying her ability to learn and form memories within this new neuronal environment. There is hope there. There is also the prospect of new science.

Finally, for numbers 3 and 4, I encourage you to return to two blog entries posted earlier in this year. The first reports on Judith Scott, a woman born profoundly deaf and with Down syndrome, whose artistic capabilities were unleashed late in life—that brain wanting art again. The second reports on the lawyer Patrick Fagerberg, who was struck in the head at a music concert and diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. Here again the brain compensates and, in compensating, chooses art.

This—the compensating brain, the deep neuronal desire to make beauty out of chaos—is the theme of One Thing Stolen, a book that takes place both in Florence, Italy, and on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania (and features some Penn students as key characters.) Some of what I'll briefly touch on during our 7-Up tomorrow night.

Hope to see you there.

WRITING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH

Junior Fellows Program

6:00 PM in the Arts Cafe

As this years recipient of the Kelly Writers House Junior Fellows Prize, Hannah White has undertaken a project to make the Writers House a space where we can talk about issues of mental health and illness from a writers perspective. In traditional "7-Up" style, seven different people (students, professors, community members) will each select and then write/speak about an important novel, short story, or poem dealing with issues of mental (in)stability. "Important" can mean anything here: personally important, culturally important, historically important, obscure but interesting, challenging to the traditional ideas of illness and wellness, etc. We hope that a wide range of perspectives and literary works will bring together seemingly disparate subsets of the wider community—and will also reveal plenty of interesting ideas about health, culture, relationships, and what is "normal."
  • Ryan Cambe
  • The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
  • Beth Kephart
  • One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart
  • Devon O'Connor
  • "Round Here" by Counting Crows
  • Nick Moncy
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
  • Julie Mullany
  • "Barbie Doll" by Marge Piercy
  • Emily Sheera Cutler
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  • Claudia Consolati
  • Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier
  • Lance Wahlert
  • Narratives of suicide
  • Michelle Taransky
  • "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg

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let's all be kind for a week: a modest social media proposal

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Last night, 11 o'clock-ish, my hair flat, my eyes slightly swollen, my red and white striped socks in grotesque visual combat with my too-tight but also floppy-collared top, I read this story by Pamela Paul in the New York Times. You'll get the gist from the title, perhaps: "She Sounds Smart, but Look at Her Hair!" If you need more, I share this paragraph below—an email Paul received following her seemingly successful (televised) moderation of a book-fair panel in Miami.
“Had the unfortunate experience of seeing you on Miami Dade College video tossing your head around and continuously pushing the hair out of your face. What the hell is the matter with you? Why wear hair that covers your eye? You are an insult to women.”
Paul's piece goes on to feature a handful of other women (Lori Gottlieb, Rebecca Skloot, Bridget Todd) who spend time in the glare of the media sun talking real issues. Women who, after adding something to the intellectual exchange, are barraged later on by inane commentary. Hair. Baggy eyes. A twice-worn purple sweater. The works.

My first thought (and I have been having this thought a lot lately): Glad I am not famous or TV-worthy. Indeed, except for those few days after a stylist has blown some sense into my tresses, I am not even hair-fit for the gym. I've lost friends over the wilderness of the stuff that sprouts from my head. I've endured the exasperation of a colleague who, while perfectly balanced on a stool in a swanky bar, implored me to find a way to fix it.

I have tried. I cannot. Imagine what the anonymous, peering-in-from-their-living-room crowds would say about me were I equipped to endure the media glare in an attempt to say something that mattered.

My second thought (and this should have been my first): Why does it give so many people so much pleasure to be unkind, inconsiderate, ruthlessly shaming? What sports zone are we living in? Why have so many grown so vigorously immune to seeing the bigger picture, and of exercising compassion?

My third thought (and this follows on the heels of my compassion post) is this: What would happen if we all agreed to use our social media channels—our blogs, our Facebook walls, our Twitter, our LinkedIn—for unadulterated good? I know it's a tall order. Heck. There are times when I want to shout, and sometimes do. But what if, for this week ahead, starting now, we set aside our inner mean and only wrote kindly of others (or, as our mothers taught us, held our tongues)?

I'm going to give it a shot. Perhaps you'll join me.

And if you want to join me, pass it on.

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the sweetest thing (from Tamra Tuller)

Friday, March 27, 2015

Those of you who thought I could not possibly get any older were wrong.

Another birthday nears.

But oh how sweet has sweet Tamra Tuller made these days of near senescence.

Tamra, I've never seen anything like this. It's a magnificent idea, perfectly packaged.

And together we have built three very pretty books.

Thank you for the years, the friendship, the stories. Honey. That's just right.

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after being in the company of the rock stars of YA, I have a dream

Above? That's Libba Bray reading from her forthcoming novel (Lair of Dreams, due out in August) at Children's Book World in Haverford, PA—a scary little ditty that has Amy Sarig King and Gayle Forman shaking in their respective (albeit from opposing sides of the fashion world) boots.

Before them sit many of my neighborhood's finest writers. Also Sister Kim and her Little Flower students. Also bloggers and readers and enthusiasts and at least one bookseller from down the road and shall we go no further before we mention Heather Hebert, who makes it all happen, and with enthusiasm, and while I am at this, because heck, why not, can we locals all just pause for a minute and welcome Margo Rabb to our neighborhood, because she's here now, newly arrived from Austin, with her second YA novel (Kissing in America) due out in May.

(Seems like I might be reading with Margo and two other fabs from Round Here soon, but more on that to come.)

What a performance these three gave—Amy and Libba gamely (respectively) playing the parts of a stoner and a slick boy in a choral reading from Gayle's new bestselling book, I Was Here. Amy giving a thrilling preview of I Crawl Through It. Libba forcing everyone else into scare mode, then zapping the conversation with four parts hysterical ad lib and one part Barbara Walters. And then plenty of talk about the F word, by which I mean (of course) Feminism.

The doors were open at Children's Book World, to dispel all that animal heat. The skies were ripped apart with rain. I headed home among storm-imperiled drivers and then I fell asleep. At which point I dreamed I was still with the gang, only we had moved onto a Friendly's Restaurant (note: Friendly's, I lie not) and we were having high-calorie ice cream and nobody would speak to me. My offense, in my dream, was that I been me—asking too much, pressing too hard.

I woke just after I'd leaned over somebody's shoulder and read the texts that were circulating about me.

"Beth Kephart," they said, "is so annoying."

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come and get some LOVE

Thursday, March 26, 2015


(With thanks to Temple University Press, and special thanks to Ann-Marie Anderson)

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writerly responsibilities and rewards: words from the wise Dorothy Allison (yesterday, Kelly Writers House)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Dorothy Allison is one of three Kelly Writers House Fellows hosted this semester by Penn professor and poet Julia Bloch.

Yesterday she sat among us, in conversation with us. There, beside Julia, she is.

Oh, I liked her. So very much. She's everything you've been told she will be. Iconoclastic. Irreverent. Touching. A firebrand of deep opinion and great craft cares who may believe in the act of revenge on the page, but only when the author holds him- or herself equally accountable for the unforgivable past. We writers, we survivors, may not be the heroes we think we are, Allison reminds us. We have responsibilities. Work that lasts is work that is rich with a felt sense of responsibility.

Any writer who believes that writing is a mere game—a toss-off and toss-up of the randomly odd, the relentlessly clever, the tried and true brand—must spend a bracing hour and change in the company of Allison. Sitting beside my friend Nathaniel Popkin and just one row ahead of August Tarrier (Jamie-Lee Josselyn waving a hand from the near distance, one of my students a few rows back, Lily Applebaum at the mike ready), I filled my little notebook with Allison's words. I'm going to share a few of them here—transcribed as nearly as I could, but not always verbatim. Spread them, oh ye writers and readers who care.

In response to Julia's questions about craft (comments from across the conversation, gathered here): Craft sharpens the contradictions. It produces prose that takes the reader by the throat. Craft requires writers to read as writers, not as readers, and so we writing readers cannot merely wallow; we must assess. To make a reader care, the writer must keep paring the prose down, constructing the truth, acknowledging one's purpose. You are going for the long reach, not the quick tears. You want to haunt a reader six months on. The more talent you have, the more responsibility you have.

On writing with compassion: Recognize that you will never get it right. Recognize that those who survived, who got out of there alive, are in some ways the cowards, the ones who had to compromise. Hold yourself accountable for the choices you made. Recognize that you have a higher moral authority to tell the story right. This applies, by the way, to both writers of fiction and nonfiction.

On life's purpose: I don't want to be rich. I want a different world. I don't want the hatefulness of this world. I have a conviction about justice and social responsibility, a concept of citizenship at great variance with what I see in this world.

Paradise: is having an audience.

What the world is: We don't know what the world is until it is shown to us in story.

A story, much condensed (forgive me, Dorothy Allison, for this condensed version). In response to a question I asked about when Allison knew teaching was joyful, she first spoke of how she made sure to make teaching as hard for herself as it was for her students (amen to that, oh yes, amen to that), then told a story about one of the most talented students she ever had—a woman who didn't know where sentences began or ended, but knew vivid and had material. For nine weeks, Allison worked within a workshop and outside the workshop with this "baby" writer. That ninth week, they had a conversation about the writer's future. The student writer had a question: How much would she get paid for the stories she wrote? How much for a collection of stories? How much how much how much would she get paid—and how long would it take? Allison painted a picture of the future, spoke of the rewards that aren't numerical, finally confessed, when pushed, that her own most recent collection of words had received an advance of $12,500. "I earn that in tips a month," said this student writer. And that, pretty much, was it. The end of this genius writer's aspirations.

And so, Allison reminded us, one has to have more than a gift. One has to have desire. One has to cherish the audience, the chance to speak, the conversation—for that, in the end, is what matters most, that is the gifted writer's only sure provenance, that is where responsibility begins.

Let's get less caught up in the noise about books and more invested in making extremely fine ones.

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Helen Macdonald's Magnificent H Is for Hawk, in New York Journal of Books

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

I became obsessed with birds with the passing of my mother. The way they came to me. The way they called to me. The hollow of their bones. The other women, throughout time, who have buried their hearts in wings and feathers. This was the subject of my sixth memoir, Nest. Flight. Sky.: On Love and Loss, One Wing at a Time. This is the subject, again, of One Thing Stolen, the obsession that lies at the heart of that book.

And so when I began to read of Helen Macdonald's new memoir, H Is for Hawk, already a bestseller in England, I became desperate for the time to read that book myself. Over the past two days I have done just that, then sorted through my thoughts to write a review for the New York Journal of Books, where I'll now be penning my thoughts on literary adult fiction, memoir, and literary young adult novels.

The other day one of my students asked me to name my favorite memoir—an impossible question, of course. But now, whenever I'm asked that question, I'll be whispering Helen Macdonald's name. This is a book. Oh. This is a book.

The full review can be found here.

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realizing "our need of one another": Sarah Gelbard on our shared humanity

Monday, March 23, 2015

Not long ago, while I was enthusing about my students to a friend, I was stopped by a gently lifted hand and a question: "But don't you always love your students?"

But love, I wanted to say, is particular. Love is not an undifferentiated rush. Love happens because. Because of who these young people are, because of the community they've built, because they are working proof of the power of unshackled hearts and vulnerability and the kind of imagination that becomes another way of saying compassion. I love my students. I love these students.

Last week, while posting my HuffPo essay on My Spectaculars and their expectations regarding the memoirs they read, I promised that we would soon hear from Sarah Gelbard, my graduate student who slipped into our classroom as an auditor that first day and (we're so infinitely glad) stayed. A few Tuesdays ago, I asked Sarah, who works with the Friedreich Ataxia Program at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, to read to the class a piece she had written for Arts Connect International, where she was recently named content editor. I've been eager, ever since, to share this complete essay with you, especially in light of, well, everything. Including this.

Here is how Sarah's piece begins:

Disability is dealt arbitrarily; it is not a welcome present. Nobody goes to the gift shop, and says, “Ankylosing spondylitis— that sounds lovely!” Or, “I’ll take a brachial plexus injury for my brother on his birthday, with the red wrapping paper, please, and a free sampling of multiple sclerosis for me.” While I did not choose cerebral palsy, I do consider myself lucky to be a part of the disabled community. Through it, I have forged valuable connections with a great many, and we are allowed singular insight into the broad spectrum of human empathy. We encounter those who judge harshly, cruelly, fast to reject apparent otherness, and those who reach out seamlessly, kindly, fast to recognize apparent humanness.

Here is how it continues. Please read this. Please share it. It matters. So does Sarah.


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on compassion and (also) on negating our shame culture (Monica Lewinsky)

Sunday, March 22, 2015



This morning I did that thing I love to do—plop on the couch, pull the fuzzy blanket to my chin, and read the New York Times online. It is one of my limited online reads. I value the words as much as the multimedia links.

Perhaps because I just finished writing and sharing a piece (in today's Chicago Tribune) on the empathetic imagination, perhaps because I teach memoir largely because I believe that teaching memoir is (or can be) akin to teaching compassion, perhaps because I have lived in shadows, too, been attacked, yearned for intervening empathy, the first two Times pieces I read today were compassion invested. The first, titled "The Brain's Empathy Gap" (Jeneen Interlandi), reports on studies designed to answer questions like: "How much of our empathy is innate and how much is instilled in us by our environment?" and "Why does understanding what someone else feels not always translate to being concerned with their welfare?" I recommend the read.

The second story, by Jessica Bennett, led me to this recent TED talk by Monica Lewinsky (yes, it was a busy week and I'm only catching up on this now; don't, as my student recently wrote, judge me), which I watched in its entirety. Brave, bold, bracing, Lewinsky reports from the depths of a personal hell and from the realities of a humiliation culture (as she puts it) that is shameful to us all.

Anyone who is out here in any public way—writing books, making songs, sharing ideas, blogging—knows that the risks are enormous. We see how a nano-second of inarticulate self-searching can become a Twitter storm. We see how a straying from the pact or pack opens the door to virtual mobster hatred. We see how a careless, insensitive Tweet can rearrange a life. And we see the opposite, too—how ideas or art or stories that do not conform to prevailing notions of cool, branded, or trending can go unseen, unheard, unheralded—which is, let's face it, a kind of humiliation, too.

Oh, it takes time to listen. Oh, it is so easy to judge. Oh, we can, from the protected privacy of our keyboard feel so empowered. Oh, anonymity is a sword.

But why build a world of cruelty when you can build a world of good? I laud Monica Lewinsky for asking that question. For standing up. For leaving the shadows.

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Walking West Philly with Lori Waselchuk and Writing ONE THING STOLEN, in this Sunday's Inquirer

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Philadelphia Inquirer editor Kevin Ferris and I have been working together through many columns now, and I am always—always—grateful for his generosity. He has a huge heart. He allows me to write from mine. I'm neither a journalist nor an academic, and I'll never be famous. Kevin doesn't mind.

This month I wanted to celebrate West Philadelphia, where part of my new novel, One Thing Stolen (Chronicle Books), is rooted (much of the book also takes place in Philadelphia's sister city, Florence, Italy). I wanted to return to those images and places that inspired scenes in the book—and to Lori Waselchuk, a West Philadelphian who walked me through those streets two years ago to help me see them with insiderly eyes.

Lori is both a maker of art and a promoter of it. She is the force, for example, behind Ci-Lines, about which I wrote on this blog a few days ago.

To Kevin, who lets me love out loud, and to Lori, who gave me ideas that kept me writing forward, thank you. A note of thanks here, as well, to Hassen Saker, who offered kindness this week, and to Anna Badkhen, whose work inspired this blog a few days ago.

The link to this story is now live, here.

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how do we write with an empathetic imagination? thoughts in this weekend's Chicago Tribune

Friday, March 20, 2015

A few weeks ago, I built tall piles of my many essay collections (old and new) and began to ponder. Rediscovered favorite pieces by Annie Dillard, Patricia Hampl, Ander Monson, Rebecca Solnit, the World War II pilot memoirist Samuel Hynes, Elif Batuman, Megan Stielstra, Stephanie LaCava, Joanne Beard, others. Looked for insights into the empathetic imagination—how it has been managed over time, how essayists, historically, have gotten to the heart of hearts that aren't their own. I read, took notes, looked for patterns, began to write. It was a three-week process that produced just over 1,000 words.

I am blessed that the Chicago Tribune took interest in this piece. I am blessed, too, that I was able to share these thoughts at Bryn Mawr College this past Thursday, in the classroom of the very exquisite Professor Cynthia Reeves.

The essay will appear in this weekend's Printers Row. The online link is here.

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Consider joining us at Arcadia's Summer 2015 Creative Writing Workshops

Thanks to the generosity of Gretchen Haertsch (who wrote a very kind email a few months ago), I will be joining Arcadia as its Visiting Writer during this upcoming creative writing workshop. I'll be teaching the making of both fiction and nonfiction, read (from One Thing Stolen, I suspect), and answer questions.

Please consider joining us. This summer program—one intensive weekend and four weeks online—will, I suspect, produce great yield.

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are we in ultimate control of our own artistic impulses?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

In just a few hours, I'll be on the Bryn Mawr campus with my dear friend Cynthia Reeves and her students to talk about Handling the Truth, Flow, the empathetic imagination, the past and the present and—well—I have far too much planned for the hour and twenty minutes we have, but I guess that is who I have become. Persistent. Insistent. Still wrecked and unreasonable with the impossibility of it all.

But this one One Thing Stolen thing before I go. The novel, due out shortly, is, as I have written here on Huffington Post, about a neurodegenerative disease—about the slow peeling away of my Nadia's language and historical self. Nadia, in One Thing Stolen, becomes trapped in a cycle of art making. She cannot stop herself.

A few weeks ago, Taylor Norman, a young and wondrously talented editor at Chronicle Books, took the time to send me this true story of a former lawyer whose traumatic brain injury resulted in the emergence of an unexpected artistic talent. This is art arising from injury and not disease. But it is, in so many ways, a story that yields insights into Nadia and into the question: Are we are in ultimate control over our artistic leanings, aesthetics, impulses? Can we definitively source the many ways that story, color, and shape erupt in us?

I would wager that we aren't, and that we can't.

From the story that Taylor sent that first appeared in the NY Daily News:

Doctors diagnosed Fagerberg with a traumatic brain injury. He suffered memory loss and had problems with processing language.

The accident ended his legal career. To cope, he turned to art therapy - and suddenly realized that he had a particular gift for painting.

"A little trigger went off and I became hooked. It became a compulsion," Fagerberg told KHOU, adding: "I see everything sort of in composition, so everywhere I look it's a painting."

The whole story, and a video, can be found here.


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loomed together in West Philly, with artists Lori Waselchuk, Aaron Asis, Anna Badkhen, and Hassen Saker

Monday, March 16, 2015

I traveled in Saturday's rain to St. Andrew's Chapel on Spruce Hill in West Philly to see the temporary art exhibition Ci-Lines, by Brooklyn-based artist Aaron Asis. I traveled to see my friend, the great visual storyteller and art provocateur, Lori Waselchuk, and to find community within a mostly shorn-of-purpose place.

I found even more than that.

I found:

An idea that had worked—the commanding uplift of blue stitchery (parachute cord) and the trace of nearly 1,000 art seekers.

The stories of historians, architects, seminarians. A story about a song.

Hassen Saker, a poet infused with sky.

Anna Badkhen, a writer of transporting nonfiction.

Lori and Aaron, the artists at work.

The chapel was cold. The afternoon light was a smear. The blue rope was illumination. "Like a loom," Anna said, and it was, and as the exhibit ended, as the stories and the community slipped back out into the rain, Anna and I stood talking about truth and honesty, about white space inside bold books, about what it might mean to be a citizen not of one country, but of the world. Not far from us, the knots of the blue rope were being undone. The weave was being let out of its loom. The blue was dissipating.

A camera paid attention to it all.

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What My Spectaculars expect from the memoirists they read, in today's HuffPo

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Readers of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir know that—while I greatly vary the way I teach, the books I share, and the writers I invite to the classroom—there is one consistent essay I assign early-ish in the teaching season. A 750-word response designed to shake out ideas, ideals, and possibilities.

This year My Spectaculars produced such extraordinarily charming and elucidating responses to the assignment that I decided (with my students' permission) to knit together elements so that we might always have a record of Us. I've called the piece "How to Write a Memoir. Or (The Expectations Virtues)" and shared it on Huffington Post.

The piece, which begins like this, can be found in its entirety here.
I call them My Spectaculars. Together, we read, we write. We rive our hearts. We leave faux at the door. We expect big things from one another, from the memoirists we read, from the memoirists who may be writing now, from those books of truth in progress.

But what do we mean by that word, expectation?

It's a question I require my University of Pennsylvania Creative Nonfiction students to answer. A conversation we very deliberately have. What do you expect of the writers you read, and what do you expect of yourselves?

This year, again, I have been chastened, made breathless, by the rigor and transparency of my most glorious clan. By Anthony, for example, who declares up front, no segue: ......
(Read on, I exhort you. Find out.)

There is a single student voice missing from this tapestry—my Sarah. You are going to be hearing from her next week or so, after a page or two of her brilliance is published and cross-linked here. Trust me, you will be changed by Sarah's words.

For now, I leave you my students. Read, and you'll call them Spectaculars, too.

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One Thing Stolen: The Shelf Awareness Review

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

I read Shelf Awareness like others take on their morning cups of Joe: religiously.

And so, just now, while taking an Awareness break between invoicing and client calls, my world skipped a beat when I saw the words: YA Review: One Thing Stolen.

I had to put my hand over my heart to calm its sudden lurching.

But Kyla Paterno has been enormously generous to my Nadia and her Florence. A few words from the review here, below. The whole can be found here on Shelf Awareness, an online books and bookselling magazine that reminds us (in every issue) of the power of kindness.

Nadia's gut-wrenching descent into her unexplained illness is explored through carefully crafted narrative and the later, cautious observations of those who love her. Kephart's novel succeeds on many levels. One Thing Stolen takes the bold approach of keeping the majority of the story, all of Nadia's descent, solely in Nadia's perspective. Readers cannot easily determine if she is a reliable narrator, or if parts of her story may be delusions.... Kephart applies a deft hand and instead looks inward and asks readers to come along with Nadia and experience the danger and beauty of her world. --Kyla Paterno

Those interested in receiving an ARC of One Thing Stolen have a few days left to enter this Goodreads Giveaway. 

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not quite, but close (brief and probably erroneous thoughts on copy editing)

Monday, March 9, 2015

This coming September, Temple University Press will publish a collection of my essays and photographs called Love: A Philadelphia Affair.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that I've spent the better part of yesterday and today with notes from the very gentle copy editor. Which is to say that I've spent these hours in rigorous mortification of myself.

Okay, so maybe that term doesn't make actual sense, but I'm just going with it, because, hey, might as well be myself. Or, I could fill the rest of this blog with commas that, shouldn't, be there. Or maybe I should just use the same phrase twice. (I'll use the same phrase twice.) And if I seem to be calling you by your surname as I speak to you here, why don't I just switch it up and go with your given name? Nothing like keeping a reader on her toes? His toes? Their toes?

And if I tell you that I'm moving toward you, you'll know what I mean. That I am moving TO you. See? I've just arrived.

It's not even what the kind copy editor has noted that remorses me out. It's what I see in myself, my old writing tics, my go-to poetics. It's me on the page, and golly by joe (I'm making more things up), I often wish I were other.

Was other?

Why can't I write like Michael Ondaatje at his best? Why not Alice McDermott at her most precise? Why Why Why couldn't I have bought my Kitchen Aid sooner (KitchenAid?) and given my life over to olive oil cakes and fudgy brownies? Fudge-y brownies?

I want a do-over, Writing Life.

I want a better brain.

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Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah/Anna Badkhen

Saturday, March 7, 2015

I had said, about this blog, that I would reduce my frequency. Posting just Mondays and Thursdays now (unless there was personal book news to share). Making more time for Time. Easing away from increasingly desperate sense that more was expected of me than I could ever adequately deliver.

But yesterday and today, reading Anna Badkhen's memoir, Walking with Abel, I realized that there will be some days, some books, that will require an interlocutory post.

I can no longer read everything I'm sent, write about everything I read, respond to every package that arrives on my stoop.

But I must write about books like Anna's.

I've written about Anna here before—the day I met her, in the living room of the home of the documentary photographer Lori Waselchuk. I have written of her Afghanistan narrative, The World is a Carpet. I have come to know her—only occasionally, but always meaningfully—in the time in between. We have discussed self-compassion. Bigotry. Chromites. New books due in August, about love. I was prepared, in other words, for Walking with Abel, her story of living with a family of Fulani cowboys and starwatchers as they move herds across the country of Mali in West Africa. The wisdom of the Fulani is earth wisdom. It is in the sand they cross, the rivers that rise, the frogs that sing, the constellations that guide, the nudge of a cow. It is in the stories they ask for, and the stories they share.

Into their wisdom came Anna.

Here, in the early pages, she tells us what she seeks:
To enter such a culture. Not an imperiled life nor a life enchanted but an altogether different method to life's meaning, a divergent sense of the world. To tap into a slower knowledge that could come only from taking a very, very long walk with a people who have been walking always. To join a walk that spans seasons, years, a history; to synchronize my own pace with a meter fine-tuned over millennia. For years I had wanted to learn from such immutable movement.
Anna's immersion is uncompromising. She sleeps beneath a tree on blue plastic tarp, her backpack at her head. She wakes, one day, to a goat standing on her knees. She bathes in rivers. She churns the buttermilk. She holds the babies. She learns (perhaps I should have started with this) that language. She finds breathtaking beauty in her hostess:
She had no front teeth left and the remaining teeth were rotted and brown. She was narrowboned and gracile and she wore her long gray hair in cornrows woven so that two thin braids ran down in front of either ear and the rest bunched at the back of her head. The tattoo that once had accentuated her whole mouth and blackened her gums had long faded except for an indigo shadow on her full lower lip.
This is Anna making room for astonishment in the world—Anna who is both a migrant and an immigrant, a former war reporter who is capable of seeing beauty and who ponders, out loud, in Abel, this: "Maybe a true writer of conscience was one who never put down a single word."

I am glad, we should all be glad, that Anna puts down her words (and her pale, evocative sketches of the homes she made on that swatch of earth). I am grateful that this book leans into memoir, yields Anna's own vulnerability as she tries to live in the aftermath of an ended love affair, that she uses both her heart and her eyes to see, that she writes, or seems to write, this book for the man who, in transient moments, made her happy, the man she carries forward, memories now, interludes, words. Who was he? Who were they? She tells us:
My beloved and I had been comrade voyagers before we became lovers, footloose storytellers who shared a supreme reverence for wordsmanship. We filled our notebooks with the beauty and the iniquity with which the world branded and buoyed us. We wished our stories to bring it to some accountability, some reckoning.
Anna, the world is better for your reckoning.

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making the day what it can be, in the winter of should have/would have

Thursday, March 5, 2015

We're frustrated. Face it. We are. Our delayed trip to see our daughter. Our thwarted trip to see the sun. Our meeting that's been canceled. Our promise we can't keep.

This is our weather, and this is our now. We've tilted our planet on its axis, so to speak, and the planet was always going to be larger, and more powerful, than we are.

Today I was to have joined Professor/Writer Cyndi Reeves and her students at Bryn Mawr College to talk about memoir. I was to have later lunched with her and her teaching colleague. After that I was to have headed down to the Philadelphia Flower Show with my husband, looked at flowers and pots, and joined my friend Adam Levine for the official launch of his glorious horticultural magazine, GROW. And finally, 8 o'clock, thanks to my brother and sister-in-law, I was to have dined at Laurel, the "intimate French/American BYO restaurant by Chef/Owner Nicholas Elmi." (Top Chef viewers will remember him.)

All of that now jeopardized, junked, postponed, terminated by all the snow that falls.

"Peaceful out there," my husband just said, having opened the door and stood, for a moment, in the white plenitude. "Peaceful." I stop typing. Can barely hear the wind. Can almost hear a train on its track. Can see no one in the street, no car passing.

Peaceful, he says.

Make the day what the day can be, I remind myself. A lesson that my son keeps teaching. A lesson that the world is demanding that we learn—again. Make the day what the day can be. In this sudden wash of white time, I will write an essay about my students, My Spectaculars, and what they teach me (and us). I will count the eggs and measure the sugar and experiment, again, with my new KitchenAid. I will read the new memoir, Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah, by my brilliant friend, Anna Badkhen, who walks the world to learn the world and who whispers one word, again and again: compassion.

Peaceful. To you, from me, while the planet reminds us how small we are, how temporary and shifting our plans.

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thoughts on my Spectaculars and a week spent receiving art

Monday, March 2, 2015

I call my students The Spectaculars, and they are. As kind as they are bright. As funny as they are compassionate. They are particular, unrepeatable people. And yet—oh my. Our whole.

Teaching them, I am teaching me. Racing out ahead with books and dreams. 

There is never enough time.

I watched "Whiplash" last week and wondered how any teacher could be so cruel—and if cruelty hones. I watched "Birdman" and considered the rewards of high narrative risk. I read Atticus Lish's Preparation for the Next Lifeand then sat with a student, just the two of us, and talked about the value of spending summers pumping gas and seeing life, the literary value of the un-rareified existence. I (and my students, along with the students of Lorene Cary and Max Apple) sat with the editor and writer Daniel Menaker and talked about how memoirs get made, how truth is shaped, the chronologies that must be broken (Lorene's blog post on that afternoon can be found here.).

But all of this wasn't enough, it's never enough, and so I began to read Ander Monson's Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries—a book that delights in breaking rules, a book that, in the midst of all its subtitle promises, its wild accords, its politics and prose, releases thoughts like these:

The space between biology and biography is vast. Both are tests. They seek to understand a life. We might believe we write our own, that who we think we are gives us the right to tell ourselves as we believe we are. The telling of a self is fiction too, salesmanship, however unintentional, how in narrating I we change the I—we make it harder, stellar, starlike, more like shell than skin, how we hide all evidence to the contrary, believe ourselves impermeable.

We read the world, we watch the art, we ask the questions, we do our own small parts. We can't make art without receiving art. Last week, most of this long winter long, I ceded, I cede, to receiving.



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an ode to Wayne, in today's Inquirer

Sunday, March 1, 2015

I moved a lot as a child—and then, at last, settled in.

In this weekend's Philadelphia Inquirer, I'm writing about the place that has been close to my heart ever since that eighth-grade move, the town of Wayne, PA, which has beguiled me, supported me, and, of late, returned old friends to me.

With gratitude to all those fellow Radnorites and shop owners and librarians: this. While this Wayne story and my South Street/Magic Gardens story were written too late to be incorporated into my forthcoming collection of essays and photographs, Love: A Philadelphia Affair, both essays live close to my heart.

Meanwhile, this past week I've been watching intense movies, reading an extraordinary book, talking to the esteemed editor Daniel Menaker, sharing a glass of wine with the great Debbie Levy, and learning from my Class of Spectaculars at Penn. I'll reflect on all that in the Monday edition of tomorrow's blog.

Anyone interested in receiving a free ARC of One Thing Stolen can now enter the giveaway on Goodreads.

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LOVE: A Philadelphia Affair (the cover reveal)

Friday, February 27, 2015

With enormous thanks to the Temple University Press team—Micah Kleit, Ann-Marie Anderson, Gary Kramer, Joan Vidal, Sara Cohen, Kate Nichols, Debby Smith, and Director Mary Rose Muccie—I share a first look at the cover art for Love: A Philadelphia Affair, my collection of Philadelphia-themed essays and photography, due out from the Press later this summer.

Southwest Philadelphia, Fairmount, Woodlands Cemetery, Wissahickon Creek, Old City, Memorial Hall, City Hall Tower, Locust Walk, South Philadelphia Sports Complex, Wayne Art Center, The Martha Street Hatchatory, Port Richmond, Free Library of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fairmount Water Works, 30th Street Station, Stone Harbor, Glenside, New Hope, Mural Arts, Eastern State, Bush Hill, Chanticleer Garden, Hawk Mountain, The Devon Horse Show and Country Fair, The Schuylkill Banks, DanceSport Academy, Beach Haven, Valley Forge National Historical Park, Reading Terminal Market, Wilmington, DE, Stone Harbor, the Poconos, Hawk Mountain, Lancaster, PA—my memories of and reflections on these and other elements of this region have all been collected here, along with my black and white photography.

This book owes a huge debt to Kevin Ferris and Avery Rome of The Philadelphia Inquirer, who invited me to write, idiosyncratically and happily, for their pages.

I thank Amy Rennert, who ushered this project through all those terms I'd never understand on my own.

The Temple team has worked enormously hard to get the book out in time for the Pope's visit to our city; copies will be available by then. It will be here and near during the Democratic Convention. And it will serve as a companion book to Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River, another Temple University production.

The official catalog copy, as penned by the great publicist, Gary Kramer:

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From the best-selling author of Flow, comes a love letter to the Philadelphia region, its places, and people



Love

A Philadelphia Affair

Beth Kephart



Philadelphia has been at the heart of many of award-winning author Beth Kephart’s books, but none more so than the affectionate collection, Love. This volume of personal essays and photographs celebrates the intersection of memory and place. Kephart writes lovingly, reflectively, about what Philadelphia means to her. She muses about her meanderings on SEPTA trains, spending hours among the armor in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and taking shelter at Independence Mall during a downpour.



In Love, Kephart shares her love of Reading Terminal Market at Thanksgiving, “This abundant, bristling market is, in November, the most unlonesome place around.” She waxes poetically about the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, the mustard in a Salumeria sandwich, and the coins slipped between the lips of Philbert the pig.



Kephart also extends her journeys to the suburbs of Glenside and Ardmore, and beyond, to Lancaster County, PA, Stone Harbor, NJ, and Wilmington, DE. What emerges is a valentine to the City of Brotherly Love and its environs. In Love, Philadelphia is “More than its icons, bigger than its tagline.”



Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of 20 books, including Going Over, Handling the Truth, Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, and Ghosts in the Garden. She has been nominated for a National Book Award, has been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, and has won the national Speakeasy Poetry Prize. Kephart writes a monthly column on the intersection of memory and place for the Philadelphia Inquirer and is a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune. She teaches memoir at the University of Pennsylvania and blogs daily at www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com



Philadelphia Region/General Interest/Urban Studies

October

112 pages, 39 halftones, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2”

Cloth ISBN 978-1-4399-1315-4 $24.50

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One Thing Stolen: A Booklist Star and a Goodreads Giveaway

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Maybe the pre-publication months are the hardest months on writers. Best to shrug them off, develop distractions, think on next stories, next things, new recipes.

Earlier this week, through the nervous silence (and a search for tea for two guests at Penn), came news of a Booklist star for One Thing Stolen, as well as some very generous words from School Library Journal. I also learned that Chronicle will be sponsoring a Goodreads giveaway, beginning on March 1st. More on that can be found in the sidebar on my blog.

For now, I share highlights from the book's three early trade reviews:

Fans of Jandy Nelson’s dense, unique narratives will lose themselves in Kephart’s enigmatic, atmospheric, and beautifully written tale.  — Booklist, Starrred Review

“Kephart’s artful novel attests to the power of love and beauty to thrive even in the most devastating of circumstances.”—School Library Journal

"Kephart has crafted a testament to artistry and the adaptability of the human mind.  Set in Florence, Italy, the birthplace of the Renaissance, Kephart transports readers across the ocean from Philadelphia, Pa., to the cobbled streets of Italy." Kirkus Reviews 

 In other publishing news: This kind review of Handling the Truth, in Assay Journal, by Renee D'Aoust.


And Love: A Philadelphia Affair (Temple University Press, August 2016) has an official cover and flap copy, which I will share here when the time is right.

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reducing my frequency

Monday, February 23, 2015

In the midst of a difficult winter, I look for signs. Or, I read the signs newly. Collisions. Rejections. Reversals. Silence. Extended cold fronts. Impossible expectations. An unanswered rapping on that door, this door, that door, too.

One can either walk the same line, ducking and swerving and hoping, or choose another path.

Why not choose another path? Focus brightly on the new, rather than darkly on all of that which might have, perhaps even should have, gone another way.

I'm making changes. I'm going to spend more time in the kitchen, say, and less time at the computer. I'm going to fill my own imagination with the possibilities of olive oil cakes and double roasted chickens. I'm going to take more walks beside more friends. I'm going to read more so that I can teach better. I'm going to write less, am already writing far less. I'm going to buy only those books I actually wanted to buy and when even those books aren't the books I'd hoped they'd be, I'm going to set them aside.

Life is too short.

Finally, I'm going to show up here less often, perhaps just twice a week, perhaps Mondays and Thursdays, to talk about books and life and the lessons of teaching.

It's a privilege, being out in the world with you. I'm going to work against overstaying my welcome.

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on the difficult topic of recommendation letters: a modest proposal

Sunday, February 22, 2015

I love my students. That's absolute. I learn from them, I learn with them, I want, for them, the best of all worlds or, at least, the best of this one.

Teaching is my great privilege. It is my deep pleasure.

And so I am not in the least complaining about the students I love when I raise my tired head from the snow and bitter winds and aches of this winter, and ask: Must the graduate schools and post-undergraduate opportunities and fellowship institutions and grant-giving bodies to which my undergraduate students are applying be so increasingly—is the word cruel? or perhaps just insensitive?—in the requirements they place on those of us who write freely—and frequently—on the behalf of students?

Should not the time of adjuncts, who teach not for financial gain but because it is good for the soul, be somehow valued, too? No. Should not the time of every teacher be valued?

Why, for example, must we Recommenders take what increasingly feels like examinations on behalf of our students—eight-part or ten-part essays per chosen institution, each single essay introduced by quantifying questions, and none of the essay writing transferable to any other application related to that student? Why must we, for every school, every institution, fill out a bevy of computerized forms (remember your passwords!) before we are allowed to send in the letter that we have already spent an afternoon crafting, the letter in which we speak with open hearts about students we (I use the word again) love?  What was the point, I would have loved to ask that Veterinarian School, of asking me to write that essay about myself (for hadn't I just written nine essays about my student?)—that essay in which I was asked to assess my own self as a teacher, grader, person in the world? Really? Or, what was the point, Oh School in a Foreign Country, of not allowing me to email the forms—of requiring me to walk through weather to the post office, to stand in line for twenty minutes, and to pay the four dollars and something to mail a letter I might have simply sent via electronics? And: I know you would like me to send my letter on official university letterhead, I know you are saying that the words I just spent hours writing won't count—will be quickly dismissed—unless they are on official letterhead, but: I'm an adjunct. I don't have official letterhead.

I repeat: Should not the time (and resources) of those who teach somehow be valued, too?

I'm wise enough, human enough, not to penalize students and their dreams for the onerous nature of the process. But I do want to ask, as gently as I can:

Why is this process becoming ever more onerous? Could one not anticipate some sort of backlash, in which teachers simply throw up their hands and say, No more. Please. No more of this. I cannot possibly create another new account for another institution so that I might send in a form.

We're here, as teachers, because we love (love!) our material and our students. We are doing all we can to help them move toward their dreams—in the classroom, outside of the classroom, and in our letters.

Think of us when you design your forms, create your frameworks, ask us for more, and then again more. Think of us. I beg you.

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