Monday, January 26, 2015

As millions of us on the east coast wait out the blizzard headed our way, I send out thoughts of safe travel, warm homes, good books at hand.

This is Alaska, this past June, where clouds and fog came in deep and thick, then vanished, leaving skies of radiant blue.


Remembering South Street and celebrating Isaiah Zagar, in today's Philadelphia Inquirer

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Last Friday I pushed away from the desk, went out into the air, and returned to South and Gaskill Streets. I rediscovered some of my own history. I talked with Julia Zagar about her husband's remarkable mosaics (Isaiah Zagar, Philadelphia's Magic Gardens). I remembered.

The story is here, in today's Philadelphia Inquirer. Huge thanks to Kevin Ferris and to Amy Junod, page designer, who used six of my photographs for this piece. I'm sort of overwhelmed. I'm very grateful. Thank you.


Everything I Never Told You/Celeste Ng and Citizen: An American Lyric/Claudia Rankine

There are books that fill you with the clamor of something new—the risk of them, the innovation.

There are books that silence you—how honest and aching and true, how beautifully levered down into the soul.

This morning I am silenced by Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng's impeccable first novel about a daughter whose inexplicable death cracks open the vault of a family's secrets and regrets. A novel about children submitting to their parents' dreams for them, and the woeful consequences. Bill Wolfe had named this his favorite book of the year. Sarah Laurence had put it on her list. So many others, too. Believe anyone who tells you that you must read this book. Believe me. You must.

Ng is a master of the omniscient voice. A brilliant webber of divergent perspectives. A calm creator of sentences. A woman capable of writing with enormous clarity and tenderness about racism, silence, the terrible burdens of doing one's duty, the steep weight of holding that science book in your hand because your mother wants you to, the wretchedness of being the less-loved child. How do you take a heartbreaking story and still leave the reader with hope? You do it by writing through a powerful knowing not just of the past but of the future, too.

I am one of those people who writes in her books—outlining, defining, questioning. I did not write inside Ng's pages, preferring to keep them pristine. I turned back the ear of but one, knowing it would be the page that I shared, the thing that lies most at the heart of this novel. That word "different" and how we use it or abuse it in our lives.

Sometimes you almost forgot: that you didn't look like everyone else. In homeroom or at the drugstore or at the supermarket, you listened to morning announcements or dropped off a roll of film or picked out a carton of eggs and felt like just another someone in the crowd. Sometimes you didn't think about it at all. And then sometimes you noticed the girl across the aisle watching, the pharmacist watching, the checkout boy watching, and you saw yourself reflected in their stares: incongruous. Catching the eye like a hook. Every time you saw yourself from the outside, the way other people saw you, you remembered all over again. 

I was reading Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric the same time that I was reading Ng. I was thinking of how many times I have likely gotten it wrong in my own language—despite all these years now with my own Salvadoran husband, all these years fighting labels in life and on the page. Even those of us who should fully understand the nuances of prejudicial language can, horrifyingly, get it wrong, and will again. I mean to take nothing away from Ng's magnificent novel by including words from Rankine in this post, but they do, I believe, go together. They must—both these books—be read.

You are twelve attending Sts. Philip and James School on White Plains Road and the girl sitting in the seat behind asks you to lean to the right during exams so she can copy what you have written. Sister Evelyn is in the habit of taping the 100s and the failing grades to the coat closet doors. The girl is Catholic with waist-length brown hair. You can't remember her name: Mary? Catherine?

You never really speak except for the time she makes her request and later when she tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person. You assume she thinks she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person.


talking about failure memoirs, in this weekend's Chicago Tribune

Friday, January 23, 2015

In my memoir class at the University of Pennsylvania, we're focusing on failure/mistake memoirs, and what they teach us. To get my own self into a teaching place, I spent considerable time during Christmas and the first weeks of the new year, studying the books that I am teaching—and thinking.

The Chicago Tribune kindly gave me room to put that thinking on its pages.

I'm thrilled to also be able to share that Daniel Menaker, the author of My Mistake and an esteemed editor in his own right, will be visiting Kelly Writers House for a publishers lunch and then my class on February 24th, at Penn.

The Tribune essay can be found here.


When the poem is the elegy and the elegy is the memoir: Gabriel: A Poem/Edward Hirsch

Thursday, January 22, 2015

This morning, before the gears on the work-a-day-world began to turn in earnest, I read "Gabriel: A Poem," Edward Hirsch's book-length elegy for his departed son.

It is hallowed and hollowing, a work of pristine mourning. Memories seamed and broken. Threads that fall away until we see the soul of the boy himself— adopted, challenged by tics and relentless recklessness, the bright splash in a room. He is a child no one can keep safe from himself. A child who goes out during Storm Irene to a party he sees advertised on Craigslist. A child who does not return and cannot be found for four terrible days.

And then he must be buried.

It ransacks the soul, reading a book like this. We peel away as the lines peel away; no periods at the end of any line, no finished sentences. We look and we cannot stop looking until Gabriel, and his searching father, are a part of us.

It is a poem. It is also memoir. Like Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming it suggests, again, another form for the hardest and most important stories lived. The most important things lost and lifted to the page.


In his country
There were scenes
Of spectacular carnage

Hurricanes welcomed him
He adored typhoons and tornadoes
Furies unleashed

Houses lifted up
And carried to the sea
Uncontained uncontainable

Unbolt the doors
Fling open the gates
Here he comes

Chaotic wind of the gods
He was trouble
But he was our trouble
With thanks to Nathaniel Popkin, whose craft essay in Cleaver Magazine last week reminded me that I had meant to buy and read this.


Writing people: lessons from Charles D'Ambrosio

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Yeah. I'm bowled over by Charles D'Ambrosio's Loitering: New and Collected Essays. One. Hundred. Percent. I mentioned this yesterday. I may well mention it again. Read the book, and learn.

Lesson of the day. How to write a person. I don't know that I've ever seen it done any better than this. From the essay "Winning":

Al tended the bar at night. He'd been in the merchant marine and ate with a fat clunky thumb holding down his plate, as if he were afraid the whole place might pitch and yaw and send his dinner flying. He was dwarfish and looked like an abandoned sculpture, a forgotten intention. His upper body was a a slablike mass, a plinth upon which his head rested; he had a chiseled nose and jaw, a hack-job scar of a mouth; his hands were thick and stubby, more like paws than anything prehensile. Sitting back behind the bar, smoking Pall Malls, he seemed petrified, the current shape of his body achieved by erosion, his face cut by clumsy strokes and blows. His eyes, though, were soft and blue, always wet and weepy with rheum, and when you looked at Al, you had the disorienting sense of something trapped, something fluid and human caught inside the gray stone vessel of his gargoyle body, gazing out through those eyes.

Abandoned sculpture: fantastic. A forgotten intention: genius. Something fluid caught inside a gargoyle body: are you kidding me?

I, for one, have some work to do before I can ever be fully satisfied with anything I write. The bar has been D'Ambrosio raised.


my "advice to writers" and Charles D'Ambrosio

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

It is perhaps fitting that today, as I set off to Penn for the inaugural spring 2015 memoir class, Jon Winokur is posting my contribution to his "Advice to Writers" series, found here.

Six questions, six quick responses. Here, for example, my thoughts on writer's block:

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I suffer from a lost faith in my ability to solve hard literary problems. And then I chip away at them.

But really, always, my advice comes down to reading more than you write and living more than anything else, and so may I amplify today's post by encouraging, nay, insisting, that those of you who want to write memoir or essays or memoristic essays and have not read Charles D'Ambrosio's essays get a copy of Loitering: New and Collected Essays, newly out from the fabulous Tin House Books. D'Ambrosio is a supreme master of the form—witty, willing to fail, eager to digress, self referent while avoiding self-absorption (see my thoughts on Rachel Cusk's Outline, here), devoted, in his words, to capturing "the conflicted mind in motion."

Buy this collection, watch him work.

Off to teach failure and mistakes at Penn. Things at which I'm expertly good.


On reading OUTLINE by Rachel Cusk, and thoughts on a new generation of scouring fiction

Monday, January 19, 2015

Chloe Aridjis, Jenny Offill, Samantha Harvey, Catherine Lacey, Rachel Cusk: Lately I've been reading authors like these, women unafraid of breaking form or muddying expectations, women writing sentences that scour. They are books in which the characters choose, in some way, to be alone—to isolate themselves inside their own thoughts, to sever themselves from social conventions, to tell stories that, without resort to war or torture, somehow carry knives.

This morning I finished reading Outline, Rachel Cusk's story of—well—what is it, exactly? It is the story of a writer who has gone to Greece for a week to teach; yes, it is that, at one level. But mostly it is about a woman who moves through the world under the assault of other people's stories. People who find themselves, in her presence, talking through the cyclone of their own lives, presenting themselves as they wish to be presented, asserting their right (right?) to be heard, smudging and aggrandizing, begging to be understood, until, ultimately, their stories devolve into self-circling harangues. The people our narrator meets, the people who natter on, hardly need to be encouraged. Given room to talk, they do, exhibiting, ultimately, that something selfish, stingy, mean of propulsive monologue. We have all been on the other side of such a thing. We understand. There is almost a comedy to it.

But Cusk is after far more than a set piece, a commentary on rampant self-absorption. Cusk ratchets the ambush of monologue to high tension in Outline. She makes, of these disconnected interludes, a story with an arc. She uses her scheme to explore essential questions about the lies we tell ourselves, the responsibilities we negate, the desire we have to blame other people for the unhappiness we feel or the success we have not had or the mess we have made of marriages or parenting. Her narrator is a woman who "did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything." She is a woman rarely asked about herself, but when she does comment on the stories she is told, she brings an outsiderly wisdom, a pausing perhaps. We know the outlines of who she is (a writer, a divorcee), in other words, but far more important is how we come to know what she thinks.

Here, for example, she is responding to an insufferable woman's complaints about marriage:

I replied that I wasn't sure it was possible, in marriage, to know what you actually were, or indeed to separate what you were from what you had become through the other person. I thought the whole idea of a 'real' self might be illusory: you might feel, in other words, as though there were some separate, autonomous self within you, but perhaps that self didn't actually exist. My mother once admitted, I said, that she used to be desperate for us to leave the house for school, but that once we'd gone she had no idea what to do with herself and wished that we would come back.

Here the narrator muses on desire:

I said that, on the contrary, I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible. One could make almost anything happen, if one tried hard enough, but the trying—it seemed to me—was almost always a sign that one was crossing the currents, was forcing events in a direction they did not naturally want to go, and though you might argue that nothing could ever be accomplished without going against nature to some extent, the artificiality of that vision and its consequences had become—to put it bluntly—anathema to me. There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that, I had decided to want nothing at all.
A rosy world view this is not. Easy entertainment—it's not that, either. But it is fierce and different and part of a new world order in fiction written by women. A movement to which I think we must pay quite close attention.


The Mud Angels of One Thing Stolen

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A long time ago, when I began to write the book that became One Thing Stolen, I thought of it as a book called Mud Angels. Perhaps because it is the story of a rescue—of more than one rescue. Perhaps because parts of the tale take place against the backdrop of the November 1966 flood that destroyed so much of Florence.

Today, when there is so much rain where I live, when my own car nearly slid into a stone wall earlier this morning, I share a few minutes of the Florence flood and of those mud angels who inspired my work on One Thing Stolen. This is an unusual, hybrid video that tells the important story.


THE GATHERER/Poems by Judith Bowles (and a story)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

I can't remember the year. I remember the sweep of stairs and the white-light room at the Philadelphia Ethical Society, just off Rittenhouse Square. I remember the people—Mike Dunn, of KYW News, Tanya Barrientos, an Inquirer writer who later forged an amazing communications career, a blonde who raked her stories with lists, James Rahn, the workshop leader, others. And there in that class of journeying writers was Judith Bowles, a woman who had lived an extraordinary life, raised famous children, and had remarkable powers with words. She had lived in Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Wyoming, Manhattan. She remembered her mother. She wrote stories whose quietude I can still hear in my head, though I don't remember the plotting, a typical disorder, since plotting has rarely engaged my heart or my ear.

But Judith Bowles engaged me. Even as the class dissipated and we writers went our own ways and Judith moved with her husband to somewhere near DC. Even then, we continued our friendship. Old-fashioned letters. Christmas cards. And then, this year, Judith's card to me announced the publication of her first book of poems. Her moment now that her girls, and their children, are grown.

This is The Gatherer, published by Turning Point Books. Which I, grateful, have read this afternoon.

These are poems about earth that is "foggy soft" after a "snapped back" rain, about mason jars "like picture books/wild with color," about Edison's death chair, and about an Uncle Charlie who sizes the young girl up:

... After my horseshow he wanted
to know why I slumped
the minute the judges appeared
and at swim meets why I dove
deep off the side of the pool.
He said that I swallowed up
luck. He'd learned from watching
I didn't want to win. No other grownup
talked to me like that.

These are poems about a homemade life and about earrings (and a poem) "restored from shards," and about a "wild blue place"(this is my favorite poem) in which Judith practices the absence of her mother. Look:

... The sky there was wide, sharp,
attentive and as if from that wild
and very blue place
came a soft little gesture
that suited my hand.
It's a rite I still practice dozens
of times every day where my thumb
rubs my forefinger in smooth tiny
circles that say we're each here.
(Wild Blue Place)

Reading The Gatherer is like having Judith back in the room with me, her steady grip on elusive things. Reading The Gatherer is a pleasure I urge on every one of you.

Congratulations, Judith Bowles. It was worth the wait.


Philly is Number 3 on the New York Times "52 Places to Go in 2015" list, and I'm feeling pride

Not as if I haven't been saying that myself (well, sort of), right here, and in the Inquirer, and in my books. But huzzah. This is the New York Times speaking, not just some homegrown booster.

I am taking particular pleasure in this because I have had the privilege of working with some of the people who are making the radical difference. Let's put Brandywine Realty Trust high on that radical difference list, and Brandywine CEO Jerry Sweeney himself, who has quietly and collaboratively helped engineer a renaissance along the Schuylkill River Banks (through the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, which he chairs), in University City, and in the downtown nexus. Let's talk about outdoor artists like Jane Golden and Isaiah Zagar. Let's look at my alma mater and employer, the University of Pennsylvania, which keeps the greening coming.

In naming Philadelphia right after Milan and Cuba on its list, the New York Times, in its January 9, 2015 story, said this:

The making of an urban outdoor oasis.

A series of projects has transformed Philadelphia into a hive of outdoor urban activity. Dilworth Park, formerly a hideous slab of concrete adjoining City Hall, reopened this past autumn as a green, pedestrian-friendly public space with a winter ice-skating rink (and a cafe by the indefatigable chef Jose Garces). Public art installations, mini "parklets" and open-air beer gardens have become common sights. The Delaware River waterfront was reworked for summer 2014 with the Spruce Street Harbor Park (complete with hammocks, lanterns and floating bar) becoming a new fixture, following the renovation of the Race Street Pier, completed in 2011, and offers free yoga classes on a bi-level strip of high-design decking and grass. The city’s other river, the Schuylkill, has its own new boardwalk. To top it off, this spring, Philadelphia will get its first bike share program, making this mostly flat city even more friendly for those on two wheels. Nell McShane Wulfhart


I had been missing my city.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Today I returned.

I took a very long walk toward the southern edge of things, then began to weave (east west east west) back north. There was enough sun. There was ample chill. There were long-timers who stopped to tell me things.

I had three cameras, a pair of sneakers, an old coat. The best day of January, by far.


One Thing Stolen: what I'm learning as Glenda Cowen-Funk reads the book

Thursday, January 15, 2015

There must have been some magic involved.

There (on a dark street at the National Harbor on a cold night) I stood with Ginee Seo and Sally Kim of Chronicle Books; we'd just emerged from a wonderful meal. There, coming toward us, was Paul W. Hankins, whose Twitter handle reveals him to be a "reader, writer, wonder-er, and teacher of English/AP English Language/Composition at Silver Creek High School," though everyone already knows him for his passionate advocacy of youth, words, and innovative teaching. A conversation that began (in person) that night continued on Twitter and Facebook and soon the conversation was embracing one Glenda Cowen-Funk, a supreme teaching goddess and master/mistress, who began to tell me stories about the way she teaches her high school students in Idaho.

You want to know how to teach The Great Gatsby? Ask Glenda. You want to see Beowulf come to life? Rush travel your way to her classroom. You want to know how lucky I am? Glenda has been reading One Thing Stolen. She's been reading, she's been musing, and I've been learning from her.

Yesterday I asked if some of Glenda's beautiful musings about the book might be shared more broadly. Generously, Glenda said yes. And so, with deepest appreciation for teachers who bring such enormous creativity to the classroom and such kindness to writers, I share Glenda's thought-provoking words.

One Thing Stolen is a nest of words, pieced together to build a shelter. Like Laurie Halse Anderson does in SPEAK, Kephart has created a character who cannot speak, only she does, punctuating streams of consciousness." 

— Glenda Cowen-Funk, NEA Master Teacher Project, NBCT, Teacher at S. D. # 25, Highland High School, Pocatello, Idaho


how do we make our hard stories matter to others?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

As I prepare to teach memoir again at Penn, I think about the hardest lesson of all—how we make the thing that has happened to us matter to others. The details alone—their accumulation—are but a record, a report. They will not tremble the hearts of perfect and imperfect strangers until they, as Saint-Exupery says here, are reconceived as transcendent matter.

Every week men sit comfortably at the cinema and look on at the bombardment of some Shanghai or other, some Guernica, and marvel without a trace of horror at the long fringes of ash and soot that twist their slow way into the sky from those man-made volcanoes. Yet we all know that together with the grain in the granaries, with the heritage of generations of men, with the treasures of families, it is the burning flesh of children and their elders that, dissipated in smoke, is slowly fertilizing those black cumuli.

The physical drama itself cannot touch us until some one points out its spiritual sense.

Antoine De Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand and Stars


crossing from relentlessly clever toward zealously humane (reflections on Rivka Galchen)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

This past weekend I read the first 100 and last 100 pages of a much-acclaimed YA novel that felt, as I later wrote to a dear friend, relentlessly clever. The boom bang gee whiz zip of it all. The personality identifiers that soon became that scratch in the vinyl of the song. The politically correct issues wedged into something nearly other worldly. This novel has one extremely fine sentence and immaculate image after the other; I understand where the applause is coming from. And yet I felt wearied as I tried to ride its waves. I wanted it to settle down, somehow. Ripen quietly for a moment or a scene. Cross the border from the unexpected image toward the unexpected truth.

Early this morning, on the other hand, I finished reading American Innovations, a collection of short stories by Rivka Galchen, a writer well known and widely regarded for her astonishing forays into the absurd. Galchen frames her stories within the nearly recognizable. She tilts them off the screen. She bends and folds and breaks her landscapes and people until you're pretty sure, as her wide-eyed reader, that you've arrived at a surrealist museum.

Still, Galchen's tales alight from all-too-human insecurities, aloned-ness, confusions over purpose. Sure, there are streaming oddities and uncomfortable hilarities and the smack of white space at the end of it all—but Galchen is priming us for something bigger than the circus. She is making room, within the flurry, for the ascension of uncommon truth.

I'm quoting from the story "Once an Empire." Our lives-alone narrator has just returned from a movie. It's after midnight. She looks up toward her apartment where, strangely, but soon it hardly seems strange at all, her "stuff" is leaving her. The ironing board has walked off gently:

Next, with surprising nimbleness, my brown velveteen recliner climbed down, then passed by me in a stump-legged gallop. My wood-armed Dutch sofa shuffled graceful as a geisha. My desk chair seemed to think it had wheels, which it doesn't. A green-globed desk lamp went by. An ordinary plastic dustpan. A heavy skillet, scorched. My things. They were all heading east. With an enviable sense of purpose. An old set of Russian nesting dolls from my father, the ladder I used to reach my storage loft, a forgotten feather duster (blue), a pine cabinet with round hinges, two high kitchen stools I had painted, one of which had a yellow splatter I liked to run my fingers across.... "Stuff" is such a childish word. Sheets passed as if floral ghosts. My books rustled by like a military of ducks. My mother had never liked my books. She'd said they kept me from real life, by which I think she meant men, or money, or both. Always accusing things of precisely the crimes they haven't committed.

In other hands, this cleverness of image might have been enough — the Disneyesque escape of things from an apartment. But in Galchen's hands there is something deeper here — that "With an enviable purpose." That pause to comment on the word "Stuff." That interstitial bit about the mother, the clue about real life, that powerful "Always accusing things of precisely the crimes they haven't committed." Here, in the landscape of the strange, the strange is still background, while the human heart is foreground.

This (in addition to her wild imagination) is Galchen's special talent.


does the entire book lie within its first two sentences? Herman Koch and a Kephart experiment

Monday, January 12, 2015

The only thing benign about Herman Koch's The Dinner is the title—which, like almost everything else about the story, is designed to throw the reader off. "My Dinner with Andre" this is not. Politics, culture, morality, and childrens' lives are at stake (only the first three were at stake in the movie). The questions: What would we do to protect a child who has committed a heinous act? What would we do if we had somehow (implicitly, explicitly) encouraged or modeled or genetically produced an evil creature? Who do we love and why do we love them and what does familial happiness look like? At what cost, secrets?

All this unfolds over the course of a meal in an expensive restaurant. Two brothers and their wives have come to High Civility to discuss a horrific, seamy event. Paul, whose jealousy and creepiness are transparent from the start, tells us the story. He tells us who he is, even as he repeatedly cautions that many parts of the tale are not our business.

It's a brutal, brilliant book (compared to Gone Girl, I think it greatly supersedes it). It's not the kind of book I typically read, it oozes with contemptible people and scenes, but I was riveted by Koch's ability to see his vision through—so entirely relentlessly. And then I got to the paperback's extra matter and an essay by Koch himself called "The First Sentence."

For me, a book is already finished once I've come up with the first sentence. Or rather: the first two sentences. Those first two sentences contain everything I need to know about the book. I sometimes call them the book's "DNA." As long as every sentence that comes afterward contains that same DNA, everything is fine.

Koch's first two sentences, in case you are wondering, are: "We were going out to dinner. I won't say which restaurant, because next time it might be full of people who've come to see whether we're there." And absolutely, yes. The entire book is bracketed within them.

I believe in the power of first sentences, too. I think about them as setters of mood and tone. I wondered, though, whether I could say, about any of my novels, that the entire story rests within the first two sentences. I decided to conduct a mini-experiment. I grabbed a few books from my shelf. Opened to page one. Conducted a self-interview and assessment. I had to cheat in one place only (Dr. Radway), where more than two sentences were required. Otherwise, I'm thinking Koch is onto something here. (And if it is true for my books, I suspect it is true for yours, too.)

From within the fissure I rise, old as anything. The gravel beneath me slides. — Flow
Once I saw a vixen and a dog fox dancing. It was on the other side of the cul-de-sac, past the Gunns' place, through the trees, where the stream draws a wet line in spring. — Undercover
In the summer my mother grew zinnias in her window boxes and let fireflies hum through our back door. She kept basil alive in ruby-colored glasses and potatoes sprouting tentacles on the sills. — House of Dance

There are the things that have been and the things that haven't happened yet. There is the squiggle of a line between, which is the color of caution, the color of the bird that comes to my window every morning, rattling me awake with the hammer of its beak. — Nothing but Ghosts
What I remember now is the bunch of them running: from the tins, which were their houses. Up the white streets, which were the color of bone. — The Heart Is Not a Size
 From up high, everything seems to spill from itself. Everything is shadowed. — Dangerous Neighbors
My house is a storybook house. A huff-and-a-puff-and-they'll-blow-it-down house. — You Are My Only

The streets of Seville are the size of sidewalks, and there are alleys leaking off from the streets. In the back of the cab, where I sit by myself, I watch the past rushing by. — Small Damages

There was a story Francis told about two best friends gone swimming, round about Beiderman's Point, back of Petty's Island, along the crooked Delaware. "Fred Spowhouse," he'd say, his breath smelling like oysters and hay. "Alfred Edwards." The two friends found drowned and buckled together, Spowhouse clutched up tight inside Edwards's feckless arms. — Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent

We live with ghosts. We live with thugs, dodgers, punkers, needle ladies, pork knuckle. — Going Over

If you could see me. If you were near. — One Thing Stolen

Sidenote: In every case, the first two sentences of my books existed within the book in draft one. Sometimes they weren't posted right up front in early drafts. But they always eventually got there.



Saturday, January 10, 2015

I'm blaming it all on my friend, Karolina. To Krakow in May. Because I must.
I found the photo above here.


the importance of the imagination, in memoir (Jen Percy on Brian Turner)

Brian Turner's immaculate memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country, is reviewed today in the New York Times Book Review by Jen Percy.

The book itself is so well worth reading. (My thoughts about it are here.)

But the review is also a glory, opening with this paragraph about the importance of the empathetic imagination in memoir. Empathy may be nearly impossible to teach. But it does differentiate the great memoirs from the merely articulate ones, the we stories from the me tales. It's what should matter most to the makers and readers of memoir.

Jen Percy speaks of all this with bright, crisp words. Her entire review can be found here.

There’s a persistent idea in our culture that what we experience is “true,” while what we imagine is “untrue.” But without exploring the possibility of imagination in nonfiction, we leave out a fundamental part of the human experience — digressive wanderings, the chaotic interior self and, most important, our empathy. Empathy, after all, starts as an act of fiction. We must think ourselves into the lives of others.


The Last Flight of Poxl West/Daniel Torday: Reflections on a book I haven't finished because I haven't wanted it to end

Thursday, January 8, 2015

I had a good plan. My plan was this: read and reflect on Daniel Torday's much-acclaimed debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, in time for Daniel's birthday. When you can make a big day even better, why not?

The problem was—the problem is—that I'm enjoying the book too darned much. Sure, I could have stayed up a little later over the weekend reading and gotten a few more pages in. I could have kept reading even now, in this frigid morning dark, beneath the blanket in the family room. But I don't want this story to end. If I read more pages, and read them too fast, then this story will end.

Noble thoughts, right? Little good they do for Daniel (who, by the way, directs the Creative Writing program at Bryn Mawr College). Daniel's birthday has come and gone, and his book is due out soon.

So let me then crawl out of my self-indulgent shell, raise my head for a moment, and say, "Wow." Because what an adventure this book is—the story of a former Royal Air Force bomber who happens to be Jewish, who isn't even a Brit, who lives in America now, touting his bestselling, big persona memoir. His memoir is right there, in the accordion folds of this book, layered in against the adoring accounts of his "nephew" Elijah, who hasn't just been privy to the book's making; he is (wait for it) in the acknowledgments.

Elijah Goldstein, future professor, has seen his name in print.

(Damn, that's intoxicating.)

These, then, are the ingredients of Torday's book—Poxl's memoir, Elijah's recounting of the making and marketing of the memoir, and a couple of red herrings along the way, but we don't really care, not yet; we're just busy reading about Poxl's mother in a city north of Prague (who posed for Schiele, that outlaw artist, imagine how that messed with her head), Poxl's passive-seeming father, Poxl's flight to Rotterdam, Poxl's love indoctrinations with a prostitute, London during the blackouts, those planes....

Okay. That's where I've gotten—so far. I was going to read another chapter before I posted these words, but it's freezing out there, and I'm going to want this book to dive back into after I return from my upcoming trek to the city for a (dear) client project.

But wait. Before I go, I'm going to give you this: A few words from Poxl, who, as you will see, is an enchanting storyteller—the kind who strikes that right balance between not hurrying and not tarrying, the kind who knows when to quiet a scene and when to razzle it up, who also has a fine little knack for that universal philosophizing that memoirists (even those who may not be telling the truth—not judging here, just saying) get down pat. Poxl is walking through a park in London. It's the height of fear and damage:

Where my outings to Prague had been comprised of the joy of thousands of people forever rushing at me—I learned that to live life is to lay oneself down to a wave, to feel as best one could the direction the current was flowing and then allow one's body to go slack and have the wisdom not to fight it lest one drown—London at night during that anxious period of the war was tensile as the thin frozen sheet atop a moving river.

The Last Flight of Poxl West will be released in March by St. Martin's Press.

Update: I finished this novel. I Love This Novel. The World Will Love This Novel, Too.


And then A.S. King read One Thing Stolen

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

It took a long time and a lot of heartache to find my way through One Thing Stolen. I had an idea about vanishing and effacement. I am obsessed with birds and floods. I sometimes misplace things, especially names, and I have, therefore, a growing obsession with the mind and where it puts the things that once were.

I also have students I love. And I believe that language is plastic, that it must be taken apart and put back together again so that it might remain alive, so that our stories might live, too.

All of this became the web of the book called One Thing Stolen, and by the time I had finished it for real and taken the first 100 pages apart yet again— nanoseconds before it went off to the copy editor—I was in a quiet place. Bewildered by—and grateful to—the strange workings of the literary imagination.

I sought no blurbs for the book. It was going out there, bravely, on its own.

Two nights ago, a friend alerted me to some goings-on on Twitter. Did you see what A.S. King has written about One Thing Stolen? the friend asked. What I found there, on the Twitter stream, made me cry. It kept me up through most the night. An act of friendship so remarkable. Words I needed to hear.

When I wrote to thank Amy for her generosity, she offered to write a blurb for the book. Really? I said. Really, she said. Or something like that. She wrote not one, but two, and because I like them both so much I will share them here. These words will appear on reprint editions of One Thing Stolen (for the book has already gone to press) and everywhere else, starting now.

Grateful doesn't begin to describe it. Thank you, A.S. King.

Kephart at her poetic and powerful best. ONE THING STOLEN is a masterwork—a nest of beauty and loss, a flood of passion so sweet one can taste it. This is no ordinary book. It fits into no box. It is its own box—its own language.

ONE THING STOLEN is a tapestry of family, friendship, Florence, and neuroscience. I’ve never read anything like it. Kephart brings the reader so deep inside Nadia we can feel her breathe, and yet her story leaves us without breath.

 A.S. King is the author of Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, Reality Boy, Ask the Passengers, Everybody Sees the Ants, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, and The Dust of 100 Dogs


what is a productive writing day?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Yesterday I found myself with a little time. Oh, I thought at once. You must go and dig out that novel and use this time well.

Use this time. The unfortunate Beth Kephart mantra.

Here's what ensued instead. I sat on a round chair with a heating pad on my throbbing shoulder, my toes sticking out of a short blanket. I piled upon my lap the printed and discarded pages of previous novelistic efforts (those pages then flipped, eco-sensitively, to the blank side). I wielded a pen. I sat.

Hours went by.

"So glad to see you working on your novel," my husband said.

I showed him the pages, all those blank sides. "No work here," I said.

"It's all work," he rebutted.

To me, I looked like a sloth. To the pen, a failure. To the patiently a-waiting novel, a lost friend, a lost cause.

But here's the thing: In the midst of all that apparent nothingness, I figured something out. Something about voice. A big thing about plot.

Does that count for a work day? Should I be proud? Would other writer-selves be proud?

This is not a competition.

Still, it sometimes helps to read about the work process of established writers like, say, Gary Shteyngart, who has never had, he says, an issue with writer's block. One novel by one novel (and one fine memoir) his books progressively come. It may seem to us like he is working very fast. But here is how he answers the progress/process question for Noah Charney of The Daily Beast. I like his math (if only I could rise to it).

The entire interview can be found here.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

Two to three pages in first draft, five pages in second, seven in third.


The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace/Jeff Hobbs: the fourth in the failure series

Friday, January 2, 2015

During the last third of this upcoming semester at Penn my students will be reading The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs. It will be, for us, the fourth book in a "failure" series designed to provoke conversation and insight into the accidental, the premeditated, the inescapable, the unnecessary, the broken and the fixed—the things that shape all our lives. (The first three books are Little Failure, My Mistake, and Fire Shut Up in My Bones.)

I am keen to talk failure at a time when the world exasperates and disappoints, when the incomprehensible exists beside simple acts of compassion. I am keen to talk about socioeconomics and race, about the immigrant experience, about the irreversibly tragic, about the elusive promises of narrative and books. I am keen to teach the forms of memoir and narrative nonfiction, yes. But the quality of conversation will be of equal significance. Those of us who teach memoir have, I think, a responsibility to broaden the scope and enlarge the talk.

Peace is not a memoir. It is the deeply reported story, as the subtitle tells us, of a brilliant young man who leaves Newark for the Ivy League only to return to one of the nation's most dangerous cities—and stay, teaching some times, dealing drugs, too; a role model and a criminal. Robert Peace became Jeff Hobbs' roommate during freshman year at Yale. He was at his best and seemingly most true when helping others—his single mother living in poverty, his incarcerated father, his family and his friends. He was at his most self-protected and (also) vulnerable when he trafficked in drugs, when he revealed the depths of his anger, when he could find no answer, increasingly, to the question: What are you, Yalie, doing with the rest of your life?

Hobbs did not take the easy way out in telling this story. He might have written memoir only, recreating his impressions of the guy with whom he lived for four Yale years, talking, exclusively, about how it all seemed to him. Instead Hobbs goes all the way back to the beginning, relying on hundreds of hours of interviews to find out who Rob was, to learn the complexities that riddled his heart.

I have written in the margins of almost every page of this book. I have thought about what I hope my students will find as they read. This book should be required reading for everyone. But for now, to entice you, here is Rob, as he was introduced at his high school graduation, in the pages of Hobbs' book:

The headmaster spoke of a boy who woke up at four-thirty six days a week to lifeguard at the pool, who taught himself to swim as a freshman and who was now among the top ten butterflyers in the state, who led quietly and by example, who spent hours each week officially and unofficially working as a math tutor, who would have been valedictorian if a C in freshman art class hadn't knocked his grade point average down to a 3.97—third in the class—and who had grown up with nothing and now had college acceptances to Hopkins, Penn, and Yale

And then here is Rob, now that his days at Yale are over. He has graduated brilliantly (despite a thriving pot business on campus). But he has returned to Newark with no real plans, only a desire to take care of those he loves, and the willingness (or the arrogance) to court danger:

Rob's role as a dealer was already more complicated than the next guy's, because he was now a Yale graduate tagged with all the many stigmata that simple word carried in this neighborhood's underworld. Like a bird handled by humans whose flock would not accept it back, Rob now wore the unwashable scent of the Ivy League. 


no content/high clicks: the future of us?

It's not as if I didn't know this already. It's just that it leaves me (once again) disheartened. From the Andrew Marantz story "The Virologist," on Emerson Spartz (creator of the Dose, among other things), in The New Yorker.

Spartz calls himself an aggregator, but he is more like a day trader, investing in pieces of content that seem poised to go viral. He and his engineers have developed algorithms that scan the Internet for memes with momentum. The content team then acts as arbitrageurs, cosmetically altering the source material and reposting it under what they hope will be a catchier headline. A meme's success on Imgur, Topsy, or "certain niche subreddits" might indicate a potential viral hit.

Then there is the making of the headlines. Here Marantz is speaking to a young content producer, Chelsea, who has a degree in journalism from Syracuse University.

When she writes Dose headlines, she said, "there is a part of Syracuse University Chelsea that's like, 'I don't know if this is the way I should write it.'" The headlines that "win," according to Spartz's testing algorithm, are usually hyperbolic, and many of them begin with dangling participles or end with prepositions. "But then another part of me is, like, 'Actually, there's pretty definitive evidence that this version will get a better response.' So is the goal for people to look at it and be like, 'Wow, that girl wrote a really articulate headline'? At some point, you have to check your ego."

Recent photo themes, according to the story, include: "This Dad Decided to Embarrass His Son in the Most Elaborate Way Possible. LOL." and "The 21 Most Unusual Horses That Make Even Unicorns Seem Basic."

Marantz tells us that Spartz's parents made him read four brief bios of successful people daily—an educational cocktail that, Spartz himself reports, led to content borrowing and hyperbolic headlines.

It's not that I don't value the intelligence that goes into building algorithms and capitalizing on hot topics—or the hours that I'm sure Spartz puts in each day. I just find myself wondering how any of this makes society as a whole more intelligent or compassionate, less self-indulgent, more apt to fix some of the massive problems (education, environment, political standoffs, ISIS) that stand before us.

What if click harvesting were turned toward a greater good? The possibilities seem endless.


utterly ridiculous: Rachel Cusk reaches a literary dead end, then presses on (in The New Yorker)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Among the various challenges we writers face is believing in the job we've given ourselves to do (for no one but us, let's be honest, requires us to take the storytelling burden/privilege on).

In her writing about Rachel Cusk in this week's The New Yorker (January 5, 2015), Elaine Blair explores Cusk's own growing uneasiness about the literary enterprise:

Since the early nineties, she has reliably published a novel or a memoir every few years. But in an interview with the Guardian last August, Cusk said that she had recently come to a dead end with the modes of storytelling that she had relied on in her earlier novels. She had trouble reading and writing, and found fiction "fake and embarrassing." The creation of plot and character, "making up John and Jane and having them do things together," had come to seem "utterly ridiculous."

Blair goes on to write of the novelists who today speak of "trying to expand the possibilities of the novel" by "incorporating the techniques of memoir and essay, of hewing closer to the author's subjective experience, of effacing the difference between fiction and their own personal nonfictions." Blair then asks: "Haven't novelists always put autobiographical material to use in novels? Haven't we been reading about a character called 'Philip Roth' for years?"

I am easily accused of personalizing my fiction—doesn't matter where (Berlin, Seville, Florence, Juarez, a mental institution, a cortijo) or when (1876, 1871, 1983) the story takes place. I've never known whether that makes my stories more or less ridiculous, never imagined myself trying (in that way) to expand the possibilities of the novel; these personalized fictions are just the only stories I've held within, or been capable of writing through.

But I wonder how it is for you. How much of you is inside your fiction. How you protect yourself from drawing the conclusion that the conjuring of story lines is finally ridiculous?


Can Writers Still Make it New? (Benjamin Moser)

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Something to contemplate as I stand, 162 pages in, with an odd, new, perhaps creation. A novel I have to keep setting aside, a novel I dream with, wake up to, put aside again (real work forever intervening). A novel that makes me ask myself daily, as I lose my battle with time:  Is all this private agony worth it? Should I succumb? Wouldn't it just be easier if.... ?

Writing, like life, can drive a person mad. The pages of literary history are stained with the blood of writers who dashed their brains out. They are soaked with the drink that promised temporary consolation — or are left entirely blank, when the writer despaired and gave up. To make a new thing out of no thing is excruciating, but any writer who seeks to cut corners ends as a plagiarist or a hack. Agonizing experiment is ­inescapable.

— Benjamin Moser, for the New York Times Book Review Question: Can Writers Still Make it New?


ending the year with a little laughter (Gary Shteyngart)

I am at work on a long essay and preparing for the memoir class I'll teach this spring at the University of Pennsylvania

This is hardly drudgery.

I am, for example, entertaining myself by reading Gary Shteyngart's brilliant bittersweetness, Little Failure. It is quite an effort, between crying at all the funnies and crying at all the sads, but I have persevered.

Today, last day in a year that has been hard for so many of us, on so many of us, I pluck a passage from Little Failure to share. The deliberately understated absurdity of it made me holler with laughter. I hope it makes you laugh, too. Sometimes laughter is the best gift we can give another.

Here are Gary and his father, relative newcomers to Queens. They have an adventure:

There's a movie theater on Main Street, and my father is excited because they are showing a French movie, and so it must be very cultured. The movie is called Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman, and it will be interesting to see how joyful these Frenchwomen actually are, most likely because of their exquisite cultural patrimony. ("Balzac, Renoir, Pissarro, Voltaire," my father sings to me on the way over to the theater.) The next eighty-three minutes are spent with Papa's hairy hand clasped to my eyes, the Herculean task before me: getting it unclasped. The less explicit parts of Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman are set in a Hong Kong brothel or a Macao girls' boarding school, and then it's all downhill from there.


remembering my mother

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

There were two bouquets like this one two Sundays ago at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church—gifts from my father, remembrances of my mother, all white blooms.

I think of her today, her final day, eight years ago. I think of her every day.

Missing you, Mom.


Brown Girl Dreaming/Jacqueline Woodson: a whole story, a lesson on writing

Monday, December 29, 2014

This morning I have been raised up by Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson's masterpiece. I have sat with her poems and her life on my lap, seeing with greatest clarity. A story of growing up in the south and in the north, of reading slow and remembering deep, of telling stories that might have been as if they happened yesterday. Life is apportioned but it must be lived whole. In fractions we find our trembling unities. In love, our idea of home.

This is Woodson's story. But it's also the way she tells the story, the deep, clean beauty in the lines, the wisdom in the narrative idea, the authenticity of the recurring themes, not a single (bless her) gimmick. It's how she speaks for all of us, how she makes us want (at once) to pass her story on. It's how she  makes me remember, when I read her book, sitting in the back of a teacher's conference in Boston, only last year, with Nancy Paulsen, Woodson's editor, beside me (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin). Woodson was on the stage. Paulsen was smiling.

"She's written such a beautiful book," Paulsen leaned over and whispered, and I said (all honestly), "I have no doubt."

Not one.

Have no doubt about this book. Read (if you haven't already) the whole, but start with this single page called "writing # 1." It, like the entirety of Brown Girl Dreaming, calls to all of us:

writing #1

It's easier to make up stories
than it is to write them down. When I speak,
the words come pouring out of me. The story
wakes up and walks all over the room. Sits in a chair,
crosses one leg over the other, says,
Let me introduce myself. Then just starts going on and on.
But as I bend over my composition notebook,
only my name
comes quickly. Each letter, neatly printed
between the pale blue lines. Then white
space and air and me wondering, How do I
spell introduce? Trying again and again
until there is nothing but pink
bits of eraser and a hole now
where a story should be.

Perfection? I think so.


on leaving your writerly self some writerly threads, and on reading RAIN REIGN

Sunday, December 28, 2014

I was feeling sad. It doesn't matter why. I wrote part of a story then I didn't have a next, and so I went to take a walk. To think this inchoate tale of mine through. To cast about for a "then...." I wasn't planning to write another word, but I don't believe you can leave a story hanging on the edge of its own cliff. You have to have something to return to—tomorrow, next week, next year. You have to have some dangling threads.

I went to a patch of woods, stood by a creek, took photographs, made notes, gave myself a place to begin again.

Then I came home and chose from this stack of books and read.

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin is the book I chose. Count me now among the crowd of admirers of this simple-seeming book. It's the story of a girl who loves homonyms (which are in fact called homophones), a girl who loves rules, a girl whose single dad may not be well-equipped to handle her quirks, her needs. Against the odds, this girl's dad does, for her, something that seems right and good—brings home a dog she names Rain. But after a superstorm separates the girl from the dog, she learns loneliness, worry, and how to handle the truth. How to be bigger than one's own needs. How to see the world as others do.

How do we teach our children integrity? We give them books like this one—Rain Reign.

How do we write well, whenever we will write again?

By reading the right books. By burying our sad in another's art.


what do you want? to write (a shred), to read (up next, on my list)

But what do you want? a friend asked, and I said (hurrying past, on an errand, again), Time.

I'd give you some of mine, if I could, he said.

I believed him. I walked on.

This is a Sunday. I claim it as mine. I spent the morning writing a shred of this strange new inchoate book of mine, the one that will take a very long time; let it take a very long time. I don't want to be in any other imagined space than this one. I don't want to write to be done. I don't want to know, even, if the world will want this book of mine. I just want to write it. Twenty-five thousand words in, and who knows what the hell will happen next. I write to find out. I write to invent the language that this story must be told in.

This afternoon I will choose among the books I have lately gathered unto myself and read. Little Failures. Brown Girl Dreaming. Rain Reign. I'll Give You the Sun, The Dinner. And also, a gift from Daniel Torday's publisher, The Last Flight of Poxl West, which is due out in March and which has been called many great things by many great people.

A writing morning. A reading afternoon. The gift I gave myself for Christmas.


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