let wonder be our guide in this age of the apocalpytic: Leif Enger/Peace Like a River

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

I confess: I am the last person in America to read Leif Enger's Peace Like a River. The last person to wake earlier than the usual early to get more pages in. The last person to brim up over the magnitude of this book's heart. The last person to sit very quietly still after the final sentence was sung and wish that the book had not been read yet—that it was still out there, rewarding discovery, still out there, beckoning.

For what a book is this book about an asthmatic boy and his literary sister, their miracle-stirring father, their outlaw brother, the minor and major sacrifices one makes when protecting love against the provable facts of a crime. This story about the wild west, the Valdezes and Cassidys, the crags in the earth that burn unending fires, the storms that blow in the snow or simply blow the snow, the quality of icing on cinnamon raisin buns. The stars:

They burned yellow and white, and some of them changed to blue or a cold green or orange—Swede should've been there, she'd have had words. She'd have known that orange to be volcanic or forgestruck or a pinprick between our blackened world and one the color of sunsets. I thought of God making it all, picking up handfuls of whatever material, iron and other stuff, rolling it in. His fingers like nubby wheat. The picture I had was of God taking these rough pellets by the handful and casting them gently, like a man planting. Look at the Milky Way. It has that pattern, doesn't it, of having been cast there by the back-and-forward sweep of His arm?

Magnificent, right? Magnificent. And not an ounce of the angry in this book, which is not to say there is no moral complexity or confusion. Not a whiff of cynicism, which is not to say that this ageless/timeless book is devoid of brave impartings. When I think about why I love this book so much, I think it has something to do with this: it is not afraid to be alive with the wonder of our living.

Am I right? Perhaps. For when I set off to read more about Enger, I came upon this excerpt from a Mark LaFramboise interview. Wonder is his topic—the importance of holding fast, and holding true, to the mysterious.

There is no greater lesson, I believe, for anyone writing right now. We seem in all-out pursuit of edge and bitterness, declarations of the apocalyptic. But aren't our very best books sprung from respect for natural and man-made loveliness?

Q: Although the narrator tells the story in retrospect, we see the world through the eleven- year old eyes of Reuben. How were you able to capture the wonder, fears, and curiosity of such a young protagonist?

A: First, my parents gave me the sort of childhood now rarely encountered. Summers were beautiful unorganized eternities where we wandered in the timber unencumbered by scoutmasters. We dressed in breechclouts and carried willow branch bows, and after supper Dad hit us fly balls. It was probably most idyllic for me as the youngest of four, since three worthy imaginations were out beating the ground in front of me; who knew what might jump up? Now I see that same freedom in the lives of our two sons, whose interests cover the known map. It's easy to witness the world through the eyes of a boy when you have two observant ones with you at all times. But the ruinous thing about growing up is that we stop creating mysteries where none exist, and worse, we usually try to deconstruct and deny the genuine mysteries that remain. We argue against God, against true romance, against loyalty and self-sacrifice. What allows Reuben to keep his youthful perspective is that he's seen all these things in action -- he is the beneficiary of his father's faith. He is a witness of wonders. To forget them would be to deny they happened, and denying the truth is the beginning of death.


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Mary Lee Adler: a sculptor, a friend (Remains to Be Seen)

Sunday, July 5, 2015

I met Mary Lee Adler in Miami. She was (in her smart, loving, embracing way) overseeing the young writers of the National YoungArts program. Making sure they were heard. Making sure they were seen. Making sure they were experiencing all that week-long program had to give them.

But here's the thing: If those YoungArts writers did nothing more than meet Mary Lee, their week in the Miami sun would have been worth it. I've rarely enjoyed conversation as much as I enjoyed my conversation with this reader/maker/doer. I've rarely felt so privileged.

A Vanderbilt graduate with an English degree, a woman who has traveled the world, a woman who doesn't give up on love or its possibilities, Mary Lee is also a sculptor—a maker of exquisite urns, among other things.

Today I'm celebrating Mary Lee and her artful renditions of the everlasting. Please visit her web site to learn more.

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"Don't you be a show-off," and other lessons from Kent Haruf, in his final quiet novel

We lost the great Kent Haruf way too soon. I was privileged to review his final book for the Chicago Tribune—privileged to have the excuse to go back and read Haruf interviews and profiles in preparation for the assignment.

Oh, he had so much to say. I wish he were still here, saying.

My full review can be found here.


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reuniting with the sisters of Alaska, on Independence Day weekend

Saturday, July 4, 2015

One year ago today I was on a small boat in Alaskan waters and the sky was our fireworks. Tomorrow, my husband, father, and I will have the great pleasure of reuniting with the two sisters we met on this trip—women who exemplify so much that is important, women who, even a year on, carry the traditions of friendship forward.

To our country tonight. To the safety of all those we love, and strangers, too. And to the friendships that sustain us, on Independence Day.

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envy shouldn't fuel our conversations, good luck doesn't earn us pride: let us do some good in this world

Being an old woman now, being a veteran of hope and disappointments, promises made and not always kept, I've seen things. I've felt things. I've wondered.

Many conclusions I've kept to myself. Some I've shared privately, quietly, with friends. Never in a bookstore gathering, nor on a panel, nor in a public forum, nor in a passive-aggressive social-media way have I thought it okay—from a human perspective, from the perspective of career advancement, even—to strike back or out at others. To put one writer or book down in order to promote another. To laugh at the person not in the room, or at the person sitting just a few stools down.

These are books we are writing, and if we are writing them for the right reasons, we're not writing them to win, we're not writing them to be famous, we're not writing them to put ourselves on an endless tour away from home and family. We're not writing so that we will own the headlines. We're writing because within the deep of us, something stirs—idea, character, language. The stuff of the soul.

Good luck in our own careers doesn't earn us entree to prideful pronouncements. Bad luck shouldn't put us on a battleground. Envy shouldn't fuel our conversations.

Our country trembles. Our planet stands at desperate risk. Dangers lurk and hearts are broken. People are dying too soon and for no other reason than that they were in a church at a wrong time, or on a beach when terror came, or in a museum when someone raised a gun, or in a hotel when a plane fell.

May we write books that explore, expose, ponder, transcend, heal. May we live, as authors, with the ambition of doing some measurable good in this world.



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let young writers write their souls for their souls, and not for all those prizes

Thursday, July 2, 2015

In my fourth book, Seeing Past Z: Nurturing the Imagination in a Fast-Forward World, I wondered out loud about what might happen if we stopped competing with and through our children. If we gave them time to become themselves, to work together to build ideas and worlds that are never judged, prized, awarded.

Seeing Past Z was based on the many years I spent teaching children in my home and at a local garden. It was about the beauty of just being together, imagining together, writing together, and not mailing our poems, songs, stories out into the world for "greater" validation. I never re-wrote the children's work, never rewrote the work of my son. What they created they created. They took the pride of ownership. They gained.

From the opening pages of Seeing Past Z:

I want to raise my son to pursue wisdom over winning. I want him to channel his passions and talents and personal politics into rivers of his own choosing. I'd like to take the chance that I feel it is my right to take on contentment over credentials, imagination over conquest, the idiosyncratic point of view over the standard-issue one. I'd like to live in a world where that's okay.

Some call this folly. Some make a point of reminding me of all the most relevant data: That the imagination has lost its standing in classrooms and families nationwide. That storytelling is for those with too much time. That winning early is one bet-hedging path toward winning later on. That there isn't time, as there once was time, for a child's inner life. That a mother who eschews competition for conversation is a mother who places her son at risk for second-class citizenry.

The book was ahead of its time. It sold but a few thousand copies, was remaindered quickly. A few years later the slow parenting movement rolled in. Books about the importance of play and the dangers of the parent-governed resume grabbed headlines. Helicopter parenting was caught in the snare. The family counselors, the social scientists, the psychiatrists sat on the talk-show couches and asked, What have we done to our young?

Yesterday The Atlantic ran an important story by Jen Karetnick titled "Behind the Scenes of Teenage Writing Competitions." The story reminds us of the damage that can get done when teens (and those who oversee their paths to glory) write to win, write to build their resumes. The work is shaped (not always by the teens themselves) to beat the odds. The resumes grow, often at the expense of less-privileged children who don't have writing mentors and editors at their side. And programs designed to help these young people step toward the light are compromised by work that may or may not be the students' own. From the story:

This destruction of self-esteem and erasing of voice is exactly what Nora Raleigh Baskin, author of the new book Ruby on the Outside, fears. Having taught for almost 15 years at organizations including Gotham Writers Workshop, Raleigh Baskin has seen those mindsets trending. She refuses to critique manuscripts to send off to literary magazines or to judge competitions on the grounds that budding writers’ voices shouldn’t be “held up against a random opinion. This is the time for exploration and for encouragement … Writing is all about process and setting these arbitrary achievements takes away from that.”

For some young writers, that pressure can be far more insidious than the pain of rejection. The competitive spirit may persuade parents to hire well-known writers to tutor, edit, or even rewrite their children’s work. It may even lead minors down the path of plagiarism.
As parents and teachers, as writers and people with more than a few wrinkles by their eyes, let us do what is right by our young people. Let us not rewrite their stories. Let us not allow them to think that winning is more important than knowing. Let us remind them that honesty, authenticity, goodness is the ultimate aim, not stars or unearned privilege. Let them find out who they are.

When, for example, I asked my young people to create a character, I gave out no stars. When I served as the Master Writing Teacher at the National YoungArts Foundation a few years ago, I did not go to upgrade the students' work; I went to provoke them with new prompts, new readings, new conversations, to encourage them to dig deeper within their own souls. And at Penn, where I teach a single course once each year, I am not rewriting my students' work, not rewriting their essays. I am pressing them to take each idea and every line farther—for their own sake. I am rewarding hard work and careful thought. I am rewarding personal growth. I am disappointed by those who take short cuts. Because it only hurts them.

One last word on this. Lately I have been going through many boxes from my youth. Reading, with a terrible blush in my cheeks, my early poems. People, they were awful. They were worse than awful. They showed no promise.

But they were mine. Never rewritten, never edited, never smoothed out. It took time time time for me to find my own way, and I'm still struggling. Having never taken formal creative writing classes, having taught myself through the books I've read and the friends I've made, I may still be behind the curve, but I am me behind that curve.

Let the young be themselves. Their breakthroughs will have more meaning.

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I suddenly had no What Next

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

People who know me, know: I am one of those. Give me a project, and I get it done. Tell me I have two months, I work toward two weeks. Give me a house to clean or a home to declutter, and I. Am. On. The. Job. I've managed by way of a sort of strictness toward self. Up before the dawn, give myself no excuses, let nobody down. Snip, snip, I'm cracking.

But lately I have lived in the Land of No Routine. A flutter of many things to do. An absence of systems and governing plans. I've been off to New Haven. Then to Krakow. Then to Bethlehem. Then to Arcadia. I've been writing talks, giving talks, reading books, writing reviews, creating classes and teaching classes, hoping for and hoping against, watching the women play soccer, driving quick to see friends, celebrating 30 years of marriage, planning for next New Year's Eve and now (just now) a blueberry festival. I've been helping to advance a family project, seeing my beautiful brother and his family and forgetting to say goodbye to his son (I fixed that!), cleaning out my basement, cleaning out my shelves, cleaning out my drawers, cleaning and cleaning again, writing for clients.

And then, bam, crash, wait. I suddenly had no What Next. For an hour or two late this afternoon, I had nothing that I had to do.

I sat down. I sat still by a screen door, feeling the breeze. I closed my eyes. I listened to a distant hammer bang. I listened to the one bird in the near tree. I listened to my own heart beat. I fell to deepest sleep.

Sometimes sleep is the best job around.


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the kindness of others, toward LOVE: A PHILADELPHIA AFFAIR

 

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“Once again Beth Kephart enlightens her readers about her love affair with Philadelphia in her new book, Love. She explores the everyday and historical aspects of the City of Brotherly Love and brings them to life. Simplistic, beautifully chosen words engage the reader, painting a picture of the ordinary and making it extraordinary—and truly authentic. Well done and well worth the read.”

Jack Ferguson, President and CEO, Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau



Love is a lovely literary tour of places and spaces in and around Philadelphia. Kephart does a wonderful job of drawing you into her emotional connections to neighborhoods, to transportation routes, to some of the truly fascinating and iconic buildings around this ever-changing city, and to places that draw you outside Philadelphia—but not so far that you cannot return quickly. Her lyrical prose instantly unites you with streets you’ve walked down before—but now with a bit more attention to details than you ever considered before. Seen through Kephart’s eyes and words, Philadelphia is a place of new beginnings.”

—Siobhan A. Reardon, President and Director, Free Library of Philadelphia



In her new book, Love, Beth Kephart beautifully captures the heart and soul of our city. She captures its complexity by writing eloquently about its beauty, the respect for the past, the resilience of its citizens, and an embrace of creativity and innovation unfolding at the speed of light. Setting an extraordinary backdrop of some of our city’s and region’s most beloved sites, Kephart paints a picture of an area where the past, present, and future come together to create a unique and wonderful place that is exciting for those of us who live here and a great treat for those who travel here from across the country and the globe.”

—Jane Golden, Executive Director, City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program

 

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the near tornado, at the horse show grounds

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Earlier today, unsettled by the much-too-much of the world, I took a walk to the horse show grounds down the street, where riders were at work. A storm, it was clear, was coming. I stayed as long as I could, then hurried home.

Ten minutes later my husband and I were standing in our basement looking out upon the skies. Our phones had blared tornado warnings. The newscasters were speaking of supercells. The clouds were circling themselves, collecting power. We saw wind blowing in three directions at once.

And then, where we were, it cleared. A bird sang a lonesome song. Somewhere, we knew, the winds were rushing strong, the power was going out, roofs were being threatened.

We live in a new era of weather.

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lessons in humility as I review my own student files from Penn

Monday, June 29, 2015

Reading through my old university files is akin to taking a graduate-level course in humility. How hard I tried—recopying notes, recopying the recopies. How overwhelmed I made myself by writing essays toward questions no one could ever really answer, by doing so much extra reading that I was drowning in the facts (and losing the essence). I was, it's clear, forcing myself toward a law degree as an undergrad. I was taking on extra projects at the Superior Court, writing papers on contract law, always looking for the legal angle in history papers and economics projects—and, most of the time, avoiding the fact that my passions lay elsewhere. I never took a single writing course at Penn. I only took one English course.

My professors wrote long notes to me. They bashed, they encouraged. They gave me early B's, cajoled me toward less baroque results, congratulated me when progress was made.

But none of it was easy. Most of the time, trying so hard, I was lonely. So lonely and ultimately out of my element that I left Penn for one semester to take classes at the much-smaller Haverford College. There (and I recall this well) I found my niche. There conversation mattered as much as the final exam.

Just now, sifting and sorting through these files, I find a note I wrote to a favorite Haverford professor. The final paragraph:

Finally, I'd like to add that, as a University of Pennsylvania student who moved off campus this semester feeling utterly alienated and unable to communicate with my contemporaries, the group discussion session proved extremely valuable to me. It was an experience as necessary as it was fun.
Perhaps I write today because I gave myself room for the poetic at Haverford. Perhaps much of the way I teach now at Penn stems from what I learned about the importance of creating classrooms where names are known, ideas are valued, and affection is absolute. We learn better in those environments. We take what we learned forward.

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on invoking and developing characters, at Arcadia's Creative Writing Summer Session

Sunday, June 28, 2015


Yesterday, thanks to the generous invitation of Gretchen Haertsch, I spent time with the talented writers of Arcadia University's Creative Writing Summer Weekend in the sensational "castle" illustrated above. I taught a master class. I then reflected on the empathetic imagination as I read from my four Tamra Tuller novels—Small Damages, Going Over, One Thing Stolen, and the upcoming This Is the Story of You.

(Thank you, my friends, for coming to see me. Thank you, Soup and Aimee, for the fireside chat.)

In the master class I was focused on the osmotic process I alluded to here. We undertook linked exercises designed to help the writers diagnose their strengths and fears and to help them locate new wellsprings of ideas and possibilities. One element in the lesson plan involved character development. I presented the writers with a number of character-invoking questions. I invited them to add to the question list. We next considered which three or four questions sparked the respective imaginations of each writer. Characters and creatures emerged.

I was asked if I might share the list of provoking questions and so I do, below. Perhaps a handful will inspire you.

Character Invokers

How does it interact with reality?
In what kind of weather does it thrive?
What kinds of arguments does it have?
What secrets has it shared with no one?
What questions does it chase?
What is its shoe size?
How does it deal with crisis?
Where does it find peace or solace?
How does it exercise its curiosity?
How does it greet or ignore the skies?
What does it miss?
What will it stand up for?
What would it change about itself?
Who are its heroes?
Does it dance, and if it does, to what music?
What songs was it sung when it was young?
Does it seek to be rooted in or to escape?
Does it crave lonesomeness?
Does it have faith in another day?
If it were colorblind would it be heartbroken?
What is its favorite word?
Who and what does it trust?

And from the writers:

What haunts it?
What is its least favorite vegetable?
What sense would it most not like to lose?
What does it value more than its own life?
How far would it go to achieve its goal?
Who or what gives it meaning?
Where would it like to travel?
Is it experiencing an existential crisis?
Is it afraid of crowds?
What makes it hopeful?
Does it like water?
What superpower does it wish for?
Where is it from?
How was it raised?
Does it long for the past or dream of the future?
Did it sleep last night?
What is its greatest fear?
What does it fear of the future?
What is its favorite color?

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thinking about the osmotic work of writers, today at Arcadia, and with the help of James Salter and Andrew Solomon

Saturday, June 27, 2015

In a few hours, I'll be at Arcadia University for the Creative Writing Summer Weekend. I'll be teaching a private master class. At 3:00, my reading will be free and open to the public. I invite you to join us on this rainy day.

I've decided to focus on the idea of the osmotic for both the class and the reading. How we move from truth to fiction and back. How we empathize with both the real people in our lives and the characters that emerge from our dreams. How we maneuver imagination and compassion.

Today, choosing against the gym after a physically exhausting week, I had an extra hour to read and have spent that time in the company of James Salter. There, in the midst of a Paris Review Art of Fiction interview (with Edward Hirsch), I found Salter reflecting on this very topic:

INTERVIEWER

You once said that the word fiction is a crude word. Why?

SALTER

The notion that anything can be invented wholly and that these invented things are classified as fiction and that other writing, presumably not made up, is called nonfiction strikes me as a very arbitrary separation of things. We know that most great novels and stories come not from things that are entirely invented, but from perfect knowledge and close observation. To say they are made up is an injustice in describing them. I sometimes say that I don’t make up anything—obviously, that’s not true. But I am usually uninterested in writers who say that everything comes out of the imagination. I would rather be in a room with someone who is telling me the story of his life, which may be exaggerated and even have lies in it, but I want to hear the true story, essentially.

INTERVIEWER

You’re saying it’s always drawn from life?

SALTER
Almost always. Writing is not a science, and of course there are exceptions, but every writer I know and admire has essentially drawn either from his own life or his knowledge of things in life. Great dialogue, for instance, is very difficult to invent. Almost all great books have actual people in them.

Words I will share at Arcadia later today. Words that will help keep me balanced as I continue to reflect on what sort of osmotic project I might wrestle next.

Finally, today, I leave you with this—more words to be shared today at Arcadia. This time the writer is Andrew Solomon in The New Yorker and this time the osmotics concern youth and age:

This is what I will say to you most urgently: there are many obvious differences between middle age and youth, between having lived more and done more and being newly energized and fresh to the race. But the greatest difference is patience. Youth is notoriously impatient, even though there is no need for impatience early on, when people have the time to be patient. In middle age, the wisdom of patience seems more straightforward, but there aren’t so many days left. But Rilke is correct that we must all write as though eternity lay before us. Enjoy the flexibility that span of eternity offers. The discourse between the young and the nostalgic retains some of its inherent poetry in the form of a longing intimacy. The freshness of younger people awakens memories in older ones—because though you, young writers, are yourselves at the brink of your own future, you evoke the past for those who came before you.

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keeping the boundaries clear, when reviewing memoir

Friday, June 26, 2015

When we critique a memoir we are not critiquing a life. We must, instead, respect the boundaries. Our job is to appraise the art, the intent, the structure, the reach, but not the overt or implied "moralities" of the person who has just written her idea about her own story.

Sure, there will always be talk about the memoirist as a person; there will always be those conversations, sparked. The job of a reviewer, though, is to explain and ponder what the memoirist has put at stake without imposing one's own politics upon it.

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In writing about the young, embrace complexity: what we learn from Per Petterson in Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

My dear friend Alyson Hagy sends gems through the mail. All kinds of art I would never otherwise see. Stories and poems and images that elevate my trust in this world, our capacity, as humans, to transcend ourselves.

Alyson also knows of my great passion for Per Petterson and not long ago sent me Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, a story collection Petterson wrote early in his career—and has recently been released by Graywolf.

A young boy named Arvid who lives just outside Oslo stands at the heart of these linked interludes. Petterson rushes and hushes us into his world with language that splits seams. He is too young to understand and filter at first. We watch him want, concede, defy, question, and finally grow from childhood into manhood through an act of singular compassion. Arvid's childhood is a most remarkable transformation built of most ordinary moments. It's an astonishing trick, this tiny book. A master class in writing from a child's perspective, a book for adults, certainly, in the same way that Joyce's Portrait of the Artist is for adults. But it is also a book for anyone working within the middle grade/young adult realm.

This is character development.

This is knowing.

This is art.

This is what the brains of the young are capable of seeing, feeling, thinking, and this is what we must aspire to as writers, no matter what age we think we are writing for. The minds and lives of children and young people are complex. They cannot be realistically distilled into issues. They don't organize neatly around obvious plots. They are the last thing in the world from nuance-free one-liners.

One passage of many. He is speaking of his mother.
She'd looked the way she always had for as far back as he could remember, and she still did right up until the day he happened to see a photograph of her from before he was born, and the difference floored him. He tried to work out what could have happened to her, and then he realised it was time that had happened and it was happening to him too, every second of the day. He held his hands to his face as if to keep his skin in place and for many nights he lay clutching his body, feeling time sweeping through it like little explosions. The palms of his hands were quivering and he tried to resist time and hold it back. But nothing helped, and with every pop he felt himself getting older.

He cried, and said to his mother:

'I don't want to get older. I want to stay like I am now! Six and a half, that's enough, isn't it?' But she smiled sadly and said, to every age its charm. And time withdrew to the large clock on the wall in the living room and went round alone in there, like a tiger in a cage, he thought, just waiting, and Mum became Mum again, almost like before.

It is not, contrary to the opinion of some, easier to write for younger readers. It should not be. Our job, I think, is to keep on seeking ways to embrace and elevate the complexity that makes us true and hurt and human.

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I made a vase. It doesn't leak.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

When working with the earth and with glaze you cannot control a lot of things.

But you can control some.

I like that feeling.

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paperback writer (three upcoming releases)



On this day, ahead of a predicted storm, I'm happy to share these three images—snapshots of books living forward.

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir will be released in a month or so by Avery—its fourth printing—with a newly crafted afterword (featuring some of the newly read memoirs and evolving memoir theories I've had since Handling was first released in August 2013).

Going Over will be released by Chronicle as a paperback in November, following a happy run as a hardback (thank you, kind librarians, teachers, readers).

Small Damages has just been released by Speak (Penguin Random House) in its second edition paperback—slightly different packaging, same story, and much gratitude to those who found and read the book either as a Philomel hardback or a first-edition Speak paperback.

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a small glimpse into the Krakow reading life, in a Krakow bookshop




On another rainy day in Krakow we slipped inside a miniature palace of books. I could have stayed the entire day. I don't know a word of Polish. I didn't know these authors. But the art, the bindings, the printing—it was like stepping back into that time when my mother tucked herself behind a couch and put on puppet shows. It was like sitting with my uncle as he made his fabulous Victorian ornaments—velvet ribbons, pearls, scrapbook faces.

That kind of richness of escape into other worlds.

The store itself, called Bona, was located just down the road from Wawel Castle, but it wasn't a place for tourists. There were pastries in the back, a winding staircase to a stone-faced exhibition room, a reading lounge, and a young woman with impeccable English who helped me understand where Poland is just now, as a reading country. Illustrated picture books like the one I bought, above, exude, she said, a timelessness and also an agelessness; adults find one thing in the story and children another. Young adult books have not yet reached the popularity they have here in the states, perhaps because adults read novels written for adults or spend time with these glorious art-infused picture books. And paper books—the tangible, shelf-able kind—remain a towering favorite, both because of the quality of the art and because digital reading devices can cost up to half a young person's monthly salary.

The number of books in the store wasn't huge. The quality, however, was. It took a long time for me to choose this one, and then another little bit to choose the book I brought home for my friend Karolina, whose stories of a Krakow childhood had brought me to her country in the first place.

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returning to Florence, Italy, with April Lindner's LOVE, LUCY

Monday, June 22, 2015



Today, with her vivid reimagining of EM Forster's A Room With a View in a YA novel she titled Love, Lucy, April Lindner has returned me to that city of art—Florence, Italy. She has given me Lucy, torn between two cities and two boys, a father's demands and her own instincts. She has taken me to Fiesole, a village outside Florence where I traveled many years ago—a town that, in fact, became the setting of my favorite published short story.

It's all so clear, in April's book. I see the streets as if I am walking them, the red-tiled roofs as if I am up above them, that Arno as if I am Vespa-ing by.

And that first photo in this post, right down to the red bike, is a picture I took in back in September 2012, when I was researching my own Florence novel, One Thing Stolen. That precise scene and angle, right down to the the red bike, is pictured on the back of April's novel.

We wrote our Italy novels at the same time. Worried them through together. Gave each other the support novelists need. Indulged in all flavors of gelato.

And so, April, it was a pleasure this afternoon to read your story, to find your gelato, your streets, your romance, and, of course, your music, in the pages of Love, Lucy. Congratulations on another wonderful reimagining.

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Reading The Light of the World (Elizabeth Alexander) in the wake of Charleston

This morning I woke early to read The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander's embrace of the sixteen years with the man she loved from the instant they met until his sudden death, at the age of fifty.

It begins with a simple sentence that is not a simple sentence, studded twice, as it is, with "but," once with a suggestive "seems," configured so that the words "tragedy" and "love" stand within near proximity. The book begins as a tender warning: "This story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story."

And then Alexander, the poet many of us first saw during President Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration ("Praise Song for the Day"—I remember, do you remember?), begins her search for other beginnings. Begins to tell us about her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus—a chef, a painter, a man of endless curiosity, a truth teller, a traveler come all the way to New Haven, CT, from his homeland of Eritrea. The man Alexander was somehow destined to meet. The man who gave Alexander her two tall beautiful sons. The man who grew her peonies, who cooked her angel food, who painted what his mind saw, who could be found in most smart sections of a book store.

The Light of the World is a crescendo, moving through history toward loss, arcing away from loss. It is a quest to understand whether memory is finite, whether a soul remains tethered, whether joy is possible—again. Its language grows more complex as the book evolves. Its repetitions become refrains. Its hope breaks like light breaks, though light is tremulous and fickle.

To have loved. To have lost. We cannot truly lose, Alexander reminds us, what we have not loved.

I was thinking of Charleston as I read this book. Of the families whose loved ones went out one evening to pray and who did not return. I was thinking of the terrible mourning that is upon that community now, the long stretch between now and the coming light for those who loved those who were taken. I was thinking of how essential it is to love out loud, to love in the moment, to look beyond the small infractions so that we spend the time we do have together, have been given, well.

I was thinking that this is not just a book for those who mourn specifically, with knowledge of a particular soul, but for those who recognize (we all recognize) that mourning is in our own futures and that the only defense (and it is not a defense, but it is an urgency) is to give of goodness now.

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Kissing in America/Margo Rabb

Sunday, June 21, 2015

This girl on Florianska Street in Krakow, Poland—this girl is loving something. Swooning behind her heavy, lidded eyes. Creating—or recreating—an embrace. What is happening inside her platinum head? Can she ever really tell us?

Love looks like many things. Love takes a fraction of a second to say and a library's worth of fine books to partly parse. In Kissing in America, Margo Rabb's poetry-riveted novel for young adults, love presents and perpetuates itself in ways both surprising and true.

We think, as we begin, that we are setting out on a journey that will unite the perfect boy with the perfect girl, which is to say two young people whose personal tragedies and imperfections make them deliciously right for one another. Eva, an east coaster, is mourning the loss of her father and the emotional distance of her mother. Will has moved out west to escape his own mother's bankruptcy—and to try to overcome the estrangement with his father. With her genius friend, Eva concocts a scheme that will deliver her to Will's west-coast doorstep. What happens next will teach her lessons she could not have foreseen.

It is a winsome, winning tale—full of Margo's trademark humor and linguistic dignity. It is a story of nuance, of character shades, of a heart pattering and yearning, of a mind settling into a truth. How do we love, and how do we grieve?

Kissing in America is a romance of ideas.

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the medley read—please join us on June 27, at Arcadia University

Friday, June 19, 2015


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I CRAWL THROUGH IT/A.S. King

At the Moravian Writers' Conference two weeks ago, she had it with her. Her second-to-last ARC of I Crawl Through It, the forthcoming novel (September/Little, Brown) that early critics have been stunned by.

I'm always stunned by King. She has made an art form of the intelligent unexpected. The unanticipated odd. The somehow-cohering strange. She has run inversions like a flag through a foggy battleground and come out the other side, victorious.

And here, more than ever, she does it again. Takes a story about psyche-battered teens, converts it into a surrealist coda, introduces an invisible helicopter, a walking digestive system, a liar with Hairocchio tresses, parents who have not been listening, an onslaught of bomb threats, and comes out the other side with a rallying cry for any who have been hit hard, live guilt, wonder if they will survive.

It's not ordinary. It is not, at first, easy. It's not supposed to be. It makes all the sense in the world. It is weirdness made synthetic and humane.

You're going to be hearing about this book. You're going to have to get yourself an early copy. You're going to sit and wonder afterward why you didn't (before) see invisible helicopters. You're going to see them everywhere hereafter.

You want to know more? I could type in here the jacket copy, but instead I'm going to leave you with some Rudyard Kipling. Part of the poem he called "If." It's everything you need to know about I Crawl Through It and King's latest masterpiece.

If you can keep your head when all about you
  Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
  But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
  Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
  And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
  If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
  And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
  Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
  And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:  ...

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what it is to be a writer

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Five or six days a year, I call myself (to myself) a writer. I tangle with nothing but words. No phone calls. No client engagements. No volunteering. No outreach. No bills, no laundry, no gardening, no dusting, not even the making of dinner (maybe). All day long, I do what writing is—fill the backs of scrap pages with sentences and scratches, think of myself as making progress, put my head against a pillow and wait for sleep, which is to wait for the dream, the black ink of my open-capped pen waiting.

The dream blurs. The pen stains. Most of what I write will be discarded later. The pages upon pages will distil to a handful of sentences and the scene I thought I was writing will prove to be nothing more than preamble. A tease. A misdirect. A different opening.

But. I get closer, period by comma. I get closer and I remember, on those sacred days, what it is to be a writer.

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my brother: then. now.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

I discovered this in a hallowed place while sorting through the past. An article of yesteryear, commemorating my brother's receipt of the Rubin Shaw Memorial award, "the highest award given by the Philadelphia Science Council." He was one of 600 applicants, the story tells us. He was "tested extensively in physics, chemistry, and biology." He even endured personal interviews.

He is not even out of high school yet, and here he is. A mind already in motion.

My brother looks just like this today. He's still doing big things. Sometimes the past really does augur the present.

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living with the work you've done by doing for the future

Monday, June 15, 2015

As much as I love holding a finished book in my hand—quietly, alone, when the big box arrives—nothing gives me greater peace than to know that I have a new idea stirring. New worlds to build. New characters to decode. New metaphors.

Working toward the next is, in fact, the only way I know how to live with what already exists. How to maintain my perspective. How to keep the spotlight where it must be—not on the past but on the future. How to hold true to who I actually am—a writer, not a brand builder, not a saleswoman, not a stumper.

Yesterday, reading, again Sally Mann's Hold Still, I came upon these words at the start of her ninth chapter. They resonate with me:

When I get asked what one piece of advice I have for young photographers, this is what I tell them: if you are working on a project, and you're thinking maybe it's time to put it out into the world, make sure you have already started your next body of work. Not just started, either: you should be well along on it. You will know that the first project is finished when you find yourself joylessly going through the motions to eke out a few more pictures while, like a forbidden lover, the new ones call seductively to you. This new lover should be irresistible, and when it calls, you will be in its urgent thrall, making the work of your heart.

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Love song to Moravian Bethlehem, in today's Inquirer

Sunday, June 14, 2015



I have written of the weekend we spent in Moravian Bethlehem—of the happy times we had among friends old and new. Today I'm talking more about those three days—and the idea of home—in the Inquirer.

The story begins like this, below, and can be found in full here.

I traveled to Bethlehem, Pa., to talk about home at the Moravian Writers' Conference. About how home roots us, shapes us, tethers, scrapes, and needs us. About how (if we are writing, if we are living) we are forced to define what the word means to us.

Home is akin to poem. But how?
(With thanks as always to Kevin Ferris of the Inquirer, and with great thanks to Joyce Hinnefeld, for the invitation.)

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An Upcoming Medley Read at Arcadia, Free and Open to the Public

Saturday, June 13, 2015

On June 27th, I'll be joining Gretchen Haertsch at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA, as part of the Creative Writing Summer Weekend. I'll be conducting a private master class for the participants. I'll also be doing a public reading—a medley that will begin with some thoughts about the empathetic imagination and then move into four brief illustrative readings from Small Damages, Going Over, One Thing Stolen, and This Is the Story of You, the book that will launch next spring from Chronicle (and that I am page proofing this very weekend).

The doors are open to all of you. The reading is free. The facts below. Would love to see you there.

June 27, 2015
3 PM
Arcadia University
Beth Kephart Medley Reading
450 South Easton Road
Glenside, PA 19038

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LOVE and the Papal Visit to Philadelphia (World Meeting of Families)

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Pope is coming to our city. LOVE is his vision, his banner, his mission. His grace and his grace notes.

Love: A Philadelphia Affair is due out in September, in time for this historic visit.

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in which one of My Spectaculars asks for honesty when speaking of mental health, David Marchino in The Daily Pennsylvanian

Thursday, June 11, 2015

You know how I feel about my students. You know what love I had this past spring for My Spectaculars. Every. Single. Oneofthem. This young man—this David—was integral to us, remains integral to us, speaks truth, speaks it gently, and has something to say about mental wellness in this issue of The Daily Pennsylvanian.

David went missing for a class last spring. My students rallied to locate him. And while they did, I was having a conversation with myself and with those I trust about what universities can do for students who need time away from pressure. David articulates so masterfully here what students might do for one another. He is asking for a culture of mutual caring, of values that transcend the GPA, of a turn toward soul. I commend this. I believe that when you step onto a college campus you are making a commitment to loving watchfulness. Watch out for your friends. Watch out for your students. And may these harried students be given time—be given the resources—to take care of themselves.

David is about to set off for his first trip overseas. His first airplane ride. His first of many things. He's promised to update me on all he sees, but before he goes, please read his words. Here.

David, Godspeed and God bless.

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be who you are (avoid mediocrity)

On a rainy Saturday morning in Krakow, we found the artists. I found her.

I recognized her in an instant—this big-hoping, bird-cradling, barely-standing creature in a field of poppies. She ponders. She wishes. She is, for now, alone. It's an image that contains every claim you might make against my writing. And every claim you might make for it.

We have, as writers, the voices we were born with. We cannot authentically become someone else's idea of who we should be, of what the market might bear, and besides, this purported market shifts and tumbles, misdirects, is responsible for far more mediocrity than excellence.

Be who you are.

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World War II and the Fallen: an extraordinary new documentary by Neil Halloran

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Early in our trip to Krakow we found ourselves seated beside an Irish couple at a restaurant. They'd returned that day from Auschwitz and Birkenau. They were insisting that we travel there as well. I was conflicted.

Tell me why I have to go, I said, after expressing concerns about presenting myself as a tourist in a place where so much horror happened.

You go for the sheer immensity, the husband told me. You go because you have to.

And so we did—taking a two-hour bus ride from Krakow through the countryside and toward the camps. We arrived at the end of a day, most tourists gone. And then: The sheer immensity of it. 1.3 million interned. Only 200,000 survived. The shoes. The hair. The suitcases. The faces. The camp land that went on beyond possible seeing. The sheer immensity.

In the midst of our travels we received word from a visionary documentary filmmaker—Neil Halloran—about the release of a new project long in the making that puts some of this into context. Yesterday my husband and I sat with these eighteen or so minutes in perfect silence, watching. This is extraordinary material—World War II quantified and then contextualized. A reminder about the hope that still exists, even in this torn-up world of ours. And a spectacular use of numbers. In fact, I've never seen numbers used to such tremendous storytelling effect.

Here are Neil's words about the film itself. I highly recommend it as visual art and historical message:

Today I am launching the website fallen.io <http://fallen.io>  after many years in the making, and I would be so very delighted if you gave it a look.

http://www.fallen.io

The Fallen of World War II is a short animated data-driven documentary about war and peace. The film explores the harrowing statistics of World War II and sizes up its numbers to other wars in history, including recent conflicts. It's a dark portrayal of the war, but hang in there, because it's also very much a film about peace.

The documentary is unusual in the way it blends data visualization with filmmaking. It was created almost entirely with custom software so that the visuals could be closely choreographed with the underlying data. The sound design and original score were composed by my brilliant collaborator Andy Dollerson - so wear headphones! As a web-based film, it features interactive segments that allow viewers to pause and dig into the data visualizations that are rendered live on screen.

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invitation of a lifetime. all love to Little Flower.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


(view video by clicking on this link)

A few years ago I met a sister named Kim. She loves books and she loves the girls who love her at Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls. She loves the girls, and so she gives them books to read. She loves the girls, and so she introduces them to authors. She loves the girls, and so she builds entire book festivals on their behalf.

She loves, and she keeps doing. They come and they go from her rousing library (and classrooms).

Enter her school. Walk her halls. Meet her girls, and you can't help but love them back.

This morning I am overwhelmed by this invitation to keynote the 2016 Little Flower Teen Writers and Readers Festival. Overwhelmed to be considered, for one thing. Overwhelmed to be invited in this way. What effort, what time, what forethought went into all of this.

And how it will never be forgotten.

This is love. This is a video of a lifetime.

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