Saturday, September 24, 2016
Our next issue of Juncture Notes will feature the scenes from and lessons of that workshop, as well thoughts on a new bestselling memoir. We'll send it out to our list in a day or so. If you'd like to be on that list, just sign up here. Juncture Notes, which combines Bill's art with my memoir obsession, is free.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
So much stands on the verge right now. So much at risk. Nothing to be taken for granted. Who do we trust and what do we trust them with?
There is power. There are people. Every single soul I met yesterday was a good people. The security guard at the National Gallery who loved my RBG canvas bag (a tote created to celebrate the launch of Debbie Levy's I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark. I'll tell her, I said.). The lady at the gift shop who helped direct me toward the right door, outside of which I would hail a cab. The cab driver himself, who helped me with his heavy door and promised me, as the afternoon traffic swelled, that we would eventually get there. Emi, who greeted me at Politics and Prose, Debbie who hugged me when she arrived, her family and friends, who made me feel as if I were one among them. The guy at the Metro station who helped me get a Metro card when my debit card wouldn't work. The woman beside me on the subway train who explained the one tracking delays in the underground tunnel as we sat there, going nowhere. You'll make your Amtrak train, she said. And she was right.
Every single person I met was kind, easily so.
Couldn't we all be kind, easily so?
Saturday, September 17, 2016
writing workshop series and eight months since we started planning in earnest. We chose a western Pennsylvania farm for our inaugural experience, a place where we believed that the history, authenticity, and land itself would yield, reflect, demand, transform. A place where hard work is earth work. Where routines dictate, except, of course, in all those cases, at all those times, when human beings have no actual authority.
We write about life, when we write memoir. This is life.
We had come to know these writers in the days leading up to the week. Or, we thought we had. But as each arrived, waved their hands, threw her arms around us, settled in, we learned so much more. About them, but also (inevitably) about ourselves.
There were lessons for us all.
We were fed the food of the earth at a time when every drop of water counted. We sat in circles on soft couches and hard chairs and trusted. We leaned forward or sat back. We were intensity. We were calm. We couldn't find what we needed to find and then (miraculously) we did.
I will write more of this soon. The next issue of our Juncture workshop newsletter will carry this story forward. For now, this post is an act of gratitude. A thank you for those who came, those who believed, those who, by making a commitment to the group and to themselves, by doing the asked thing even when the asked thing was a hard thing, grew.
Before our very eyes.
Saturday, September 10, 2016
The cows and the pigs and the chicks and the peacocks and the horse are ready for us, we're told. The sky and the hills. The fresh air and the peace. Those writers.
We will spend one day focused on uncertainty and time, as all memoir writers must. Recently I read Olivia Laing's gorgeous To the River and found, nested within, this paragraph. It will be shared with the writers, but also, I'm thinking, why not share it here, with you. For this is how it feels to be alive. To have hoped for something. To have almost had something. To have lost something. To allow that lostness to linger.
This is life, and this is memoir, with thanks to Olivia Laing:
It felt as if my blood had turned to mercury. I lay on the bed almost weeping, suddenly overwhelmed by the past few months. I hadn't thought I was running away, but now all I wanted was to turn tail and fly, back into the woods, the dense, enchanged Andredesleage where no one could find me or knew my name. Why does the past do this? Why does it linger instead of receding? Why does it return with such a force sometimes that the real place in which one stands or sits or lies, the place in which one's corporeal body most undeniably exists, dissolves as it were nothing more than a mirage? The past cannot be grasped; it is not possible to return in time, to regather what was lost or carelessly shrugged off, so why these sudden ambushes, these flourishes of memory?
Thursday, September 8, 2016
How Vance became a cultural emigrant, as he puts it, is a major part of the story here. But Vance is also deeply interested in understanding what is possible, still, for the community that gave him his roots. He is focused on the relationships (with his sister, his grandparents, his aunt, the Marines, his professors, his Usha) that rescued and sustained him. The opportunities he was given and the legacies he'll always carry forward. He's interested in setting aside easy excuses so that others might fulfill a greater purpose.
The prose is straightforward, and that works perfectly here. The self reckoning is credible, generous. The lessons are important, especially in this election year. Vance is not an apologist. He is not a condemner, either. Yes, Vance, admits, he was helped by schools and grants and outreach. But mostly he was helped by his gun-toting, loud-cursing grandmother who loved him in steep ways and gave him a centering place during raucous teen years.
Who we are as people, Vance argues, reflects the ways in which we have been cared for. That caring begins not with a law, not with a sentence, not with rules and regulations, but with a sense of personal responsibility for the generation of now, the generation of tomorrow. We build our communities person by person, and while candidates matter, while institutions can help, none of it will reach anyone who has not, in some way, been seen or loved.
Here he is, toward the end:
I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother. We make young men consume cotton undergarments to protect a sister's honor. But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?See. Love. Bluster can't save us. Kindness can.
Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Most of the time it's just not pretty (the lives, I mean, not the book itself, which I loved). Most of the time, in fact, it is painful as the early friendships and conversations and comradely hope dissolve into jealousies and theft, unfair advantages, unforeseen attacks from the right or left. One artist will lean toward another, helpful. The other artist will admire, acknowledge awe, then take—acts of stealth and planned disturbances. The artists will goad the other artists on, and the work will advance, the volcanic pressures between them will yield new forms, but oh, the cost of it all. Borrowed ideals, lovers, friends, techniques. Smash ups. New work. Bold work. Despair. It is hard to watch, even at this distance, because the lessons here are not just historic. Such rivalries, in every discipline, still and always abound.
I felt particular empathy for Matisse in the face of a younger Picasso who wanted much, who drew close to Matisse for his own advantage, who leaned on the generosity of the older artist, then locked himself away in the hopes of emerging as top dog/best. Writes Smee, about Picasso's breakthrough Demoiselles, which borrowed heavily from ideas and discoveries of Matisse (ideas/discoveries that Matisse had overtly, generously shared with Picasso, ideas/discoveries that Picasso absorbed by paying close attention to Matisse's work), "The most credible account (of Matisse's comments after seeing Picasso's canvas) was him saying, more mutedly but with evident bitterness: 'A little boldness discovered in a friend's work is shared by all.' The implication being that while he, Matisse, had dedicated years of experiment and honest inquiry to making a high-order aesthetic breakthrough, here, now, was Picasso, stealing ideas he didn't fully grasp in order to produce a painting that was deliberately and senselessly ugly—all for the sake of looking equally bold."
From the evidence presented by Smee, at least, Matisse had every right to draw the conclusion he had, and every right to watch, amazed and not quite certain what to do, as Picasso continued to abuse their friendship in search of ever-greater stature. But what Smee's book also makes clear is that "winning" in art is hardly ever a satisfactory outcome. The victor becomes the target, the next big thing to push aside, the isolated genius who is no longer just one of the guys (all the primary artists in Smee's books are guys), but a force that (in order to be reckoned with) must in some way be destroyed.
de Kooning, for example, outlasts, outwits Jackson Pollock. He gets to be the Numero Uno Artist of the time. He even sleeps with Pollock's last girlfriend. He wins! But here is winning, not just for de Kooning, but for so many artists, dead and alive. Winning is its own form of loss:
But he was far from content. Even as the adulation peaked, he seemed increasingly harried, frustrated, and petulant. Alone at the top, he behaved as if under permanent threat—just as Pollock had. He was pining, too, for lost comrades—"imaginary brothers" gone missing. He was missing Gorky, his old sidekick, long dead. And he was pining, obscurely, for Pollock. More than anyone else, Pollock would have understood what de Kooning was now going through; what it was like to be at the top of the pile; what forces buffeted you up there and made you want to drink yourself to oblivion.Moderation is not a sexy word. The quiet conversationalist is rarely the headline maker. The giver is not the victor, not most of the time anyway. Greatness comes at incalculable costs. The Art of Rivalry offers object lessons in how art gets made—and in how life might have been (might be) better lived.
Monday, September 5, 2016
In the sun it is hot. In the shade it is perfect.
What are we searching for on this Labor Day?
I have been reading Olivia Laing. I have been reading (I seem to endlessly circle her) about Virginia Woolf. Her ecstasy. Her mourning. Her river and her pocketful of stones. I have been reading, too, about artists, jealousies, rivalries. Bacon and Freud. Manet and Degas. I have been thinking of the panel I was on, just yesterday afternoon, at the exquisite AJC Decatur Book Festival, and all the things I didn't say, and the friends who came to see me, and the ease of our stupendously fine moderator, Terra Elan McVoy, who brilliantly coined perfumes for us and wove a silk thread between stories for us and wondered about our books as films and decided This Is the Story of You isn't really a film, not yet a film, though perhaps it is an Indie. Yes. Always. I am, will be, the Indie. Slightly out of step and over to the side and stewing inside the next act of making something, my preference, always, for the thing that is not yet made, as opposed to the thing that is.
Do we read our books after they are published (beyond when authorial responsibility calls us to), we were asked. No, I said. No, emphatic. For there is no fixing the book then, no new chance, and I always wish that my books were better than they were, and I am always trying, until they are printed (ask any editor of mine) to make them better than they are, than they will be, but yesterday, when I was feeling, I'm not entirely sure why, sad, there was a girl in the line after the panel who asked me to sign her books. "You are my favorite author," she said, and I was stunned by it, set back, this gesture of hers, this kindness extended. Words that pinned me to the present time, for that present time, in that moment. With me on one side of the table and this beautiful girl on the other, for just that moment or two, I was me, with the books I have made, in the present, in the moment. I was not looking past them.
Not in that split of time, anyway.
Friday, September 2, 2016
Today we're releasing all ten videos in a series that takes an honest look at topics that should matter to all writers. The place of truth in fiction. The role of research. The importance of a centering place in the stories we write. The (shocking!) reality that not all teens sound the same in real life (and therefore should not sound the same on the page). The stuff teens say about the stuff they read. And etc. I weave my own journey into the essays, excerpt passages from books that teach us, suggest a few prompts, goad and celebrate.
That's all here, lodged on Udemy. Available with a discount using this code.
Navigational truth, of course. Also a metaphor. There are safe zones and muddy margins. The places you know you ought to be and the diversions that attract you.
I've spent much of this year working on something(s) new. On possibilities that may or may not carry forward. On books others may or may not read. On priorities that are assuredly my priorities, but will they become priorities for others? Can what I hope for become the thing that others hope for, too?
For someone with an obsessive need to somehow know the future, or, at least, to effectively shape it, this decision to leave the known, safe path for the unknown and unsure is (certainly) a danger. This is a new life with new rules and measures. There are, I will be honest, floundering, big-question, what am I doing days.
But here is what saves me: The time I spend with the people I love. The time I spend in the air and breeze. The time I spend with the books I choose to read. The time I spend writing the books I want to write, without wondering what might happen to those pages when I believe they're done.
The deep part of the river is the life itself. The mind at flow-forward ease.
Monday, August 29, 2016
A month ago, we shared our first video series on the making of memoir, a Udemy offering that can now be found here.
This past week, we filmed a series of ten video essays all relating to the big challenges, themes, and opportunities that present themselves to those writing for the young at heart. These essays reflect the thinking I've done over the past many years on topics ranging from the question, What is excellence? in this category, to the essential truths in all fictions, to the development of authentic voices and complex characters. Some of the pieces are adapted from keynote talks; most of the material is brand new, fashioned from the challenges I've faced as a writer, from the conversations I've had with teen readers and fellow prize jury members, and from my ongoing dialogue with the leading practitioners of YA and MG.
The full suite of videos is now available through Udemy, here.
Today I'm sharing this single episode from the series. I'm focused on complexity here—why it is important, and how it is achieved. I hope you'll find the time to watch it through. If you like what you see, perhaps you'll share it with a friend. If you'd like to receive an update when the series goes live, you know where to find me.
Friday, August 26, 2016
Two days I'll never forget.
Next weekend I return to Decatur, this time to sit on a Terra Elan McVoy moderated panel with writers Ami Allen-Vath and Alexandra Sirowy. The topic will be Aftermath stories in the realm of young-adult books. I'll be talking, specifically, about This Is the Story of You.
Word is that my dear former neighbor, Shirley, will be there in the audience mix. That, perhaps, one of my favorite rediscovered friends of high school, will be there with his literary daughter. I'm looking forward to you, Decatur, and I thank Chronicle Books and Lara Starr for making it possible for me to be there.
My event is here, should you happen to be in town.
Sunday September 4
Ami Allen-Vath, Alexandra Sirowy, Terra Elan McVoy
AJC Decatur Book Festival
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
The link is here.
Tuesday, August 23, 2016
No, I'm not referring to the physiological impact of the morning oatmeal cookie (butterscotch!). I'm referring to my spheres of interest, the books I'm reading, the ways I'm paying attention to the news, the bravado I displayed when I buckled down to learn how to throw a clay pot on a wheel (to learn, not to master; hardly master), the expanding repertoire in the kitchen. Hisham Matar's The Return has taught me some of the history, geography, and politics of Libya (and disappeared dissidents). Rebecca Mead has taught me Middlemarch and George Eliot. Katie Roiphe has taught me John Updike, Maurice Sendak, Dylan Thomas, and James Salter (among others). Scott Anderson, with his glorious New York Times Magazine essay, has taught me the antecedents of contemporary Middle East. Viet Thanh Nguyen is teaching me, with his Pulitzer winning The Sympathizer, the Vietnamese experience of war.
The world is complex. The news requires perspective. Life is once. I'm going deeper.
Saturday, August 20, 2016
Saturday. August 20. 7 AM.
What will she do?
Thursday, August 18, 2016
Juncture comrade in arms, will be with me, collecting images of the writers at work in those exquisite 400 acres.
We walk Longwood differently now when we go. Last night we went to experience Nightscape, the extraordinary sound and music show that runs from August through October. It's a seduction. A magic experienced in the dark of night among others whose voices you hear, whose passing bodies you're aware of, but whose faces mostly remain obscured. Trees and fronds are canvases. Long walkways. Ponds. Flowerbeds. You find your way. You look up. You stop to see.
To be outside in the dark living art in summer is a very good thing. To have the company of Matthew Ross, one of the most endearingly well-read, widely traveled, smart people you'll meet, is a big bonus. To have the rain begin, a soft pattering, as you walk the lit bridges is sweeter than I can say. The smell of earth rising at your feet. The hush of other passersby. The moon still in the sky.
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
No self-respecting woman is supposed to say such things, think such things, wallow so ungraciously. I know that. But the thoughts come unbidden, and there they are. Mucking around with me.
How easy it is to cast blame on those things I cannot control. How undignified not to stand up to the superficial me, not to embrace all my good fortune first and only. But there it is. I am.
Earlier this week, while reading the intensely intelligent memoir, My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, I found myself all caught up in the beauty question again. Mead is pondering George Eliot's appearance—the images she finds as she conducts her deep research into the life and mind of this complicated writer. Eliot did not, it seems, impress others as a beauty. She was possessed of a large nose and jowly facade. She was not svelte. She was not to be found in the fashion pages.
But, Mead writes, something happened when Eliot spoke. Something that contested the physical facts of her matter:
... a first impression of her hideousness, [Henry James] said, soon gave way to something else entirely. "Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her," he continued. "Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking."
Sara Jane Lippincott, Mead tells us, first found Eliot to be "exceedingly plain, with her aggressive jaw and her evasive blue yes.... Neither nose, nor mouth, nor chin were to my liking; but, as she grew interested and earnest in conversation, a great light flashed over or out of her face, till it seemed transfigured, while the sweetness of her rare smile was something quite indescribable."
Mead ends that paragraph with, "Ivan Turgenev, a friend of Eliot's, said that she made him understand that it was possible to fall in love with a woman who was not pretty."
Mead's entire book deserves your time. Mead's deft examination of how Eliot's biography shaped her fiction. Mead's brilliant assertion of the power books have to help us read our own lives. Mead's never-intrusive insertion of her personal journey as a repeated Middlemarch reader.
And, finally, Mead's lesson—Eliot's lesson—that, in a world of static images, Facebook portraits, video essays, beauty is not a closed one thing. Beauty moves.
Monday, August 15, 2016
We trace much of that momentum to the book's gorgeous cover (thank you, Chronicle Books), to its timeliness in this weather-worried world, and to word of mouth (thank you, kind readers). We trace some of it the Jr Library Guild's generous selection. And now we also have Scholastic Books to thank, for making Story a book club selection.
Taylor just sent along this photo of a Scholastic edition book box.
To which I reply, as I so often do when Taylor Norman is in the house: woot.
Sunday, August 14, 2016
September can't come soon enough, as we Field Noters now like to say.
Saturday, August 13, 2016
As the first light went from red to green, as I accelerated, something inside me stopped.
I'm happy, I thought.
I had cleaned the house in the early morning. I had scanned 30 new pages for the Juncture memoir workshop now set for less than a month from now. I had written to a friend. I'd cracked an egg to make my breakfast and found, within, twin yolks. This had been my day so far. And it seemed a perfect one.
How long has this simple happiness eluded me? What did it take far too many years to step away from so much that hurt, degraded, deflated, consumed, buried me with worry, kept me up at the wrong hours, made me feel less than, a last-in-line priority? We never know how much more time we have. We are bound (oh, trust me, I know) by responsibilities. But I had lived so subsumed by burdens that I had not made room for simple happiness.
Watermelon. Heirlooms. Feta. Homegrown mint. Chunky bread.
A pot of ACME roses.
Thursday, August 11, 2016
My review of Riverine, the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize winner, by Angela Palm, in Printers Row (Chicago Tribune). Click the link here for the full review.
Monday, August 8, 2016
I walked, and as I walked, I talked to my great, great friend, Debbie Levy, whose I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, is about to make a mega splash in this world.
I spend so much of my life worrying the global news and the private uncertainties. Pondering silences and outrage.
But today I lived as people should. Engaged with my world. Happy in the making. Grateful for the people I love.
Wednesday, August 3, 2016
We haven't had this much fun in years. Our first memoir workshop, at a central Pennsylvania farm, is five weeks or so away, with writers coming from around the world to join us. We have another workshop planned in November, a seaside gathering in Cape May, NJ. We're feeling pretty lucky about the memoirists who have stopped by to talk with us for our free monthly newsletter—and grateful when we read the newsletter-inspired work that comes our way. And this coming weekend, in the Currents section of the Philadelphia Inquirer, we tell the story of our transition from corporate America to this something brand new.
Now we're ready to release our first series of video shorts designed for readers and writers of memoir. There are six filmed essays here that braid classic and brand-new memoirs around themes ranging from writer's block to kitchen lives to time and mortality. Tillie Olsen, Maggie Nelson, James Baldwin, Mary-Louise Parker, Diana Abu-Jaber, MFK Fisher, Chang-Rae Lee, E.B. White, Terrence des Pres, Abigail Thomas, Annie Dillard, Sarah Manguso—they, and many others, are here. So are lessons and prompts.
"The Stories of Our Lives" can be accessed through Udemy, at a discount, using this link: Juncture16. Click the link to preview both the introduction and one full essay for free. Hopefully you'll be inspired to take the (very reasonable) plunge and watch the complete series.
Please consider passing the news on.
For a (humorous) behind-the-scenes look at the making of this series, please check out Cleaver Magazine and this conversation between the content producer and the director.
Tuesday, August 2, 2016
I do not know the name of this hybrid creature, but I feel as if it is living my life. I'm glad that it, like me, has paused for a spell upon a bright pink flower.
Sunday, July 31, 2016
Third, and I promise that I'll be stopping here, he cares about the things he does, and I love how much he cares. Launching Juncture Workshops was Bill's idea. Crafting its image, its material self (a bank, a PO box, tax filings)—that was all his doing. The branding, the web work, the advertisements, the photography, the discovery of and interactions with the farm, the Cape May painted lady, the garden where these workshops will be held: that's all Bill. So is building the teleprompter that enabled the filming of these videos we'll soon be releasing through Udemy—videos that celebrate great memoirs, videos that suggest new ways to write—not to mention the positioning of the lights, the filtering of the camera, the selection of the music, and all the post production. So is the design (and the art) of our memoir newsletter.
Bill is in possession of uncountable talents. He's bringing all of them to Juncture. Every day he finds a new way to do even more. So that much of this weekend and part of last week he's been researching and designing one of the very special gifts the workshop attendees will be receiving. So that all this weekend and part of last week, he's taken extreme pleasure from doing just that.
Bill's joy in co-creating Juncture is contagious. His faith in me as I build the content, ready the agenda, write the scripts, and prepare (also joyfully) to teach makes this thirty-year marriage feel brand new.