4,215 Blogger posts later, I'm starting clean with a new website

Saturday, March 24, 2018

My friends, the time has come.

All of these thousands of posts, over the course of these dozen years. Celebrations of books I've loved, of friends I've made, of kindnesses that have been extended my way.

It's all become a bit much—overgrown, weedy, unkempt.

And so, after cleaning out my father's home and then my own, after thinking hard about who I want to be in the days I still have, after writing and publishing a Woven Tale Press essay called "Clean" about all the things I am learning to leave behind, I am also leaving this blog behind. I'm moving on with a simple web site, which I invite you to enter here.

All thanks to each of you who took the time to stop by, to comment, to share.

All thanks to the friends I made through the books we loved.

All thanks to my husband, who has sat with me and built this new site, scrubbed it down to the essentials. Let the reviews and stars of bygone years be bygone. Let the nuggets of thought get tucked into time. Let the photographs recede.

It's time to start fresh again.

The blog will remain live for any who want to sift back through. But I will no longer be adding to it.

Excerpts from eight of my books can be found on the site.

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I'll be out; I'll be about: upcoming talks and events

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A few upcoming events, as spring makes its way too us (and none too soon):

April 20/ 7 PM
Keynote Address
1st Annual Writing Conference: Brave New Words
Pendle Hill
Wallingford, PA

May 6 - May 11
Currents 2018
Five-Day Juncture Memoir Workshop
Frenchtown, PA

June 3/2:45 PM
The Big YA Workshop
2018 Rutgers-New Brunswick Writers' Conference 
300 Atrium Drive
Somerset, NJ

June 5/7:00 PM
Launch of WILD BLUES
Main Point Books
Wayne, PA

June 10/9:30 AM
The Personal Essay Workshop
Philadelphia Writers Conference 2018
Sheraton Hotel
Philadelphia, PA

September 28/9:30 AM
One-day Juncture Memoir Workshop 
Chanticleer Garden
Wayne, PA



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on spiraling toward the essential, in "Clean," a new essay for Woven Tale Press

Friday, March 16, 2018

What a blessing it is to work with Sandra Tyler at Woven Tale Press. She looks at every word, scours every sentence, asks, and asks with kindness. "Clean," my essay up today on her beautiful literary site, is so much better for having had her graceful interventions.

With thanks as well to Angelica Gonzalez—reliably kind.

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Reviewing CENSUS (Jesse Ball) for Chicago Tribune

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

My review of Jesse Ball's incredible Census here, in Chicago Tribune. So privileged to have read this book.

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the boy with AXE hair (one image, five sentences, many stories)

Friday, March 9, 2018

My husband's illustration inspired us at Penn again. My husband, whose illustrations will also appear in Wild Blues, due out in June. (This man is good. Check this out, below, and then imagine that fox in color.)


This time I also share with you some of the work of my glorious honors/independent studies students.

I'm so lucky, right?


Daddy kept the AXE hair gel on the top shelf, said it was his, but Ryan wasn’t so sure. A second grader only has so many tricks to pull—new t-shirt, new kicks—before his style gets old. Even Fanny Wiggins walked past him on the playground to go run through the old pothole. But one else in the class used hair gel yet. He’d be the coolest thing since dino nuggets.

Lauren

He strides to the plate, smirking at the rest of his team with a knowing look. He is the kickball king of Linden Elementary School, and he knows it. The girls in his fourth grade class swoon as he walks the baseline, bending his right knee to prepare for the pitch. With a resounding smack, the toe of his Converse collides with the red rubber and sends the ball into orbit, soaring high above the heads of the pinnie-team like a meteorite thrust into some new gravitational pull. He struts around the bases, unconcerned, smugly jogging back to home base where he scores yet another grand slam. 

Erin F.

“Welp, I’m getting out of here,” Darren says to his classmates as the bell rings at 3:15pm. Finally, it was time to relax, Friday was done and that meant the weekend was here. Darren’s mind filled with thoughts of the amusement park he and his friends were headed to on Saturday. Darren heads down the hallway, walking towards his locker contently. The sleep-deprivation from the long week had gotten to him, now it was time for an escape.

Serena  

His friends were playing on the playground behind him, without him. He walked away. He heard Billy call out to him, and then a thud. He turned around to find Billy had fallen off the swing set. He was surprised to find he wasn’t that sad.

Aliya 

John was the cool kid I wish I could be. He hung his wallet on a chain and could tie up his yoyo string in the shape of the eiffle tower and still have it bounce back. If I were John, I’d walk around with my nose in the air too, knowing whatever trouble came my way was just passing turbulence. I’m not john though. I’m John’s best friend, which makes me even lukier than the cool kid I wish I could be.

Bri

Brows raised, head cocked, just like his father taught him.
“Never look ‘em in the eye, son,” he’d say. “Side eye says it all.”
His mess of stiff black hair pulls him towards an alternate expression, but his hunched, thin body remains still. Except for his left hand, pale twitching, uncomfortable by his side.

Jane

He smirked that infuriating smirk, raising his eyebrows impossibly high and drooping his eyelids in a way that said “I couldn’t care less” like only Frank could do.  Maybe he slouched his shoulders and hadn’t touched a hairbrush in weeks.  But Frank did care, his mother knew. Under that stupid grin he always wore, she knew he didn’t like failing school.  She had caught him studying when he thought she was asleep.  Why he wanted to prove to the world that nothing mattered to him, she would never understand. 

Becca
The boy didn’t mind the outdoors.  He knew his sister didn’t like it – too many bugs, she’d say, and the sweltering sun would cause beads of sweat to appear on her face, smudging her painstakingly drawn-on eyeliner.  Unlike his sister, the boy longed for the warmth of the sun’s rays on his face, the force of the untamed wind pushing its way through his thick hair.  The back of his shirt broke free from his skin, seeming to ripple in the wind, while the front became plastered to his chest.

Lexi


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The big lies, the bigger truths of SILVER GIRL, the new starred novel by Leslie Pietrzyk

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Let's pretend you want to read one of the most interesting, well-starred books released this very season. One of those, wait, did she really say that, did that really happen, do I really like this character who is lying so much and doing so much wrong and still so very empathetic novels?

Let's pretend you want to know the story behind the story.

Okay, then. We're making this official.

Beth Kephart interviews Leslie Pietrzyk about her new novel, Silver Girl.

Pietrzyk is the author of SILVER GIRL, a new novel set in 1980s Chicago during the time of the Tylenol murders. Her collection of short stories THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and she has published two previous novels. More information: lesliepietrzyk.com

Kephart is the award-winning author of 22 books, co-founder of Juncture Workshops, editorial director of the nationally syndicated arts and culture show “Articulate with Jim Cotter,” a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, and a frequent reviewer for Chicago Tribune. She recently produced a truth-saturated workbook, TELL THE TRUTH. MAKE IT MATTER.
 
Don’t look to Leslie Pietrzyk for easy binaries. Don’t think she has easy in her. In 2015 she won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for This Angel on My Chest —sixteen stories whose subject matter—the early death of a husband—remained fixed while the form, the mood, the accusations, the willingness to confess or not to confess, to blame or to forgive, to tell the truth or to construct the truth remained fluid.

Now, in February 2018, Pietrzyk has published, with Unnamed Press, Silver Girl, a thrillingly voicey novel featuring an unnamed narrator who will do almost anything—monstrous anythings, if you’re measuring by sister and best-friend standards—to cage the monster within. Anything so that she cannot disclose who she actually is and where she actually came from and why she does what she does. She’s at college when we first encounter her—forging a friendship with the girl (this one has a name; her name is Jess) who declares, right up front, love, the word the narrator “longed most to hear.” 

Two best friends: like sisters. Except nobody is a sister but a sister, and both Jess and our storyteller have sisters of their own, complicating matters with implicating stories. Both also have histories with men—and ideas about what a man might be, what a man should and should not be trusted with.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and this is starting to sound like a review, and my point is that with sharp-tongued, sharp-edged episodes that defy chronology and disclosure (but offer up out-of-sequence survival tips) Pietrzyk’s narrator yields a careful, messy life. She has to destroy to live, or so she thinks. She has to take to give. She has become systematically unsympathetic until the frozen ice of her skin shatters and we see (and then might choose to love) the actual person that she is.

Crazy, crazy, crazy. The word appears again and again in Silver Girl. As a joke. As a threat. As an amateur diagnosis. The repetition is intentional, controlled, controlling. So are all the lies. “Most about anyone leaves shit out when they’re telling stories and lies their ass off,” a minor but major character says to a slightly younger version of our unnamed. “That’s what a story is, a long, fearless lie unwinding.”

The lesson has been learned. The story has been made.

I met Pietrzyk years ago at Bread Loaf , where I was writing truth and she was writing fiction. I’m still pondering truth and she’s still bending it, and so I had some questions for her about the slippery slide that fuels this most propulsive book.

Silver Girl is a deck of cards shuffled thrice. We have, in this order, a Prologue, The Middle, The Beginning. The End. Where Every Story Truly Begins. We have, additionally, time stamps, that come at the reader like this: fall, freshman year; fall, junior year; winter, freshman year; winter, before college, and so on. Finally, we have survival tips—numbered (for our narrator is a list maker) but presented out of order. The question is: What calculations did you make as you were sequencing this story on the page? How do the jumbled times and themes comment on truth, memory, and trauma?

This is the only novel I’ve written out of order. Early on, I simply wrote about these two girls, exploring the prickles of their relationship and wandering through their lives by writing randomly to one-word prompts. (I belong to a monthly prompt writing group.) I was no hurry for the bigger story of the plot to arrive…until, suddenly, I was totally in a hurry to hone in on the plot, feeling paralyzed by so much freedom (and so many pages of hand-written material I was certain would burn in a fire or be lost in a flood). What was my actual story? All along, I’d known three things: college girls, Chicago, and the Tylenol murders. So I leaned into what had been revealed in the prompt writing to discover the events of the story and to make meaning of those events.

So that’s the structural answer. But more so, I think exploring one’s life from a distance—as this narrator is doing—likely requires a sideways approach, re-envisioning memories with a clearer, colder eye. And that means all the memories, ALL of them. That’s painful work. The narrator’s revelations on the page needed to mirror that difficult untangling, a sense of spinning through time, literally being unable to tease out which was that first bad turn. I often focus on characters longing to make sense of something awful from a later, safer space, and in each of my books, time is a character of sorts, the way other books might use weather as a character or the landscape. One of my first writerly decisions is how much time will pass in the story I’m about to tell. I ordered and reordered this book a hair-pulling amount of times.

What about this word, crazy? What about the casual fling of “inappropriate” observations about religion, sexuality, race? What about a narrator who can say “I didn’t want to be evil, but I was.” What about the freedom you gave yourself to occupy this narrator’s head without censure? What happens to a novel when the novelist chooses to play by nobody’s rules?

From the beginning, I felt immense compassion for this troubled and troubling girl. She sees herself as fighting the best she can to fit into a world she doesn’t understand (though she imagines she does). Her immense desire to escape made me view her as someone uninterested in the usual rules and best practices. I also pondered the way literature’s males and females have traditionally escaped, or, the “jump on a raft and head downriver” novel vs. the “marriage plot” novel. Honestly, I wanted this girl to escape like a boy. Once I understood that about her, I knew she was going for broke and that I’d let her. It WAS liberating. I could never in a thousand years be so bold. Channeling her determination and desperation set free the novel (and the novelist).

Since we’re at it, you have never played by any rules. How did you learn that you didn’t have to?

Ha! Growing up as a good girl of the Midwest, I’m pretty sure I followed every rule there was. In my ordinary life I’m fairly rule-bound (always on time, standing behind the yellow line, etc.). This Flaubert quotation was pinned on my bulletin board to make me feel better about being so hopelessly Midwestern: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” But it was around the time that I started working on THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST, stories about the too-soon death of my first husband, that I started thinking about the “rules” of the writing life: the way New York publishing works vs. the way art is created. My motivating principle became something along the lines of, If I were guaranteed of getting one last book published, what story would I want to tell? (To be clear, I had no guarantee from anyone!) That focus offered clarity and a powerful internal sense of, let’s stop wasting time here. Amazing how easy it can be to shed rules when you see how much time they waste.

“I loved her in a fierce and confused way, like a sister,” the narrator tells us. “I loved Jess for saving me from who I was.” What is a sister? What is a best friend? What is sympathy, and what is empathy, and what is their role in this novel?

These are questions I struggle with, which is why this story grabbed me. I have one sister, younger, and while we’re very different personalities, there’s a core of similarity between us. I wanted the narrator to have this ace, a little sister who’s under-valued at the moment, as family often may be when we’re young. I confess that for me, the best friend is tricky. I have beloved female friends, but not the one and only, the true-blue, the “spill all the secrets to” best friend, unwavering from grade school to death. My past experience has led me to be wary of the “best friend” relationship, which I lament. Isn’t that what we all want, one person who knows and loves us for who we truly are? Is it even logical to expect such a thing? To me, it’s such a miracle when it happens, and that’s the push and pull between Jess and the narrator. They’re living in this miraculous—and fragile—space.

I have sympathy and empathy for each character in this book, for all my characters; I doubt I could write effectively if I didn’t understand who these people are and where they’re coming from. One of my favorite observations about writing—and life—is that no one thinks they’re the villain. It was important to me to expose at least one moment of vulnerability for every character in the book, even those I wanted to despise.

In the novel, I longed to explore this tangle, where our loyalties lie ultimately, what family can do and be that friends can’t, and, at its core, pondering what might be left if there is no family. The popular idea of family as savior is troublesome for those who grew up in a toxic situation or for those whose family members have died or headed for the hills. Maybe they won’t take you in when you show up. Saying we can simply “choose” our own family, as advice columns often do, feels simplistic to me. My narrator wants to connect, with no clear path to do so. How can the heart not ache at such a simple desire?

What makes shame such a fascinating story—to you, to us?

Shame takes us to our most vulnerable space, and when we’re utterly vulnerable, we’re likely either to reveal our deepest selves or to lash out in fear. Or both. That’s what I see this narrator doing. One of my favorite exercises in a writing class is to ask everyone to think about the events from their lives that are the most horrifying to them, the most shameful, the stories that scare them, and to write a list no one will see. “That’s what you should be writing about,” I say. There’s a moment of pure silence where I feel them knowing I’m right.

“I took a deep breath, feeling that superior look settle onto my face, that careful, untouchable composition the only weapon I had, the only weapon I ever had, that mask of utter boredom and vast superiority,” the narrator says, and already, at this point, we understand the source of her badness, the degree of her shame, the events from which she herself could not escape. You have written a blaze of a novel about a seemingly unsympathetic character, and yet I sense that you loved her deeply. Tell us more. Tell us why.

Absolutely: I do love her deeply. She’s the first character I’ve missed writing about after finishing the book. (I even cheated on my current novel-in-progress to write flash fiction about her!) I was pulling for her as I wrote, even as writer-me loaded her with increasingly worrisome plot turns. Like her, I showed up at college utterly ill-equipped, and I worked my ass off trying to catch on to my new environment. I wasn’t the first in my family to go to college, but both of my parents had been, and because no one had explained anything to them, not much was explained to me. Now I understand that most people feel unsteady at the beginning of any vast, new venture, but back then I was certain I was the only one. That vulnerability, that deep desire, that fear of being revealed as a fraud…I just wanted to hug this girl. She does a lot of bad things, but I’m pretty sure we all do.

More and more (and then some) the stories that are emerging—on the big screens and little screens, in the memoirs and the essays, in the novels—center around defiantly irredeemable characters who either ultimately do redeem themselves or don’t bother to (or can’t). Why have we come to this? Why are we thrilled by this? Have we lost our capacity for, or interest in, the authentic quest for truth?

I’m a fan of several T.V shows featuring complicated, bold antiheroes—The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men—the shows that arguably started the movement. Or did they? I know now that for obvious reasons GONE WITH THE WIND is not a good role model of a book (or movie), but as I grew up in Iowa, its antihero, the conniving and crafty Scarlett O’Hara, influenced me tremendously. Intellectually, I got that I shouldn’t want to emulate her; after all, sweet Melanie possessed Scarlett’s same iron-core strength and resilience. Still, it was Scarlett inhabiting my imagination, scaring me with the rawness of her desires (which were thrillingly selfish). I’d like to see more portrayals of women that show us as the complicated, challenging, flawed people we are, filled with rage and desire…not just “moms” and objects of the male gaze. That’s an authentic quest for truth I can get behind.

Or, maybe this is our authentic quest for truth, antiheroes worming behind the fa├žade of the life-is-good, happily-ever-after bullshit, returning to the original Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, where at the wedding, Snow White’s evil stepmother is forced to dance to her death wearing red-hot iron shoes. We have to know in our hearts that life is not ONLY good, so let’s say so and stare into that dark abyss. Or—maybe the thrill of irredeemable evil is the only authentic truth we can accept during these coarse times. OR—maybe during these coarse times, this darkness is what passes as authentic truth. These are the questions that keep me writing.

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teaching the teachers, and a deeply prized gift

Friday, February 23, 2018

Yesterday, after months of planning, I joined the English teachers of the T/E School District (K through 12) for a teach-the-teachers session. TELL THE TRUTH. MAKE IT MATTER. memoir writing workbooks had been ordered for each of the participants. My job was to connect many of the exercises inside that book to the books that children read. I chose, among others, BOAT OF DREAMS, TAR BEACH, FRIENDS, THE MEANING OF MAGGIE, RAIN REIGN, THE BOOK THIEF, and my own FLOW, GOING OVER, and THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU.

What a conversation we had. What work the teachers themselves produced. We moved from nonfiction into fiction, from fiction into truth, from history into the right now, from the personal to the public, from the silent fear to the empathetic gesture. There are few more delightful things for this teacher-reader-writer than to be among other devoted teachers-readers-writers. I was glad for all of it.

I left the program, spent an hour with my husband, then made the half hour drive to my father's home, where I have been spending so much of these past many weeks. I stayed until the near-dark, drove home in rush-hour rain, and dropped my bag on the floor. After a week of barely an hour or two of sleep each night, after so much TV work, so much other teaching, so much corporate America, so many recommendation letters, I was, for the moment, done.

"There's something for you from Jessica," my husband said.

"Really?" I said.

"Open it," he said.

I did. And here from our beloved Juncture friend (read her words in the sidebar here) was a beautiful card, a startling note, a book called RIVERS by Alison Townsend. Out in Wisconsin, Jessica had heard Alison read. Knowing my own obsession with rivers, my FLOW, Jessica had bought me Alison's book. Alison, as it turns out, knew something about me, a circle was drawn, a beginning touching an end touching a beginning, and flowing forward through our Jessica.

There is so much about our lives that we can't understand.

I do understand love.

Thank you, Jessica.

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One image. Any story. Words from The Big YA at Penn

Monday, February 19, 2018

All throughout this semester we have paused to write a five-sentence story for an image. Most of the time we've used my husband's illustrations to spark the tale, and last week was no different.

What was different is that Katie, a student of many years ago, spent the first half hour of class time with us. Katie, my Katie, who inspired a key character in my novel One Thing Stolen and who has gone on to UCLA, where, as an intern in the OBGYN program, she is already delivering babies.

My students—of now, of then—are hope-yielding. Here, below, are some of their stories. (Katie wrote, too, but her handwriting is truly doctor-worthy, and I feared mis-transcribing her story here.)


I think there is potential in blankness. Maybe I’ll draw something for you. Maybe I’ll write you a song. But frankly, I think I will send you a million blanks so you can imagine what each sheet is supposed to be. A flower, a poem, or perhaps an origami dinosaur.

Gene

This substitute teacher thinks she can keep us from having fun. She thinks she can seal the windows, close the blinds, wipe the board clean, and gaze down her nose at all of us. Especially me. But what he doesn’t know is that our real teacher is still here. If I listen, I can hear her questions, her corrections, and most of all, the words she sends constantly floating through our air for us to pluck out and use.

Catherine

She was watching. I nibbled on the edge of my ballpoint pen and began to write. A story that never ends. It was daunting, I could say that much. A precocious child though I was, I couldn't see things through. I hadn't even been able to finish the 1000-word essay prompts shoved at me last Christmas Eve.

Esther

He sits in his room, poring over that horrible algebra textbook. Who knew seventh grade would be so hard? His mother stands in the doorway to his room, watching him frantically scribble, erase, scribble, erase, as if the pages wouldn't stay still. He pictures the pages, fluttering from his desk, some awful tornado of numbered sheets filled with equations amounting to an unintelligible other language, one no amount of tutoring could help him unlock.

Erin F.

"You have 45 minutes to complete your essays," my teacher announced. "Use only pen and pick one of the provided prompts."

My eyes wiggled back and forth furiously, trying to read the page that sat on my desk. I don't want to write any of this, I thought to myself.

Suddenly, the words jumbled on the white piece of paper, becoming incoherent alphabet soup.

"I just want to make my own decisions," I shouted, grasping my head between my hands, as it filled with extraordinary innovation and creativity: the two things my teacher would never see.

Ania

Two minutes before the bell rang, as Jared was shifting papers from side of his desk to the other—too loudly—a gust of wind burst through the half-open window. It blew the girls’ long hair from their faces, it riffed the proctor’s long, pleated skirt, and it sent every page of Jared’s completed AP Literature exam whipping across the rows of desks. As one, every head in the room turned toward him. How Jared had managed to mess this up, no one was sure. One thing was certain: their scores were cancelled.
  

Charlotte

Jonny scratches his head and squints his eyes
I watch him struggle but I am unable to help him
I start to approach him as the words escape his mind
Much like the pages that escape him
Watching the words fly away like birds uncaged

Serena

Letters swirl in my head, bouncing from one end of my skull to the other.  I try to make sense of them and put them on the page, but it isn’t working.  It rarely does.  “Two minutes left,” the teacher calls, her high heels clicking on the tiled floor as she paces around the room. “If you haven’t written your conclusion yet, do that now.”  I hear the clicking of the heels get louder as she approaches.  My heart pounds in my chest.  I only have one paragraph.  She looks at my page and clucks her tongue in disapproval.

Lexi

This was the twenty-first letter the boy had written. They all started the same, with the opening words, “Dear Mom,” and they all ended up the same, unreceived, unopened, unread.  The boy did not know who his mother was, nor did he know where she was.  The envelopes were marked in large 7-year-old print: To Mom. The women at the orphanage didn’t have the heart to explain to the boy that letters without an address could not be delivered, but they also did not have the heart to throw away his carefully chosen words.

Becca
-->
My body is grounded in class but my head is up in the clouds, brimming with the stories my mom reads to me every night. Vivid pages of Kings and dragons and knights, faraway lands that are much more interesting than the one I am currently stuck in: the land of math. My hand reaches out and up to catch them all, to hold them close, when I hear my name called.

"Oh! Derek, you know the answer?"

The stories are no help to me now, and they flutter away as my face flushes. I do not know the answer. 

Erin L.

My mother insists on leaving the windows open and uncovered all day, all year. It's beyond frustrating. With no blinds to protect me from the sun, I wake up at the crack of dawn. In the winter, I freeze and my skin dries and cracks. It's almost unlivable, but I learned long ago never to ask her why.

John
I tried my best. I really did. I poured my heart out onto those papers. Mrs. Drexler didn't care. She looked at my scattered papers with scorn. I knew she was happy to see me fail. — Isabella 

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contemplating the single sentence, and celebrating Anna Badkhen, in the new Juncture Notes

Thursday, February 8, 2018

What if we only gave ourselves the task of writing a single beautiful sentence each day? I ponder that question, and interview Anna Badkhen about her new book, Fisherman's Blues, in this issue of Juncture Notes.

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One Image. Many Stories. (2) More work from my MG/YA class

Friday, February 2, 2018

Again, I shared with my beautiful class an image that my husband had created.

Five minutes, I said. Write the story.

Here are some of the stories.

What is the story to you?


I see the people walking in front of me, their eyes downcast, arms interlinked.  My mother urges me to move along, to catch up.  We don’t want to be left behind, she tells me.  I’m not so sure I agree with her. I drag my feet along the uneven path, my shoelace becoming undone in the process.  It’s already lost most of its original whiteness from the dozens of times it’s dragged through the dirt.  I idly wonder if, when we get to our destination, I will be able to get a new pair of sneakers.

Lexi


I was quite unsure of where my mama was taking me. We had walked downtown in all black clothes; she slicked my hair back with her frail hands every few blocks. Eventually, I saw faces that I recognized. They were all wearing black clothes... Just like me. Just like mama. I recognized a tall woman with long black hair— my aunt. Her face was more puffy than normal and her eyes were pricked with red. I wondered why she was crying. I wondered why we were here, standing around, wearing black, saying ‘sorry.’

Ania

We avoid it. The void of light. No one should want to be found. To be found is to be known and to be known is to be judged. And punishment is the inevitable nature of judgment’s tight lips, loose gown, and stone grip of opinion.

Gene


"We're almost there. Just keep going." The tall girl bent to whisper in my ear. her hand rubbing "comforting" circles into my shoulder. Easy for her to say; her long legs carried her closer to the promised land while my short, stubby knees wobbled to catch up. There's nothing left in me, no energy to keep going, no will to survive. "20 more miles." she whispers, seeing me struggle to keep from stumbling.
I just want her to stop talking. 

Precious

In the darkness we crossed the lake, praying its frozen crust wouldn't give way under our feet. It had been a warm few days, and the ice groaned under our weight. However, a frigid death in the lake would be better than what we left behind.

John

He kicked a rock down the sidewalk, his boot making loud, angry impact with the curb. It hit the back of his sister's shoe, and she twisted to throw a vicious look at him, but she didn't say anything. His mother placed a quelling hand on his shoulder. Whenever something like this happened, his father made his whole family go on one of these walks. Whenever something like this happened, the silence was complete.

Charlotte

His mother’s hand rests lightly upon his shoulder, neither pushing him forward nor backwards. But holding him in place. He does not want to go. He watches in trepidation as the other children are herded towards the empty class full of possibility and brimming with uncertainty. He remembers the stories his older sister tells him of friends and colored squares and story-time, but all he really wants is to sit on his mother’s lap, her arm clutched around him with the other balancing a book, mouth spewing wonderful stories of dragons and knights. He never wants her to let go.

Erin L.

A first funeral - at six, the idea is beyond digestion, an aerial view from her mother's shoulders of the devastation below. She has no emotional ties or any age, truly, to know what she is seeing: a collage of photos of a happy man fishing, a photo with his wife. A scene before her, in human form, a mother's hand on her crying son's shoulder. All he can feel is the vastness of the room, its vacancy of color, the darkness of black ties and tights and tight-lipped apologies for loss.

Erin F.



My fingers have gone through my hair so many nervous times that I can feel it messy and spiky on my forehead. I don’t have anything else left to grab on to. So I reach up, straining my elbow to hold my wrist backwards, and take my sister’s hand. I don’t want it sitting on my shoulder, guiding me like a pet dog with a leash. I need to hold it, to touch reassurance, to grasp some of the resolve with which she looks straight ahead, and walks.

Catherine


I see the people walking in front of me, their eyes downcast, arms interlinked.  My mother urges me to move along, to catch up.  We don’t want to be left behind, she tells me.  I’m not so sure I agree with her. I drag my feet along the uneven path, my shoelace becoming undone in the process.  It’s already lost most of its original whiteness from the dozens of times it’s dragged through the dirt.  I idly wonder if, when we get to our destination, I will be able to get a new pair of sneakers.

Lexi

The icy wind slapped Jacob in the face, but the sting of the cold was nothing compared to the relentless burn of hunger.  Three days, they had been walking now.  Three days with barely any food, only what a resourceful few had thought to carry.  His mother rested a gentle hand on his shoulder.  “Just a bit further,” she said softly.  “We’re almost there now.”  Jacob wanted to believe her, but how could he when his legs felt like lead and his shoes were torn and he could still hear the screams they had left behind every time it got too quiet?

Becca
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They led the children up the mountain. Eyes lowered, shoulders sagging. The rain was a cruel and infuriating thing. It trickled in regular, ruthless rhythms down their backs, blurred out the temple standing frowning at the summit. Even the High Priest's uncanny vision couldn't help them glimpse the structure.  

Esther
A few more steps and we will make it.
Hush, we have no choice but to leave.
Her daughter fears for her newborn kitten she left behind.
Will it survive, will it be warm?
Listen to your mother, she whispers, we must keep moving.


Serena
Pa said he would send money, he promised we would always be safe. Everything he said was a lie. He never came back, never sent help. Ashamed and humiliated my mom and I join the wanderers. Where will we go? What will we do? The future remains unclear. — Isabella

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Winter/Karl Ove Knausgaard, my Chicago Tribune review

Monday, January 29, 2018

I had the great pleasure of reviewing Winter, the second in a seasonal quartet by Karl Ove Knausgaard, in the Chicago Tribune. The full review is here.

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One image. Many stories. Early words from my MG/YA class at Penn.

Friday, January 26, 2018

This Penn semester I'm teaching something new—wading into the land of middle grade and young adult writing with fifteen spectacular students. We're learning about character and voice from verse novels, in-the-round perspective from multiple-voice novels, dialogue and pacing from graphic novels. We're inviting Sara Novic into our fold. We're building personalities, landscapes, tensions, plots—and friendships.

Around a crowded table, we warm up with a five-minute-five-sentence exercise. An image is presented. A question is asked: What is the story?

The image above was created by my artist-husband. The words below come from a sampling of my students. They're pretty great, right? Teaching all of us how one frozen moment in time can mean many things to many people.


She begins a new job in the same city, but somehow it feels like a completely new world. As she watches the other adults go by, something in her shrinks and she reverts to feeling small, young, scared. Her briefcase weighs on her like a suitcase, her resume in hand turns into her beloved childhood stuffed animal, Maxie. 

Jillian

Relative to her height, the legs around her might as well have been a forest. The pant-legs were saplings, and the skirts like old, stout, round trees. Afraid of losing her grip on the small briefcase, she tightened her fingers until the knuckles all blanched and the sweat in her palm had nowhere to go. In order to get out of this crowd, Penelope thought, she was going to need to pick her way through the forest.

Catherine

She had been walking for fifteen minutes when it first occurred to her to look up. There had been a voice over the intercom, at first, directing her back to her mother—she had been walking away from that. She and her mother had gone to the mall to buy new shoes for school. Before they had left, she had packed a suitcase with the essentials: goldfish crackers, blanket, and two pairs of socks. Now, the girl was free.

Charlotte

She was on her way home. Her mother said home was faces and so she looked up at the people walking past her. Their faces spoke travel, work, and other things she could not describe. She stood there with wonder and confusion and pondered over which face to trust, which long leg to grasp. Then, she made her choice.

Gene

Does growing up mean growing tall?
Do we learn as our bodies grow?
Does small person mean small mind?
A young girl holds her stuffed animal by her side, and she wants to loosen her grip, but doesn’t know how.
What can we learn about what can be lost from the gloss in our eyes?

Jane

She'd begged her mother for weeks to let her ride the subway on her own to school - a girl always seeking to be older, imitating her father by using his old suitcase in lieu of a backpack in preschool. After a persistent fight, she finds herself on the platform of the 2, Uptown. And though she is in high school now, the feeling of being absolutely lost makes her feel more like she's five than fifteen. In the midst of the chaos, of adults transferring cars, squeezing between commuters, she feels like her younger self, suitcase in hand, stuffed animal tucked under her arm. And the boldness of her desire to be older is overcome by the reality that she might still be a child.

Erin F.
Her mom had been wearing a skirt, Sarah thought.  A black skirt.  Tall blue jeans and cuff-linked arms carelessly pushed Sarah aside.  She felt as though she were drowning in a sea of long legs and strange faces.  Sarah squeezed her bunny tight against her chest and clutched her suitcase till her knuckles turned white.  Mom would find her, she told herself, over and over again.  Mom would find her. 
Becca 

A child can slip unnoticed through a sea of men and women. The girl looks up into the stratosphere, gazing in wonder at the adult faces and features so different than her own. She attempts to mimic their calm and collected seriousness as she wades among them, toting her father’s “very important” forgotten briefcase in one hand, her favorite stuffed dog fueling her confidence in the other.

Erin L.
My name is Edna and I am seven years old. Tensions in Poland are rising so my parents have sent me to stay with family in America. I just got off the boat with my toy bunny and suitcase. All around me are busy people, minding their own business. How will I ever find my uncle in this crowd? — Isabella

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WILD BLUES: the cover (and story) reveal

Saturday, January 20, 2018

A new middle-grade book is due out this year. A Caitlyn Dlouhy Book (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster). A book that has been in the making for many years. It brings together so much that I love (memories of my antiques-loving uncle, my Salvadoran husband's stories, the camping guide penned by my great-grandfather, Horace Kephart) and so much that I fear (dark caves and penetrating storms, random violence and untruths).

I can't wait to share the book with you, when it appears in June. But in the meantime, I have this jacket, so gorgeously illustrated by John Jay Cabuay and so magnificently—would the word be nurtured?—by Caitlyn and her team.

So many thanks, too, to Karen Grencik and Amy Rennert, for loving me through my books.

Finally, thanks to my husband for the stories, the trust, and the illustrations that he contributed to the pages of this book. They recall the evocative, fluid images he sent to me, years ago, when he was at Yale and I was in Philadelphia, waiting and waiting.

The jacket copy:

Choose.

That's what thirteen-year-old Lizzie's mom asks her to do as summer begins.

Lizzie chooses to stay with her uncle Davy and his cabin in the Adirondack wilds.

She chooses Matias Bondanza—Uncle Davy's neighbor, and her forever friend.

She chooses her survival guide, The Art of Keppy; scrambled eggs and pupusas; a big whale of a rock; the cool beneath trees.

But soon things happen that are beyond Lizzie's control. Things she could never have imagined.

A prison break.

A kidnapping.

A blinding storm.

There are new choices to make, and Lizzie must make them.

Because the fate of everything she loves hangs in the balance.

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Juncture Notes 22: Bunk, Graphic Memoirs, Landscape Writing

Monday, January 15, 2018

In the latest edition of Juncture Notes we're talking about Kevin Young's Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, graphic memoirs (Eleanor Davis's You & A Bike & A Road, David Small's Stitches, and Tom Hart's Rosalie Lightning), Helen Epstein's The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma, and landscape writing.

It's all right here. Sign up for future editions here.

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At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a Final Fridays celebration of truth and language

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Last evening Bill and I met some 80 truth-seekers at the Johnson exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We'd built custom workbooks inspired by ten of the works on display. We'd invited participants to connect the paintings (or, in one case, the Rodin sculpture) with specific (and personal) aspects of the year past—and the year to come.

There were to have been two sessions. Thirty people were expected for each. But by the time the first session was under way, we were nearly out of our 80 workbooks and deep into conversation with a four-year-old memoirist, a priest, a high-school teacher, a fitness instructor, a young woman who went back to school to face her nemesis (math) and discovered that she's actually quite mathematical, an English teacher, a music teacher, a recent high-school grad, and so many more. We were blessed by the enthusiasm for the program and the care that so many took to write, and I will never forget walking around that exhibit space watching perfect strangers connecting with themselves.

A good way to end this year, with thanks to Cat Ricketts, who makes everything so very grand.

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Holy Night: A (Beth Kephart) Christmas Poem

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

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Holy Night
  
I thought that I was capable:
A girl with a song
On a night bright with the wide-open eyes of the stars.
My father at the piano,
My brother with the sweet reed of the oboe squeezed
Between his lips,
The crisped-skin fry of the Christmas Eve smelts
         Still in the air,
The stockings hung,
My mother and sister on the couch,
One beside the other.
And I was the one,
I was the one who would sing.

My father, as I have mentioned, was at the keys,
My brother was leaning toward his own notes,
In the house that isn’t ours anymore,
In the room where my mother used to be,
By the tree,
In the hours before what we’d thought we’d wanted
Would be received,
At a time when the eyes of the stars were on us,
And it was my turn to sing.

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my Chicago Tribune review of a twisty Christmas story

Friday, December 15, 2017

So what was Dickens thinking when he set out to write his A Christmas Carol? The screenwriter Samantha Silva has spent a long time imagining just this.

I reviewed her book, Mr. Dickens and His Carol, for the Chicago Tribune.

The full link is here.

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a filmic peek inside William Sulit's clay world—and a trunk show

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Meet Bill in person this Saturday, at 36 Craven, Old City, Philadelphia. Bill will be sharing a number of brand new pieces in a trunk show—pieces that come to life in the video above.

I've written about this glorious new store (and its owners) previously, here.

I'll be with Bill this Saturday and look forward to seeing you there.

138 N. 3rd Street
Philadelphia, PA
Saturday, December 16th
1 - 5 PM




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Previewing The Art of Remembering, our Final Fridays event at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Monday, December 11, 2017

We invite you to join us on December 29, 2017 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Final Fridays event, starting at 5:00 PM. We'll be using the Johnson exhibition as a way back to our own memories of the year that was, and those who join us will receive this workbook. Admission to the event is free after entry.

More details here.

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Join us for Final Friday (December) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (we're excited; we made a special workbook for the event)

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


Among the beautiful people we've lately come to know is one Cat Ricketts, who coordinates the evening programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She'll hold ugly sweater parties. She'll host jazz musicians. She'll rock a room with a bossa nova quintet.

She'll also come up with some very spectacular ideas (with equally beautiful colleagues like Claire Oosterhoudt) for PMA's Final Friday events. I didn't know what Cat might have in mind when she got in touch with us several weeks ago. But when she invited us to be part of the line up for Get Your Om On (December 29, 2017), I said yes at once.

We've spent time with Cat and Claire in the meantime—developing a keepsake, memoir-twinged notebook inspired by the Johnson exhibit now on display in the Dorrance Galleries. I've done the writing. Bill's done the designing. Cat and Claire have done the fabulous hosting of our (eternally funky) ideas. Bill and I will both be there for the entire evening, giving out the notebooks, talking remembering and memoir, and listening to the stories those who come have to tell.

And so this is an invitation—a hope that you'll join us and the other artists on December 29, 2017 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The fun begins at 5:00 PM and ends a little before 9:00 PM. Admission is free after entry. For the entire line-up, check out this link.

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what I've been thinking about, this holiday season, in the Philadelphia Inquirer

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Thoughts on remaining integral during a season of sometimes-chaos. In the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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when you want so much for those who gather close to tell their stories

Sunday, November 19, 2017

We have returned from Sea Change, our memoir writing workshop by the sea. And oh what a sea change it was—for us all.

Each time I leave a workshop I leave stunned and grateful for the honesty of those who have come—for their willingness to reach, then reach again. We experienced transformations this past week of a nearly unearthly kind. Writers who found their stories. Writers who found their words. Reporters who became poets. Entertainers who struck at our hearts. Badassery latticed up with tenderness...and then some.

I barely sleep during these intense days. I am, by the end, on the edge of myself, the edge of each story, the edge of each truth. Where there once was blood there runs only an urgent hope that those who have joined us write big, write more, live whole.

Like a gymnast, I bend in all directions—I stretch, I fold. Sometimes, off that balance beam, I fall. I try one more trick, take one more leap, jump, turn, catch my toe, miss. That's me, the Beth Kephart I don't even really know until I'm the only Beth Kephart I am.

At the close of this session, the writers offered me a gift—their words turned toward me. These words below are from Louise, who has joined us now three times. Louise, who has found both her story and her words. I share them because they are for all of us—all of us who teach, all of us who hope, all of us who dare to want so much for the people we (we have no choice) do love.

We are given such glorious reasons to love. These women. Oh. These women.


Blank pages, open hearts, ready minds
We come to this place, to you
A safe harbor for our souls
Unsure, yet anxious to explore
We are transfixed, transformed
Torn down and built up 
Love is at the core. 

Juncture 21, our memoir newsletter, is now out and can be accessed here. Among other things we're featuring the poets Dan Simpson and Ona Gritz, who have written extraordinarily thoughtful words about the work they do alone and together. Dan and Ona's work provided touchstones for two of our writers this past week in Cape May. We returned to their words again and again.



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so grateful for this essay in LitHub, on not vanishing our writing heroes

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Quietly, determinedly, I have returned to the writing of essays. My pieces in the Philadelphia Inquirer becoming ever more personal. My research for fiction yielding explorations of the truth (in Woven Tale Press). And, this past week, the publication of an essay long in the making in LitHub.

Finding my voice again. Slowly.

The LitHub essay stems from years of reading and wondering about Paul Horgan. From a trip my husband and I took out west. From a letter that was sent to me from Andrew Wyeth's nephew. From my wondering, often, what really remains of writers once they are gone. And why.

"Reclaiming a Beloved Writer from the Brink of Disappearance" can be found here.

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Strangers in Budapest/Jessica Keener: reflections

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

I am of the age of accumulations. Impressions, dreams, realizations, friends. A clarified sense of the stuff of life that I willfully carry forward.

Jessica Keener is part of that accumulation—a photographer who posts bright blooming flower images on dark national days, a woman with whom I once sat eating cupcakes in a Boston shop, a writer whose books I have read, a friend with whom I talked long one Saturday at noon, me on my phone in my Pennsylvania study, she on her phone in her Boston.

I've written about Jessica and her books before. I've written about them here.

Today I'm writing about Jessica again because her second novel, Strangers in Budapest, is due out in less than a week, and good things are happening all around. The Chicago Review of Books and Real Simple have both named the novel an essential November read. The independent bookstores are ecstatic. Boston Magazine called Jessica's story "perfect page-turner for late autumn," while Publishers Weekly called the book "riveting" and "memorable."

I have risen at 3 AM these past few days to read Strangers in Budapest through. I'd heard some of the stories of its making, heard of Jessica's great gratitude for her agent and editor and publicist and early readers, heard Jessica speak of her relationship to this tale.

But every reader makes a story new and so I read this propulsive story about a young American couple in a sizzling-hot Budapest of 1995 with great eagerness to find out for myself just what is happening here. As the story opens, Annie, the wife, is becoming involved with an old man who is on the hunt for the man he believes married then murdered his wheelchair-bound daughter—and later absconded with her money. Annie has secrets of her own, and concerns about her husband's thus-far less-than-successful forays into Hungarian business opportunities. Chased by her own past, Annie wants to do good. But will good come from falling in with this old man's quest? And will Annie be culpable for the consequences?

The story moves quickly—the lives of seeming strangers soon entangling, the mysteries never black or white, the confusions amplified by a city of Gypsies and a melodic language and empty herringbone-floored apartments opening to remarkable (but historically compromised) views. Budapest of 1995 is no mere backwash in this novel. It is, in many ways, the engine—the devastating history, the east versus the west, the strange mayoral politics, the trade-offs and tarnish.

Jessica has written it all with the knowledge of one who did indeed live in Budapest years ago—as one who walked those floors and saw those monuments and watched those lights on the castle at night. She has written the novel authoritatively, I'm saying—a psychologically suspenseful, fast-moving story in which all the pieces and parts come movingly together.  

Strangers in Budapest is best read right now, when the chill in this November air will offset the heat on the pages.

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