Handling the Truth, in Main Line Today magazine!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How much do I love this brief review?
Very much.
So many thanks, Main Line Today Magazine, Hobart Rowland, and Joe Lerro.

Memoir is a delicate art. In misguided hands, the delineation of experiences and the lessons contained within can miss the mark. The author of five memoirs and a professor in the art, Main Line writer Beth Kephart eloquently guides aspiring memoirists on the path to cultivating a first-person perspective that resonates. With its compelling excerpts and reflective prompts, Handling the Truth leaves no question as to the crucial attributes of this specialized craft. — Joe Lerro

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headed to Bank Street, for a mini conference, in November

Many of you have asked whether I'll be spending time in New York City with Handling the Truth

The answer, magnificently, is yes. At the invitation of Jennifer Brown, I'll be sharing my thoughts about teaching, truth, and the autobiography of hair at a Bank Street Mini Conference. Seeing the great Jenny Brown in a city I love is treat enough. Perhaps I'll also get to see some of you.


The details here:

Bank Street Writers Lab Mini-Conference: The Nitty-Gritty
9AM to 12 Noon, Saturday, November 9, 2013
Opening Keynote: Beth Kephart on the teaching of truth
In a half-day program featuring an esteemed panel of reviewers and a study of mentor texts 
Bank Street College of Education
610 West 112th Street
New York, NY 10025

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At Penn, At Home: Two Small Damages Sightings

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


A few weeks ago, I, like most every other voting American ultimately is, was summoned for jury duty. The news came at a treacherous time—so much client work and a book to launch and some overwhelming, long-tail exhaustion—and yet, I wasn't going to shirk the responsibility. We live in a democracy, and jury duty is part of our contractual obligation. 

Still, when my number was not called—when 78 jurors were needed and I had been labeled 86—I was, in a word, relieved. Two words: Greatly relieved. I was able to do, in broad daylight, all that I would have had to do at night.

One of those things involved a trip to the University of Pennsylvania campus, which I was photographing for an upcoming story. By the time I was done with my work, I had just 18 minutes to catch my train, and so I cut through the Penn bookstore on Walnut Street, to get a little closer to Chestnut. I know this bookstore well, spend happy time in it, noticed that the shelves had been rearranged. A large teen fiction section now beckoned. I took the slightest detour, the quickest look. There, to my happy surprise, sat Small Damages, the paperback. I snapped a photograph while a man walked by. "I wrote that," I said. He smiled.

Today I rose in the dark and banged away (again) at corporate work, grateful for the tumbling hours. I didn't leave my chair for hours, didn't live the weather, which aggrieved me. It was late in the afternoon when I went out to the stoop and found a box that had been addressed to me.

And there they were, my very own copies of Small Damages, a book I will always love for all it represents—faith in one's self over many years, collaboration with a beautiful editor and house. And this paperback edition—it's just gorgeous.

Two gifts on two given days.

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Jilly Joy and Chippy are headed to the Free Library, to see Beth Kephart

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Look who is headed to the Free Library of Philadelphia on August 6th, starting at 7:30, to celebrate the launch of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir! It's Jilly Joy and Chippy, our forest friends. Chippy thinks Kephart should be, at the very least, stylish. Jilly Joy can see past Kephart's style fatigue.

I'm going to be there, too, and I hope you'll join us. It should be a fun night of reading, writing, thinking. But it'll only be fun if you're there.

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I said I was getting stupider. They said:

Monday, July 29, 2013

I recommend Kale.

No comprende.

I've heard both sugar and fish boost brain power. The choice is yours.

Only chocolate will help.

Carrot juice with a beet thrown in.

Dark chocolate covering pomegranates.

Last night, after putting color on my hair, I wrapped my head in Cling Wrap. It seemed to light up my brain. Just a thought.

INSPIRATION—watch a documentary!

Read hate mail. Makes you feel infinitely more virtuous and intelligent. But since I doubt you get any, I'll be happy to lend you some of mine.

(Must comment now: I write out of love, toward love. Of course I get hate mail.)

I agree with the chocolate thing totally, but there is also a "medical food," L-methyl folate, or Deplin by brand name which is thought to make neurotransmitters work better. It's an rx but not a drug, whatever that means.
Hashtag: When Facebook is your Friend.

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in which my nieces (and Serena) take their turn at responsive writing, at Hooray of Books

Sunday, July 28, 2013

One of the very great privileges of spending yesterday in Alexandria, VA, at Hooray for Books, in the company of Debbie Levy, family, and friends, was the time we took to write together. Debbie encouraged us to write in the tradition of her mother's poesiealbum—the book of brief holocaust-era letters, urgings, and clippings that inspired her book, The Year of Goodbyes. She asked us, specifically, to think about this:

What about you are you sure your friends or classmates will remember 70 years from now? What do you hope they forget? (We adults were urged to think about what we hope long-lost friends who encounter us now will remember—and forget.)

Since we had been talking about the thin line between fiction and truth, I urged our readers/writers to take something from their pocket and write its autobiography. We heard from paperclips, car keys, phones, and a dollar bill, among other laughter-inducing things.

Here, below, are two responses. The first is by my niece, Julia, who is entering her second year at the Corcoran College of Art and Design; she is a talented photographer. The second is from Claire, whose 13th birthday I helped celebrate earlier this year. She's a big reader, a fabulous student, and all-round athlete.

The Remember? Forget? Exercise/Julia Emma Kephart Roberts

I go to a small small school in the basement of a museum, where you can usually find me in the first cubby of one of the largest darkrooms you've ever seen. There are about 300 students total - smaller than my graduating high school class. I know them all by name and face. I follow them on instagram and tumblr and flickr and every other website imaginable. But older folks be forewarned this means nothing in the actual relationship I have with these people. It also means nothing in regards to what I know about them or what they know about me. What stands out to one person about myself could be completely overlooked or misread by another. Because if you think about it, none of us really know what is remembered or forgotten or even if any of it is true or false, just what we remember about ourselves.
Autobiography of a SmartPhone/Claire Kephart Roberts
There’s a sad but almost happy loneliness the comes with being placed in someone's back pocket and sat on about a hundred times each day. You don’t get to choose what you wear, how you act, or most of all who you are. Everything about you is decided by someone of a higher standard. Although I am smarter then most significants around me I have no choice but to sit quietly and do what I am told. But the idea that my quietness has changed the life of anyone who finds me and my friends is almost remarkable. Significants put their life in us, what we hold is more then a game and social websites, everything typed and every scratch we acquire puts a new, maybe scary thought in our significant's head. Every little thing we do slowly eventually will blur our significant's lines until unreadable and they have no choice but to totally completely rely on us until we ourselves rule them.

And then there's this amazing narrative about our day together, written by Serena Agusto-Cox, who dressed her super-well-behaved little girl in bright pink and shared her with us. Serena has a response to the writing prompt in this post—a beautiful poem. I encourage you to click this link, and read it for yourself.


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at Hooray for Books, with Debbie Levy, family, friends


We may all have niches of incapability, but I suspect that I have more than most. Making perfect corners on a bed is on that list. So is watching blood-soaked horror films. So is driving alone in high traffic for several hours.

Yesterday, however, I overcame Incapability Number Three and drove alone to Alexandria, VA, to spend time at Hooray for Books. Jessica Shoffel of Penguin had already told me what a great place this was. Ellen, the proprietor, had mentioned the chance to share the afternoon with Debbie Levy. And I have family in those parts—my sister and her three children.

So I was there, I drove, I conquered. And I will be forever glad that I did. Hooray for Books is a beautiful enterprise, right there on King Street, in a town that is ripe with interesting shops and cupcake nooks. Debbie Levy—whose new book, Imperfect Spiral, I will be writing of here soon—is a one-hundred-percent class act. So talented, so well-prepared, so interesting, so thoughtful, so professional that I had to stop my feather-earringed self from standing up and shouting "yes!" as she spoke. What a conversation we had about truth, fiction, and the line in between. What unexpected side trips we took as we explored form and economy. And when we proposed to our gathering that they join us in a mini writing workshop, the room was game. We heard from writers of all ages, and we heard fine tales. We had so much fun that we decided to take our show on the road. We may still need a booking agent. But we've already got our drummer—Patrick, who works at Hooray for Books—who blew us away with his charm and words.

But look at the first photo here. That is my family. My father, who was in Alexandria to spend time with his grandchildren, my sister (just back from San Diego), and her two younger children, Claire and Daniel; Julia, her eldest, a photographer, joined us later. I am used to trekking out on book talk missions alone; it was incredible to have family near. I had made them many promises about the goodness of Debbie Levy, and Debbie lived up to every inch of them.

Great thanks to Serena, who joined us with her family, and to Deborah and Will, gracious hosts. And thank you to the wonderful guests who contributed so much to the day. I signed my first in-store copies of Handling the Truth yesterday, signing copy number 1 to a fourteen-year-old girl who had arrived with her parents and who expressed such interest in reading and writing that it will fuel me for a very long time. And I signed my first paperback copies of Small Damages. That, too, was a fine, fine thing.

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and now for some professional ballroom dancing (and headed to VA)

Saturday, July 27, 2013


... featuring my friends Jean Paul and Lana Rossi, who were also featured in the movie The Silver Linings Playbook. Sometimes I even dance with Jean. I don't dance anything like that.

I'm off to Alexandria, VA, to Hooray for Books, to talk about truth and fiction with Debbie Levy, whose new book, The Imperfect Spiral, just arrived here last night. I've read the first twenty-five pages this morning and I'd do anything to stick around and finish. It's just that good. I'll write of it when I can.

Alexandria, VA, marks the first time I will see the Small Damages paperback and Handling the Truth in a store. My niece Claire will join us. It will be a special day.

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Reflecting on Here/There Memoirs in Today's Publishing Perspectives

Friday, July 26, 2013

Today in Publishing Perspectives, a digital magazine about the international world of books, I'm reflecting on a sub-species of memoir I like to think of as Cross-Border memoirs, or Here/There memoirs.

I kick the piece off with thoughts about the great Michael Ondaatje's indispensable Running in the Family, then move on—toward Edwidge Danticat, Anthony Shadid, and Sophia Al-Maria.

The heart of the piece is here, below. The whole can be found here. So many thanks to Ed Nawotka for giving me room to think out loud.

More about memoirs I love, memoir exercises, and Handling the Truth can be found here.
All memoirists travel across the accordion folds of synapses and time. Border-crossing memoirists additionally move back and forth across space — past signposts, over deckled landmasses, into new weather, toward the science of geomorphology. Their points of view are duality inflected. Their vocabularies are exotic and hued. Their ideas about home are perforated and embellished by contrasts, contradictions, and corporeal compromise.
Finally, on a related (sort of matter), I will be in Alexandria, VA, this weekend at Hooray for Books, with the phenomenal Debbie Levy, whose work crosses many borders. We begin at 3:30. Readers and writers are both welcome. We're going to be talking about international books, and about truth and fiction and the line between. Many thanks to Serena, who is helping to spread the word, here

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Handling the Truth in The Smart Set (and on Philly.com)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I know. The title of this post grabbed you. Indeed, you did a double take. A Beth book? In something called The Smart Set? What's the catch?

The catch is that the person who is actually writing for The Smart Set, a Drexel University publication, is super smart. His name is Nathaniel Popkin, and he reads all these books I didn't even know existed, and he has a knack for finding connections among and between things, and he's very nice to me.

He also claims I'm funny.

That got you, too, didn't it. Beth Kephart? Funny?

In any case, here's the link to Nathaniel's thoughtful piece. And here's a slice from it:

Kephart ... is assertive and defiant — and downright funny — about the literary value of memoir, a genre that some critics see as spent, imaginatively thin, and sentimental. So confident and playful, so taken is she with words, so willful is she about the transformative power of literature that at times in Handling the Truth she begins to sound like Rawi Hage’s Fly. “Call me sentimental; others have,” she writes. “Remind me that the world is dark and ugly, that people are cruel, that injustice reigns, that children suffer, that the wrong people win, the wrong people triumph. I know. I have been there. I have seen. I have lost to the infidels once or twice myself.”

Okay, whoops. A postscript. The unsinkable Nathaniel Popkin has just informed that a second piece, by his truly, is now up on Philly.com (here). Now he's calling me defiant. Me! Defiant! All right. I'll be defiant then. After all, yesterday a certain reporter from Montgomery News suggested that I might be a bird.

From Nathaniel Popkin's Philly.com review:
All this sage advice and the wide-ranging texts she employs to support it make this book useful for any writer, in just about any form (and all forms cross-pollinate and cross over anyway). Working on a novel? Well, you'd better have empathy. Consider yourself a poet: probably a good idea to listen equally well to yourself and the outside world. A journalist? Your stories will be all the more powerful if you can ascribe meaning to prosaic events.

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working on my Berlin novel author questionnaire, remembering Berlin

(that's all)

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Joining Stacey D'Erasmo at AJC Decatur Book Festival

Readers of this blog know how much I admire Stacey D'Erasmo—her fine mind, her original insights. I'm delighted, therefore, to be joining Stacey on the Old Courthouse Stage on Saturday, August 31, at the AJC Decatur Book Festival, for a conversation titled "Personal Truths: On Writing Intimacy and Memoir."

Details can be found here

My thoughts about Stacey's new book, The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between, can be found here.

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Am I a bird? Montgomery News asks, while talking Dr. Radway and Handling the Truth

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

I was feeling particularly inept and incapable today—doing countless things of indeterminate value (save for the thirty minutes I spent reading James Wood and thinking about literary mimicry) and wondering whether I'd ever feel literary again. (Such wondering has become a running motif.)

Then Nicolette Milholin, the Book Bound Columnist for Montgomery News, sent me a story she had written about me and a few recent books. I read the first paragraph and burst out laughing, and then I had this thought: If I do nothing else today, I will have laughed.

Which counts for a lot of something.

So thank you so much Nicolette. Here's that first graf, below. And here's a link to the whole.
Say you want to be a writer, a published author, an acclaimed figure who just can’t help letting those words flow, a writer so prolific that your email signature rightly boasts “author of 16 books.” Where do you turn for guidance and inspiration? It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Beth Kephart!




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every act of literary mimicry is ultimately transparent

I'll interrupt most anything I'm doing for a chance to read a James Wood essay. This morning I got up early to read "Sins of the Father: Do great novelists make bad parents?," the latest Wood contribution to The New Yorker.

Fascinating, all of it—how wouldn't it be? It's Wood on the memoirs written by the children of famous novelists—Janna Malamud Smith (on Bernard Malamud), Alexandra Styron (on William Styron), Susan Cheever (on John Cheever), and (the real focus of this essay) George Bellow on his father, Saul.

About the first three, Wood writes: "All three are vibrant storytellers, alert to scene and detail, almost sickeningly sensitive to the way that large male egos stage themselves; they know that, in some odd combination of respect and revenge, they are turning their fathers into novelistic characters."

About Bellow, Wood is not nearly as convinced. "It is less a memoir than a speaking wound," Wood writes, of Saul Bellow's Heart: A Son's Memoir. And then he proceeds to show us how.

But what really caught my eye in this essay were the words of Bellow himself. Wood has just noted how, "in the greatest novels, the ghost of the author's soul rustle into life." Then he quotes Bellow:
When you open a novel—and I mean of course the real thing—you enter into a state of intimacy with its writer. You hear a voice or, more significantly, an individual tone under the words. This tone you, the reader, will identify not so much by a name, the name of the author, as by a distinct and unique human quality. It seems to issue from the bosom, from a place beneath the breastbone. It is more musical than verbal, and it is the characteristic signature of a person, of a soul.
Yes, I think. Oh, yes. Every real writer is in possession of his or her own true voice—tones, patterns, structures, rhythms, ways of seeing that erupt from a life lived like no other life will ever be lived. I write, for example, the way I write because I skated once, and because I am a middle child (always), and because I traveled to certain places at certain times and saw things and felt things and they recur, and because I have fought and lost and fought and barely won. It's all in there, for good or for bad—and I'm not just talking about plot. The sentences loop. The images are elided. There are sudden stops and odd angles and gush, mid-course corrections. Some people cannot tolerate my way with words, and that is fine. But it is my way with words, and no matter how many different genres I write, no matter how many different locations I set my stories in, no matter how old I get, it is me, Beth Kephart—perhaps not a fully realized real writer yet, but one who works hard at the craft—at the keyboard.

So every writer is in possession of his or her own true voice. And every act of mimicry, correspondingly, is transparent—a short cut, a tool, an exercise in industry as opposed to an expression of something raw, dredged up, authentic. The imitating writer may believe she'll get away with this, that no one will notice, that it will be fine. But inevitably there are breaks and gaps and awkward gestures that out the act of shadow writing. The images and patterns have been borrowed. The work has not been forged.




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When a memoir is not a memoir

Monday, July 22, 2013

This weekend I bought and read two memoirs, reflections upon which I had hoped to share here.

That isn't going to happen, and the reason, quite simply, is this: These memoirs are not memoirs. They are autobiographies with big chunks of fiction thrown in.

I hate when that happens.

Because I try hard never to use my blog as a vehicle of negativity—because I know how it feels to see your book bruised by a reader's dismay—I will not name those books here, will not quote from them, will not throw you the double wink-wink. I will, instead, offer general thoughts on the form itself, especially those authorial decisions that can throw a memoir off the rails.

First, I always wonder about "memoirs" in which large swaths of dialogue are quoted at length. I grow especially concerned when that dialogue is sourced from a time before or during or just after (even a long time after) the writer's own birth. Who was recording these conversations in such detail? Did the baby-writer herself overhear the doctors talking, for example, and make special note of this for later? Did the father and mother bring pen and pad to the birthing room? Did they take note of who looked out the window when, and how the father adjusted his tie, and why the mother chose that particular instant to brush the hair from her eyes? Memory fails, and we make room for myths, and we understand the power of family lore. But when a writer goes on for many pages—chapters, even—about events that clearly no one recorded, when she asserts the facts rather than overtly imagines them, I find that I am, as a reader, in trouble.

Second, memoir is, in the end, more closely aligned with poetry and art than it is with records and documents. The writers I read this weekend were far more interested in plunking down the facts (or the invented facts) as purely informational fare, in sentences stripped bare. This happened to me, then this happened to me, then this happened to me, they wrote. Next chapter: This happened to me. So locked into the facts of their own story did these writers become that they forgot to look up and glance toward the reader and ask, Have you felt this way, too? Or, Life is funny, isn't it? These writers locked their readers out. They did not share the stage.

It's especially concerning—but enormously common—when both things happen at once. The writer both pretends to know many things that she cannot know (the art of fiction) and she sets those facts down so plainly and without artistic care that she is telegraphing (wittingly or not) her belief that the plot of her life is, in and of itself, enough. No need to play with structure. No need to hunt for themes. No need to play with a metaphor. What happened is big. It is sufficient. It is, by definition, memoir.

But it's not.

For more thoughts on the making of memoir, please visit my Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir page. 



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Notes on her Memory: the greenhouse, photographed in winter

Sunday, July 21, 2013

In the Philadelphia Inquirer today, I remember my mother, who is buried at Valley Forge National Historical Park. In the early days following my mother's death, I would wander toward the Knox Estate greenhouse and think about rust and lost seeds. Later, I would come to sit on the bench near my mother's grave, which I had had designed for my father, and listen to the bells that sifted down.

The whole story is here. This is the greenhouse, as photographed in the winter of 2010.

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A Trick of the Light/Lois Metzger: Reflections

A few weeks ago, on a warm summer day, I made my way to Books of Wonder, in New York City, to panel-up with a number of pretty amazing young adult novelists. (I don't think panel-up is a real term, but I'm going with it.)

Beside me sat Lois Metzger, whose brand-new book—A Trick of the Light—brought out a crowd of Lois fans. Lois read from the book with a little off-stage help from her husband while their handsome son took photos.

A Trick of the Light sheds the spotlight on a little-discussed but surprisingly common condition—anorexia in teen boys (or "manorexia," as one of the characters puts its). Metzger's protagonist is an intelligent boy with family troubles—a young man who is taught the ravaging art of not eating by a young female friend. Narrated by the voice inside young Mike's head, the novel inventively presents the private thoughts of a boy whose increasingly distorted image of himself wreaks havoc on his life—and health. An ambulance will ultimately come for Mike. Rehabilitation will be required.

Lois did considerable research to write this book, and one feels the depth of her insight in passages like this one:
Everything that's good about you—anorexia loves it. Anorexia takes your intelligence and creativity and uses it to lie, repeatedly and convincingly, about why you don't eat, why you wear long underwear in the middle of the summer. Anorexia uses that work ethic to force you to exercise even when you're famished and exhausted.
A new and important look at an issue that deserves our attention, and compassion.



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Looking forward to the Writers Conference at the AJC Decatur Book Festival/August 30

Saturday, July 20, 2013

I'm looking forward to joining some really terrific teachers and writers for the upcoming Writers Conference at the AJC Decatur Book Festival. I'll be teaching memoir, but there are plenty of options that day.

I'm calling all Atlanta friends...

From the Decatur site (and more details here):
Keeping with tradition, the AJC Decatur Book Festival will hold its annual Writers Conference on Friday, August 30th at Agnes Scott College. A handful of stellar authors have been invited to kick off the festival, teach workshops, and share their special knowledge and skills with the public. This activity begins with a Writers Conference keynote address at 2:30pm, spilling into workshops from 4pm until 6pm.

The keynote address will be given by Clyde Edgerton. He is the author of ten novels, a book of advice, a memoir, and numerous short stories and essays. Edgerton has been a Guggenheim Fellow, and five of his novels have been New York Times Notable Books. He will be discussing writing and his new book Papadaddy’s Book For New Fathers: Advice to Dads of All Ages.

Edgerton will deliver his keynote speech from 2:30-3:30 p.m. Refreshments and book sales follow. Individual writer workshops take place at Buttrick Hall beginning at 4:00 p.m. Get your ticket now at http://ajcdbfwriterskeynote.eventbrite.com.

Take a look at our workshop descriptions below and follow the EventBrite links to sign up! All workshops are free and open to the public, with limited space.

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Remembering my mother and honoring my father, at Valley Forge, in today's Inquirer

With thanks, as always, to Kevin Ferris, who allows me to sing these songs. Thanks, too, to the entire Inquirer team.

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On my son's birthday...

Friday, July 19, 2013

I think back over the years and all the joy he's wrought. Here we are, on our first trip together, to Santa Fe, where I, seduced by Willa Cather legends, had gone to turn thirty. He was so infinitely huggable. Still is.

And because he'll be here to celebrate the event, I'm making this a Beth Day Off (all except the 2 PM client presentation). There are presents to wrap. There are flowers to arrange. There's a tall, handsome, huggable guy with New York City stories to tell.

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shopping spree: negotiating the barbed heat of summer

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Yesterday I dragged my bruised shoulder and slowly healing back to the mall, where I had not been since Christmas.

I'm not an expert shopper—find myself easily overcome by all the options, and the plain unknowability. Is there, for example, a better choice in another store? Should I keep looking—or stop? I shop unglamorously, my hair in a ponytail and my blue Nikes on. I shop without exhilaration. I shop ducking from people I once knew—the ones in light wool suits and pumps and grown-up shopping mall style.

Still, two birthdays are upcoming—my son's, and then my husband's—and I have a few places I need to go. And so, avoiding mirrors wherever I could, I explored the local King of Prussia Mall, where many of the stores I used to like are either gone or repositioned and where, for one frustrating moment, I could not find the stairs, and where, three times, like I had entered a Not Fun House, men approached me with a sad, yearning look in their eyes. Surely, they said, I understood that I would be much better off with their age-reducing skin elixirs.

I have a theory, and it's proving true in these banged-up, hot days of summer:

I'm not getting anywhere unless I laugh at myself.

I'll be at the Philadelphia Business Journal Women's Conference in the Crystal Tea Room of the Wanamaker Building, in two hours wearing my new dress and shoes. I hope I'm better at leading the Coffee Klatch than I'll ever be at shopping.




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Would you be the hat novelist? and writing withdrawal

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

So if you only had a hat upon which to write your novel, what would your novel say?

And would you write it under a pseudonym? Or would you be you—the hat novelist?

I have not written an ounce of fiction for nearly two months now.

I don't know where I'd begin.

I don't know if the vague but actual pain in my brain is symptom of withdrawal from writing stories.

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What's Your Story: Thoughts from Rebecca Solnit (The Faraway Nearby)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

I buy every Rebecca Solnit book. I like the invented nature of her thoughts and prose. Today, facing all kinds of work deluge (and other such stuff), I share the opening paragraph from the Solnit book I'll read and review here as soon as the clouds settle.

But for now, Solnit's take on love—and stories.
What's your story? It's all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.

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Join Debbie Levy and me in Alexandria, VA, as we share our new books and think about the fine line between truth and fiction

Sunday, July 14, 2013





Over the next many months I'll be traveling around the country talking about books and how they get made. Often, I'll be doing this work in conjunction with writers I've always admired and cannot wait to meet. (Or announce here, just as soon as I can.)

This afternoon, I can formally announce the first such collaborative conversation, which I will be having with the esteemed author, Debbie Levy, a multi-genre, multi-award winning author of picture books, memoirs, and novels. We have shared interests, Debbie and I, and I can't wait to learn from her at Hooray for Books, in Alexandria, VA, on July 27, 2013. We'll start at 3:30 and end around five. We'll talk about truth and fiction and the lines in between, focusing on the four books I feature here—Handling the Truth (its first appearance in any store), The Year of Goodbyes (the winner of many awards), Small Damages (the first time I'll see its paperback self in any store), and Imperfect Spiral (just released). Debbie and I will both read—briefly—from each book, discuss its creation, and then share thoughts on workshopping truth and fiction. We each have an in-store exercise for those who'd like to try their hands at a bit of writing—and to hear our thoughts about their work.

I'm looking forward to meeting Debbie, to spending time at Hooray for Books, and to finally giving Deborah Yarborough a hug—for it is because of Deborah's sweet invitation that I will be there in the first place (and person).

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The Engagements/J. Courtney Sullivan: My Chicago Tribune Review

I'm always honored when the Chicago Tribune invites me to read one of the big books of the day—and to reflect on it for Chicago readers.

Today my review of J. Courtney Sullivan's The Engagements is up on the Tribune's Printers Row, one of the biggest printed book review supplements currently in circulation. It can be read in its entirety here.

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Scenes from the Independence Visitor Center Store, on a certain warm Saturday

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Earlier today I was the guest of the truly beautiful and well-managed Independence Visitor Center Store on the Mall in Philadelphia. If you haven't been, you really should go. It'll make you proud of our city.

I was there to sign copies of my two Philadelphia novels, Dangerous Neighbors and Dr. Radway's Sarsparilla Resolvent. And as grateful as I was for the opportunity, I knew, going in, how hard this would be for this lifelong thwarter of sales scenarios. I couldn't sell Girl Scout cookies when it was required of me years ago. At other author events, I eschew talking about my own books in favor of promoting the books of others. And put me in the midst of a store with only my own books to sell, and all I can think of is how silly I must seem to all those passing by. An American curiosity with a twitch in her writing hand.

When I could climb out of my own head long enough, however, I was grateful for many things. For Sister Kim and her cousin Christine, who came and visited for a long sweet while. For the grandparents of twins, who embraced Dangerous Neighbors. For the junior in high school who hopes to be a writer, for the handsome couple who eventually overcame stormy skies and storm surges on the Chesapeake and made their way to the city, for the couple from Australia, for the couple from western PA.

And then there was this totally adorable little boy who could not get enough of the Dr. Radway cover. So convinced was he that he had to have this book that his mother and I began talking. She is a literature professor in China, as it turns out, at the end of a few months based in Boston, and it was fascinating to talk with her—and to hear her appreciation for this country. I was glad to hear that my fellow Americans had been kind to her and her family. I was glad to see the good of us through her eyes.

And that little boy—I'll never forget him.

I'm not good at sales. Indeed, I'm downright terrible at sales, suffering some inner shame as the clock ticks on. But today I was given the chance to see and hear the appreciation that others have for my city. It was enough for me. It was energizing.


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Who is in charge? Try this email assessment assignment and find out.

The other day I was amusing myself by reading The Secret Life of Pronouns by James Pennebaker, a book (to quote the book's web page) that is "based on a large-scale research project that links natural language use to real world social and psychological processes. Using computerized text analyses on hundreds and thousands of letters, poems, books, blogs, Tweets, conversations, and other texts, it is possible to begin to read people's hearts and minds in ways they can't do themselves."

I find the whole idea fascinating, though reading the book reminded me of how little I know about the labeling of verbs, say, not to mention how little thought I've given to "function words," which Pennebaker defines as pronouns, articles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, and a few other language bits and pieces.

(I mean, there, that I've thought a whole lot about pronouns, obviously, being a memoirist and such. But I have not thought of pronouns as "function words.")

Among other things, the book looks at forgettable words, the words of sex and power, the words of liars, and the words of love. He gives his readers exercises and I'll share one here. I haven't done it myself yet—afraid of what I will find out. But I share it with you, and hope that you'll let me know what you find out. (Look at all the non-I words in that last sentence. I think I've just rendered myself an overly self-impressed human being.)

Look at the last ten e-mails that you sent to someone and compare them with the last ten they sent you. Calculate the percentage of I-words each of you used. If you have a great deal of time, you can do the same with the you- and we-words that you both used as well. Statistically, I-words are the most trustworthy. Here's the rule: The person who uses fewer I-words is the person who is higher in the social hierarchy. If the two of you are about the same in I-word usage, you probably have an equal relationship.

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The Boy on the Bridge/Natalie Standiford: Reflections

Friday, July 12, 2013

It's 1982, and Laura is spending a semester in Russia, learning the language of a country she fell in love with years ago. Leningrad is freezing cold and gray. The food is fish head soup and gristle. Gypsies have begun harassing Laura on the bridge that spans the Neva River and she is alone, and afraid, when a boy—a Russian boy—makes them stop. He has "smooth fair skin, rosy cheeks, mischievous brown eyes" and he goes by the name of Aloysha.

Laura will, over the course of Natalie Standiford's The Boy on the Bridge, fall in love with Aloysha—breaking all the rules of her semester abroad, cutting classes, and risking expulsion for herself as well as a darker, more mysterious brand of danger for Aloysha. She will be cautioned—by friends, teachers, other Russians—against a Russian system that makes marriage to an American the best possible ticket out of a life of thwarted opportunities. She is just nineteen. She believes in love. She believes Aloysha is in love with her. But is it love, or is it a desire to flee the country that has wounded and encased him?

Standiford, who spent a Russian semester abroad years ago, writes with great authority about the Russian landscape, the tourist spots and the off-the-beaten-path interiors of Russian apartments and bookstores. She writes knowingly, too, about the near impossibility of being sure. Is the rapid fire of this passion really love? Does Aloysha's desire to leave his country shape his claim of passion—or the stories he tells? Is Aloysha even capable of being honest with himself?

It's complicated, and Standiford presents the complications compellingly well—tugging the reader through to the final pages of the book as we wonder—begin to need to know—precisely what will happen here to an American college girl in love.

Look for The Boy on the Bridge in August.

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Small Damages: it's paperback pub day!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The very great Jessica Shoffel sent me this copy of Small Damages, delivered on the day of the book's paperback release by the Penguin imprint, Speak.

It's a beautiful package, this book. Ever since Tamra Tuller acquired this story for Philomel, it has been given extraordinarily good care—through editing and copy editing, through design and publicity, through its transformation as a paperback.

I placed my implicit trust in Tamra, Michael Green, Jessica Shoffel, and the sales team, and I was never given a reason to doubt. When Eileen Kreit and her team assumed responsibility for the paperback, I was equally at ease.

So much can go wrong in the publication of a book. Nothing went wrong with this one. I am so proud and happy to have my first paperback (with the stepback!) copy of Small Damages in hand. And I will be grateful, always.

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Gearing up for the Handling the Truth workshops (and see you at Independence Mall this Saturday?)

The other day, when my very bright orange Handling the Truth arrived, I took a very deep breath. It is time, I thought. Time to think about the way I will talk about this book and take it out into the world.

I'm still happy for the decision I'd made months ago to conduct workshops on behalf of this book, as opposed to offering traditional readings. Some of those workshops are noted on the left column of this blog—events in Alexandria, VA, Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere. Three will be conducted in northern California. One of those (noted above) will take place at one of my very favorite independent bookstores, Book Passages.

I hope to see you in my travels. And I hope, perhaps, to see you this Saturday, when I'll be signing copies of Dangerous Neighbors and Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent on Independence Mall. It's gorgeous down there; it's the heart of Philadelphia history.

July 13
1:00-4:00 pm
Independence Visitor Center Store
1 North Independence Mall West
6th and Market Streets
Philadelphia, PA

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The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between/Stacey D'Erasmo

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Always a cause for celebration when a new volume in the The Art of series is released by Graywolf Press. Edited by Charles Baxter, the "series is a line of books reinvigorating the practice of craft and criticism." The Art of Subtext (by Baxter himself), The Art of Time in Memoir (by Sven Birkerts—a book I love and teach and feature in Handling the Truth), The Art of Recklessness (Dean Young), The Art of Attention (Donald Revell), The Art of Description (Mark Doty)—these are ingenious encapsulations of a working writer's best thinking on the making of stories, sentences, and poems.

Yesterday, Stacey D'Erasmo's contribution to the series—The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between—was released; I had it on my iPad by dawn. D'Erasmo is a writer and reader worth heeding—an honored novelist, a professor at Columbia, a critic whose reviews are often better than the studied books themselves. Here, in this book, she does exactly what her title promises—explores "the nature of intimacy" and "the space between us" through chapters with titles like "Trying to See," "Meeting in the If," "Meeting in the World," "Meeting in the Dark," "Why Meet?," and "Distance." Old favorites like The Secret Sharer, The Rainbow, So Long, See You Tomorrow, Beloved, and To the Lighthouse are reinvigorated here, reviewed with an eye toward blurred, encapsulated, empathetic, and haunted spaces. Lesser known (to me, anyway) texts such as Dennis Cooper's My Mark, Nella Larsen's Passing, and Yoko Tawada's "The Bath," are likewise studied, quoted at length, turned over like conical shells.

I don't know about you, but I find this sort of thing thrilling—viewing texts through the eyes of a skilled, practicing writer. D'Erasmo has ideas; she makes assertions. "I have noticed that the intimacy we feel as readers is often generated far less by characters turning to one another and saying intimate things or doing intimate things than it is by a kind of textual atmosphere, or maybe one should say a biosphere, a gallery, a zone that both emanates from characters and acts upon them very deeply and personally," she asserts early on.

Later, she addresses her readers as probable writers:
The harm, it seems to me as a struggling writer among other struggling writers, is that piety of any kind is never especially good for art. Characters can, and should, believe all kinds of things, passionately and with brilliant wrongheadedness, but the book is, generally speaking, up to something else, something broader, something less sure of itself. Questions the writer might ask herself as she struggles to bring a sense of intimacy onto the page are, What assumptions am I making about what intimacy is? What received ideas about intimacy am I perhaps unwittingly reproducing?
It's all fascinating to me—elevating my vocabulary as a reader, expanding my girth as a writer. And so, on this morning of vapid fog and gathering heat, I send it out to you, dear readers, as a book to buy and keep.




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Jill Lepore: The Prodigal Daughter

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Each year, for the Lore Kephart '86 Distinguished Historians Lecture Series, a group of faithful Villanova University scholars (including my good friend Paul Steege) work with my father to choose a speaker who will engage the Villanova students, faculty, and greater community. In 2011, that speaker was Jill Lepore, whose work I have always admired and whose presentation on Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin's sister, was exquisite. Jill was working on a book, she'd told us. What a great a book we knew it would be.

In this week's New Yorker, Jill Lepore contributes an essay titled "The Prodigal Daughter" that interleaves her research on Jane Franklin with her own growing up with a mother who was primed for beauty and who insisted that Jill go out and embrace the world. It is the most personal essay I've ever read by Lepore—and, by far, the most wrenching. It bears reading by any writer seeking proof of how the personal can elevate the historical, and how history bears on the present day. The final paragraph of Lepore's essay made me weep, literally. But let me share here the place where it all begins:
In the trunk of her car, my mother used to keep a collapsible easel, a clutch of brushes, a little wooden case stocked with tubes of paint, and, tucked into the spare-tire well, one of my father's old, tobacco-stained shirts, for a smock. She'd be out running errands, see something wonderful, pull over, and pop the trunk. I never knew anyone better prepared to meet with beauty.
And later—a passage I remember well from Lepore's 2011 talk:
He ran away in 1723, when he was seventeen and she was eleven. The day he turned twenty-one, he wrote her a letter—she was fourteen—beginning a correspondence that would last until his death. (He wrote more letters to her than he wrote to anyone else.) He became a printer, a philosopher, and a statesman. She became a wife, a mother, and a widow. He signed the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, and the Constitution. She strained to form the letters of her name.
Lepore's new volume, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, is set for publication in October. My mother would have loved Jill Lepore. If you don't already love her,  you will after reading "The Prodigal Daughter."

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Celebrating Craig Park and his first published essay, in the Pennsylvania Gazette

Monday, July 8, 2013

We'd already settled into our paces in English 135.302 this past spring when Craig Park joined our ranks—a trim guy in a slim jacket; dark eyes; a closely-shaved head. I wanted to know what he hoped to achieve in our class and asked. He looked at me, let a beat of time go by. "That's an awfully personal question, isn't it?" he asked.

Hmmm, I thought. This should be interesting.

And it was interesting—completely interesting—as Craig soon proved himself to be a gifted writer, an astute critic, a young man with wild stories to tell. He's terribly bright, this Craig Park—bracingly talented with language, tempo, detail. But he was also quick to admit how tricky memoir is, how hard it is to help a story (even a monstrously good one) transcend itself.

Some students come to us with talent and smarts to spare, and Craig was absolutely one of those. Others come with a willingness to say, I don't know this particular thing yet, but I'm willing to do what it takes to deepen my understanding—and range. Craig also proved himself to be one of those. That combination—in any person—is a powerful one, and as the semester wore on, I gained great respect for the intelligence and heart that Craig brought to his work. I pushed him, and he let me. That, too, counts for a lot.

Still, Craig's sentences—the long, the short, the lacerating, the gentle, the sometimes philosophical. I had nothing to do with them. Craig had that going on from the start.

I'm proud and pleased today to share Craig Park's first published essay, in the pages of the esteemed Pennsylvania Gazette. Great thanks to Trey Popp, who comes to my classroom each semester and makes room for these young writers.

Craig's essay begins like this, below, and carries forward here.
I stood by the highway on-ramp and waited for the next potential ride. I had changed out my selection of signs, and I was testing the effectiveness of a minimalist “South?” on a floppy cardboard rectangle. I hoped the one-word request achieved the necessary generality. People don’t tend to stop for hitchhikers demanding specific destinations, but my open-ended pleas struck me as inevitably effective given my proximity to a north-south highway. “Inevitably effective” might have been a bit too much confidence, though; after the fifth or sixth refusal, I started to worry that I wouldn’t make it out of Jersey by nightfall.
To read the published Gazette essays of other students with whom I've had the privilege of sharing the classroom, please visit my Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir page.


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my pottery collection, as photographed by my husband

Sunday, July 7, 2013

My husband has been testing his camera lens for an upcoming client project and asked if he might use my first poor pottery pieces as subjects. I (immersed in the making of the Jilly Joy and Chippy video) said yes, out of the corner of my mouth, and mind.

I should have known that he'd come back with something quietly considered. That's how he does things. I just wish I could show you his pottery work, which is indeed so spectacular that it stopped my father in his tracks the other night, just as he was about to leave following dinner.

"You made those?" my father said to my husband, whose artistic talents have been widely in view through the years.

I had to say, "Yes! Yes!," because my husband, like my son, is very modest. Which is why he will not allow me to showcase his great work here. I can only share with you the caliber of his photographs.

I am unafraid to fail at pottery. That makes me very happy.

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Handling the Truth: Jilly Joy and Chippy Present the Book Trailer


So here we are. Book trailer time. I didn't know what to do until I heard Jilly Joy and Chippy having this conversation in the forest. I'm hoping they are still so absorbed in their private conversation that they'll never know of this uber-secret video recording.

More on Handling the Truth (the book, the early reviews, writing exercises, student work, books I love) can be found here. Handling will be released as an original paperback by Gotham on August 6th.

And it really does glow in the dark.

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My friend Jane sings in Tallinn with the Smith College Alumnae Choir and Estonian Performers


I do have a wonderful neighborhood, and truly wonderful neighbors. One of my very favorites is a lady named Jane—an educator, an amazing mother and grandmother, a woman engaged with the world.

This morning she sent me this clip in an email that contained the word "joy." You'll feel precisely that as you watch the Smith College Alumnae Choir perform an excerpt of Beethoven's Choral Fantasy in Tallinn with the Estonian Male Choir and the Estonian National Youth Orchestra. The woman in the front row who, at the end, closes her black book and presses it to her cheek—with joy— (the woman whose laugh of pleasure you can almost hear): that is my friend Jane.

It is the gesture that defines her. And it is thrilling music to hear at the end of this independence week.

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Margot/Jillian Cantor: Reflections

Saturday, July 6, 2013

I took this photograph a few months ago in a part of Philadelphia I'm sure my friend Jillian Cantor knows well. The words stopped me. I had a hunch they'd come in handy some time. I had no idea just how handy, however, until I read Jillian's wonderfully conceived and executed new novel, Margot (Riverhead, September 2013).

For there, at the heart of this novel, in the heart of Philadelphia, in the middle of last century, is a young thirty-three year old woman whose identity has been masked by many small lies and a sweater whose one tight sleeve never reveals the ink on her arm. She is a law firm employee, a paralegal student, a responsible young woman whom no one knows. She lives in a small apartment with her silent cat. She remembers love and may be falling in love. She is Margot Frank, Anne's older sister, and she, history be damned, is not dead.

Her sister's diary has just been released as a major film. Gossip—and gossipers—are closing in. She is inclined to run when others might walk, to see dangers where the easy-going Americans don't, to pretend that she is Polish when she is not. And as her past and present worlds collide, she must decide what to hold onto and what to reclaim and how much of herself she should blame for her sister's death.

Reviving Margot Frank as the American Margie Franklin is such a smart reversion of history that I had to stop myself, as I read, from going all fan-girl Facebook on Jillian. (Well, I did surcease at the 50-page mark to tell her how cool I thought this whole thing was.) And Jillian, who once lived near Philadelphia, accurately portrays the city at mid-last-century—the streets, the delis, the Reading Terminal Market, John Wanamaker's, the Main Liners. Just as accurate, I suspect, is Jillian's portrayal of the Franks' years in hiding, the Green Police, the horrors of the concentration camps. Too many writers of historical fiction seem to think they have done their job if they bundle a few era-specific brand names, dress styles, and street signs together, then tell the story that would have fit the present day. Jillian's research goes far deeper and comes, I absolutely believe, from a real desire not just to write a story, but to empathize, to know. Still, none of that research obfuscates the tale. None of it gets in the way of the language itself. This is a book that can be read in one sitting, and that will be remembered long after that.

There's suspense here, history, sister love, guilt, and streets that go dark but do not sleep. I have big expectations for this novel when it is released, and a whole lot of respect for Jillian.

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The News from Spain: 7 Variations on a Love Story/Joan Wickersham: Reflections

I'd wanted to read this intermingling collection of short stories for a long time. It has sat here, a tease—bought when I bought Elizabeth Graver (The End of the Point) and Jessica Keener (Night Swim). Set aside for a special time.

I was already familiar with the power and inventiveness of Joan Wickersham's voice. Her The Suicide Index would have been included as a stellar example of the memoir form in Handling the Truth had I read it in time (as it is, I list the book on my additional recommended reading list here, on the blog). I had, in addition, read the reviews of the story collection. And yet I was utterly unprepared for the impact The News from Spain would have on me. I was staggered after reading these seven stories through, each story (brilliantly) called "The News from Spain." I sat there on the couch, unable to will myself to stand. Arrows through my soul. Ache for the world and the women of the world, who love and want and hurt and try and wound and are left wounded.

The News from Spain is a sandblasting of the heart.

Readers comment on Wickersham's precision. That is the word, in a nutshell. Nothing escapes Wickersham's eye. No small detail. No minor hurt that becomes a remembered hurt that becomes the defining truth in a marriage, or in a mother-daughter relationship, or in an unrequited affair. Love is so beautiful, some of the time, and love is so brutal, much of the time. It is the war that wants only peace but keeps finding reasons to war. It is the thing that saves us. Wickersham understands it all. Her readers fall to their knees.

How twisted and smart Wickersham is, christening each short story with the same name. Makes it kind of impossible to pull them apart, to speak of them individually, and that is part of Wickersham's point. So I will just say that there's a story in this book about a dancer who has fallen ill, paralyzed. She is cared for by a young man in love with another young man, and their relationship deepens while her husband, still key in the dance company, is away, having an affair with a young dancer. The dancer tries to live on, tries to be smart, tries to be witty, even, and the caretaker tries to be whom he thinks she wants him to be—available and invisible by turns. This story devastated me. It has one of the most unforeseen and sensational endings of any story I have read.

And it is matched by the other stories in this work of art.

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Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir arrives

Friday, July 5, 2013

Am I afraid to open it? Yes. (I feel this way about every book.)

Will I open it someday? Perhaps. (I think that is required, and probably sooner or later, as I have two book interviews scheduled for next week. I need to know myself, to the degree that is still possible. To the degree that I can bear myself.)

Do I love the cover? Absolutely. (It's a dream cover, and you can't lose it at night.)

Many thanks to the Gotham team for making Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir the reality it has become. I very much wanted this to be a paperback book, so that it would not represent a burden on writers' and students' budgets. Gotham saw this—and many other things—in precisely the same way, and for that I'm ever grateful.

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The Bell Jar/Sylvia Plath: Reflections

It wasn't until relatively late in my literary life that I began to read all the books that I was supposed to read—to assemble the library expected of a writer. I'd read biographies and histories for much of my younger life—the books expected of a person with a degree in the History and Sociology of Science. I never took a proper literature course, save for the one I nearly bungled on Wordsworth and the Romantics my freshman year at Penn. My first conversation with a real writer happened when I was already a mother and drove myself to a downtown store to meet Fae-Myenne Ng. My son was five before I sat in my first writing workshop with Rosellen Brown and Reginald Gibbons—before I heard, for the first time, the language of critique and process.

There are gaps, in other words, huge gaps in my literary education, and there always will be. I had not, for example, ever read Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, until this week. Which is zany, I know, because a dear friend, Kate Moses, wrote Wintering, a Sylvia Plath novel, and because I have freaked out myself (and sometimes my students) listening to Plath read her own poems on audio tapes. But The Bell Jar? I had not read it.

It's been sitting here for the past six months, along with dozens of other books I bought in an effort to improve my education. I chose to read it on a day of deep but temporary illness, which was not, many of my Facebook friends warned, one of my best ideas. Still, I was intrigued, from the start, by the chatty quality of the book's opening pages—this Esther (so much like Sylvia) reporting on her summer in New York as a winner of a fashion magazine contest. Days were spent "working" at the magazine, which is to say receiving gifts and going on adventures and writing from time to time for the editor. Nights were spent in a girls' hotel, the Amazon. Or that's where the nights were supposed to be spent. But these were girls in New York City, and there were hungers.

New York, through the eyes of the heroine, presented on the first page:
New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-gray at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat.
That cindery dust is a forewarning, as is the early obsession with the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, and soon what appears to be a straightforward account of a growing-up summer fractures and splinters, and time comes undone. Esther is searching, first, for a reason to live. Then she is searching for a way to die. The words climb over themselves. The scenes see-saw. It is all both naive and awful, artless and poetical, and no one is spared, least of all Esther/Sylvia herself.

Plath, we know, did not want this book published in the United States (it was first released in England) for fear of how it would affect those she thinly disguised, or turned into caricatures. (She was also concerned about the book's impact on her literary reputation.) Indeed, despite the change in names and facts, it is difficult for any reader not to draw conclusions about the real mother, the real editor, the real benefactor, the real institutions of Sylvia's life, and Sylvia herself. Just as it is sometimes difficult to remember that the voice in this novel also belongs to the searing Ariel poems.

All of which reaffirmed for me these simple facts:

1. Anyone writing truthfully, even if from behind a mask, will forevermore negotiate the consequences of the act.

2. Writers possess many voices, writers are many moods, writers write well and not well, and are still writers.

3. A single book can contain the best of the writer's talent and the plaintive worst. We need to look at the whole, when we evaluate. We need to respect the difficult thing that writing finally is. I lately see too many self-styled critics out there declaiming against a hugely talented author's work as if they might, themselves, have written the book better. Just try, I think, to write the book better.

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Memoir Etudes, Handling the Truth, and a brief reflection on the structural choices Mark Doty makes in Heaven's Coast

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Tomorrow I'll hold finished copies of Handling the Truth in my hands for the first time. There are nerves tied up with that experience, as well as quiet joy. But always, for me, the nerves exceed the joy.

I quote, reference, and celebrate some 100 memoirs in Handling, as well as the work of my students. I could have added in another 100 books, could have waited to publish the book to include the extraordinary work of my most recent students, and it would have never been enough. On my Handling page, I cite memoirs that have made me think since the book was put to bed. And here, today, I'm reflecting on an early memoir that is in the book—Mark Doty's Heaven's Coast, published in 1996, shortly before I first heard Doty read at the Bread Loaf writer's conference.

I didn't have room, in Handling the Truth, to reflect on Doty's structural approach to his true story about the death, from AIDS, of his partner, Wally. Yesterday, as I re-read the book, I thought of etudes. Of how Doty divides his memoir into four very different parts.

(I also thought about how much we learn when we read old favorite books again.)

There's a prologue, to begin with, a gorgeous brief address to the reader that establishes the themes of the book and concludes with this line: "Our apocalypse is daily, but so is our persistence."

Next is "Coastal Studies," which is the most memoiristic of the four sections. This is Doty allowing his mind to assemble the meaning of Wally's death by way of associations—by studying the seals on the beach where they lived, the finches that built nests into the wreathes of a house they shared, the lessons left behind by a self-destructive poet friend. Doty writes thematically here, universally, with notes on grief and desire and coda and clarity that will resonate with anyone who has ever lost. Here is Doty, for example, speaking honestly with Bill, now dying of AIDS, of what Doty learned from Wally's death:
I tell Bill everything. About the ease of it, the awe and mystery, and Bill listens carefully, closing his eyes sometimes as if to listen more closely, sometimes opening them wide as if to take more of the story into himself. I try not to leave anything out; I can tell what he wants from me is completeness, any sense I can give of actuality, any guesses this eyewitness to last things may have made. I have feelings, experience, intuition more than I have knowledge in any conventional sense—but isn't that part of what being with dying teaches us, different sorts of knowing?
The third etude, "Through," is far more autobiographical in nature. It is Doty laying out the facts of Wally's death, mostly chronologically, sometimes repeating the details we'd encountered already in the first etude. "Coastal Studies" is the work of a poet adept at metaphor. "Through," on the other hand, is the work of a lover who must confront the facts of the loved one's death so that he can finally heal his heart, head, and body. It starts like this, below, and mostly carries this matter-of-fact tone throughout:
Wally died of a viral brain infection, FML, which stands for progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, a condition which an ordinarily harmless virus that most of us carry around in our lives is able to migrate, due to the suppression of the immune system, into the brain.
Finally, there is "Epilogue: Consolations," a quilting of afterthoughts and messages from the dead, from friends, from poets. It is, one senses, Doty moving away from the long form of his narrative and back to the making of the poetry which Wally's long dying had, to some extent, stoppered.

Four etudes. Had the book been made of "Through" alone, I would not think of it as memoir. As it is, Doty does not just each us about love, grief, and surviving in Heaven's Coast. He teaches us something about structure and form.

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my son's first performance review

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Yesterday evening I sat beneath the I-95 overpass talking to my son on the phone. He'd had his first performance review, three months into his first job, and because it is impossible for him to boast, gloat, brag, or exaggerate (not because he can't, of course, but because he won't), it took a while for me to get the news.

At the core of his great happiness was this simple fact: He is bringing everything he has to this job he found on his own and has shaped for himself. He is at the top of his game, working hard, doing what he loves. The sheer rightness of it makes him laugh.

There is so much my son continues to teach me about what goodness is all about. But last evening, listening to him as the cars roared overhead, I was reminded that the biggest rewards in life come from knowing that you've done your very best.

It's never about the blue ribbons. It's about living with yourself.

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Philadelphia's Literary Legacy Unveiling, at the Philadelphia International Airport (A wing)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013












We dodged the rain and made our way to the Philadelphia International Airport for the Literary Legacy unveiling. So many thoughts, but, really, the pictures tell the tale. Great thanks to Leah Douglas (exhibit curator), Siobhan Reardon and Andy Kahan of the Philadelphia Free Library, Mark Gale, CEO of Philadelphia International Airport, and Dr. Adrienne Jacoby of Philadelphia Reads for making this such a memorable day.

Most important fact: Some 3,000 books were donated through this event on behalf of Philadelphia school children.

The exhibit, which Leah designed, is beautiful and will hang for a year in the A terminal of the airport. We have a mayor who loves books and kids—and supports both. And I am honored to be among those who love stories as I do, as well as my very first teacher, Rosellen Brown.

Among those photographed here: Mayor Michael Nutter, Siobhan Reardon, Andy Kahan, Karen E. Quinones Miller, Lorene Carey, Sonia Sanchez, Diane McKinney-Whetstone, Solomon Jones, Teri Woods, Judy Schachner, Charles Fuller, and Michael Swanwick. Rosellen Brown is featured behind the Mayor. I was amazed to find The Heart is Not a Size, Nothing But Ghosts, and You Are My Only as featured book spines, and am proud that Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River, Handling the Truth, and Small Damages are featured in the author panel.

Newly added: The Philadelphia Inquirer coverage of the event can be found here.

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