Can you take teaching too far?

Monday, February 28, 2011

This afternoon, between corporate work, I was reading Mentor:  A Memoir (Tom Grimes) and reflecting on what it is to be a teacher, what it must have been to be Grimes as he entered the orbit of Frank Conroy and the Iowa Writers Workshop.  I kept stopping as I read, thinking of my own strange methods, remembering the cookies that I'd promised myself I'd bake for students who will, among other things, be recalling first kitchens, first loved meals in class tomorrow.  "Don't you think you are going a little too far with all of this?" my husband asks me, as he watches me disassemble (again) my library in search of just the right passage for just this one student; I know it's in there somewhere.

But can you take it too far?  For here are students who want to learn, who have not yet succumbed to norms and utter everydayness, who are still seeking, still searching for their voices?


Dangerous Neighbors, an Academy of Music excerpt

I snapped this photograph long before the Alvin Ailey dancers took the stage at the Academy of Music yesterday.  I was thinking of my twins, in my Centennial novel Dangerous Neighbors—a scene of them together in this music hall, awaiting the arrival of Adelina Patti.  From the book, then:

It is another world inside. It is stone sheen, gold, and gaslight. “Oh, Anna,” Katherine says, and Anna presses her hand to her heart. Even then, even before she knows what will be stolen from her, even before she is aware of the possibility, Katherine wants every inch of this one birthday evening for keeps. She wants to lodge it deep, for all of time. She leads the way up the stairs and through the crowds and toward an arch and through a door and down the aisle toward their cushioned seats, holding Anna’s hand. High above is the crystal chandelier, and Anna won’t take her eyes off it; in Anna’s eyes it shines. It’s like the icicles that form on the edge of a roof when the sun gets trapped inside—a cascade of ice and sun.
“Like sitting inside a jewelry box,” Anna whispers, and Katherine nods.


Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Sunday, February 27, 2011

You can't take pictures during a theatrical performance, and obviously I never would.  So that this, before you, is the high cake stack of Philadelphia's City Hall, as seen from below, a half hour before the curtains rose on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater production staged at Philadelphia's own Academy of Music.  Three suites were performed—Dancing Spirit, Forgotten Time, Revelations.  We, the nearly sold-out audience, were on our feet by the end, when the dancers—the women done up in bright yellow church dresses and flopping hats, the men wearing proper black and whites, the props nothing more than golden fans and plunked down stools—were rocking our souls in the bosom of Abraham. We were in love with the slender reach of their arms, the bewilderingly beautiful musculature of their backs, the roll and whip of their necks.  Mostly, let's be honest, we were in love with their joy; we took some for ourselves when they weren't looking. 

All praise on a sunny Sunday.  All rise to the dance.


Reality Hunger/David Shields: Reflections

All right, then.  Along with the ten new memoirs that sweep into my home last week slides David Shields's manifesto, Reality Hunger—a meditation on and exercise in literary collage, appropriation, fusion, blend, bend, thought poem, risk.  Do you believe in, say, fiction as one category and nonfiction as another?  Go talk to Shields.  Do you actually believe that other people's thoughts or ideas should be housed inside quotation marks, that truth can be located, that plot is story, that fiction (or at least conventional fiction) has something to say?  Do you know what you love?  Do you honor beauty above raw?  Have you given enough space to white space?

Go talk to Shields, or read him.  Or, I should say, read this book, which is only, perhaps, 82% Shields, in terms of the lines themselves, the rest being borrowed from, say, Vivian Gornick, Patricia Hampl, William Gass, Margo Jefferson, John D'Agata, Lauren Slater, Philip Roth, Charles Simic, J. M. Coetzee, Ross McElwee, Anne Carson, and if I listed them all, I would be taking you through the 618 citations in the back of the book, reluctantly delivered by Shields, at the advice (or insistence) of his attorneys, though Shields, begging us not to refer to the citations at all, declares, "Reality cannot be copyrighted."

(Please, Mr. Shields, forgive my quotation marks.)

When you write across genres, as I do, when your autobiography of a river feels like the truest book you've ever written (the angriest, the most beseeching, the least afraid of either beauty or despair, the most unprotected and therefore the most vulnerable), you engage with Shields, you talk to him in your head, saying:  Yes, this is so.  No, not quite so much.  Or, Are you perhaps dangerously close to exhibitionism with your extremism, even if (I admit) this extremism is engaging?  And, Will you be offended if I thank you for this late-in-the-book chapter called DS, where it is you and only you straight for a couple of pages, you getting (unassisted) to your heart of things, your unmediated why of things, though I recognize, I obviously do, that appropriation and plagiarism are your method here, your trump card, your manifesto, your heart?

What does, indeed, offend Shields?  Boring does.  Boring gets him big.  Conventional forms, conventional ideas, conventional courtesies—these would not survive in the land of Shields.  What Shields wants, in his own words, is found under section 457:  "So:  no more masters, no more masterpieces.  What I want (instead of God the novelist) is self-portrait in a convex mirror."

That is what Shields wants.  And you?


House of Prayer No. 2/Mark Richard: Reflections

Saturday, February 26, 2011

You get saddened up, out here in life, by all the hum drum and the done before, the standard issue, the colors shimmed off to gray.  So that when you pick up a book like House of Prayer No. 2, a Mark Richard memoir rendered in meaty second-person prose, you let a smile crawl across your face and stay.  Just two weeks before, in my creative nonfiction class at Penn, a student had asked if memoir had to be, by definition was, a first-person accounting.  Tuesday I'll head back to class with House of Prayer No. 2 in my bag.  Second person works, I'll say.  It works, if you're Mark Richard.

Well, first, you have to have a life like his to tell a true story story like this, and I'm pretty sure no one else has lived precisely Richard's way—poor and "special," his hips whacked out, his days (or far too many of them) stuck in the hopeless heat of a hospital for crippled children, and, afterward, everything you hope your child doesn't do, doesn't get involved with, doesn't risk—all that done, by Richard, on his way to growing up, on his way to faith and writing.  Jeepers, where to start?  With the snakes he battled, with the things he stole, with the run-down houses he thieved into, with the ship captains and the small-time jail stints, with running off to Cuba, with running more (but hardly running, with those hips), drunk and from the law?  Smart kid, this Richard, big reader, fine writer with stories to tell, but so intent on his own dissipation for so long that if it hadn't been for editors and other writers mailing Richard's stories to contests and all, who knows what would have happened to this guy and his talent?  Who knows?  Richard was living one crazy thing after another, no plan, and no plan takes him, eventually, to New York, Nan Talese, Pen/Hemingway Award, Norman Mailer, Hollywood, and a bunch of other stuff—oh, incredibly and also, to helping to build a church after almost becoming some kind of southern minister—you'll have to read about in the book.

Read about it, second person.  Read about it, time flying or time going slow, and every sentence so rich with things you haven't seen before.  Or, at least, I haven't.  Call me sheltered.

I folded down pages to share with you.  I am having a devil of a time deciding.  All right, here.  A paragraph plucked from Richard's early wacky newspaper days—a tame paragraph, as this book goes, but a little show and tell of Richard's rhythms, his capacity, despite it all, for fun.  One thing leading to another.  Second person. 
Overall it's a good place, and you fill the pages with your name and several of your pseudonyms.  You cover the world's largest naval base and its air wings, NATO, the shipyards, the weapons centers, and anything else that interests you, and it all does.  You interview admirals and senators, enlisted men, pilots, and junior intelligence officers in their crisp khaki shirts whom you talk into taking you into the restricted areas down in Dam Neck.  You write editorials for the Op-Ed page, and you write scathing letters under fake names back to yourself, and you write letters the next week in answer to those, and you feel like Mark Twain, and it's a lot of fun to feel like Mark Twain.


The Two.One.Five. Dangerous Neighbors Interview

Friday, February 25, 2011

Sometimes, at the end of a corporate work week, you are missing your students—their vitality, their freshness, their willingness to think beyond, to dare—and you are just a little run down when you get the good news that another college student has posted the interview she conducted with you awhile back.  Dangerous Neighbors had recently been released.  Rosella asked me questions no one else ever had.

Rosella Eleanor LaFevre is an aspiring writer and the book critic for Two.One.Five.  She and I talked, in her words, about "the inner workings of (my) characters, the meaning behind the title, and the symbolism of birds." The link is here.


Win Win: In audience with Tom McCarthy and rising star Alex Shaffer

Last night, at the close of the Philadelphia screening of the soon-to-be-released feature film, WIN WIN, writer/director Tom McCarthy and 17-year-old wrestler/terrific actor Alex Shaffer took questions from an audience that had clearly fallen in love with their film (I was right there with them: in love).  Alex plays a wayward kid who finds himself in the home (and on the wrestling team) of a good man who has done a bad thing.  Can I leave it at that?  Should I also add that the good but ethically compromised man is played (phenomenally) by Paul Giamatti, that Amy Ryan adds great emotional depth, that there are little girls in this film who will blow you away, and that a nerdy wrestler had us screaming for him when he finally took on Darth Vader at a match?

McCarthy, who wrote THE STATION AGENT, THE VISITOR, and UP, doesn't go for easy in his plots.  He has a surprising range of unexpected story lines (who puts croquet and wrestling in the same film?), an ability to dig out from moral tangles (why are we rooting so hard for Giamatti's character, when he has done such an unscrupulous thing?), an impeccable ear for real but original dialogue (there's a great bit here that arises from a certain JBJ tattoo (see the film, find out for yourself)), a dancer's rhythm (we need to laugh just when McCarthy gives us cause to laugh) and an outstanding eye for talent (seriously, this is some cast).  I have had the pleasure of meeting McCarthy's partner on this and other films, Mary Jane Skalski of Next Wednesday productions, and I felt her talent and presence as well—her ear, her eye, her maternal heart. 

Alex Shaffer had never, he told us last evening, acted beyond a stint in a middle school play before he responded to a call for theater-tempted New Jersey high school wrestlers.  Man, can this kid act—slaying the audience as much by what he won't say as by what he finally does.  Apparently Shaffer is also quite the wrestler, having won the state championship shortly after this film wrapped.  It was fun to watch him share this film last night with his four best friends and his cousin.    

Find out more about the film here, and go see it when it appears nationally in theaters in mid March.


Win Win: A New Sundance Selection Film

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Closing the books now, turning off email.  Off to see this long-awaited film, at a special Philadelphia screening.  Those of you who had the pleasure of seeing either "The Station Agent" or "The Visitor" (or the movie "Up") will have some sense for just how special this movie will likely be, for some of the same great minds and hearts (Tom McCarthy and Mary Jane Skalski) are the magic behind this one.  Check out the trailer.


Not writing the book you are writing

Have you ever had an entire book in your head—the idea of it, the mood, the structure, the sound—and let the days go by, day after day, not writing a word?  That is where I am just now.  Waiting.  Because the book is too big, and because it needs its space, and because the book is fine where it is right now, curled inside the shell of me.


Devotion/Dani Shapiro: Reflections

What could a book called Devotion be about?  Devotion to whom, or to what?  Devotion because of...?, or instead of...?  Devotion as religion, or as a way of life?

In the quiet, so-elegant prose of Dani Shapiro, devotion is another word for quest.  It is the journey to know—and to reckon with not knowing—how one lives in a world of risks, in a body aging, in the vessel of uncertainty.  Having reached the middle-middle of her life, having left the city for the country, having raised a little boy who beat the odds of a rare and dangerous disorder, having achieved much as both a novelist and a memoirist (and also a screenwriter), Dani Shaprio wakes from her sleep full of worries and lists.  Her jaw quakes.  Her thoughts slide.  She gets caught up in the stuff of life and then—and then—she worries.

Shapiro was the child of a deeply religious household, and she doesn't know what she believes.  She is the mother of a boy asking questions, simple, impossible questions about God and heaven and sin.  She should know something, shouldn't she?  She should have something definitive to offer.  But what, in the end, is rock solid, sure?  What bolsters us, protects us, from vicissitudes and chance?

"It wasn't so much that I was in search of answers," Shapiro writes.  "In fact, I was wary of the whole idea of answers.  I wanted to climb all the way inside the questions and see what was there."  Revisiting the orthodoxy of her Jewish past, taking time for meditation and retreats, seeking more and more from her long-practice of yoga, Shapiro makes herself vulnerable to possibilities.  She yields, more and more, to present time, the unrepeatable eachness of each moment.

Sentence by sentence, this is a beautiful book—considered and (the word kept occurring, so I'll use it) pure.  Structurally, it is magnificent, scenes abutting scenes, time cutting into time, small threads woven into a greater tapestry.  One wants to know Shapiro, as one reads this book—one wants to talk about all that can't be puzzled through, all the losses one can't stop, all the hurt that will go on and on, no matter how "smart" we are about our living.  We never really do have more than one another, and that is what Shapiro comes to.  Shapiro's book, itself, is a hand outstretched, an open door, a place to dwell.   


President Obama Speaks to the Horace Kephart Legacy

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Today my cousin Libby sent me the transcript of a talk recently delivered by President Obama—a talk centered around America's Great Outdoors Initiative.  Tucked within those remarks are these words about my great grandfather, Horace Kephart, about whom I have written here many times on this blog, as, for example, here.

President Obama's words, which I reproduce here, make me, might I say it, proud?  They also make me hopeful.  (Added as a postscript, in my bronchitis haze:  I allude to legacies here, but I don't make a very persuasive link to the photograph.  And so, a correction:  In addition to the land my great grandfather helped to rescue from plunder, he sired the children depicted here.  The young, soulful-eyed man on the left was my grandfather, who sired my father, who is a continuing great dad to my brother, sister, and me.)
So conservation became not only important to America, but it became one of our greatest exports, as America’s beauty shone as a beacon to the world.  And other countries started adopting conservation measures because of the example that we had set.

Protecting this legacy has been the responsibility of all who serve this country.  But behind that action, the action that’s been taken here in Washington, there’s also the story of ordinary Americans who devoted their lives to protecting the land that they loved.

That’s what Horace Kephart and George Masa did.  This is a wonderful story.  Two men, they met in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina -- each had moved there to start a new life.  Horrified that their beloved wilderness was being clear-cut at a rate of 60 acres a day, Horace and George worked with other members of the community to get the land set aside.  The only catch was that they had to raise $10 million to foot the bill.

But far from being discouraged, they helped rally one of the poorest areas in the country to the cause.  A local high school donated the proceeds from a junior class play.  Preachers held “Smokey Mountain Sunday” services and encouraged their congregations to donate.  Local businesses chipped in.  And students from every grade in the city of Asheville -– which was still segregated at the time –- made a contribution.

So stories like these remind us what citizenship is all about.  And by the way, last year Michelle and I, we were able to walk some of the trails near Asheville and benefit from the foresight of people that had come before us.  Our daughters, our sons were able to enjoy what not only Teddy Roosevelt did but what ordinary folks did all across the country.  It embodies that uniquely American idea that each of us has an equal share in the land around us, and an equal responsibility to protect it.


Story by way of indirection

It was from "Spire" that we read yesterday, Lia Purpura's four-page essay in On Looking.  We had been speaking about the ways that stories can and do get told.  We had listened to pages from Jill Bialosky's History of a Suicide and I'd been tempted to carry in Kathleen Finneran's The Tender Land when, at the last moment, I shuffled Lia's book into my bag.  Like Bialosky and Finneran, Purpura writes of suicide in "Spire," but Purpura works by way of indirection, leading us toward feeling not with biographical detail, not with the facts, per se, but with an astonishing series of images.  Here is the story's final paragraph:
Once while I was working I looked up and saw a woman digging her window box out with a fork.  It was cold.  Late November.  She dug and pulled the dry stalks up, shook the roots and put the old flower heads into a little basket. Then she hit a tough spot—it must have been frozen—and had to dig hard.  The fork caught the plant's root and flipped it in air.  She watched it go down.  Put her hands on the rail and watched as it fell.  Then she stopped altogether.  Left the fork in.  Left the window box like that, half-finished, all winter.


Joshua Bennett: Beyond Poetry

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

We began class by listening to Sylvia Plath and Etheridge Knight read their work—tape recordings from years ago played out loud to a quiet room so that we might understand long lines, short lines, loud inside soft, the daring image inside the purposefully mundane, the right repetition, the empowered list.  We had listened to that, and then we had read out loud.  We had dreamed about our memoirs, closed with lines from Lia Purpura, packed our things; we were almost gone.  Except that B was still there, his laptop open.  You were speaking of poetry, he said.  You should hear this. 

I have watched and listened to this three times now.  I share it with you.  A former Penn student in a scream sing from the very top, as he says, of his fingertips, while President Obama looks admiringly on.


Thank you, B.


You can't teach memoir without introducing Patricia Hampl

I never do teach the same thing twice, but that doesn't mean I forsake the classics in favor of novelty.  The one, single essay that I have carried forward into every memoir class is Patricia Hampl's "Memory and Imagination," found within I Could Tell You Stories.  You just don't teach memoir without it, or at least I don't.  These words, then, for today, from Hampl, as I head out into more snow (there's always snow, it seems, on teaching Tuesdays), for the University of Pennsylvania campus.
We seek a means of exchange, a language which will renew these ancient concerns and make them wholly, pulsingly ours.  Instinctively, we go to our store of private associations for our authority to speak of these weighty issues.  We find, in our details and broken, obscured images, the language of symbol.  Here memory impulsively reaches out and embraces imagination.  That is the resort to invention.  It isn't a lie, but an act of necessity, as the innate urge to locate truth always is. 


My boy receives word

Monday, February 21, 2011

and he is, indeed, into a much hoped-for summer abroad program.  He is flying with joy, and I am flying for him.  No other words are needed.


Looking back over 1,737 blog posts

I spent part of this weekend looking back, over 1,737 Beth Kephart Books blog posts, an effort much akin to opening the pages of a diary.  I began this blog in October 2007.  I've posted poems, interviews with bloggers, conversations with writers, reflections on books read and people met, photographs, celebrations, gratitudes.  I have yearned.  I was, perhaps, most surprised by the number of work-in-progress excerpts I have posted, by how willing I have been to test things here, in a public fashion, to be so very much less than perfect. 

What does it all mean?  What is it good for?  There have been those who have urged me to spend my time doing "better" things.  I am glad, in this case, that I listened to my own heart pulse, that I kept blogging.  For as raw as some of this is, as unfinished, as sometimes redundant, as at times too frail or too skimpy or too soft, it exists, and because it does some part of a world that would have otherwise drifted remains—the weather I lived, the moonscapes I saw, the flowers I walked past, the people and books I have loved.  You, too, exist.  In your comments and in your goodness toward this strange and still enterprise. 


Searching for beauty in language: on what can we agree?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Among the returning motifs in our memoir class is the idea of beauty in language—rhythm, pattern, song.  It's not easily classifiable stuff.  We come toward it each with our own idiosyncratic preferences, our mysterious politics.  Name your beauty, and I shall name mine.  Instruct me and I will teach you; I will show you what I mean; I will hearken and hold.

Toward the final pages of E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, a series of lectures delivered in 1927, the great novelist says this:
Music, though it does not employ human beings, though it is governed by intricate laws, nevertheless does offer in its final expression a type of beauty which fiction might achieve in its own way.  Expansion.  That is the idea the novelist must cling to.  Not completion.  Not rounding off but opening out.  When the symphony is over we feel that the notes and tunes composing it have been liberated, they have found in the rhythm of the whole their individual freedom.  Cannot the novel be like that?
Forster writes of the novel, and I teach memoir, but there are lessons here, of course, just as there are lessons on every page we read.  We are honing our idea of good.  We are turning away from that which flattens our curiosity, our desire to know. 

This morning I was looking at the first pages of two award-winning debut young adult novels.  One teased and seduced me; it opened a world.  The varied shape and length of its sentences installed, within me, a mood, while its repeated words and sounds felt considered, not convenient.  The other opening page crunched as I read it; it stuttered.  Through a series of noun-verb, noun-verb declarations, it directed me to know and did not give me room to feel.  Both books, as I have noted, gained the adoration of judging panels.  Both have been widely read.  I wonder how these two examples work upon you? Which is the book you'd like to read?  Which is the one you feel you'd learn from?
Example 1:  By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat.  We arose in the dark, hours before sunrise, when there was barely a smudge of indigo along the eastern sky and the rest of the horizon was still pure pitch.  We lit our kerosene lamps and carried them before us in the dark like our own tiny waving suns.  There was a full day's work to be done before noon, when the deadly heat drove everyone back into our big shuttered house and we lay in the dim high-ceilinged rooms like sweating victims.  Mother's usual summer remedy of sprinkling the sheets with refreshing cologne lasted only a minute.  At three o'clock in the afternoon, when it was time to get up again, the temperature was still killing.
Example 2:  Nailer clambered through a service duct, tugging at copper wire and yanking it free.  Ancient asbestos fibers and mouse grit puffed up around him as the wire tore loose.  He scrambled deeper into the duct, jerking more wire from its aluminum staples.  The staples pinged about the cramped metal passage like coins offered to the Scavenge God, and Nailer felt after them eagerly, hunting for their dull gleam and collecting them in a leather bag he kept at his waist.  He yanked again at the wiring.  A meter's worth of precious copper tore loose in his hands and dust clouds enveloped him.


We left the sun and drove

Suddenly it wasn't sunny anymore.


The most extraordinary meal — ever

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The day went from a blast of premature spring sun to the whipping in of wind; mid-afternoon, spur of the moment, we called one of the Philadelphia area's hottest restaurants and asked if they might have room for two.  Yes, as a matter of fact, they did, thanks to a last-minute cancellation.

And so we drove down 476 and over the bridge and into Conshohocken to Blackfish.  Oh.  My.  Goodness.  We are Top Chef watchers, Anthony Bourdain fans, cookbook collectors, studiers, attempters.  We are only now, at the age that we've become, beginning to explore, very infrequently, this kind of actual (as opposed to virtual) restaurant dining.

I have never (never) had a meal like I had last night—a baby arugula/English cucumber/cherry belle radish salad; striped bass with golden raisins and pink peppercorn vierge; and vanilla creme brulee.  So perfectly light, so perfectly finished, so utterly satisfying.

Philadelphia Magazine has just named Blackfish the area's top restaurant.  Number one.  No wonder.


Lastingness and The Secret Gift: Two Chicago Tribune Reviews

Friday, February 18, 2011

I had the chance to review two books for the Chicago Tribune these last few weeks.  The first, Lastingness:  The Art of Old Age (Nicholas Delbanco) seeks to understand why some artists continue to grow with their work as they age, and why others peak and fade away.  The second, A Secret Gift (Ted Gup), tells the story of a grandfather's outreach to those suffering in the midst of the Great Depression, and the complicated motivations behind his goodness.  I've linked to both reviews here.


Memoir Fetish (welcoming these new titles to my memoir library)

My appetite for books is insatiable, always, and when I teach, buying and reading memoir is a seamless compulsion.  Every student is on her own course.  Every young writer must be guided to just the right books at the right time.  To a memoir library already teeming, I this week add the following titles:

Devotion, Dani Shapiro

Mentor: A Memoir, Tom Grimes

How to Live:  Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, Sarah Bakewell (yes, this is a biography, but it is a biography of one of our most iconic early memoirists)

History of a Suicide, Jill Bialosky

The Liars' Club, Mary Karr (I need a new copy)

Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf

House of Prayer No. 2:  A Writer's Journey Home, Mark Richard

Townie:  A Memoir, Andre Dubus III

Duke of Deception:  Memories of My Father, Geoffrey Wolff (hugely ashamed that I have not read this before)

Say Her Name, Francisco Goldman (classified as a novel, much like Dave Eggers classified his own memoirish story as a novel; my reflections on this book were posted two days ago)


My desk is a mess and my roses are succumbing

Thursday, February 17, 2011

but there is sun today, warmth, my friend standing in the parking lot after a lunch we'd shared, pressing her face into the rays.  I feel full of possibilities—writing notes into books and on this screen, rippled through with the idea of music and voice, lifted by a text from my son, now taking his second fiction workshop and exhilarated by the critique he's received just an hour ago.  "They had so many positive things to say," he texted.  But more than that, he has ideas for a revision, and he cannot wait to start. 

You want your children to go their own way, of course you do.  But when their lines cross over, into yours, when you share this unspeakable passion for this thing called writing, it's red flowers bursting through a yellow wall, in a city you once walked through, singing.


Say Her Name/Francisco Goldman: Reflections

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I was in Guanajuato once, three years ago.  I walked its streets, silver veined and gold.  I slid through its callejones, tilted forward down its hills, hid inside its theater, got lost, for the sake of my camera,  did not go to visit the dead, by which I mean, I did not visit the mummies in the mummy museum for I did not wish to imagine that brand of eternal.

Who can bear it, staring so wide-eyedly at the end?

People who lose people they love are forever staring in, on the end.  People who lose people far too soon—a wife, say, a brilliant and beautiful wife on the verge of her own greatness and, perhaps, of motherhood, a woman who had walked the streets of Guanajuato beside you—can only wonder, What if?  What if today she were?  What if tomorrow she'd still be?  What if our child had been born?  What if she had finished her story?  What if I'd had more of we?

What if?

Hold her tight, if you have her; hold her tight....

Those words above are Francisco Goldman's words.  Found toward the end of a book he calls a novel—a story inspired by, required by, the premature death of his young wife, Aura, who wanted to surf a wave but was ruined by a wave, hammered against the floor of the sea.  Say Her Name (due out from Grove/Atlantic in April) is 350 pristine pages of reckoning with the impossible.  It is the story of a man's irresistible love for his wife, the story of a fractured heart, the waking to the daily blare:  Aura is not here.

Goldman calls this a novel, and I respect his choice.  It doesn't matter, though, not this time, whatever the book is called, for Say Her Name is a staggering collage of back and forth, the living and the dead, the alive and whole, the just barely breathing.  It is heart, all heart, on the page.  It is brilliantly structured, a love affair, a tragedy, a work of fine emotional suspense.  Last week, in my memoir class, a student asked a question about time, about how to hold the dispersion of many years inside a tight fist, how to locate her themes in a succession of anecdotals.  How do you take, in other words (not her words now, but my words), the glimmers and the shadows, the big things and the small things, the imagined, the actual, the not fully known, the never-to-be-reckoned with and make them a coherent, non-linear whole?

The answer to that question lies here, in Say Her Name.


Sun in New York City

Now, when I travel to New York City, I am looking for the places into which the sun wedges itself, against which the sun leans.  The rigging of river boats.  The reflections on glass panes.  A sudden castle.


This Kind of Day (English 135-302)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

So that (during class) we listened to Yo Yo Ma playing Astor Piazzolla music (fitting, for the CD had been a gift from my fellow faculty member Karen Rile) and Zulu Jive playing "A Sambe Siye e Goli;" we listened and wrote of remembered street-scape scenes; we found our best lines.  We thought out loud about the expectations we have of writers we read, the expectations we have of ourselves.  We asked:  Where do we find music on the page?, and the answers were all at once and different—it's Virginia Woolf, it's Rick Nichols on food, it's Maya Angelou; it's the repeated line, the crescendo line, the long line, the short one; it is what is held and what is sloughed away.  There was the crowding in, afterward, the slow goodbyes, and there, in the doorway, stood a student from three semesters ago—still tall, still lean, still so smart; my impromptu escort to the 4:48 train.

The color of sun.


A dream

Last night I dreamed that my mother came to visit.

I had left the doors unlocked.


What did you buy at the Strand?

Monday, February 14, 2011

... I was asked, and of course I never leave a bookstore without something in hand.  I found this Errata Editions' reprint, Alexey Brodovitch's Ballet, first published in 1945.  According to the provided description, Errata's Books on Books series is "an ongoing publishing project dedicated to making rare and out-of-print books accessible to students and photobook enthusiasts."  I could not not support a project such as this, and besides, the book is gorgeous, and besides all that, Brodovitch was a famed designer who had once painted scenes for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes and after that became a textile and jewelry artist, all the while working as a designer of magazines until finally becoming the art director of Harper's Bazaar.  He took the photographs that became Ballet behind the scenes, in New York theaters, caring only to capture the movement and mood and disregarding technical theory.

This is a phenomenal book, a perfect Valentine's Day book, an important series.  I'd never seen it anywhere, until I happened on the Strand.


Talking the Centennial, Operti's Tropical Garden, and the Birthing of Fiction in Nonfiction

When St. John's Presbyterian Church invited me to speak for a Valentine's Day luncheon, we all envisioned a group of a dozen or so kind souls, gathered in a circle in the Carriage House.  Our dozen has grown to nearly 80, I'm told, and I want to be sure that I deliver.  And so, in found pockets of time this past week, I've been returning to my Dangerous Neighbors research files and assembling a 20-image Centennial Philadelphia talk that melds the known with the unknown and in that way reveals my own fiction-making process.

Those of you who have read Dangerous Neighbors (Egmont USA) know that key moments unfold within and outside of Operti's Tropical Garden, which stood on the margins of the Centennial grounds.  Contemporary reporters described Operti's as "one of the handsomest places of amusement in Philadelphia.  It was light and airy, and was handsomely decorated with frescoes and other paintings.  Long lines of colored globes, each containing a gas jet, stretched across the interior beneath the ceiling, and shed a brilliant light upon the scene below.  At the back a large waterfall dashed over the painted rocks, forming a beautiful cascade, and giving to the air on the hot nights of the summer a delicious coolness."

More than sixty performers led by a certain Signor Giuseppe Operti filled the place with music each night—the cascade being dimmed long enough for the music to soar, and then "spr(inging) into life again." Years later, working with those lines of description and this image, I was inspired to imagine a bird set free and all the nuanced consequences.  From Dangerous Neighbors:

Operti’s is an aromatic cove of high skies and blooms. Gas lanterns float like kites overhead. Potted trees shadow the paths. There are the bright flags of celosia and astilbe,  the yellow sleeves of forsythia forced well past their season, begonias the color of dandelions and fire, and in the midst of it all, the orchestra stage. On every wall,  frescoes , and in the very back someone has painted a rock cliff of schist and granite, then turned some sort of spigot on, so that water, real water, cascades down. The sound of Operti’s is gush and violins, the squeak of a chair, the leak of gas in a jet above, a stifled sneeze in the vicinity of the gardenias, and above that the silence of every single place that has ever lain in wait for an evening audience. By the time that Katherine has taken it all in, the girl, the mysterious mistress of the bird, has disappeared.
Katherine breathes. Miraculously, she is not asked to leave. This much beauty, she decides, is a painful thing. Paris in Philadelphia wasn’t right, and Operti’s isn’t either.
Now from behind, from above comes a swish-wash of sound, and when Katherine turns, she sees the creature’s wings—white as a magnolia bud in spring. The bird has been set free. It flies high, arcs wide past the suspended color globes, toward the cliff of painted rocks, the waterfalls. It swoops low and to the right, extending its wings and holding, ascending again and holding. It is the freest bird Katherine has ever seen.  It leans, swoops down, and descends over the room of empty chairs and flowers and palmy heads.  It drifts toward the orchestra stand where—on the very edge, between pots of calla lily and candytuft—the child sits with the empty gold cage .


Being Polite to Hitler/Robb Forman Dew: Reflections

Sunday, February 13, 2011

It's been a decade or so since Elizabeth Taylor of the Chicago Tribune invited me to review Robb Forman Dew's novel, The Evidence Against Her.  I didn't know Robb at the time, but I quickly grew enamored of her gifts, her craftsmanship.  I didn't, in fact, expect that I ever would know Robb, nor imagined that she'd find the words I'd ultimately write about her novel.  I was wrong, of course.  Robb found my words.  She wrote me a letter.  And soon Robb and I were friends.

In the intervening years, Robb sent books, she sent a tapestry she'd found in an old barn, she sent notes, she sent encouragement, she sent praise of a novel on which I worked.  She sent us—her large coterie of writerly friends—something we might do in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the name and address of a school to which we all might send boxes of brand new, hand-picked books.  Robb proved to be one enormously generous soul, and then things got quiet as she settled into work again, and I waited for what would come next, and next.

I just now finished reading Robb's masterful new novel—its title as clever as the rest of it.  Being Polite to Hitler carries forward, from The Evidence Against Her, a certain Agnes Scofield and her close-knit, famous-in-Washburn, Ohio kin.  It takes us to October of 1953 on through to the early 1960s on the wings of some of the most gracious writing you'll ever find and some of the most seamless historicism I've ever seen in a novel.  No doubt Robb  did her homework for this story—sourcing the telling details of Yankees games and Sputnik, home perm kits and development housing, polio and fashion.  But more importantly, none of it feels heavy or dug in.  It's just life as Agnes Scofield knows it, and what's most important, always, is Agnes and her kin.

I could conceivably quote from every line in this book; I've dogearred the whole, darned, gorgeously packaged volume.  Let me quote, selfishly, from something that struck me as quintessentially Robb—her ability to unpolish a good woman just a bit, so that we can see ourselves (or perhaps our someday selves) within her.  From somewhat late in the book:
People liked or loved you or they didn't, according to their own needs.  Not a single night of the months in Maine had she lain awake agonizing over the possibility that she might accidentally have slighted someone, or that she might have exhibited favoritism to some member of the family as opposed to another.  She knew perfectly well that she was capable of—and had indulged in—a certain spitefulness now and then, and generally she had apologized.  If she happened to slight someone by accident or through ignorance, or just through a failure to rein in her tendency toward bossiness...  Well, she no longer tormented herself about it.  Her newly hardened indifference was unexpected; it was a state of being that she hadn't known existed.
After finishing Being Polite to Hitler, I went back and read my review of The Evidence Against Her.  That review begins like this—words that strike me as still utterly relevant and true.  Read Robb Forman Dew.

Perhaps the only thing more bewildering than gauging one’s own mind is imagining the minds of others—the residues and imprints that spark and shadow foreign thoughts.  Of all that has happened in a life, what gets remembered, what signifies?  Of all the improbable influences, what finally persuades?
            Those of us who struggle to answer such questions for ourselves have little choice but to admire a writer of the caliber of Robb Forman Dew, who has demonstrated, in both her fiction and her nonfiction, a near savantism when it comes to mapping psychological terrain.  Dew’s characters are fiercely imagined, fiercely alive on the page—complicated, contradicting, equally prone to shame and to sweet triumphs.  No detail is too small for Dew to dwell on or to share.  Nothing escapes her formidable and wholly empathetic imagination.


Finding my way to 18 Miles of Books

I had the occasion to walk from the river framing Wall Street up, through the East Village, along Broadway.  It was a cold day, but the sun was shining, and I fell in thick with a happy feeling.  I had unwittingly dropped one of several things that I'd stuffed inside my coat pocket; a man ran it back to me with grace.  I sat alone in a restaurant grading student papers; the waiter was efficient and most kind.  I was on my way to meet someone with whom I've had a most cherished correspondence and was at last nearing her building when I saw the Strand Bookstore across the street, at a diagonal.  The Strand Bookstore? I ridiculously asked myself, jogging at once toward the red canopy and the fabled bins of one dollar books. 

Opening the door, I was at once engulfed by heavy-coated, floppy-hatted people swarming about tables of books, between the aisles of books, among the dolls and magnets and puppetry inspired by the fantastical or real of books.  I was having a bit of a hard time processing it all—I'd only merely happened upon it—and so I climbed the stairs to a mid-point landing to look out upon the vastness.  I was snapping this photograph when a young man came and stood beside me—two passengers, we were, on the book balcony of a ship. 

"And it goes on," he said, "and on, doesn't it?"

"It absolutely does," I said.

And may it always.


Am I not, then, a teacher invested? Do I not engage?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The February 14/21 issue of The New Yorker is full of interesting things (not to mention a very funny/poignant guest piece by Tina Fey; don't miss it), but for this morning's blog I choose to focus on Malcolm Gladwell's essays, "The Order of Things:  What College Rankings Really Tell Us."  I'll spare you most of the details (though they alarm and intrigue).  I'll focus here on one that had a nearly physical impact on me.  Gladwell is talking here about the yearly U.S. News college ranking and the algorithms that support it.  He has turned his gaze on a category named "faculty resources," which determines twenty percent of an institution's score.  Quoting from the College Guide, Gladwell reports, "Research shows that the more satisfied students are about their contact with professors the more they will learn and the more likely it is they will graduate," a conclusion reinforced by student engagement studies and a conclusion nearly any parent will make after watching their children lean toward certain classes and teachers. 

What troubles Gladwell (and what troubles me, not just Gladwell's reader but a faculty member at an Ivy League University who seeks and values student engagement above all else) is how U.S. News has elected to measure this elusive quality.  Apparently engagement is determined by the following factors:  class size, faculty salary, professors with the highest degree in their fields, the student-faculty ratio, and the proportion of faculty who are full-time.  All of which, with the exception of class size (and mine is currently oversubscribed) just about kicks me out of having any shot at all at having a positive statistical impact on the University of Pennsylvania's 'faculty resources' score.

This offends me deeply, and it especially offended me yesterday, having just spent the better part of three days writing notes to my beautiful and (it seems to me) engaged students—notes inspired by the glean of their talents and the nature of their writerly ambitions and the ways in which they work (so hard) toward amplified versions of themselves.  I teach because it is an honor to work with those who stand on the verge.  I spend the time I spend because I recognize the depth of my responsibility and the abject importance of never rushing past a student who wants more or who struggles for more or could be even more.

Maybe you can't really measure that.  But I suspect that my salary and my degree and my part-time status should not, in some machine somewhere, be diminishing the ranking for Penn.


Wall Street in the morning, riverside


I Wanted (a poem)

Friday, February 11, 2011

I Wanted

I wanted the whole moon
white where it is, blue how it falls.

I wanted the earth,
collapsing and folding.

I wanted the ocean to rise
and unberth us.

I wanted the loudest thing
in the morning light
to be my heart,
still beating. 

The short break
in a long poem.

The glass to stop



Crack of Dawn at the Down Home Diner

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I'll be headed to New York City at the crack of dawn tomorrow, student essays in my bag, a client on the docket, and the chance, at long last, to meet someone whose words have always been dear to me.  I'll roll back home under the cover of dark.  I'll sleep past dawn on Saturday.  If all goes well I'll steal an hour from the weekend, maybe two, and read.  I have so many books here that are begging for a read.


The Academy of Music, 1876

Over the last few days I've been assembling images for a talk I'll be giving this coming Valentine's Day—a small event that has turned quite not so small, thanks to the very fine people of St. John's Presbyterian Church.  In any case, I've had reason to return to that Centennial year in Philadelphia.  To revisit old research files.  To imagine, again, the cacophony of horses and flame-throwing lamps, music in the winter chill.  This is the Academy of Music in 1876, as an artist drew it that year.  That building still stands, still gathers unto itself anticipation and performance.


YOU ARE MY ONLY arrives at my front door

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Look.  The thrill of seeing your uncorrected bound proofs arrive in a (very-well sealed) box doesn't go away.  That just happened here.  Thank you, the always miraculous and dear Egmont USA.


Good to one another

I snapped this photograph of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing building early yesterday afternoon, just ahead of class.  The wind blew me through the door.  A half hour early, and two of my students already there.

It's been like that this semester.  These are very special kids.  Especially motivated, especially talented, and remarkably good to one another.  We had, for example, been working on voice.  I asked the students to entrust their work to another—to allow classmates to read their anonymous pieces out loud and to give us room to try to identify each writer.  Would the syntax, the eye, the I, the obsessions be consistent with the writers we were coming to know?  Would we hear progression within the voices?  Would the reader be able to read the piece as the writer intended it to be read—grow still and grow emphatic between the commas and the dashes?

You have to trust a class to behave with honor and integrity in exercises like these.  I trust my class implicitly.  Again and again, they prove me right and leave my soul uplifted.  They are curious.  They are open.  They are giving.


Philadelphia finds its sun

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I never want to read, after a day of teaching.  I never want to talk on the phone, do business.  It's the in-gathering that rides the rails with me.  The coquettish business of the sun.


The doomedness of theories of creative writing

As the sun tries to rise on Philadelphia today, I pack my bags for the University of Pennsylvania, English 135, where Vivian Gornick's most essential The Situation and The Story:  The Art of Personal Narrative will be our partial guide.  It is my guide, as well.  From the final pages:
Any attempt to teach writing ... out of anything other than that which the teacher knows intimately rather than theoretically is also doomed.  Theories of creative writing I find even more damaging than questions of craft.  It seems to me that as teachers of writing, we are there only to make the widest and most thoughtful sense of our own experience.  Out of that alone comes useful exploration. 


Some people just have it all going on

Monday, February 7, 2011

You have to love the CEO (I do, at least) who walks down the steps of his own immaculate corporate lobby to lead you up to the meeting.  Who talks (fluently, seamlessly) about the genesis of shirts, the affability of a certain car mechanic, the allure of the farm and the sea (also the fish-stocked stream), and the holism of a certain river before settling into the meeting itself—a review of numbers and themes.  I see this man once a year, maybe twice, if I'm lucky.  What makes him extraordinary is his willingness, always, to grow.  I guess I should mention that he runs an extraordinary company extraordinarily well.  Which isn't precisely beside the point.  It's in addition to.

Some people just have it all, and I'd wager that they're the ones who figured out long ago that personal wealth is not in the end about money.  It's about how we reach toward the world, and how we allow the world to reach back out to us.


Moment of Truth

Here's what happens when I finish writing the book that has beckoned and consumed me, sent me into dark corners at ridiculous hours just for the chance to write another word:  I realize that it is now time to take care of many other things.  Client work, for one (though honest to goodness, I mostly keep up).  A good friend's birthday (it has been the snow, mostly, that has gotten in our way).  Taxes (I so don't like that part of my job).  Preparation for all the talks I've promised to give (so many different topics, always).  And a much firmer resolve to stop eating the scrumptious among us, else I'll have to go out in search of a new wardrobe.  (Maybe I should already be in search of a new wardrobe.)

Does it get any easier?  Ever?


Working on Beginnings

Sunday, February 6, 2011

This week my utterly tremendous Creative Nonfiction students at Penn will be sharing their latest work, talking Ginzburg and Gornick, and reflecting on beginnings.  What do beginnings (in memoir) do?  What are the options?  What has been done that works, what has been done too much, what are the remaining untested possibilities (are there any)?

I've been compiling my read-aloud excerpts for the week.  Here's what we've got on the list:

* Running in the Family (Michael Ondaatje)
* Hiroshima in the Morning (Rahna Reiko Rizzuto)
* Let's Take the Long Way Home (Gail Caldwell)
* The Music Room (William Fiennes)
* Lit (Mary Karr)
* No Heroes (Chris Offutt)
* Truth and Beauty (Ann Patchett)
* Limbo (A. Manette Ansay)
* Four Seasons in Rome (Anthony Doerr)
* The Names of Things (Susan Brind Morrow)
* The Tongue Set Free (Elias Canetti)
* The Memory Palace (Mira Bartok)
* Breaking Night (Liz Murray)
* Cakewalk (Kate Moses)
* Seeing Through Places (Mary Gordon)

One feels compelled (impelled) to share every last something one knows or feels with kids like these.  I study my bookshelves, seeking more.


A Book Complete

Yesterday this was a book in need of a thorough editing, and of eight missing pages.  Today it is a book complete, a novel for adults, a story that has ached through me and commanded attention, despite (as always) all else.  I didn't second guess the book's shape this time.  I didn't find gaps or a trail of inconsistencies.  I didn't want to rewrite, when I studied it close.  I wanted it to be.

I am in a chase now, behind all manner of other deadlines.  I will take a walk and then go about the fair and proper business of reckoning with all standing obligations.

Thank you, all, for putting up with me while I fought to bring this story to the page. I am always painfully aware of my own absence.


The Memory Palace/Mira Bartok: Reflections

Saturday, February 5, 2011

I have been reading Mira Bartok's The Memory Palace these last several days, slowly taking in the story this daughter (for Bartok is mostly, in his memoir, a daughter) records about her brilliant, beautiful, mentally ill mother.  It is a survival story, first and foremost—a deeply loving, never condemning return to a life spent looking for safety during a mother's unruly outbursts.  This mother and her two daughters are poor to begin with; Mira's father abandons the family early on.  But true poverty sinks in as their mother quickly loses her power to work and her ability to provide.  The quiet days are the days when their mother is institutionalized.  The terrifying days are the ones in which the mother leaves the girls stranded in places both foreign and familiar, or bangs on the other side of a door, demanding to know if the girls are whores.  There is a grandmother nearby, but she has troubles of her own.  There are neighbors and the occasional piano teacher or kind adult who step in, offering only temporary reprieves.

The specter of this mother (a former musician headed to Carnegie Hall) will haunt her daughters through high school and college, through early romances and careers.  Only after every possible intervention fails, Mira (who was born Myra) and her sister change their names and elude their mother—a tactic that might provide some order, certainly, but does not relieve either daughter from worrying over their schizophrenic, increasingly homeless mother.

Bartok began life as an artist, and her complex, quite lovely illustrations sit at every chapter's start, alongside notes from the mother's own heartbreaking journals, discovered by Mira and her sister in a storage unit during the mother's final few weeks of life.  The journal entries betray a woman struggling to hold on—to anchor in with some kind of knowledge, any kind of knowledge, any thing she can note, decipher, track.  The journals also provide a haunting counterpoint to Mira's own struggle to remember and understand, for Mira herself has suffered a brain injury in the intervening years, thanks to a terrible car accident.

Bartok, who is also a children's author, fills her story with allusions to myths and fantasy, softening the insufferable with flights of tremendous  fancy.  She writes at times quite simply and at times with a poet's stance.  She blames no one, but always tries to understand.  I admired her work enormously here—her empathy, her powers of recall—and if at times I felt that some of the tangents added unnecessarily to the story, or took the tale as a whole more toward autobiography than memoir, I closed the book with the deepest respect for Bartok, not just as a writer, but as a person.


My father loves a good sausage sandwich, I told the man,

Friday, February 4, 2011

and so he helped me choose the right mustard and the right horseradish for inclusion in my father's birthday bag.  Condiments from Lancaster County.  Italian cookies from Termini Brothers.  A Penn cap for the Penn scholar.  A Penn pen to finish things off while seated at our new favorite restaurant in Berwyn. My mother was the best gift buyer in the whole wide world, and no one could ever fill her shoes, and besides, aren't early February birthdays hard, coming so soon after Christmas?

Still, I wanted my father's big day to be special, and so I asked the condiments man if I might snap a photo to show my dad just where his two new bright jars had come from.  I didn't get a picture of jars alone.  I got the man himself.  In action.


Truth or Fiction: Does it Matter When the Lines Get Blurred?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

It may be entirely fuddy duddyish of me, but I continue to ponder the matter of truth on the page—the need, as I see it, to get as close as possible to the what-actually-was when endeavoring in the minefields of memoir or literary nonfiction.  Yes, it is true:  What we remember shifts and slides during the very act of remembering.  Yes, it is also true, as Ander Monson writes in "Voir Dire," that, "The unreliability, the misrememberings, the act of telling in starts and stops, the ****ups, the pockmarked surface of the I:  that's where all the good stuff is, the fair and foul, that which is rent, that which is whole, that which engages the whole reader.  Let us linger there, not rush past it."  The only interesting life, on the page, is the shaped life, the contemplated one, the one sifted for meaning and insight.  But don't we have an obligation, nonetheless, to get it all as right as we can get it—to not deliberately work beyond the ken of what we believe happened?

Having been deeply moved by "The Wave," Francisco Goldman's Personal History story in this week's issue of The New Yorker, I went on to find this audio recording of an interview conducted with Goldman in The New Yorker offices.  Goldman is talking about both the essay and the novel, Say Her Name, that Grove is releasing this April.  Both pieces—the essay and the fiction—were inspired by the tragic death of Goldman's young wife.  Just why Goldman chose to call the long work a novel and the short piece an essay is hugely instructive, and, I think, honors both his wife and the respective forms.  You can find his commentary specific to that matter starting nearly 7:45 minutes into the conversation.


I'm not typically known for my asphalt shots, but hey:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Here comes the sun.


Seriously Iced In


Sunrise over Philadelphia

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

My only thought yesterday was of the beguiling, deceptive charm of writing and music.
— Norma Herr, as quoted by her daughter Mira Bartok, in the remarkable memoir The Memory Palace, about which you will soon be reading more here.  For now, I hurry to the Penn campus, to share these words and others with my students


  © Blogger templates Newspaper II by 2008

Back to TOP