Issue_35  March 2019

"No one category of literature can proclaim a greater greatness, a higher purpose." — Beth Kephart

I had entered into a wild, unseemly dispersion—teaching the art of middle grade and young adult novels, overseeing a memoir thesis, writing about adult novels, interviewing memorists, fiction writers, poets about their processes and dreams. What was I doing, really? Where was my heart? Were there lessons in all this genre-smashing hyperflexing, or just and merely frazzle?

In the MG/YA class my students were reading Jason Reynolds, Sharon Creech, RJ Palacio, Thanhha Lai, cece Bell, Nova Ren Suma, Elizabeth Acevedo, Ruta Sepetys, A.S. King, David Levithan, Debbie Levy, and Jacqueline Woodson, among so many others. Into the syllabus for my honors student I’d packed Abigail Thomas, Sonja Livingston, James Baldwin, Richard Beard, Patti Smith, Terry Tempest Williams, Jeannie Vanasco, Richard Ford, Charles D’Ambrosio, Bella Pollen, Sallie Tisdale, and whomever else occurred to me when reading my student’s early fragments. I had read these writers myself, of course, but I don’t have the memory to rely on memory. And so I read again, swerving back and forth—fiction to nonfiction, young protagonists to grown-up ones, present tenses and past exposes. 

I had not planned well. Or maybe I had.

Because yesterday and the day before, preparing myself for a teaching Tuesday, I sat and barely moved as I re-read, first, RJ Palacio’s Wonder for my MG/YA class and, then, Patti Smith’s Just Kids for Josh. Two books that, on the surface, have not a single thing to do with each other, but in my slant of sun, in my square of silence, this fictional middle grade story and this grown-up memoir began a dialogue. They spoke of, and they spoke for, each other. They became inseparable.

There are the famous words at the end of Wonder, the story of a fifth-grader with a facial abnormality who attends school for the first time. The speaker is Mr. Tushman, the school principal: “But the best way to measure how much you’ve grown isn’t by inches or the number of laps you can now run around the track, or even your grade point average—though those things are important to be sure. It’s what you’ve done with your time, how you’ve chosen to spend your days, and whom you have touched this year. That, to me, is the greatest measure of success.”

From Just Kids, Patti Smith’s gorgeous elegy for her friend Robert Mapplethorpe: “Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead? That pursuit is what burns most deeply. I got over the loss of his desk and chair, but never the desire to produce a string of words more precious than the emeralds of Cortes. Yet I have a lock of his hair, a handful of his ashes, a box of his letters, a goatskin tambourine. And in the folds of faded violet tissue a necklace, two violet plaques etched in Arabic, strung with black and silver threads, given to me by the boy who loved Michelangelo.”

How you’ve chosen to spend your days … 

Yet I have a lock …

Wonder and Just Kids are books about friendship and kindness and transcendence. They are about how we rise above, how we unbreak hearts, how we care for, and honor, the people we discover along the way, the people we finally love. In my slant of sun, I cried as I read. In my square of silence, I was restored, not frazzled. I imagined the authors in a room speaking to each other, about the humanity we authors must weave into the lines we write, for whomever we write to or through. No one category of literature can proclaim a greater greatness, a higher purpose. Greatness is, quite simply, greatness—unbounded, no walls. Greatness is the human touch, it is the books that make us feel, the only category that matters.

For our upcoming memoir workshop this May, I’m taking every essay collection and memoir off my bountiful shelves (and buying several more) in search of this kind of greatness. I'm searching through poetry, too, and the best of fiction. Just in case there's something there that will illuminate the truth.

I'm pretty sure there will be.


Strike the Empty: notes for readers, writers, and teachers of memoir has been warmly received by early readers and is now available here.

Our next five-day workshop will be held in Frenchtown, NJ, between the dates of May 5 and May 10. We’ll focus on voice, elaboration, and distillation. Please let us know of your interest by sending us an email.

A new essay, "Fixing Beauty," appears in the new issue of Woven Tale Press, beginning on page 15, here.

Beth will be interviewing Nicole Chung about her debut memoir, All You Can Ever Know, on behalf of Blue Stoop at Drexel University on March 7. Details are here.

Beth will be interviewing Nova Ren Suma at Kelly Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, on March 12 at noon. All are welcome. Details are here. 

Beth will be interviewing the great poet Carolyn Forché about her new memoir, What You Have Heard is True, at the Free Library of Philadelphia on March 19 at 7:30. This is a ticketed event. Details are here. If you are interested in discount tickets, please send us an email.

Beth will be talking about empathy and memory with famed author and editor DeWitt Henry at Radnor Memorial Library in Wayne, PA on April 5 at 7:00 PM.

Beth will be interviewing Amy Sarig King about literature, privilege, and her new book, Dig, at Children’s Book World in Haverford, PA, on April 11 at 7:00 PM.

Texture Press, 2019
A conversation with Tawni Waters

If you’ve met Tawni Waters, you won’t forget her. If you’ve walked with her on a cold winter night or sat beside her on stone steps or whispered a secret to her in the castle of an old campus or showed her the wooden giraffe you call She, you’ll know, you’ll always know, that she’s been with you. Otherworldly is a word dreamt up for Tawni. 

So Speak the Stars is Tawni Waters as Tawni Waters—poems and prose poems illustrated by her daughter about a love so raw and cell-shifting that it must be examined through every prism and an abundance of senses, through active hurt and devastating joy. It would be silly, here, to over-introduce the book. It is. It exists. And Tawni teaches as she speaks of Speak.

“Shoes longing for the shape of your feet,” you write. “My life is all the colors of a full gumball machine.” “While I was sleeping, lilacs grew between my toes. A lone, heartsick sparrow built a nest in the nook of my shoulder blade. I feed him berries at low tide.” How many senses do you write with, Tawni? How many senses do you believe there are?

I believe human beings are limited in the aspects of reality they can observe with their five senses, the same way an ant is limited, by its physical apparatus, in its ability to perceive the world. It can’t know things we humans know about reality because it doesn’t have the equipment to perceive it. Our sensory equipment is better than an ant’s. We perceive more of reality than insects do. But we don’t perceive all of it. 

I spend a great deal of time in meditation, in the quiet space between worlds. In those times of quiet, I’ve learned how to sense pieces of reality that aren’t readily available to my five senses. Strangely, I feel I get the most information about reality when I’m able to come to a truly still place, when all of my five physical senses aren’t competing to interpret reality, to tell my brain a story about what is happening, rather than just letting it be. A sense of wholeness comes with that stillness. A sense of being immersed in all of reality. So I guess, my answer to your question is, I think there is one sense. Stillness. Perfect connection. Perfect love. And when you are there, it becomes an infinite number of senses, far beyond our physical five senses, and it encompasses all.

You write in this collection at the extreme edge of yourself, the place between flesh and air. How do you inhabit that rare space and survive? And, not altogether conversely, how do you keep yourself there, so that you will survive?

You are so perceptive, Beth. No one has ever asked me such profoundly insightful questions about my work and myself. I try to pass my poetry off as me just being imaginative, because I’ve spent a bunch of my life being called insane when I’ve tried to tell the truth about my existence, but honestly, my poetry is as close to my heart and my truth as anything is ever going to get. I do live in the space between flesh and air. I was raised in isolation on a mountain by beautiful hippie preachers. It was ok to have visions. It was ok to have dreams that told the future. It was ok to talk to angels. When I got out into the “real” world, I realized I was a freak. People were pretty cruel to me, and for a lot of years, I tried to shut down my real self, to hide, to be “normal” (though I was horribly bad at it). 

I believe all children are born with the ability to live in that space between air and flesh. In other cultures, this part of being human is as natural as breathing. But in our culture, most children get shut down early in life. Stop imagining. Stop creating. Stop communicating with creation. Stop believing that anything beyond “get a job, pay bills, and die” is possible. My intuition never got shut down. And it’s incredibly accurate. And my life is magical when I live in the space between worlds, even if people dislike me for it. When I try to be normal, more people accept me, but I feel like I start to die. I’ve come to realize that, no matter what the cost, I’m more comfortable living in the liminal space in which my soul naturally abides than trying to become something that feels like a lie strangling my soul. 

“I believe divine madness because I have lived it,” you write at one point. I had the sense, reading through these sparking, risking, rising pages, that your grief is a kind of joy (sometimes welcome, not always welcome) and that this grief-made joy requires a language infinitely capable of dualities. How do you summon that language?

I was in the throes of the greatest grief I have ever known as I wrote this book. I was walking grief. So many things had been stripped from my life, but the worst part was being separated from my soul twin. We’d always had a rocky road to walk, but we’d never been physically separated for a great length of time, and losing him was like losing a limb. No. Not a limb. A vital organ. My heart got ripped out of my chest. I had no idea what to do with the grief, except alchemize it into words. And somehow, that process of finding the perfect language to describe the pain, to put it on the page, allowed me to set the grief down for at least a few hours, to experience the joy of creation in the midst of suffering, to know the solace of inner transformation. The grief was a gift. I see that now. In many ways, I think I was a worm in a chrysalis, being turned to goo and being reborn. But while my dreams told me rebirth was coming, I’m not sure I fully believed them. I just knew I had to do something to keep me alive while I was in hell. The writing of these poems, and the travel, became those things. I’m not sure I summoned the language on purpose, or that there was a conscious “how.” It was more of an imperative. Write what you are feeling or drown in it. Write or die. 

So Speak the Stars is not a novel (you’ve written those) and it is not essays (you publish those). They are truth-induced poems and prose poems. You have, you have written elsewhere, been set free by these forms. Can you talk about that?

During my five years living on the road, as I searched for my truest self and wrote this book, I was grappling with grief, as I’ve said, and a lifetime of loss. I felt dead, like I had to somehow resurrect the truest version of me there was or die physically. It sounds crazy, but it was that dire to me. It was life and death. You don’t give up all your worldly possessions and wander for five years unless you are truly desperate. 

I love writing essays. I love writing novels. But somehow, those forms felt limited to me, like I was repackaging a sanitized version of my truth instead of spilling it raw. They were inadequate vessels to house my pain, my love, my quest, my questions. So I started writing these poems, if that’s what you want to call them. But I thought they were throw-aways, vomiting of soul matter onto a page, not “good” art. I didn’t even try to publish most of them.  I just posted them on my blog so my love could read them, because right before we were separated, I told him that if we ever parted, I would be loving him from the other side of the world. I tried to keep that promise, to give him some sense of my love from far away, something to strengthen him. I didn’t think anyone else would ever give much of a shit about the poems. 

And then, at the end of my time living on the road, I read your work, and spoke to you, and saw the way you live and write with such integrity and truth, and I felt it gave me leave to just write--and be--real. Reading your book, Wild Blues, seeing the way you danced with language and truth on the page, was a revelation. It gave me permission to hide away in a cabin for a few months and finish compiling this book, this raw slice of my soul, and to send it into the world as “real” art. (I’m not saying that because you’re interviewing me, and I’m trying to be nice. I’ve said it lots of places, and I’d feel dishonest if I didn’t say it now.)

It’s not just that you miss this man you so often write about. It’s that you are sure that he misses you. Does that make this love easier or harder?

Both. This love is the most beautiful, excruciating thing that has ever happened to me. It has burned me down to bones, as I express in the poems. Ultimately, it has also made me the most authentic, powerful version of me I could ever be. In my very troubled late 20s, I was listening to Bruce Springsteen, and he said, “I want to know if love is wild. I want to know if love is real.” That line hit me hard. I was so sick of false, shallow love. I wanted something real. So I played the song again and screamed that line at the sky. Well, a few months later, I saw this beautiful boy standing under haloed stars, and I was almost knocked off my feet by the sight of him. My body literally teetered. It wasn’t that he was physically beautiful, though he was. It was that I knew him like I had never known anyone or anything before. That was 20 years ago.

In that time, my love for him, and his love for me, have taught me more about what it means to live, to love, to be human, to be true, than anything ever has. We have been so good to one another, and so, so awful, and still, our love stands intact. I love him more now than I did 20 years ago, which is saying something, because the love I felt for him then was the most profound thing I’d ever known.  We speak to one another in dreams. Time and space have never been able to separate us. 

But I have never been allowed to “own” him, not because of his will, or mine, but because something bigger than us always gets in the way. I finally figured out that was the point—I was supposed to learn that love is an ever-changing process of salvation, not a possession. The goal of real love--sacred love, love that burns you down to bones, that reveals all of the good, the bad, and the ugly inside of you--isn’t a white picket fence, though that may be part of it, for some. The goal is the cleansing and salvation of your soul, the revelation of your truest self. And this love has saved me. 

I’m often asked out by beautiful people, people who could give me a “normal” relationship. I always say no, and I always will. I’ve seen the face of real love. I don’t want knock offs anymore. And I will never love anyone the way I love my soul twin. I won’t dishonor him, or myself, or my would-be suitors, by lying about the deepest piece of my heart. In the process of writing So Speak the Stars, I’ve made my peace with my soul, and with this love. If the universe doesn’t see fit to let me be with him in the physical world, I’ll live in the space between worlds with my love. People think I’m alone. I never am. My Shining One is always with me. And I guess this separation has been a gift, so I should thank the people who brought it about. Because it made me into this version of me, and I love her more than any that I have come before. I can sleep with her at night. She is strong and true and integrous, unlike her predecessors. And it’s only now, looking back on hellish years that should have killed any inkling of love I had for that man, I can answer the question I screamed at the sky all those years ago. Yes, love is wild. Yes, love is real. Love is stronger than cockroaches in a nuclear holocaust. Love is God. Now I know.

Your daughter illustrated this book. Huge. One sentence on what that means.

I dreamed this years ago—my brilliant baby and I working together on a miracle book—and now that it’s happened, it feels like her magic + my magic = magic to the magic power, infinite beauty. (You said one sentence, so I did a little math/magic with plus signs and hyphenation to meet the parameters of the assignment. I hope that’s ok.) 

I write of books I love or learn from in Juncture Notes. But all of you are readers, too. And so I’m grateful each month for a reader’s voice, a passionate plea for a book that must be read. Here is Ann Keech writing about a pottery book that is also (no surprise) memoir. 

CENTERING In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person
By M.C. Richards 

This was the breakthrough book for me, struggling to learn centering on the potter’s wheel. From M. C. Richards’ book I learned to relax, trusting the clay and wheel, my hands giving calm, strong, tender pressure to that wobbling lump of clay. Skin is a good listener and the clay is in dialogue, responding. Once truly centered, we can go forward with creating the pot. And so it can be with life, too. This book is very much about nurturing our creative spirit in whatever we do. It is a book to return to, time and again, for its personal shared experiences, candor, and great wisdom.  Potter, poet, painter, teacher, beautiful, gentle being, Richards wrote: “Every person is a special kind of artist and every activity is a special art … it is true of us all, whatever our work, that we are artists so long as we are alive to the concreteness of a moment.” It was through M.C. Richards that I learned about mindfulness, in art and in life—fifty years ago, and again today.


Do you have a memoir that has taught you something about craft or life? Please send your 200-word-or-less recommendation to this address.
JUNCTURE NOTES is a labor of love. If you find this content helpful, please consider donating through PayPal to help us continue to offer the kind of in-depth reading, interviewing, and reporting that has come to define us.

Photography by William Sulit, Juncture partner

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of 24 books, including six memoirs, Tell the Truth. Make It Matter. and Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, the 2013 winner of a Books for a Better Life Award. A frequent speaker, panelist, and workshop leader, Beth also teaches memoir at the University of Pennsylvania, where she won the 2015/16 Beltran Family Teaching Award. Wild Blues, a novel built out of some of the stuff of Beth's life, was released in June. Strike the Empty: notes for readers, writers, and teachers of memoir is out now.

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