One image. Any story. Words from The Big YA at Penn

Monday, February 19, 2018

All throughout this semester we have paused to write a five-sentence story for an image. Most of the time we've used my husband's illustrations to spark the tale, and last week was no different.

What was different is that Katie, a student of many years ago, spent the first half hour of class time with us. Katie, my Katie, who inspired a key character in my novel One Thing Stolen and who has gone on to UCLA, where, as an intern in the OBGYN program, she is already delivering babies.

My students—of now, of then—are hope-yielding. Here, below, are some of their stories. (Katie wrote, too, but her handwriting is truly doctor-worthy, and I feared mis-transcribing her story here.)

I think there is potential in blankness. Maybe I’ll draw something for you. Maybe I’ll write you a song. But frankly, I think I will send you a million blanks so you can imagine what each sheet is supposed to be. A flower, a poem, or perhaps an origami dinosaur.


This substitute teacher thinks she can keep us from having fun. She thinks she can seal the windows, close the blinds, wipe the board clean, and gaze down her nose at all of us. Especially me. But what he doesn’t know is that our real teacher is still here. If I listen, I can hear her questions, her corrections, and most of all, the words she sends constantly floating through our air for us to pluck out and use.


She was watching. I nibbled on the edge of my ballpoint pen and began to write. A story that never ends. It was daunting, I could say that much. A precocious child though I was, I couldn't see things through. I hadn't even been able to finish the 1000-word essay prompts shoved at me last Christmas Eve.


He sits in his room, poring over that horrible algebra textbook. Who knew seventh grade would be so hard? His mother stands in the doorway to his room, watching him frantically scribble, erase, scribble, erase, as if the pages wouldn't stay still. He pictures the pages, fluttering from his desk, some awful tornado of numbered sheets filled with equations amounting to an unintelligible other language, one no amount of tutoring could help him unlock.

Erin F.

"You have 45 minutes to complete your essays," my teacher announced. "Use only pen and pick one of the provided prompts."

My eyes wiggled back and forth furiously, trying to read the page that sat on my desk. I don't want to write any of this, I thought to myself.

Suddenly, the words jumbled on the white piece of paper, becoming incoherent alphabet soup.

"I just want to make my own decisions," I shouted, grasping my head between my hands, as it filled with extraordinary innovation and creativity: the two things my teacher would never see.


Two minutes before the bell rang, as Jared was shifting papers from side of his desk to the other—too loudly—a gust of wind burst through the half-open window. It blew the girls’ long hair from their faces, it riffed the proctor’s long, pleated skirt, and it sent every page of Jared’s completed AP Literature exam whipping across the rows of desks. As one, every head in the room turned toward him. How Jared had managed to mess this up, no one was sure. One thing was certain: their scores were cancelled.


Jonny scratches his head and squints his eyes
I watch him struggle but I am unable to help him
I start to approach him as the words escape his mind
Much like the pages that escape him
Watching the words fly away like birds uncaged


Letters swirl in my head, bouncing from one end of my skull to the other.  I try to make sense of them and put them on the page, but it isn’t working.  It rarely does.  “Two minutes left,” the teacher calls, her high heels clicking on the tiled floor as she paces around the room. “If you haven’t written your conclusion yet, do that now.”  I hear the clicking of the heels get louder as she approaches.  My heart pounds in my chest.  I only have one paragraph.  She looks at my page and clucks her tongue in disapproval.


This was the twenty-first letter the boy had written. They all started the same, with the opening words, “Dear Mom,” and they all ended up the same, unreceived, unopened, unread.  The boy did not know who his mother was, nor did he know where she was.  The envelopes were marked in large 7-year-old print: To Mom. The women at the orphanage didn’t have the heart to explain to the boy that letters without an address could not be delivered, but they also did not have the heart to throw away his carefully chosen words.


My body is grounded in class but my head is up in the clouds, brimming with the stories my mom reads to me every night. Vivid pages of Kings and dragons and knights, faraway lands that are much more interesting than the one I am currently stuck in: the land of math. My hand reaches out and up to catch them all, to hold them close, when I hear my name called.

"Oh! Derek, you know the answer?"

The stories are no help to me now, and they flutter away as my face flushes. I do not know the answer. 

Erin L.

My mother insists on leaving the windows open and uncovered all day, all year. It's beyond frustrating. With no blinds to protect me from the sun, I wake up at the crack of dawn. In the winter, I freeze and my skin dries and cracks. It's almost unlivable, but I learned long ago never to ask her why.



contemplating the single sentence, and celebrating Anna Badkhen, in the new Juncture Notes

Thursday, February 8, 2018

What if we only gave ourselves the task of writing a single beautiful sentence each day? I ponder that question, and interview Anna Badkhen about her new book, Fisherman's Blues, in this issue of Juncture Notes.


One Image. Many Stories. (2) More work from my MG/YA class

Friday, February 2, 2018

Again, I shared with my beautiful class an image that my husband had created.

Five minutes, I said. Write the story.

Here are some of the stories.

What is the story to you?

I see the people walking in front of me, their eyes downcast, arms interlinked.  My mother urges me to move along, to catch up.  We don’t want to be left behind, she tells me.  I’m not so sure I agree with her. I drag my feet along the uneven path, my shoelace becoming undone in the process.  It’s already lost most of its original whiteness from the dozens of times it’s dragged through the dirt.  I idly wonder if, when we get to our destination, I will be able to get a new pair of sneakers.


I was quite unsure of where my mama was taking me. We had walked downtown in all black clothes; she slicked my hair back with her frail hands every few blocks. Eventually, I saw faces that I recognized. They were all wearing black clothes... Just like me. Just like mama. I recognized a tall woman with long black hair— my aunt. Her face was more puffy than normal and her eyes were pricked with red. I wondered why she was crying. I wondered why we were here, standing around, wearing black, saying ‘sorry.’


We avoid it. The void of light. No one should want to be found. To be found is to be known and to be known is to be judged. And punishment is the inevitable nature of judgment’s tight lips, loose gown, and stone grip of opinion.


"We're almost there. Just keep going." The tall girl bent to whisper in my ear. her hand rubbing "comforting" circles into my shoulder. Easy for her to say; her long legs carried her closer to the promised land while my short, stubby knees wobbled to catch up. There's nothing left in me, no energy to keep going, no will to survive. "20 more miles." she whispers, seeing me struggle to keep from stumbling.
I just want her to stop talking. 


In the darkness we crossed the lake, praying its frozen crust wouldn't give way under our feet. It had been a warm few days, and the ice groaned under our weight. However, a frigid death in the lake would be better than what we left behind.


He kicked a rock down the sidewalk, his boot making loud, angry impact with the curb. It hit the back of his sister's shoe, and she twisted to throw a vicious look at him, but she didn't say anything. His mother placed a quelling hand on his shoulder. Whenever something like this happened, his father made his whole family go on one of these walks. Whenever something like this happened, the silence was complete.


His mother’s hand rests lightly upon his shoulder, neither pushing him forward nor backwards. But holding him in place. He does not want to go. He watches in trepidation as the other children are herded towards the empty class full of possibility and brimming with uncertainty. He remembers the stories his older sister tells him of friends and colored squares and story-time, but all he really wants is to sit on his mother’s lap, her arm clutched around him with the other balancing a book, mouth spewing wonderful stories of dragons and knights. He never wants her to let go.

Erin L.

A first funeral - at six, the idea is beyond digestion, an aerial view from her mother's shoulders of the devastation below. She has no emotional ties or any age, truly, to know what she is seeing: a collage of photos of a happy man fishing, a photo with his wife. A scene before her, in human form, a mother's hand on her crying son's shoulder. All he can feel is the vastness of the room, its vacancy of color, the darkness of black ties and tights and tight-lipped apologies for loss.

Erin F.

My fingers have gone through my hair so many nervous times that I can feel it messy and spiky on my forehead. I don’t have anything else left to grab on to. So I reach up, straining my elbow to hold my wrist backwards, and take my sister’s hand. I don’t want it sitting on my shoulder, guiding me like a pet dog with a leash. I need to hold it, to touch reassurance, to grasp some of the resolve with which she looks straight ahead, and walks.


I see the people walking in front of me, their eyes downcast, arms interlinked.  My mother urges me to move along, to catch up.  We don’t want to be left behind, she tells me.  I’m not so sure I agree with her. I drag my feet along the uneven path, my shoelace becoming undone in the process.  It’s already lost most of its original whiteness from the dozens of times it’s dragged through the dirt.  I idly wonder if, when we get to our destination, I will be able to get a new pair of sneakers.


The icy wind slapped Jacob in the face, but the sting of the cold was nothing compared to the relentless burn of hunger.  Three days, they had been walking now.  Three days with barely any food, only what a resourceful few had thought to carry.  His mother rested a gentle hand on his shoulder.  “Just a bit further,” she said softly.  “We’re almost there now.”  Jacob wanted to believe her, but how could he when his legs felt like lead and his shoes were torn and he could still hear the screams they had left behind every time it got too quiet?

They led the children up the mountain. Eyes lowered, shoulders sagging. The rain was a cruel and infuriating thing. It trickled in regular, ruthless rhythms down their backs, blurred out the temple standing frowning at the summit. Even the High Priest's uncanny vision couldn't help them glimpse the structure.  

A few more steps and we will make it.
Hush, we have no choice but to leave.
Her daughter fears for her newborn kitten she left behind.
Will it survive, will it be warm?
Listen to your mother, she whispers, we must keep moving



Winter/Karl Ove Knausgaard, my Chicago Tribune review

Monday, January 29, 2018

I had the great pleasure of reviewing Winter, the second in a seasonal quartet by Karl Ove Knausgaard, in the Chicago Tribune. The full review is here.


One image. Many stories. Early words from my MG/YA class at Penn.

Friday, January 26, 2018

This Penn semester I'm teaching something new—wading into the land of middle grade and young adult writing with fifteen spectacular students. We're learning about character and voice from verse novels, in-the-round perspective from multiple-voice novels, dialogue and pacing from graphic novels. We're inviting Sara Novic into our fold. We're building personalities, landscapes, tensions, plots—and friendships.

Around a crowded table, we warm up with a five-minute-five-sentence exercise. An image is presented. A question is asked: What is the story?

The image above was created by my artist-husband. The words below come from a sampling of my students. They're pretty great, right? Teaching all of us how one frozen moment in time can mean many things to many people.

She begins a new job in the same city, but somehow it feels like a completely new world. As she watches the other adults go by, something in her shrinks and she reverts to feeling small, young, scared. Her briefcase weighs on her like a suitcase, her resume in hand turns into her beloved childhood stuffed animal, Maxie. 


Relative to her height, the legs around her might as well have been a forest. The pant-legs were saplings, and the skirts like old, stout, round trees. Afraid of losing her grip on the small briefcase, she tightened her fingers until the knuckles all blanched and the sweat in her palm had nowhere to go. In order to get out of this crowd, Penelope thought, she was going to need to pick her way through the forest.


She had been walking for fifteen minutes when it first occurred to her to look up. There had been a voice over the intercom, at first, directing her back to her mother—she had been walking away from that. She and her mother had gone to the mall to buy new shoes for school. Before they had left, she had packed a suitcase with the essentials: goldfish crackers, blanket, and two pairs of socks. Now, the girl was free.


She was on her way home. Her mother said home was faces and so she looked up at the people walking past her. Their faces spoke travel, work, and other things she could not describe. She stood there with wonder and confusion and pondered over which face to trust, which long leg to grasp. Then, she made her choice.


Does growing up mean growing tall?
Do we learn as our bodies grow?
Does small person mean small mind?
A young girl holds her stuffed animal by her side, and she wants to loosen her grip, but doesn’t know how.
What can we learn about what can be lost from the gloss in our eyes?


She'd begged her mother for weeks to let her ride the subway on her own to school - a girl always seeking to be older, imitating her father by using his old suitcase in lieu of a backpack in preschool. After a persistent fight, she finds herself on the platform of the 2, Uptown. And though she is in high school now, the feeling of being absolutely lost makes her feel more like she's five than fifteen. In the midst of the chaos, of adults transferring cars, squeezing between commuters, she feels like her younger self, suitcase in hand, stuffed animal tucked under her arm. And the boldness of her desire to be older is overcome by the reality that she might still be a child.

Erin F.
Her mom had been wearing a skirt, Sarah thought.  A black skirt.  Tall blue jeans and cuff-linked arms carelessly pushed Sarah aside.  She felt as though she were drowning in a sea of long legs and strange faces.  Sarah squeezed her bunny tight against her chest and clutched her suitcase till her knuckles turned white.  Mom would find her, she told herself, over and over again.  Mom would find her. 

A child can slip unnoticed through a sea of men and women. The girl looks up into the stratosphere, gazing in wonder at the adult faces and features so different than her own. She attempts to mimic their calm and collected seriousness as she wades among them, toting her father’s “very important” forgotten briefcase in one hand, her favorite stuffed dog fueling her confidence in the other.

Erin L.


WILD BLUES: the cover (and story) reveal

Saturday, January 20, 2018

A new middle-grade book is due out this year. A Caitlyn Dlouhy Book (Antheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster). A book that has been in the making for many years. It brings together so much that I love (memories of my antiques-loving uncle, my Salvadoran husband's stories, the camping guide penned by my great-grandfather, Horace Kephart) and so much that I fear (dark caves and penetrating storms, random violence and untruths).

I can't wait to share the book with you, when it appears in June. But in the meantime, I have this jacket, so gorgeously illustrated by John Jay Cabuay and so magnificently—would the word be nurtured?—by Caitlyn and her team.

So many thanks, too, to Karen Grencik and Amy Rennert, for loving me through my books.

Finally, thanks to my husband for the stories, the trust, and the illustrations that he contributed to the pages of this book. They recall the evocative, fluid images he sent to me, years ago, when he was at Yale and I was in Philadelphia, waiting and waiting.

The jacket copy:


That's what thirteen-year-old Lizzie's mom asks her to do as summer begins.

Lizzie chooses to stay with her uncle Davy and his cabin in the Adirondack wilds.

She chooses Matias Bondanza—Uncle Davy's neighbor, and her forever friend.

She chooses her survival guide, The Art of Keppy; scrambled eggs and pupusas; a big whale of a rock; the cool beneath trees.

But soon things happen that are beyond Lizzie's control. Things she could never have imagined.

A prison break.

A kidnapping.

A blinding storm.

There are new choices to make, and Lizzie must make them.

Because the fate of everything she loves hangs in the balance.


Juncture Notes 22: Bunk, Graphic Memoirs, Landscape Writing

Monday, January 15, 2018

In the latest edition of Juncture Notes we're talking about Kevin Young's Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, graphic memoirs (Eleanor Davis's You & A Bike & A Road, David Small's Stitches, and Tom Hart's Rosalie Lightning), Helen Epstein's The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma, and landscape writing.

It's all right here. Sign up for future editions here.


At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a Final Fridays celebration of truth and language

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Last evening Bill and I met some 80 truth-seekers at the Johnson exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We'd built custom workbooks inspired by ten of the works on display. We'd invited participants to connect the paintings (or, in one case, the Rodin sculpture) with specific (and personal) aspects of the year past—and the year to come.

There were to have been two sessions. Thirty people were expected for each. But by the time the first session was under way, we were nearly out of our 80 workbooks and deep into conversation with a four-year-old memoirist, a priest, a high-school teacher, a fitness instructor, a young woman who went back to school to face her nemesis (math) and discovered that she's actually quite mathematical, an English teacher, a music teacher, a recent high-school grad, and so many more. We were blessed by the enthusiasm for the program and the care that so many took to write, and I will never forget walking around that exhibit space watching perfect strangers connecting with themselves.

A good way to end this year, with thanks to Cat Ricketts, who makes everything so very grand.


Holy Night: A (Beth Kephart) Christmas Poem

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Holy Night
I thought that I was capable:
A girl with a song
On a night bright with the wide-open eyes of the stars.
My father at the piano,
My brother with the sweet reed of the oboe squeezed
Between his lips,
The crisped-skin fry of the Christmas Eve smelts
         Still in the air,
The stockings hung,
My mother and sister on the couch,
One beside the other.
And I was the one,
I was the one who would sing.

My father, as I have mentioned, was at the keys,
My brother was leaning toward his own notes,
In the house that isn’t ours anymore,
In the room where my mother used to be,
By the tree,
In the hours before what we’d thought we’d wanted
Would be received,
At a time when the eyes of the stars were on us,
And it was my turn to sing.


my Chicago Tribune review of a twisty Christmas story

Friday, December 15, 2017

So what was Dickens thinking when he set out to write his A Christmas Carol? The screenwriter Samantha Silva has spent a long time imagining just this.

I reviewed her book, Mr. Dickens and His Carol, for the Chicago Tribune.

The full link is here.


a filmic peek inside William Sulit's clay world—and a trunk show

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Meet Bill in person this Saturday, at 36 Craven, Old City, Philadelphia. Bill will be sharing a number of brand new pieces in a trunk show—pieces that come to life in the video above.

I've written about this glorious new store (and its owners) previously, here.

I'll be with Bill this Saturday and look forward to seeing you there.

138 N. 3rd Street
Philadelphia, PA
Saturday, December 16th
1 - 5 PM


Previewing The Art of Remembering, our Final Fridays event at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Monday, December 11, 2017

We invite you to join us on December 29, 2017 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Final Fridays event, starting at 5:00 PM. We'll be using the Johnson exhibition as a way back to our own memories of the year that was, and those who join us will receive this workbook. Admission to the event is free after entry.

More details here.


Join us for Final Friday (December) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (we're excited; we made a special workbook for the event)

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Among the beautiful people we've lately come to know is one Cat Ricketts, who coordinates the evening programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She'll hold ugly sweater parties. She'll host jazz musicians. She'll rock a room with a bossa nova quintet.

She'll also come up with some very spectacular ideas (with equally beautiful colleagues like Claire Oosterhoudt) for PMA's Final Friday events. I didn't know what Cat might have in mind when she got in touch with us several weeks ago. But when she invited us to be part of the line up for Get Your Om On (December 29, 2017), I said yes at once.

We've spent time with Cat and Claire in the meantime—developing a keepsake, memoir-twinged notebook inspired by the Johnson exhibit now on display in the Dorrance Galleries. I've done the writing. Bill's done the designing. Cat and Claire have done the fabulous hosting of our (eternally funky) ideas. Bill and I will both be there for the entire evening, giving out the notebooks, talking remembering and memoir, and listening to the stories those who come have to tell.

And so this is an invitation—a hope that you'll join us and the other artists on December 29, 2017 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The fun begins at 5:00 PM and ends a little before 9:00 PM. Admission is free after entry. For the entire line-up, check out this link.


what I've been thinking about, this holiday season, in the Philadelphia Inquirer

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Thoughts on remaining integral during a season of sometimes-chaos. In the Philadelphia Inquirer.


when you want so much for those who gather close to tell their stories

Sunday, November 19, 2017

We have returned from Sea Change, our memoir writing workshop by the sea. And oh what a sea change it was—for us all.

Each time I leave a workshop I leave stunned and grateful for the honesty of those who have come—for their willingness to reach, then reach again. We experienced transformations this past week of a nearly unearthly kind. Writers who found their stories. Writers who found their words. Reporters who became poets. Entertainers who struck at our hearts. Badassery latticed up with tenderness...and then some.

I barely sleep during these intense days. I am, by the end, on the edge of myself, the edge of each story, the edge of each truth. Where there once was blood there runs only an urgent hope that those who have joined us write big, write more, live whole.

Like a gymnast, I bend in all directions—I stretch, I fold. Sometimes, off that balance beam, I fall. I try one more trick, take one more leap, jump, turn, catch my toe, miss. That's me, the Beth Kephart I don't even really know until I'm the only Beth Kephart I am.

At the close of this session, the writers offered me a gift—their words turned toward me. These words below are from Louise, who has joined us now three times. Louise, who has found both her story and her words. I share them because they are for all of us—all of us who teach, all of us who hope, all of us who dare to want so much for the people we (we have no choice) do love.

We are given such glorious reasons to love. These women. Oh. These women.

Blank pages, open hearts, ready minds
We come to this place, to you
A safe harbor for our souls
Unsure, yet anxious to explore
We are transfixed, transformed
Torn down and built up 
Love is at the core. 

Juncture 21, our memoir newsletter, is now out and can be accessed here. Among other things we're featuring the poets Dan Simpson and Ona Gritz, who have written extraordinarily thoughtful words about the work they do alone and together. Dan and Ona's work provided touchstones for two of our writers this past week in Cape May. We returned to their words again and again.


so grateful for this essay in LitHub, on not vanishing our writing heroes

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Quietly, determinedly, I have returned to the writing of essays. My pieces in the Philadelphia Inquirer becoming ever more personal. My research for fiction yielding explorations of the truth (in Woven Tale Press). And, this past week, the publication of an essay long in the making in LitHub.

Finding my voice again. Slowly.

The LitHub essay stems from years of reading and wondering about Paul Horgan. From a trip my husband and I took out west. From a letter that was sent to me from Andrew Wyeth's nephew. From my wondering, often, what really remains of writers once they are gone. And why.

"Reclaiming a Beloved Writer from the Brink of Disappearance" can be found here.


Strangers in Budapest/Jessica Keener: reflections

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

I am of the age of accumulations. Impressions, dreams, realizations, friends. A clarified sense of the stuff of life that I willfully carry forward.

Jessica Keener is part of that accumulation—a photographer who posts bright blooming flower images on dark national days, a woman with whom I once sat eating cupcakes in a Boston shop, a writer whose books I have read, a friend with whom I talked long one Saturday at noon, me on my phone in my Pennsylvania study, she on her phone in her Boston.

I've written about Jessica and her books before. I've written about them here.

Today I'm writing about Jessica again because her second novel, Strangers in Budapest, is due out in less than a week, and good things are happening all around. The Chicago Review of Books and Real Simple have both named the novel an essential November read. The independent bookstores are ecstatic. Boston Magazine called Jessica's story "perfect page-turner for late autumn," while Publishers Weekly called the book "riveting" and "memorable."

I have risen at 3 AM these past few days to read Strangers in Budapest through. I'd heard some of the stories of its making, heard of Jessica's great gratitude for her agent and editor and publicist and early readers, heard Jessica speak of her relationship to this tale.

But every reader makes a story new and so I read this propulsive story about a young American couple in a sizzling-hot Budapest of 1995 with great eagerness to find out for myself just what is happening here. As the story opens, Annie, the wife, is becoming involved with an old man who is on the hunt for the man he believes married then murdered his wheelchair-bound daughter—and later absconded with her money. Annie has secrets of her own, and concerns about her husband's thus-far less-than-successful forays into Hungarian business opportunities. Chased by her own past, Annie wants to do good. But will good come from falling in with this old man's quest? And will Annie be culpable for the consequences?

The story moves quickly—the lives of seeming strangers soon entangling, the mysteries never black or white, the confusions amplified by a city of Gypsies and a melodic language and empty herringbone-floored apartments opening to remarkable (but historically compromised) views. Budapest of 1995 is no mere backwash in this novel. It is, in many ways, the engine—the devastating history, the east versus the west, the strange mayoral politics, the trade-offs and tarnish.

Jessica has written it all with the knowledge of one who did indeed live in Budapest years ago—as one who walked those floors and saw those monuments and watched those lights on the castle at night. She has written the novel authoritatively, I'm saying—a psychologically suspenseful, fast-moving story in which all the pieces and parts come movingly together.  

Strangers in Budapest is best read right now, when the chill in this November air will offset the heat on the pages.


life as editorial director of the nationally syndicated PBS arts and culture show, "Articulate with Jim Cotter"

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Sometimes the very thing you were never looking for whips around the bend (it's windy that day, but there is sun) and finds you.

That is what happened a few weeks ago when Jim Cotter, the host of "Articulate with Jim Cotter," the nationally syndicated, Emmy® award-winning PBS arts and culture show, invited me to join his team as editorial director.

I'd been a guest on the show a few years ago. I'd attended a recent concert filming. I'd written a story about that experience for my monthly Philadelphia Inquirer column, and it was after that—before the Inky story even ran—that Jim asked if I'd meet him at a local coffee shop.

I had no idea what he wanted, but I said yes.

Since that day I've been saying yes to a lot of things. To scanning the arts horizon in search of innovators and storytellers whose ideas and ideals challenge (or affirm) the way we view our lives. To thinking about the processes that guide and fuel the work of writers, producers, shooters, animators, digitalists, and others. To learning how to write scripts so that I can teach the writing of scripts (how's that for rapid conversion?). To reaching out to those who know people who know ... who know. To sneaking books into the office, and possibilities—passages on the art of the essay, reviews of an author whose work deeply counts, tales of a musician with a story to tell. To learning from an uber fab executive producer (Tori Marchiony), a you-haven't-met-efficient/resourceful-until-you meet-her operations manager (Constance Kaita), and, of course, Jim himself.

It's been a deep immersion of a month. Here's what I already know: On the upper floors of an old mansion on Walnut Street there works and breathes a troupe (I'll use that word, for this is a cast of which I speak, this is theater within theater) of remarkably interesting people doing remarkably interesting work. They're out there talking to MacArthur geniuses and Pulitzer Prize winners, Daniel Handler and Gene Yang, Joyce Didonato and Jennifer Higdon, Watsky and Lisa Hannigan, Mark Mothersbaugh and Ani DiFranco, Andrew W.K. and Lauren Greenfield, Elizabeth Streb and, just this week (I was there, she was cool), the rising indie singer-songwriter Julien Baker.

Chances are that you can see the show on your local PBS station. If not, you can watch every segment here, at your leisure, at any time of restless day or sleepless night. Or join the Facebook page, here, where you'll get updates on segments, special treats, and all kinds of trivia with which to impress your friends.

And when you're sending me notes and I'm behind answering it's because, well, of this. I think it's a pretty fair trade—me sharing the show in exchange for me disappearing for stretches at a time. The show is more vivid, vibrant, and wow than I will ever be.

Wow. Did I say wow? Check out this sizzle reel.


Juncture Notes 20: a conversation with Inara Verzemnieks

Thursday, October 19, 2017

I could not be more honored. The exquisite memoirist Inara Verzemnieks joins us in conversation for this issue of Juncture Notes.

Anyone who cares about life, about seeing, about love should stop and read what Inara has to say. She took the time and went deep.

It's all here.


Celebrating life as viewed through the lens of art, on this Emmy-winning PBS show, "Articulate with Jim Cotter"

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Two or so years ago I had the extraordinary privilege of sitting with Jim Cotter to talk about truth, life, Philadelphia, the students I love—all of it—for his PBS show, "Articulate." Later I set off with his magnificent crew for B-Roll footage, but really: I only wanted to watch, to see how hoverboards, drones, and a lot of really nice people could turn a middle-aged woman into a story. The entire team's incredible care and craft, the expressed interest in making enduring art, stayed with me. The show featuring my segment, released a few months later, has remained a highlight of my career.

"Articulate" has evolved since then, inviting guests like Daniel Handler of Lemony Snicket fame, pianist Simone Dinnerstein, Lady Gaga's hat maker, Arturo Rios, and singer songwriter Lisa Hannigan into the studio or under the lights. For anyone who hopes to turn on the TV (or the internet) and find the reprieve of interesting talk, artful hope, and cinematic beauty (I don't know of any other arts show that is so beautifully produced), I strongly urge you to find Articulate.

I wrote about the experience of returning to "Articulate" and sitting in its audience at a live taping for this week's Philadelphia Inquirer story, which can be found here.


Sudden Annealing on a Day of Dark Rain: A Poem

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Sudden Annealing On A Day of Dark Rain

All day in search of a poem to allege the hours
Lived or measured. With my back set against the wall
Of rain and my mind divided: Inquisitor. 
Interrogated. Nothing. Not even the thunder
Is something.  Not even the buds of rain
On the naked trees that might have been opals
Are something until, from another room
Behind my room, the song you’re playing,
Some indication of guitar, an offhand
Kindness. Like yesterday when I recognized
A tenderness in you accepting the small stuffed
Bear a child offered for no one else’s sake.


Reunion: a Beth Kephart poem

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Cleaning out file drawers, I find this poem, crushed between corporate projects. The story of my life, perhaps.


Later, above the Thimble Islands,
lightning hooks the ghosts of buccaneers
and pirates.

You can see the ghosts hanging in the wind,
the shag hems of their trousers unraveling
in the channel,
treasure the color of kerosene
at their feet,
their women howling at the winter
seals caught in the cove.

Dry heaves of light,
and then the gloaming.
Leader and streamer,
and then the hooked sky,
and the ghosts in the hook of the sky.
No rain yet.
Rain coming.

Before this you had been standing
on the falling down
part of the hill.
You had been laughing.
Twenty years, someone said,
And no one's changed.


Manhattan Beach/Jennifer Egan: My Chicago Tribune Review

Monday, October 2, 2017

Devastated as we all are by the unending cycle of brutal news, I keep turning back to books—to the very best of books.

The ones with heart and soul, the proof of generous, curious, receiving minds.

Last week I had the opportunity to read Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach, an historical novel of surpassing... everything. My rave review, in the Chicago Tribune, is here.


Juncture Notes 19: Writing to Stay Whole and an Interview with Camille Dungy

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

In the current issue of Juncture Notes, I reflect on the very necessity of writing, share an interview with the wonderful Camille Dungy (Guidebook to Relative Strangers), and feature the work of three of our readers. I also announce our plans to hold one five-day workshop and three one-day workshops in 2018.

The whole issue can be read (and shared) here. Please pass this link on to others who are seeking a substantive conversation about memoir and the many ways that it gets made.


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