The Home Collection/Looking Ahead to the Beltran Family Teaching Award Evening

Thursday, February 4, 2016

In the early hours of this morning, I've been reviewing the final submissions to the Beltran Family Teaching Award chapbook—a collection of reflections on home by Penn students past and present; featured guests A.S. King, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, and Margo Rabb; and the leaders of Penn's Kelly Writers House.

Trust me, please. The words (and images) are stellar and binding. No piece remotely resembles another. Each reveals and, in ways both quiet and surprising, sears.

I have crazy ideas, that is true.

But when those who join us that evening—March 1, 6 PM, Kelly Writers House, all are welcome—hold this chapbook in their hands and hear our guests and look out upon these faces, this particular craziness will not seem so very crazy at all.

Because it's them.

And they have spoken.

A huge thank you to my generous husband, who has spent untold hours by my side, laying out these pages.


Ruta and Kelly are launching their books today

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Perhaps the biggest perk of being in the book business, and of having lovely author friends, is that I sometimes get to read highly anticipated books early.

But today is the actual launch day for both Ruta Sepetys and Kelly Simmons, and so we need a little right-now hoopla.

My thoughts about Ruta and her book, Salt to the Sea, are here, in this vlog.

My thoughts about Kelly and her book, One More Day, are here, in this blog.

My love and congratulations and best wishes to you both!


New York City Teen Author Festival 2016: It's Live

Friday, January 29, 2016

No one is actually sure how David Levithan does it. Writes books that are both bestselling AND lauded. Edits books that define a generation of readers. AND coordinates the entirely generous New York City Teen Author Festival.

We don't know how.

But we're glad he does.

This year's festival is gonzo-sized. Check out the link to the full schedule here. I'll be attending for the very first time and how in the world I got this lucky, to be on this panel (below), I'll never know. (Well, I guess I could ask David, but I suspect he's busy.)

Consider me star struck.

March 18—42nd Street NYPL, South Court
4:40-5:30: Perspective (Part 1)
Explanation: What perspective do we, as adults, bring to our novels when we write about teenagers? How do we balance what we know and what our characters don’t? Why do we find ourselves revisiting these years, and what do we learn (even years later) by writing about them? How do you acknowledge the darkness without robbing the reader of finding any light? In this candid conversation, we’ll talk to four acclaimed authors about being an adult and writing about teenagers.

Beth Kephart
Carolyn Mackler
Luanne Rice
Francisco Stork
Moderator: David Levithan
I'll also be there, at the mega-signing, on Sunday, with first-ever copies of This Is the Story of You.

Join us?


five-day memoir workshops coming, summer of 2016

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

I have spoken here of our plan to launch five-day memoir workshops in beautiful, memorable places.

A working farm.

A seaside resort.

A lively river town.

Workshops that mean something—and deliver lasting value.

We're putting the final touches on all of that now. We're taking our final exploratory trips and designing the web site. We'll be launching that site in three weeks or so.

We just wanted you to know: it's coming.


here you begin (today at Penn, with Dillard and Didion)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Annie Dillard and Joan Didion will be our guides today in English 135. Voice and meaning will be our quest. We'll consider, for a moment, these two sentiments.

Can both be true?

“Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment." — Annie Dillard, “Write Till You Drop”

And from this:

"We are all brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing... Only the young and very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creak near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people's favorite dresses, other people's trout."— Joan Didion, "On Keeping a Notebook" 



let's talk about book courage

Monday, January 25, 2016

It should have gotten easier. In fact, it has not.

Because I always forget. I always forget when I am writing my books—happily writing my books, lost in my books, compelled and impelled by the making of books—that at some point along the way the book that is privately mine will no longer be private or, even, mine. It will be an object to be dismissed or discussed, dissed or shared. It will have very little to do with me, except that it is all of me, a part of me, an emanation of my heart, a hope.

Time and again, I have told myself that I can quit, that there are other ways, that the book biz is too cruel a biz (too tilted, unfair, overly made; too much about the in-crowd and the out-crowd; too forced a spectacle). And then: There I go, back to the couch with some paper and a pen because I cannot help myself, because I am most at peace while writing, because the stories demand to be told, because I somehow forget how being published feels, because books themselves aren't the problem here; it's the selling of books, which is different. I'm not a brand. I'm not a platform. I'm not a trend. I don't know how to be those things. I don't really have any business doing what I'm doing, except: writing is who I am.

Reviews are subjective. Of course. Every reader is a market of one. Absolutely. I religiously do not Google myself, search for reviews, seek Big Attention. I am, every single time, stunned when generous words find their way to me.

And—yes—unspooled when the less generous comes knocking, too.

I have been trying hard not to think (in a real way) about the upcoming launch of This Is the Story of You. I have no readings planned, no book-specific appearances, no celebration party, no whirlwind. Still, I realized this snowy weekend, that the angst of the book's release lives loud in me. That I care more than I should about how it will be received. That—especially because Story is so much about the world we live in now, this world of storms and environmental shifts and (still) love and need—I want it to succeed. I want it to find the right readers. I want them to love my Mira Banul and her brother, Jasper Lee, and her friends, and that beach. I want them to think about our world, the sand, the wind, the rising seas.

I write all of this because early this morning, 4 AM, when I woke to work on the first flight of student assignments, I was alerted a flurry of tweets about Story.

A very early reader speaks.

I am embarrassed by how much this means to me. But it means so much to me.


thoughts on Philadelphia's Grand Lady (and freedoms, artistic and otherwise), in the Inky

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Last Friday, as readers of this blog know, I took my father to the Academy of Music to see the fabulous musical "Once." Before we got there, we toured the birthplace of American liberty and sat within the spell of Maxfield Parish's "Dream Garden."

I write about that in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.

The link is here.


The Dogs of Littlefield/Suzanne Berne: a Chicago Tribune review

Well, I certainly loved this book and highly recommend it to anyone who feels stuck in a pre-packagedly perfect version of suburbia—or stuck inside the angst that comes from knowing that there is no achievable perfection.

The whole is here, in today's Chicago Tribune.


This Is the Story of You Giveaway (and the winner(s) are...)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A few weeks ago, when I posted the THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU giveaway, I hoped for a handful of stories about the sea—quick imagery.

What happened instead is that some very beautiful memories, shaped inside some very beautiful sentences, came my way.

And then I was stuck. How could I choose (even randomly) a single winner?

With thanks to Lara Starr and the entire Chronicle team, I do not have to. Please read below the words that floated my way for this giveaway. All of you here have won. Please send me your mailing addresses.

Hilary Morgan:
There is a sea in Scotland, bordered by a black beach. A beach of stone, covered in seaweed. The sea is a brilliant color, a stark contrast to the dark shore. The sea is almost so enchanting I almost don't see my friend slip on the sea-wet seaweed and fall right on his back. But I do, and this trip to the hardened coast of Scotland is all the more memorable.

Jennifer Hoppins:
I've only ever taken one trip with my daughter, just the two of us. Although we've shared years of family vacations there was this one adventure we had---to celebrate my graduation from college. I had read in a travel guide about this place on the Outer Banks where you could go hang-gliding near the beach. Not a big risk taker, I surprised everyone by saying that this, more than anything was how I wanted to mark the occasion---by soaring on the breeze. On the evening after our solo flights (a feeling that now makes me jealous of all birds, even vultures!) we got a permit to have a campfire on the beach. That night, my teen daughter opened up and talked to me, laughing and being completely free, as if the roles of mother and daughter had been erased, and we were simply people who loved one another. I will remember her face in the dark, while the waves rolled in under the full moon, always.

Melissa Sarno:
A sea story... I learned to swim at my Aunt and Uncle's house on Bayville beach, thanks to Aunt Angie. She wasn't actually my Aunt. She was, just, everyone's Aunt. She wore a bathing suit with a skirt that bubbled up and ruffled around the surf and she called herself 'a waterbaby'. I don't even really know what that means. But she held on to my belly while I kept my chin high and I paddled and paddled above the safety of her arms. And when she decided I was ready, she let go, and I magically stayed afloat, chin up and paddling. Every year, somebody somewhere at some family function will mention Aunt Angie and, inevitably, that person will say, 'she taught me to swim at Bayville beach' and her sister will say, 'she taught everyone to swim at Bayville beach. She was a waterbaby.' 

Colleen Mondor:
I can not tell you only one story about the sea; I can only tell you I have thousands. When you grow up on the ocean, when your feet are in the sand before you can walk, when you learn to ride the waves by catching them on your father's back, when this is the life you have known then it is impossible to distill it down to one story.

How do I make you understand that there is an ocean, a stretch of beach, that I know better than my own body?

I will give you this then, Beth, one short story, a few lines of what it is to be me and my brother and my father. After my father's surgery, his body cut open to remove a cancer that never left, he asked me to take him to the beach. He had never spent the night in the hospital, had never even broken a bone, and now he was shredded and tired and worn. He was pale; my eternally tanned father was pale.

So we drove across the causeway, looked at the pelicans on the Indian River, turned onto A1A and then up to his beach. He had an "office" there on the sand, he was known as the "Mayor." Every day before his second shift job, swimming with the lifeguards half his age, fishing with us, body surfing with us, listening to ballgames on countless lazy summer afternoons. This was his beach in all name.

I had to help him up the six steps to the boardwalk and he sat down there heavily on the bench, too tired to walk on the sand. He just wanted to see it he told me, he wanted to smell the salt air.

"Now I believe I'm still alive," he said.

I didn't cry. He didn't want me to cry, so I didn't. But it was one of the hardest things I've ever done to keep those tears at bay.

My father died almost three years later and, good Catholic that he was, made arrangements to have his ashes interred in consecrated ground at a church on A1A, where you can hear the ocean's roar. My brother and I, beach babies all our lives, agreed to hold back a small portion of his ashes and my brother took them out into the water a few weeks later as a storm brewed offshore. We had to give some part of him to the sea; it's where he had taught us over and over that he truly belonged.

That's the ocean for me; impossibly connected to the heart of my family. I miss it everyday.

Victoria Marie Lees:
As always, Beth, I love your photos and your words. All the best in 2016! A short sea story/scene:
Can a sea breathe romance? It can if you escape from the daily grind of parenting five beautiful children for a few days’ respite on your fifteenth wedding anniversary.

Two lovers drag their toes in a beach drenched in gritty powdered pink coral; the sea clear as glass displays a dance of sergeant major fish. The sea is frigid for so late in May. At Bermuda’s Horseshoe Bay Beach, the couple reminisces about life and love and strive not to repeat an element of their honeymoon when they both turned as pink as the sand.

Emily Lewis:
The first time my toe touched the ocean I felt like I was hugged by God himself. The smell of the ocean, the crash of the waves and the feel of sand and salt between my toes was truly moving. Coming from Wisconsin I am no stranger to beauty...I am surround by forests, lakes, fields of corn. But the vastness of the ocean...the endlessness of the sea...makes you feel like a speck on the map of the world. It allows you to put life into perspective. How can one not be moved to tears to see the wonders in the world? The hidden treasures are among us...whether an ocean, a butterfly or a snowflake find your wonder!


books in the real world: three surprising sightings and the STORY update

Yesterday, bitterly cold from all the bitter cold, I stopped briefly at the Thirtieth Street Station bookstore while en route to my first day at Penn. There I was greeted with a tower of books featuring Ted Koppel, Chelsea Clinton, and me (Love). Everyday, ordinary company? For me, not really.

Later, at the Penn Bookstore, I was searching for something else when I discovered all these Handling the Truth's (Handlings of Truth?) beside Mary Karr's much-publicized The Art of Memoir (about which I'd had so many (politely stated) concerns).

Last week I heard from a kind soul who had found Going Over at a train station in Germany.

My point being: We write and then we let our words and stories go. We can't do a whole lot about what happens after that, except to be happily surprised when we're discovered (or when we discover ourselves).

Speaking of books, submissions have now closed for the This Is the Story of You giveaway. I'll have some news about that later today.


the new semester begins at Penn with an Adele hello

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Sometimes, as the first day of a new semester begins at Penn, I think of how very close I came to saying no to this opportunity all those years ago.

It would have been one of the greatest mistakes of my life.

And so, again, on this bitter cold day, we begin. We're focused on home this semester. We're reading Annie Dillard's An American Childhood, George Hodgman's Bettyville, and Ta-Nahesi Coates's Between the World and Me, not to mention John Hough on dialogue and countless excerpts (countless as of now, anyway, because I can never tell what's going to inspire me before and during class). We'll be tapping into the new Wexler Studio—recording some of our work. We'll be laying the groundwork for the Beltran evening on March 1—all invited—during which time we'll be visited by my writing friends (and worldly talents) Reiko Rizzuto, A.S. King, and Margo Rabb. We'll hear from former students. We'll write letters to the people in our lives, in Mary-Louise Parker and Ta-Nahesi style.

And today, if all the machines are working, we'll start out with this.

I can't tell you why or how we'll use it.

You'll just have to imagine.

Meanwhile, before any of that, I get to share an hour with Nina and David, who will be writing their theses with me.

How lucky I am.


my husband's illustrations

Monday, January 18, 2016

With my husband and I now at work on another joint illustration/word project, I thought I'd share some of his earlier imagery—demonstrating his great range and technical proficiency. If you are in the market for illustrations, I know a guy you can talk to.

His full website is here.

All work is copyrighted.


On looking ahead to this day—among leaders, and in the audience of "Once"

Friday, January 15, 2016

Today I'll give what I'm pretty sure will be my final talk emanating from LOVE: A Philadelphia Affair. I'll join Liz Dow, the extraordinary woman behind Leadership Philadelphia, and her leaderly contingent. We'll talk about this city we believe in.

The rest of the day will be a father-daughter day. Museums in the afternoon. Dinner. Then my father's early birthday present—tickets to "Once," which won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in 2012.

I. Love. This. Story.

I. Sing. Those. Songs.

And while I gave my father many choices when we were planning out this day, I was secretly very glad when he said that "Once" was his first choice.

So off we will go.

Away, for a day, from here.


anonymized characters and the rights of authorship: lessons from "The Trials of Alice Goffman"

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Gideon Lewis-Kraus New York Times Magazine story "The Trials of Alice Goffman" has me stirred up here in the dark this morning.

My thoughts spin. Let me settle them down.

The deck beneath the headline reads, "Her first book, 'On the Run'—about the lives of young black men in West Philadelphia—has fueled a fight within sociology over who gets to speak for whom." The story goes on to tell the tale of a young University of Pennsylvania graduate (and daughter of a famed sociologist) who spent years immersively studying and writing about "a group of young black men in a mixed-income neighborhood in West Philadelphia, some of the low-level drug dealers who live under constant threat of arrest and cycle in and out of prison."

The book quickly became a sensation. Goffman, and her TED talk, became a sensation. (I remember all of this well; I was watching.) But soon enough detractors spoke. Why did Goffman burn most of her transcripts and notes? Why did Goffman feel the need to write with such colorful flair about individuals and scenes that had been notably (extravagantly?) anonymized? Why did she focus so hard on individuals, when sociology, her field, is about societies? Why did she seem to break (or merely ignore?) so many academic rules? What are the consequences?

And did she have a right to tell this story?

Lewis-Kraus does an excellent job of laying all of this out for the reader—contextualizing the book, contextualizing the field, contextualizing Goffman herself. It is the sort of story the Magazine is best at—big questions, roiling fields of study considered through the lens of a single person or event.

The story is fascinating, illuminating. I'd recommend it to anyone, and I'd especially like to recommend it today to memoirists, on the one hand, and to anyone who is caught up in the many prevailing debates of Young Adult literature, on the other.


In Handling the Truth (and in all my talks, and through all my classes), I express deep concern about anonymized subjects—the extravagant decorations some memoirists apply to the others in their stories. Through Notes to the Readers, we'll learn that most everyone in the book (save the first person I) is a composite—names have been changed, scenes, appearances. At the very least, this is distracting. At the very least, we're being asked, as readers, to apply a filter I'm not sure we readers should have to apply to a genre that's already highly suspicious. Ah, we think, as we meet a composite character, This person is not real. Ahh, again: this person is not real. And if this person isn't real, if she really isn't a twin and she really isn't wearing a marigold dress and she really doesn't talk with a nasal quality, what else about this scene isn't real? What are we supposed to believe? Is there truth inside this memoir?

(Often, of course, there is truth inside that memoir. But the reader has to find it.)

Last week I read a memoir for review that is truly lovely, but as a memoir built of composites, I felt a distance. Yesterday I read Paul Lisicky's memoir of friendship The Narrow Door. It is not a memoir built of composites. Lisicky names names (names many readers will know). When he can't fully name a character he uses an initial. When he really can't name a character (one single case), he gives her a fake name and tells us he is doing that. Not a composite, then. Just an indirect pronoun. There's a difference. We're not distracted. We don't have to put up our truth-seeking guard. We can relax into the story.

Goffman's story, as told by Lewis-Kraus, is, in part, a cautionary tale, about what happens when authors go to extreme lengths to disguise the real people at the heart of their stories. They lose track of the disguises. They start writing extravagantly. They put themselves in the way of critics who wonder about embellishments.

Now, onto the question: Who has the right to tell this story?

I can't answer—I don't know—if Goffman overstepped. But the issue has me thinking about a topic that is lately swirling through Young Adult literature. The right to ownership of story. Can a man write convincingly as a girl? Can a woman write convincingly as a boy? Does the American living in California have the right to tell the story of a child of Haiti?

Young Adult literature, obstensibly, is written for teens. It is written to reach the hearts and souls and minds of young people on the brink—young people facing bullies, uncertainty, challenge, any number of things; young people who are in need of compassion. And yet, among Young Adult authors and advocates, a storm has broken out. Swirling questions. Who is allowed to tell this story?

Fiction is not memoir, of course it's not. But it still requires fidelity to emotional truth. I can't, for example, pretend to know what a young woman of 1876 might think as she sets out on a hot day for the Centennial grounds. I can't pretend to know what a young man living in East Berlin in 1983 feels, or what a young man living anywhere at any time, for that matter, feels. I can't pretend to know what it is to be rich. I can't pretend to know what it is to be a pregnant teen stuck in southern Spain with a band of gypsies and a cook. I can't pretend to know what it is to be losing my mind to a neurodegenerative disease. 

I can't pretend any of that—but I can, and I have, deeply researched. I have gone to these places, I have talked to these doctors, I have read the transcripts, I have sought real people out, I have interviewed the graffiti artist, I have walked the old Centennial grounds. I have used all the resources at my disposal to find out what it might have been like, and then I have written fiction—relying on my heart, my experiences, my imagination to lead me forward. Because I may not have lived the circumstance of some of my characters, but I have lived their fear, I have lived their distrust, I have lived their anxiety, their anorexia, their panic, their kind of sadness, their kind of loss.

I have lived their feelings, I have researched their worlds. Have I had the right to tell these stories?

It's a question, as I say, that swirls. It's a question any writer of fiction might be asked: What gives you the right to write about a martian? What gives you the right to write the character of Don Quixote? What gives the right to imagine yourself on a boat with a Bengal tiger? What gives you, Marilynne Robinson, the right to write the character of Lila, or you, William Faulkner, the right to all those voices inside As I Lay Dying?

I have been married, for thirty years, to a beautiful Salvadoran, and boy has he told me stories. Do I have the right (with his permission) to faithfully reinvent his stories?

What gives you the right to imagine anyone who isn't you?

If we don't have the right to responsibly (and I need that word inside this sentence) write characters who aren't us, then we don't have the luxury of imagining, which is to say empathizing with, characters who are not us.

We need to empathize with the people who are not us.

There are many questions about Goffman's story. I have not read her book. But as we ponder the accounting of Lewis-Kraus let us also ponder the difficulties we encounter when we actively disguise the truth but call it truth.

Conversely, let's think about the difficulties we encounter when we ask writers who choose to delve into (and write of) other worlds, whether or not they have the right. If they have done their research, if they are writing for the right reasons (which is to say, not to capitalize on a trend, not to capitalize on a market, not to capitalize on potential headlines or income), if they have given these projects their heart and their minds, perhaps they have the right.


On Writer Envy and The Narrow Door, by Paul Lisicky

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I have wondered (not infrequently) if envy rankles writers more, deeper, better than it does organic farmers, say, or pastry chefs, or people who build fences. What is it about what we do that makes us, as a category, cagey, needy, whiny—quite sure that whatever success we have is hardly equal to the success we have (surely!) earned?

Why do (too many) teachers step away when their students seem, even for a moment, to out-write them?

Why do (too many) friendships falter in the wake of one person's good news?

And how many writers have felt themselves forced to subsume their own dreams and bury their own gifts, so as not to challenge the presumptive status quo? I shall listen long to you, they say to the Supreme Other, their heads bowed slightly. I shall sing the song of you. I shall see you, always, as the True Talent, and I shall never tip this balance, never hope that you'll read me, never hope that you'll root for me, never hope that you'll truly see me.

Oh, writing. Oh, writers. Why does our blood run green, or thin?

In The Narrow Door, Paul Lisicky takes a devastating, and devastatingly beautiful, look at the two treasured friendships of his life—the one that developed early in his life with the novelist Denise Gess, and the one upon which his marriage to a poet he calls M. is based.

Denise is sexy, consuming, interesting, seductive—and while these two talk of many things, sometimes for hours every day, Lisicky manages (perhaps because Denise does most of the talking?) to keep from her his secret affection for men. Denise will tuck her arm into Lisicky's, take him on novel-building adventures, allow the world around them to imagine that they are a happy couple, read her best lines to him. She will name a character for him in her second, less-successful novel, she will betray him, they will lose touch, and they will enter, again, into each other's orbit—deeply. Lisicky will be there for Denise as she lives the final hellacious months of a deadly cancer. He will love, and eulogize, her.

M., meanwhile, is already famous when Lisicky becomes his lover, then husband—famous and famously grieving for a man who has died of AIDS. M. is the well-paid poet-celebrity. Lisicky is the talented, handsome lover—the one with whom M. has important conversations, and the one whom Lisicky, it is suggested here, is never to overshadow.

Not only that but, perhaps, Lisicky is not to overshadow the long-gone former lover. Lisicky, helpless, tries:

To think you can love someone so well that he'd forget the dead, forget his pain. To think of love as a laser beam of attention. To think you could beam that attention toward him in such a way that he wouldn't even know you were doing it. To learn that your attention is doomed. Unwelcome, better having been put to other uses: helping the poor, working for the environment, for animals. To learn that you are only a pale winter sun, when you once thought you could have made the hillsides green.

This is a book built of slipped time and interweaves. We see Denise vibrant, we see M.'s charms, we see the turns these friendships will take, the toxic releases, the unspoken hurts, the flailed anger, the unstoppable rise of Lisicky's talent and the costs of that said talent. Denise is near death; she is alive again. M. and Lisicky are in love; the love is breaking; the love is new. Propelled forward. Slung straight back. The year is 2010, 2004, 2010, 2012, and what does it matter what order the numbers fall in? And in between, the gnarly earth hurls lava up through volcano spouts, tsunamis speed toward shorelines, hurricanes smash into lives; Joni Mitchell sings. The world may be so much bigger than one man's woes, Lisicky says. But also: the world speaks directly for and of them.

What is Lisicky to do—with the talent he has, the love he feels, the respect he has not just for those in his circle, but for his own abilities (deeply proven here) with language? Can the practiced accommodator at long last be accommodated?

For heaven's sake, let's hope so.


David Bowie, I will miss you.

Monday, January 11, 2016

I danced to you in the basement of my parents' home.

I knew your words.

I shook the hand of your wife, and trembled for days.

You inspired many pages in my Berlin novel, Going Over, with your own Berlin song, "Heroes."

I am sorry that you suffered.

I will miss you.


STORY OF YOU giveaway. And: When these two cousins asked to be put inside one of my novels, I said yes, of course

Sunday, January 10, 2016

January 10, 2016:
It seems a very long time ago—this trip to Alaska, taken with my father. The whales and the blue ice, the New York Times journalist and the famous screenwriter, the naturalists and songs.

We made friends.

We've kept them.

Among our friends are two dear cousins, Sarah and Gillian. As I mentioned in this post below, originally published in July 2014, they asked, all that time ago, for a place inside one of my novels. This new novel that I would surely write had to have an adventure at its heart, they warned me (guessing, perhaps, that I was literary and dull). Something had to happen. It took me a while, but that story became the story that now is This Is the Story of You—a fact I mentioned in a recent email to the cousins' lovely literary grandmother.

A sea is involved. A storm. An adventure. An eradication of home. (Note here, in today's Chicago Tribune essay, my obsession with home.) A discovery. In these pages, you will find a Gillian and a Sarah. Because I had promised I would.

Yesterday I heard from dear Sarah. She's living across an ocean, still singing her songs, still wearing, she says, those matching PJs. She wondered about that book I'd been writing, wondered if she might read an early copy—put it to good use for a book report.

She now has a copy in hand.

I have one more copy. And that copy is for one of you.

Tell me a short story, in the comments box below, about a sea you once visited or loved or read about. I'll have my husband make a name-blind choice. 

You have until January 20. For residents of the U.S. —

July 2014:
On a trip to Alaska: the brighter blues and ceding purples of dawn, the calving of ice (like a dynamite blast), the candy twist of fog between the breaks in hills, the lugubrious faces of seals, the fins and tails of whales, the naturalists and crew we won't soon forget, the Great Young Elly P and her brother Owen (oh, my!), the loving Abi and Ziqin, the people it was easy to adore (grandparents, a pair of brothers, a pair of sisters like sisters to me), and a song that traveled through the green rain of a spruce and hemlock forest, carried forward by blonde cousins.

Gillian and Sarah. Sarah and Gillian. On our boat, on our trails, in our hearts.

"We want to be in one of your novels," they said to me, at the very end, their two faces glowing beneath glow-golden hair.

"What sort of novel would that be?" I wanted to know, and they laughed (for they were capable of such laughter) and explained:  A story in which big things happened. Unexpected things. Wow-worthy things. Secret powers lost and found. Adventures spinning forward. Not (most definitely not) one of those dreary novels in which description stands in for plot, character, and everything else.

Something has to happen, they said, they repeated.

They were emphatic. They were two smart girls with big, expressive eyes, and they were hopeful, insistent, ready for the next great book, a Sarah and Gillian book, a story about two girls caught in a fabulous whirl, or, perhaps, in one of their sweet-soprano songs (He sat by her window and smoked his cigar... He told her he loved her, but my how he lied... They were to get married but somehow she died... The tombstone fell over and squish-squash he died... The moral of this story is don't smoke cigars, don't smoke cigar ar ar ars.)

"You can even make me evil," Sarah offered, intuiting, perhaps, that my imagination might not be big enough, my skills not sufficiently wide ranging, my details too soggy for their high-adventure taste.

"Make you evil?" I said. "Impossible."

She laughed her Sarah laugh. Gilly laughed her cousin laugh. These two girls with adventure tastes offering everything they felt a writer might need—inspiration, encouragement, latitude.

Make something happen, they said.

Write the story, they said.

Put us in the heart of it.

They are out there now, and they are waiting. But if, someday, you see a story of mine with a Sarah and Gillian twist, you'll know this: I will have captured only a fraction of the gold that each of these cousins is. 


Um. Wow. What an amazing Best of 2015 list. Thank you, Hawwa, etc.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

I remember where I was and what I was doing when I first read this generous reader's review of Going Over in the Guardian. This morning Twitter alerts me to this. I can promise you that my work has never appeared on a list that also features F. Scott, a writer whose portrait now hangs in my living room (for inspiration's sake). I'm going to hold onto this.

Thank you, Hawwa, etc.

The link is here.


Home is where the art is: a new essay in Chicago Tribune

Friday, January 8, 2016

I've been working out ideas about home and literature, literature and home for awhile now, and on March 1, accompanied by friends A.S. King, Reiko Rizzuto, and Margo Rabb, my colleagues at Penn, and students past and present, I'll be doing even more thinking about the topic for the Beltran Family Teaching Award event at the Kelly Writers House at Penn.

My newest thinking is here, in this weekend's Chicago Tribune (Printers Row), with thanks to Jennifer Day, Joyce Hinnefeld, and Debbie Levy, upon whom I seem to first try out my ideas. (Oh, Debbie, you're a gift.)

To read the whole story, go here.


I failed. I'm glad. Here's to being me.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A few months ago I was invited, last minute, to an audition and I, against my better judgment, said yes. I had but a week to prepare, I had another event that day, there really wasn't time, I was already exhausted by a spate of too many speaking engagements and a summer/fall of physical labor and countless everyday concerns, but I failed to say the right thing: No.

Instead, I gave my all (or the all I still had) to the job at hand, rushed to the audition at the break of one dawn, then rushed back to the event where I was actually supposed to be.

And then, in a mass, impersonal email, the invitation givers said no.

I could not, I realize, be more relieved.

I lost months in 2015—of time, of income, absolutely, but also of the solitude and the room I need to make better decisions. Over the past few days I've sat on the couch beneath a blanket doing what I love best—reading books and thinking about them, writing sentences of my own. In doing that, I've reclaimed some of the parts of me. Odd and imperfect as I most surely am, I discover that I've missed me.

There will be less of me out in the world in 2016. There will be more considered responses to last-minute invitations, requests, expectations. There will be me asking me, Do I really want this, and why, and how much do the people asking actually care about me, actually need or want specifically me, actually think of me as me (and not as a willing convenience), and will, at the end of all my effort, a mass, impersonal email await me?

It's up to me to make the choices.

I'm going to try to make the right ones.


the mushroom dropped; our friends are the best; happy new year

Friday, January 1, 2016


to the new good, for all of us

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Last night I saw a movie ("The Danish Girl") I have long wanted to see, and it was gloriously visual and terribly heartbreaking and genius acting, and it was good. Afterward, my brother called and we talked for a long time (I talked to his daughter, too) and all of that was good.

In the dark hours before this dawn, I began to read the memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes, and it is good. I set the Hare aside to sketch out the outline for a new and interesting (to me) nonfiction book, and I think it will be good.

After the sun rose I added fresh mint to the strawberries, the banana, and the coconut water, spun the Ninja, and that breakfast smoothie was good. I went online and found a very generous LOVE citation on Savvy Verse and Wit Best of the Year round-up (thank you!) AND ALSO an uber kind citation for ONE THING STOLEN, and that was good and very good.

Today we will see dear friends in a new place, and it will be (it always is with them) good.

This is the last day of an old year. The sun (which hasn't made much of an appearance lately) has decided to show up, and I'm hoping that augurs something new, something good, for all of us. I'm hoping that the unsettling headlines dim, that our planet is respected, that terror is abated, that homes are found for those seeking homes. I'm hoping that more people do happy things. I'm hoping the people I love get good news, have good health, have good dreams come true.

I'm hoping that for strangers, too.

To the new good, for all of us.


remembering my mother

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Five years ago, I posted this tribute to my mother, who we lost on December 30, 2006. Thinking of her now (as I often do) and looking back, it seemed most right to share something I have shared before.

There are many memories. But, sometimes, few words.

Today is the anniversary of my mother's passing, and in remembering her, I have gone back to old photographs, to this one, in particular, of my mother, father, older brother, younger sister, and me; that is my mother's white pencil caption, below.  I return to the words I shared during her memorial service.  Lore Kephart passed away four years ago, but she is present, still.

On the morning after the evening that my mother passed away, the sky was sherbet colored—bold and also delicate pinks, upward-rising tangerines, traces of lemon.  It was the sort of sky one only rarely sees in winter—complex and unforgettable and outrageously beautiful—and it was, of course, my mother, at peace at last.
         She had brushed by me, on her way to heaven, the night before—the gentlest knock on my right shoulder.  She had gathered around her, in her final days, so many varieties of kindness in the doctors and the nurses who had come to care for her, so many reminders that goodness, after such sadness, reigns.  She had left behind parts of her to discover still—a note stuck in a bible, a photograph no one remembered taking, the namesake song “Dolores” playing in a nearly empty restaurant.  On the day of my mother’s funeral, a warm breeze blew.  It was her; there is no question.  She wouldn’t leave us lonely.
         Beauty is the art my mother mastered.  For her, orchids kept their angel wings for surpassing months on end.  For her, the mashed potatoes always whipped up right, the gravy thickened, the turkey cut tender to the bone, and anyone who ever had my mother’s chocolate-chip cheesecake was never, in some way, the same.  She made the dresses my sister and I wore as little girls.  She embroidered flowers into our collars.  She filled her house with color, fabric, texture, and light.  With conversation and surprise.  With gifts—abundant, always.
         In the weeks since my mother’s passing, I have been pondering the many measures of a life—that which dissipates, that which remains.  I have been looking up, studying the skies.  I have been watching the greening of the stalk of curly willow that sits in a vase in my most sun-filled room.  I have considered spring’s rumbling things, impatient, even in winter, to rise.  I have been blessed—immeasurably blessed—by the outreach and wisdom of souls like you, and I have made my decision:  Beauty remains. 
In the words she put down on a page, in the friends she gathered around her, in the gifts only she had the talent to give, in the orchids that yet bloom in her deep-silled windows, and in the man who was her husband and is my father, my mother, always a beauty, remains.  Winter will soon cede to spring, and she’ll be here.  The moon will blaze bright through an afternoon haze, the stars won’t leave the sky at dawn, a fox won’t run when you walk by, and in all of this, you’ll find my mother.  And in a garden called Chanticleer, between the risen roots of that most magnificent Katsura tree, there will, come summer, be a stone that reads The Wedge of Sun Between Us.  That stone will be my mother’s stone.  Perhaps she’ll find you there. 


Still life with a flawed Fitbit. A flawed me?

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

All right, yeah, sure, of course. I'm a tad obsessive. Only vaguely competitive with the outside world. Insanely competitive with myself. Best part of me, if you ask a client or an editor or a student or a partner (or a high school teacher), is that I always beat a deadline. Worst part of me, if you ask my friends (or most anyone else), is that I'm morosely consumed with besting my best. If I walked five miles yesterday, why can't I walk six miles today? If one of my books got four stars, how can I live with a mere two stars today? Or (OMG!!) just one? None?!?!??!? And if I managed not to eat any cookies this morning, why the heck can't I stop myself from eating one cookie (two cookies?) this very night?

And jeepers: What are these wrinkles doing here? I did not have such wrinkles last year.

See what I mean? I'm freaking impossible.

I'm not completely sure, then, why my long-suffering husband decided to get me a Fitbit for Christmas. "Aren't I awful enough?" I asked, when I unwrapped the generous gift. "Is this an experiment? Are you trying to see just how self-inflictingly awful I can become?"

"You know you want it," he said.

But here's the thing: My Fitbit doesn't like me.

I run for 30 minutes and it says I've burned 148 calories. I dance for 30 minutes; calories consumed: 148. I walk slowly, meanderingly, philosophically with my son for 30, count 'em, minutes and guess what? I've burned 148 calories.

My Fitbit is making fun of me.

Or how about this: I run up and down and up and down and up and down the stairs, doing the laundry, doing the cleaning, doing the things this woman does. According to my Fitbit, I've done no such thing. Indeed, my Fitbit must think I live in a rancher: It says (daily now) that I've climbed precisely 0 stairs.

Or I sleep for just three hours and it claims I've slept for ten. What the hell, Fitbit? What the hell? I'm working over here. Working. Can't you see?

Or I run around at the grocery store, then run around the kitchen, then run from pantry to stove to pantry—run, I say—and after two whole hours have gone by, my Fitbit declares that I've had 15 active minutes.

What? Scraping, chopping, stirring isn't active, Fitbit? What do you want from me? Please tell.

I don't know, or I do know, and I've already said.

My Fitbit doesn't like me.

It's not the first to feel that way.


new year, new hair, with thanks to Rebecca

I feel far less complicated now.


On stoppering the storm while reading One More Day (Kelly Simmons)

For months it has been raining in my kitchen. Whenever the clouds break, the water comes—through the roof, through the new ceiling, down the columns of new paint. The roofers say they're coming. I wait. I wait. And while I wait, storm by storm, I stand on a stool holding towels to the ceiling. 4 AM. 5 AM. Almost dawn.

Last night, while I was still in bed, I dreamed that the Beatles came to help hold back the storm. John and Ringo. (Paul was off getting married again and George was—absent.) Wearing white shirts, they sang their songs while they pressed old towels to the ceiling. When I woke at 3:30 they were no longer singing. It was up to me to stopper the storm.

Lucky for me, then, that I had ONE MORE DAY, the third novel by my friend Kelly Simmons, to keep me company. One toweled hand pressed to the ceiling, one hand cradling the book, my bare feet balanced on the old black stool, I read the last 100 pages of this novel from 4 AM to just right now, thinking, as I read, about all the conversations Kelly and I have had (during walks, over non-tea, in her house, in her yard, turning our turn-it-around bracelets on our arms) while this novel was in its stir. News of the first galvanizing surge of idea that sent Kelly to the page. News of the first electrifying email from Kelly's agent. News of the novel's sale to Sourcebooks. News of the story unfolding and again unfolding as Kelly worked through edits and revisions. News of our shared excerpt moment in Main Line Today. Kelly was writing something new to her, taking risks, exploring the idea of the supernatural set against the backdrop of a mother's loss. She was onto something.

When, a few days ago, ONE MORE DAY arrived, courtesy of Lathea Williams, I began reading at once. I am a fan of Kelly's work—her lovely sentences, her twists of humor, her insights into shame and longing. (Read my reviews of STANDING STILL and THE BIRD HOUSE.) ONE MORE DAY, with its limning of relationships and its multiplying secrets, is vintage Kelly with more than a soupcon of the otherworldly strange. A mother's kidnapped child returns for a single day. Ghosts appear—a grandmother, an old boyfriend, a childhood pet. The losses are real, the hurt is real, the secrets are real—but what is poor Carrie, the bereft mother, to think about these visitations? And what is her husband to think? Her mother? The police? The intruding newswoman? The neighbors? Libby, her friend from church? What are any of them supposed to believe, and what are we, the readers, to make of it all?

Whose side are we on?

Where do we come down on faith in things that rise up and then vanish?

I needed to know. I was so eager to find out that I didn't even notice that my suspended, book-cradling arm was shaking until I closed the book. Kelly, my copy is mottled with the unstoppered parts of today's storm. I hope you won't mind. I hope you won't mind, either, if I quote back to you my favorite passage in this book. You're so good at seeing this place we both call home. And you're so good at feeling that apartness that I, too, so often feel. And you're so good at writing sentences that sound just like this:
It was the type of neighborhood that was all proximity; you could turn left or right at any point off the boulevard and find a house that would inspire longing, part of your neighborhood technically, but not part of your world, with a quiet, lumbering grace that marked nobility, remove, other. Carrie was separate from all those people, she knew, and always had been. Not more deserving or less, just different from everyone else.
Congratulations, KellyKellyKelly.


Fine Writing or Plain Prose? Where do you fall within the Annie Dillard spectrum?

Monday, December 28, 2015

Last night I was all tangled up with Annie Dillard's Living by Fiction, a book that ponders the makings, magic, and meaning (is there any?) of fiction.

Living by Fiction was published in 1982, while I was still at Penn studying the history of science and too intimidated by capital L literature to take the courses I might have been taking, given the turn my "career" ultimately took.

(Although I have argued, perhaps to appease myself, that my years of studying science and history and biography ultimately helped the novels I'd write. Certainly they shaped my idea of what a novel should or might contain—something larger than plot, something big enough to cradle culture, landscape, and idea, something with a hint of the mesmerized.)

Fiction is about books I have read and also about many books I have not read by authors like Robert Coover, John Hawkes, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jonathan Baumbach, and Flann O'Brien. It weaves in and out of ideas, whisks readers along, challenges at the same time that it befriends. It is short, but the heart and range of it feels unbounded.

I won't pretend to have received all the heft of Dillard's mind in a single reading. I'm planning on a re-read. But I cherish what I've already picked up along the way, a bevy of fragments that have me thinking about how I read and why I write—and, indeed, how and why I write reviews.

Here, for example, the gauntlet is thrown down:
Fiction writers are, I hope to show, thoughtful interpreters of the world. But instead of producing interpretations—instead of doing research or criticism—they doodle on the walls of the cave. They make art objects which must themselves be interpreted. How convolute, how absurd, how endlessly interesting is this complexity! The world is filling up with works of fiction, with these useless, beautiful objects of thought—to what end? What links any work of fiction with anything we want to learn? To the world we see? To our understanding of the world we see? Does fiction illuminate the great world itself, or only the mind of its human creator?
Dillard takes time, in Fiction, to delineate between "fine writing" and "plain prose." These are my favorite pages, the places where I scribbled most energetically in the margins. I have racked up my share of detractors for my interest in complex, unusual language. I have often admired, even envied, the simple and unadorned. I am most assuredly not a fan of the simplistic, which deteriorates all too quickly into dull, trite, overly familiar, crude, or any number of other things. Simplistic doesn't make room for stories, I find. It hammers stories out of imaginistic possibility.

Dillard's own thoughts on all of this had me reading very slow—and wishing I could share the whole with you here. Instead I'll share a few more fragments.
Fine writing, with its elaborated imagery and powerful rhythms, has the beauty of both complexity and grandeur. It also has as its distinction a magnificent power to penetrate. It can penetrate precisely because, and only because, it lays no claim to precision. It is an energy. It sacrifices perfect control to the ambition to mean.... Fine writing is not a mirror, not a window, not a document, not a surgical tool. It is an artifact and an achievement; it is at once an exploratory craft and the planet it attains; it is a testimony to the possibility of the beauty and penetration of written language.
Fine writing lays no claim to precision. It is an energy. Beth Kephart, are you listening?

After teaching us how fine writing sometimes gets done, Dillard moves on to plain prose.
The prose is, above all, clean. It is sparing in its use of adjectives and adverbs; it avoids relative clauses and fancy punctuation; it forswears exotic lexicons and attention-getting verbs; it eschews splendid metaphors and cultured allusions....  There is nothing relaxed about the pace of this prose; it is as restricted and taut as the pace of lyric poetry. The short sentences of plain prose have a good deal of blank space around them, as lines of lyric poetry do, and even as the abrupt utterances of Beckett characters do. They erupt against a backdrop of silence. These sentences are—in an extreme form of plain writing—objects themselves, objects which invite inspection and which flaunt their simplicity.

Plain prose erupts against a backdrop of silence. Beth Kephart, is that not enticing?


This Is the Story of You: Teacher Guide

Jaime Wong of Chronicle Books works tirelessly on the teacher guides for author books, and I learn so much from her when I read them.

She's just shared this one with me.


I'm grateful for her curious mind, and her reach.


Through NEGROLAND Margo Jefferson elevates the memoir form, and leaves me grateful, again

Sunday, December 27, 2015

It was Margo Jefferson, the great cultural critic, who first put my name in the New York Times. In a review of another's book, in a closing paragraph, she made mention of something I'd penned in solitude and put forward with innocence and didn't even understand as well as she seemed to.

She looked up and saw me, and I, discovering her snatch of words quite by accident, never felt such gratitude.

When I read earlier this year that Margo had written a memoir called Negroland, I wanted it at once, bought it when I could, and put it on the top of a pile called (in my mind), "the books you'll be allowed to read once you have completed your tour of duty with all known responsibilities."

Yesterday I was done with all known (until next week) responsibilities. I picked up Negroland. I read.

And oh my, oh now: this. Like H is for Hawk, like M Train, like My Life as a Foreign Country, Negroland is the kind of book that elevates not just its readers but the capital M Memoir itself. It's personal—and otherwise. It's I, You, We. It's inquiry, declaration, admission, confusion—the story of the impossible ideals, hurtful expectations, pleasant privileges, and chaotic undertows that have been all bound up with being a member of the black elite. It's a book by an esteemed critic who was "taught to distinguish (her)self through presentation, not declaration, to excel through deeds and manners, not showing off" and who then (but always judiciously, always for a higher purpose) allows us in.

In a book of anecdote, history, cultural expose, and yearning, we encounter, on almost every page paragraphs as searing as this:
Privilege is provisional. Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly, and summarily withdrawn. Entitlement is impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege. Our people had to work, scrape for privilege, gobble it down when those who would snatch it away weren't looking.
 And this:
Being an Other, in America, teaches you to imagine what can't imagine you. That's your first education. Then comes the second. Call it your social and intellectual change. The world outside you gets reconfigured, and inside too. Patterns deviate and fracture. Hierarchies disperse. Now you can imagine yourself as central. It feels grand. But don't stop there. Let that self extend into other narratives and truths.
This year, when my beautiful son goes into bookstores he goes straight (his mother's child) to the memoir shelves. He, like me, views memoir as one of the best chances we have of broadening our vision, breaking down our walls, stepping out of our recklessly limited world view.

I have been taught by Margo Jefferson with her gorgeous Negroland. I have seen a little further. I have hurt a little more. I have been made grateful for both the seeing and the hurting.


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