Juncture Notes 15: Read the whole newsletter here

Sunday, May 21, 2017

We're happy to offer a link to the full issue of Juncture Notes 15, featuring reflections on Frenchtown, NJ, a conversation with Kristen Radtke (IMAGINE WANTING ONLY THIS), and the work of our readers here.

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Let's talk about texture (Christopher Bollen/The Destroyers)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A few days ago I sat in this little abode of mine with a friend, Cyndi Reeves. She is a world-explorer and a writer, a teacher and a reader, and in my house of many books we were talking about something known as texture. The size and shape of sentences. The divots, pivots, pauses. The just enough and the artfully original.

There are many books that simply deliver the research and plot.

And then there are the books that rattle around in our heads because the language is like a lip of sun upon an active sea.

I was thinking about that conversation today as I read Christopher Bollen's new literary thriller, The Destroyers, a book sent my way by that extraordinary publicist, Michael Taekens (seriously, this man is something). I'd had a long week of reading for review and blog commentary (some 2,200 pages, perhaps more). I wasn't sure if my mind was capable of more words. And then I read Bollen's prologue.

Check this out:

The Greek island of Patmos was a wheeze of color: bleach-blond dust, scrub brush of wiry green, the wet-metal shine of water, and low rock walls blooming sinus pinks. As Elise ascended a hill she saw the monastery rise from the cliffs like a cruise ship moored on a mountaintop. Human bodies sere scattered along the beaches, silver and limp in the sticky heat.

Wheeze of color.

Bleach-blond dust.

Blooming sinus pinks.

Like a cruise ship moored on a mountaintop.

In none of this does Bollen appear to be reaching. This isn't decorative writing. It isn't overloaded, overlong. One has the sense that this is simply how that landscape would be received, by any one of us sufficiently detached from ordinary comparators and beats.

What ensues, in this novel, is a story of young men with childhood ties who depend on one another until the rich one disappears. Vanishes. Must be found. There are war games in these characters' pasts and many plot twists as the story unfolds. But time and again, in the fury of the plot, Bollen waits for language.

Thank you, Mr. Bollen, for caring so much about language.

Literary thriller, and the "literary" isn't just a marketing label here. It's real. It's texture.

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Ellen Umansky and The Fortunate Ones

Maybe every story is a detective story. The essential unknown. The equivocal mystery. The thing that must be found out. Somebody knows something. Somebody's asking. Somebody isn't saying (has forgotten, feels immune, needs to hide, is gone). Until.

I was thinking about this as I read Ellen Umansky's debut novel, The Fortunate Ones. The story blends the echoes of the Nazi era and its kindertransport survivors with the lives of two recently orphaned grown-up sisters in modern-day Los Angeles. The binding element is a Chaim Soutine painting, which was lost by Austrian family, sold in the United States, then lost again by those two sisters. Rose, born in Austria, meets Lizzie Goldstein, one of those Los Angeles sisters, at the funeral of Lizzie's father. In the ensuing friendship many questions are asked about the painting, called "The Bellhop," that bent the trajectories of both families.

Where is that painting now?

What did that painting mean?

Who is hiding the truth?

Constructed with greatest care, The Fortunate Ones invites its readers to consider the place of objects in family history, the changeable qualities of a fixed canvas, the infringements of guilt upon life choices, and the power people have (but, tragically, often fail to use) to vanquish the unnecessary guilt in others. More important, the novel demonstrates the appeasements of friendship and the relationships that can still thrive between people who see within the other a place of hope and truth.

Umansky moves her story back and forth over time. Dialogue escalates the momentum, while Lizzie's relationships with Rose and with her own sister, Sarah, cradle the emotional tensions. Umansky's research into this painter, Soutine, infuses the story. "The Bellhop" is an imagined canvas within the real-life painter's oeuvre.

This is how we first encounter it, in the book's opening pages:
The boy in the painting was not pretty. He was too skinny in his red uniform, his face pasty and elongated. The paint was thick, thrown on; it looked as if the painter couldn't be bothered to slow down and pay attention. Rose didn't understand why her mother loved it so.
But we, the readers, come to understand. We come to see, over the course of the novel, that painting: vivid and alive.

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Tell the Truth. Make It Matter. (cover reveal)

Friday, May 19, 2017

A few days ago I shared some of the interior pages of a memoir workbook long in the making here at Juncture.

Today I share the cover and the promotional copy:
In Tell the Truth. Make It Matter. Beth Kephart offers an insider’s look at the
making of true tales—and an illustrated workbook to guide the wild ride. Combining smartly selected samples with abundantly fresh ideas, dozens of original exercises with cautions, questions with answers, Kephart inspires, encourages, and persistently believes in those with a story to tell.

Write this, Truth says. Read this. Consider this. Discover who you are. Have some honest fun with words.

Truth could not come from a more authoritative source—Beth Kephart, who, as
an award-winning writer of 23 books, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, a winner of the 2013 Books for a Better Life Award (motivational category) for Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, a nationally renowned speaker, and a partner in Juncture Writing Workshops, has mastered the art of leading readers and writers toward the stories of themselves.

Truth should find a home among high school teachers, college professors, workshop leaders, autodidacts, secret writers and public ones. It is the perfect (graduation, birthday, holiday, friendship) gift—to others, and to oneself.

We expect the book to go live on Amazon in approximately two weeks. I'll provide the link then.


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Introducing a new (beautifully illustrated) memoir workbook

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Over the past two years, I've been writing a memoir workbook—a page-by-page introduction to the form enriched by prompts designed to lead you directly into the heart of your story.

(Not idle prompts. Not prompts as afternoon distractions. Prompts that teach the form and open doors to memory and meaning. This workbook is supplemental to Handling the Truth. It does not repeat it.)

Over the past many months, Bill has been designing and illustrating those pages, crafting a book that complements our five-day memoir workshops, our monthly (content rich) memoir newsletter, and, soon, on-line courses at Juncture.

Tell the Truth. Make It Matter. will soon be available through Amazon.

I'm so happy to share two spread previews from different chapters in this 210-page book here.

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The Frenchtown Empathy Project: The Power of Trust in a Broken World

Saturday, May 13, 2017


Over the past many months, as our country has veered toward and sometimes cemented divisions and oppositions, Bill and I have been building the Frenchtown Empathy Project, an event that hoped for, in fact depended on, trust among perfect strangers.

We were bringing our Juncture memoir writers to this New Jersey town for five intense days of reading, writing, and growing. We were adding to their enormous workload (they'll tell you) another layer by asking them to search for connections in the community we'd chosen as our host.

Lynn Glickman, a memoirist expert in delineating the colors and temptations of a kitchen, was paired with Julie Klein, a Frenchtown chef (Lovin' Oven).

Starr Kuzak, a memoirist with music in her DNA and tenderness in her soul, was paired with Carolyn Gadbois, a drummer and espresso artist.

Hannah Yoo, a memoirist seeking (and finding) forgiveness for a wrong committed against her father, was paired with Bonnie Pariser, a yoga instructor.

Christine O'Connor, a deeply engaged political thinker and writer, was paired with Mayor Brad Myhre.

Louise O'Donnell, a memoirist who has retail community in her history and a love of all things people in her heart, was paired with the owner of town central, otherwise known as the hardware store (Mike Tyksinski).

Elana Lim, a memoirist whose family history is now on display in a Smithsonian-affiliated museum, was paired with the co-creator of a community theater program (Keith Strunk), while Tracey Yokas, who is not just writing about seeing her daughter (and herself) through a crushing chapter in both their lives but was also once an above-the-line producer for shows like the Oscars and the Emmys, was paired with the theater's other co-creator (Laura Swanson).

Jessica Gilkison, a memoirist writing about the wisdom we find as we lose a mother and parent a fluid, truth-seeking child, was paired with the creator of Real Girls (Catherine Lent).

I, meanwhile, had the opportunity to talk about gifts and gift giving with Meg Metz, who created and curates one of the finest stores anywhere (Modern Love), where the door really is always open.

Bill and I could not have created this project without enormous help, of course. Caroline Scutt of the Book Garden stepped in and made lists of people and sent emails when we presented our scheme. Catherine Lent and Keith Strunk made suggestions. Those we contacted said yes to a project that, by any standard, was utterly untested. They agreed to be interviewed by people they didn't know and to have their lives retold by voices that, well: Who were these people? All in advance of an outcome no one could predict.

Would our writers get it right? Would anyone come to the reading at Town Hall? Would this empathy mission, this bridge building, fall flat on its face? Would our theory about the power of listening and the integrity of reaching beyond one's own self be confirmed or shattered? Nerves were expressed. Bill and I shook our heads in quiet midnight anticipation. And then, Thursday morning as the writers rehearsed in the lobby of our home base, Pete and Marlon's National Hotel, I knew, as well as I've ever known anything, that something magic was about to go down.

It did. Frenchtown's Town Hall on Thursday night was jammed. Our writers were flawless. Our audience was leaning in. This odd thing we'd called the Frenchtown Empathy Project, this hope we'd had to build bridges in a time of fragments: it worked. It just worked. We all sat there. We listened. We knew.

Here is our Mike, in a note to us yesterday:

... Last night or actually this week has been a transformative experience for me and others here in Frenchtown. I spent time sharing who I am with a complete stranger as did several others, who then took some of my stories, got up and spoke as me in front of a room full of people some I knew and some I didn't. I sat between the Mayor and my neighbor Doug. The emotional impact on the room was surreal. It was as if we all became kindred souls through the sharing of ourselves. Oh by the way Louise my writer chose to include naked curry. The room was in stitches.
We build community one person by one person, one listening stranger by one vulnerable soul.

Truth is this.

 [A PS thank you to Brenda and Officer Titen, who made sure the doors were open for us.]

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Bowls + Vases. Bill + Beth. A Ceramics Offering.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Our pots will soon be on sale!

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Talking Memoir and Life with Friends on the Liars Club Oddcast

Thursday, May 4, 2017

What a fun conversation I had with the Liars Club a few weeks ago. I mean, they'd asked questions, I'd start laughing, and then I'd have to think quick to come up with answers.

Because, you know, the pressure was on.

We talked about memoir, Juncture workshops, young-adult literature, life, and what it means to be a writer alive in this world.

With thanks to Kelly Simmons, Jon McGoran, Gregory Frost, Merry Jones, and Keith Strunk. Great writers and people, all. It's lovely to imagine them sitting around a table, chatting. It's lovely to be in their presence.

To listen to the whole thing, go here.

And if you happen to be in Frenchtown, NJ, next Thursday evening, join us for the Frenchtown Empathy Project. Kelly Simmons will be in the house. Keith Strunk will, through our writers, on the stage. And all of those who have joined us for this memoir week will be sharing their words for the people of Frenchtown, who are so graciously hosting Juncture.

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The Frenchtown Empathy Project

Next week, nine writers from across the country are joining Juncture Workshops in Frenchtown, NJ, for a week of memoir writing. We'll be discussing the works of great memoirists, reviewing the in-progress books of our exceptional writers, seeing what happens when we expand the work with new prompts, and celebrating the whole town in a Thursday evening Empathy Project event.

The event is free. If you live nearby, I hope you'll join us.

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"People are so interesting." Elizabeth Strout/ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE

Monday evening I headed to the Free Library of Philadelphia to join friends for an evening celebrating Elizabeth Strout. I'd seen Miss Strout, years before, in a small classroom at Swarthmore College, but that was before her great fame, before the HBO adaptation of Olive Kitteridge, before last week's New Yorker profile. I'd just had a rather unfortunate encounter with another famous writer the week before, and I was hoping, how I was hoping, that great fame had not dented Strout's original charm.

That fame had not made her immune to the questions her readers wish to ask.

Good news for all of us: It has not. In conversation with the always-delightful Laura Kovacs, Strout was smart, precise, concise. "Right," she'd say, touching her glasses, and that would say it all. Then she'd say a little more, and we were with her. The entire, sold-out audience was.

More than once, Strout commented on how interesting people are, and I could imagine her on subways, in restaurants, over coffee, listening for the odd and beautiful articulations of nearby strangers falling in and out of love, hope, despair. What we love about Strout, and what is so gorgeously apparent in her newest linked fiction collection, Anything is Possible, is her ability to marinate even the crustiest characters with moments of moving reverie and meaningful hesitations. Maybe they aren't always the most pleasant, honest, well-meaning people, but they come from hard places and they still seek the dazzle of sun-struck snow or maternal affection or a place where they might confess.

They are still so very human, so very interesting, and when they hurt, when they act hurt, we cannot blame them. We're glad to find them again, set off in different light, at a different angle, a few stories later.

It is in the seemingly smallest of exchanges that so much devastating beauty happens. Here, in "Mississippi Mary," a mother and daughter reconnect in a small Italian town. They've not seen each other for four years. The daughter, trying to be hip, has arrived in a too-tight pair of jeans. They have been thinking toward each other, these characters, but also speaking past each other. They have spent time in the ocean, the mother in her yellow two-piece suit, the daughter in her conservative one-piece. Then there is this moment. They are discussing those jeans.

And then Angelina—oh bless her soul—began to really laugh. "Well, I don't like them. I feel like a jerk in them. But I bought them special, so you'd think I was, you know, sophisticated or something." Angelina added, "In my one-piece bathing suit!" Both of them laughed until they had tears in their eyes, and even then they kept on laughing. But Mary thought: Not one thing lasts forever; still may Angelina have this moment for the rest of her life.
To try to define, in academic fashion, just why this hits so hard would be impossible. But we don't need to dissect it. We just need to embrace, and I can't think of a reader out there who would not embrace this book.

During the open question period, a fan asked Strout something about the other writers to whom Strout had been compared. Strout wavered, then returned to the suggested notion of Alice Munro, a comparison she liked a lot.

I'd like to share two others: Louise Erdrich, in her early books. Kent Haruf in all of his.

Small moments. Big heart. Wise writing that gets out of its own way.

That's what Strout delivers.

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celebrating the art of curation, with Kirsten Jensen at the Michener

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Several weeks ago, my husband and I traveled to Doylestown, PA, to spend time with the Michener Art Museum curator, Kirsten Jensen. I wanted to know what it took to curate a show. She took me, with ease and endless fascinations, into her process, her thinking, her world. I loved our time together. I wrote about it.

That story is here, in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

With thanks to Kevin Ferris, as always.

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Clay Sale: Bill and I to sell our combined clay work for the first time ...

Thursday, April 27, 2017

... ever this coming June 3 and 4, Wayne Art Center.

We'll provide more details as the days approach. Bill throws and trims the pots. I glaze them.


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at work on a new F. Scott-infused book, my mother speaks to me

Monday, April 24, 2017

For the past two years I've been collecting research for a new book, a Jazz Era book, based on the life of someone I can't stop dreaming about. She knew all the stars of that time. She was a star herself. And at one point, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his Zelda lived not far from her, shared meals with her, invited her to their home.

Remembering an F. Scott book my mother had given me years ago, I turned to it the other day, searching for historical detail. It opened at once to this page. My mother's words to me, when I was just seventeen.

It's as if she's speaking to me, now.

Mom, your F. Scott obsessed daughter is at last writing her F. Scott-infused novel. It took her long enough.

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

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

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

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

Thursday, April 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

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

The entire review can be found here.

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

Friday, April 7, 2017

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

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

You can watch a video recording here.

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how do you feel about birthdays?

Monday, April 3, 2017

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

And so must we.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 1, 2017


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

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



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

Links below:

ONE THING STOLEN
Kindle
Apple iBookstore
Nookre/books/details/Beth_Kephart_One_Thing_Stolen?id=JQJiBQAAQBAJ&hl=en
Kobo
Bookshout

THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU

Kindle
Apple iBookstore
Nook
Google Play
Kobo
Bookshout

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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

Ceramic Innovations
2017 International Juried Ceramics Exhibition

Essential Earth
2017 International Invitational Ceramics Exhibition

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

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William Sulit ceramics selected for new international show, Ceramics Innovations

Monday, March 20, 2017

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

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

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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

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

The link is here.

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

Saturday, March 18, 2017




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

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

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

The link to today's story is here.

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sending Handling the Truth to the White House

Friday, March 17, 2017

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

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

And truth is liberty.

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

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 13, 2017



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

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

Thursday, March 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

We writers. We do persist.

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

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

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

You did, said the Brit.

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

And here you are, said the Brit.

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

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

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

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