Embrace Complexity/Write It for the Young at Heart (video series)

Monday, August 29, 2016

A month ago, we shared our first video series on the making of memoir, a Udemy offering that can now be found here.

This past week, we filmed a series of ten video essays all relating to the big challenges, themes, and opportunities that present themselves to those writing for the young at heart. These essays reflect the thinking I've done over the past many years on topics ranging from the question, What is excellence? in this category, to the essential truths in all fictions, to the development of authentic voices and complex characters. Some of the pieces are adapted from keynote talks; most of the material is brand new, fashioned from the challenges I've faced as a writer, from the conversations I've had with teen readers and fellow prize jury members, and from my ongoing dialogue with the leading practitioners of YA and MG.

The full suite of videos is now available through Udemy, here.

Today I'm sharing this single episode from the series. I'm focused on complexity here—why it is important, and how it is achieved. I hope you'll find the time to watch it through. If you like what you see, perhaps you'll share it with a friend. If you'd like to receive an update when the series goes live, you know where to find me.


(Soon) Headed to the AJC Decatur Book Festival

Friday, August 26, 2016

Three years ago, I was there, at the AJC Decatur Book Festival, one of the happiest book events there ever could be. I arrived alone. I stepped into the hotel lobby and I wasn't anymore. Suddenly I was in the company of Jessica Shoffel (my Jessica Shoffel, I like to say) and Doni Kay, who walked me to the Little Shop of Stories (the epicenter of this event), sat with me over tea, invited me to meet Tomie dePaolo (images of all that here), to have dinner with him later. The next day I took an early morning walk and discovered the tour de force that is Diane Capriola out and about, so we talked. I needed some shoes, so I bought a pair that remain my favorite to this day. A few hours later, I sat beside the very brilliant Stacey D'Erasmo (a writing heroine, truly) and, before a packed house, we talked about memoir and intimacy as if no one else was in sight. I found Nancy Krulik on a stage after that. A long conversation with the smart DJ MacHale was had in the ride back to the airport.

Two days I'll never forget.

Next weekend I return to Decatur, this time to sit on a Terra Elan McVoy moderated panel with writers Ami Allen-Vath and Alexandra Sirowy. The topic will be Aftermath stories in the realm of young-adult books. I'll be talking, specifically, about This Is the Story of You.

Word is that my dear former neighbor, Shirley, will be there in the audience mix. That, perhaps, one of my favorite rediscovered friends of high school, will be there with his literary daughter. I'm looking forward to you, Decatur, and I thank Chronicle Books and Lara Starr for making it possible for me to be there.

My event is here, should you happen to be in town.

Sunday September 4
2:00 PM
Teen Stage
Ami Allen-Vath, Alexandra Sirowy, Terra Elan McVoy
AJC Decatur Book Festival


On finding your memoir in the kitchen: dinner is served

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Today on Huffington Post I'm sharing (in words) one of my seven video essays on the art of memoir. Here I'm thinking about those memoirs that begin in the kitchen and about the writers (MFK Fisher, Mary Gordon, Lavinia Greenlaw, Diana Abu-Jaber, and Chang-Rae Lee) who lead the way.

The link is here.


going deeper

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

There is, in fact, no master plan, but this is what is happening: I'm growing.

No, I'm not referring to the physiological impact of the morning oatmeal cookie (butterscotch!). I'm referring to my spheres of interest, the books I'm reading, the ways I'm paying attention to the news, the bravado I displayed when I buckled down to learn how to throw a clay pot on a wheel (to learn, not to master; hardly master), the expanding repertoire in the kitchen. Hisham Matar's The Return has taught me some of the history, geography, and politics of Libya (and disappeared dissidents). Rebecca Mead has taught me Middlemarch and George Eliot. Katie Roiphe has taught me John Updike, Maurice Sendak, Dylan Thomas, and James Salter (among others). Scott Anderson, with his glorious New York Times Magazine essay, has taught me the antecedents of contemporary Middle East. Viet Thanh Nguyen is teaching me, with his Pulitzer winning The Sympathizer, the Vietnamese experience of war.

The world is complex. The news requires perspective. Life is once. I'm going deeper.


restlessness at summer's end

Saturday, August 20, 2016

End-of-summer restlessness. Too much of the politics. Too much of the heat. Too much of the bad-behaving swimmers. Too much, even, of the books that (despite a major early-summer purging) have again piled up around here (she is insatiable, this Beth is, she can't help herself with books, but sometimes, too, the books box her in). Her mind seeks a vacation, a respite from the known—the small house and the home-cooked meals, the familiar routines, the same walk over the same asphalt beneath the same trees, daily.

Saturday. August 20. 7 AM.

What will she do?


Art in the Dark, at Longwood (Nightscape)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Next October (2017) I'll be leading a one-day memoir workshop at Longwood Gardens, using the topography and installations as literary prompts. Bill, my Juncture comrade in arms, will be with me, collecting images of the writers at work in those exquisite 400 acres.

We walk Longwood differently now when we go. Last night we went to experience Nightscape, the extraordinary sound and music show that runs from August through October. It's a seduction. A magic experienced in the dark of night among others whose voices you hear, whose passing bodies you're aware of, but whose faces mostly remain obscured. Trees and fronds are canvases. Long walkways. Ponds. Flowerbeds. You find your way. You look up. You stop to see.

To be outside in the dark living art in summer is a very good thing. To have the company of Matthew Ross, one of the most endearingly well-read, widely traveled, smart people you'll meet, is a big bonus. To have the rain begin, a soft pattering, as you walk the lit bridges is sweeter than I can say. The smell of earth rising at your feet. The hush of other passersby. The moon still in the sky.


the beauty question (reflections after reading Rebecca Mead on Middlemarch)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

I have made light of it, of course. I have said, within the past week, even: If only I were beautiful, Then. I wouldn't feel so unsettled as I sit before a camera, filming essays about memoir I've given my whole heart and head to. If only I were beautiful, Then. That driver wouldn't have cut me off; it was my turn after all. If only I were beautiful, Then. She would have never dared. If only I were beautiful, I'd be something.

No self-respecting woman is supposed to say such things, think such things, wallow so ungraciously. I know that. But the thoughts come unbidden, and there they are. Mucking around with me.

How easy it is to cast blame on those things I cannot control. How undignified not to stand up to the superficial me, not to embrace all my good fortune first and only. But there it is. I am.

Earlier this week, while reading the intensely intelligent memoir, My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, I found myself all caught up in the beauty question again. Mead is pondering George Eliot's appearance—the images she finds as she conducts her deep research into the life and mind of this complicated writer. Eliot did not, it seems, impress others as a beauty. She was possessed of a large nose and jowly facade. She was not svelte. She was not to be found in the fashion pages.

But, Mead writes, something happened when Eliot spoke. Something that contested the physical facts of her matter:

... a first impression of her hideousness, [Henry James] said, soon gave way to something else entirely. "Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her," he continued. "Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking."

Sara Jane Lippincott, Mead tells us, first found Eliot to be "exceedingly plain, with her aggressive jaw and her evasive blue yes.... Neither nose, nor mouth, nor chin were to my liking; but, as she grew interested and earnest in conversation, a great light flashed over or out of her face, till it seemed transfigured, while the sweetness of her rare smile was something quite indescribable."

Mead ends that paragraph with, "Ivan Turgenev, a friend of Eliot's, said that she made him understand that it was possible to fall in love with a woman who was not pretty."

Mead's entire book deserves your time. Mead's deft examination of how Eliot's biography shaped her fiction. Mead's brilliant assertion of the power books have to help us read our own lives. Mead's never-intrusive insertion of her personal journey as a repeated Middlemarch reader.

And, finally, Mead's lesson—Eliot's lesson—that, in a world of static images, Facebook portraits, video essays, beauty is not a closed one thing. Beauty moves.


This Is the Story of You: The Scholastic Edition

Monday, August 15, 2016

A few weeks ago, the very lovely (inside! out!) Taylor Norman wrote with what was, to me, surprising news: This Is the Story of You has found some lucky momentum.

We trace much of that momentum to the book's gorgeous cover (thank you, Chronicle Books), to its timeliness in this weather-worried world, and to word of mouth (thank you, kind readers). We trace some of it the Jr Library Guild's generous selection. And now we also have Scholastic Books to thank, for making Story a book club selection.

Taylor just sent along this photo of a Scholastic edition book box.

To which I reply, as I so often do when Taylor Norman is in the house: woot.


Juncture Workshops: we're in deep planning mode for Field Notes

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Oh, it's getting exciting. Oh, it is. Every day of Juncture Workshops (Field Notes) now developed, reading by exercise by pause. The writers' own work ready for deep review. Lab Girl and the Lab Girl reading guide to be discussed over dinner. Mini lectures on form and universality.

September can't come soon enough, as we Field Noters now like to say.


what's wrong with a little happiness?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Into this steamy heat I went a few hours ago, on my way to errands. I was driving my yellow car. I was thinking about the heirloom tomatoes I would buy, the watermelon and feta, the chunky bread. Thinking about lamb chops for dinner, maybe. Thinking I might treat myself to a pot of ACME roses.

As the first light went from red to green, as I accelerated, something inside me stopped.

I'm happy, I thought.

I'm happy.

I had cleaned the house in the early morning. I had scanned 30 new pages for the Juncture memoir workshop now set for less than a month from now. I had written to a friend. I'd cracked an egg to make my breakfast and found, within, twin yolks. This had been my day so far. And it seemed a perfect one.

How long has this simple happiness eluded me? What did it take far too many years to step away from so much that hurt, degraded, deflated, consumed, buried me with worry, kept me up at the wrong hours, made me feel less than, a last-in-line priority? We never know how much more time we have. We are bound (oh, trust me, I know) by responsibilities. But I had lived so subsumed by burdens that I had not made room for simple happiness.

Watermelon. Heirlooms. Feta. Homegrown mint. Chunky bread.

A pot of ACME roses.


reviewing the exquisite Angela Palm (RIVERINE, a memoir) for the Chicago Tribune/Printers Row

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Oh my friends. Some very big talent has just walked into the memoir room.

My review of Riverine, the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize winner, by Angela Palm, in Printers Row (Chicago Tribune). Click the link here for the full review.


Today I lived as people should

Monday, August 8, 2016

I spent the morning revising a book I'm writing—finding all those places that cry out for more and developing (so happily) that more. I spent the afternoon reading the last three chapters (Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, James Salter) of Katie Roiphe's magnificent reflections on writers facing their finalities (The Violet Hour). I spent time in between responding to all those really kind people who wrote to thank me for my essay on building a new life as I leave (for good now) corporate America, in this weekend's Philadelphia Inquirer. I watched my husband bring his wet clay things to the deck to dry. Physical work. Good work. I got a text from my son.

I walked, and as I walked, I talked to my great, great friend, Debbie Levy, whose I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, is about to make a mega splash in this world.

I spend so much of my life worrying the global news and the private uncertainties. Pondering silences and outrage.

But today I lived as people should. Engaged with my world. Happy in the making. Grateful for the people I love.


reading and writing memoir: announcing the release of our video shorts on Udemy

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

It's been nine months since Bill and I began to dream about, plan for, and make quiet declarations about this company called Juncture. 

We haven't had this much fun in years. Our first memoir workshop, at a central Pennsylvania farm, is five weeks or so away, with writers coming from around the world to join us. We have another workshop planned in November, a seaside gathering in Cape May, NJ. We're feeling pretty lucky about the memoirists who have stopped by to talk with us for our free monthly newsletter—and grateful when we read the newsletter-inspired work that comes our way. And this coming weekend, in the Currents section of the Philadelphia Inquirer, we tell the story of our transition from corporate America to this something brand new.

Now we're ready to release our first series of video shorts designed for readers and writers of memoir. There are six filmed essays here that braid classic and brand-new memoirs around themes ranging from writer's block to kitchen lives to time and mortality. Tillie Olsen, Maggie Nelson, James Baldwin, Mary-Louise Parker, Diana Abu-Jaber, MFK Fisher, Chang-Rae Lee, E.B. White, Terrence des Pres, Abigail Thomas, Annie Dillard, Sarah Manguso—they, and many others, are here. So are lessons and prompts.

"The Stories of Our Lives" can be accessed through Udemy, at a discount, using this link: Juncture16. Click the link to preview both the introduction and one full essay for free. Hopefully you'll be inspired to take the (very reasonable) plunge and watch the complete series.

Please consider passing the news on.

For a (humorous) behind-the-scenes look at the making of this series, please check out Cleaver Magazine and this conversation between the content producer and the director.


living the hybrid life

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

At Chanticleer not long ago I photographed this winged thing. Like a hummingbird, but with antennae. Like a fattened frog, but it could fly.

I do not know the name of this hybrid creature, but I feel as if it is living my life. I'm glad that it, like me, has paused for a spell upon a bright pink flower.


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