Issue_30  October 2018

"Readers will have to decide for themselves which feels most true, most enveloping and persuasive—the not knowing or the knowing, the confession or the report." — Beth Kephart

We had no idea what would happen when we launched our memoir contest, The Walls Between Us. We said: Tell us the true story of a wall—literal, metaphoric, other. We encouraged: Let your voice be heard. Then we set it all in motion, reading anonymously as each submission came in.

The work arrived from around the world. The work was history, memory, forgotten things, regrets. Red clay, door hinges, bird bones, kiwis, fences, window bars, blood, marriage, multiple sclerosis, duck meat, slaughtered pigs, blue birds, fatigue, Eastern European prisons, Jerusalem, the Mexican border, Beirut, Berlin, a moving ferry, a grounded boat—this and so much else factored in. Walls were erected—and brilliantly felled. 

I am a sympathetic reader. I read three times, made piles. Finally, after reviewing the extraordinary quality (and number) of entries, we found our winners and our honorable mentions, as well as a number of additional pieces in which the wisdoms and searing imagery proved impossible to set aside. Then we unveiled the names—to ourselves. The final book, which will be published by November, will feature sixteen full-length essays and close to two-dozen carefully juxtaposed fragments. It will also present original art by my partner in all of this (and book designer), William Sulit. 

Here, for the first time, we are announcing the names of the writers whose work will be featured in The Walls Between Us:

Jillian Sullivan, for “Between Lands” 
I want to dismiss some facts about being older. You do not stop yearning. You do not stop wanting to turn and someone is beside you. You do not stop remembering the clothesline with the tiny singlets and handmade pinafores and handwashed stripey jerseys.

Runner Up:
Dana Schwartz, for “The Walls Within”
Within a handful of years, she lost the ability to walk and feed herself. My father filled the void, bought gadgets, hired help. We tried to maintain the shape of our lives from before. Nothing has to change, my father used to say, his way of preserving order in chaos, but of course everything did.

Runner Up:
Fabia Oliveira, for “A Blue Wall”
With determination, is how I would describe our afternoons of play. The serious work of children was ours for the next few years at most. Together we mapped out an understanding of this blue-collar life. Some had single moms. Some had single moms and half siblings. Some, like me, had two parents and two cultures living side by side, strangers in an experiment called the nuclear family.

Honorable Mentions (listed in the order in which they will appear in the book—an order built to create a certain rhythm and not to suggest any ranking):
Jessica Gilkison, Beth Anderson, Sherry Shahan, Kristina Moriconi, Victoria Punch, Ann Marie Meehan, Kathleen Langstroth, Tyler Dunning, James Thompson, Jenny Hoppins, Carrie Pepper, Tracey Yokas, Jennifer Hubbard

Your Wall, My Wall Contributors: Lisa Witz, Kelli Lycke Martin, Sauvignon Sing, Danica Longair, Christine Hudak, Lisa Samalonis, Gabriel Schivone, Lazar Trubman, Anna Karpinski, Amy Morais, Mary Simon, Jessica Brauer, Mercedes Turner, Jennifer Shields, Vicki Austin, Bart Whittington, Lisa Romeo, Sarah Conover, Lanny Larcinese, Tammy Ortung, Samira Meghdessian, Michelle Harris, Diane Orzech

Bill and I are grateful to all the writers who submitted. We honor all of us out here, in these dangerous-seeming times, who are still trying to define and delineate walls so that they might finally be shattered.

Last week we watched the high-stakes, high-court testimony before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Two stories. Two attempts to resurrect the past. I sprawled across the family room floor, transfixed.
Perhaps politics will always ultimately dictate who believes who, who must believe who, but memoirists are trained by their reading and their work to look for clues. Just days before, at Chanticleer Garden, I worked with eleven exceptional women on the catapults of truth. They wrote of words they love and the room in their minds in which those words live. They wrote of themselves in transition. Then, within the quiet of a greenhouse, they wrote of being on the wrong side of themselves—of not being who they wished to be, or forgetting who they might have been, or setting aside the dreams they’d had. When they were done I asked them to locate the two truest consecutive sentences in their work. I asked them to tell me what made those sentences true.
Later in the afternoon, I shared two passages—one from Casey Gerald’s debut memoir, There Will Be No Miracles Here, and one from Tara Westover’s bestselling Educated. There is the searching vulnerability, an I’m-not-quite-sure-ness in Gerald that deeply moves me. There are the absolute declaratives of Westover (and, later in her book, footnotes enumerating the bits of family lore that are differently remembered by family members). Gerald has told his story many times, he tells us, but he may have been telling some of that story wrong. Westover, meanwhile, recounts, unwaveringly, quantifying details and word-by-word conversations from early in her childhood.
Casey Gerald:
Was it a summer night? I believe so. Fall seems too early, since if it had been Thanksgiving break of my freshman year, I would not have dreaded going back to Yale as much as I did or been eager to come back home as I was. It could not have been winter, if only because I don’t see a Christmas tree when I recall that night and I know how much those trees meant to my sister. To us both. And since I have told the story of this night many times as being a winter night, then I also have to accept that I have not told the truth. This does not surprise me. I wonder, though, whether I lied because I did not remember or because it was convenient to do so. I don’t know. All I know is that it happened.
Tara Westover:
My father was not a tall man but he was able to command a room. He had a presence about him, the solemnity of an oracle. His hands were thick and leathery—the hands of a man who’d been hard at work all his life—and they grasped the Bible firmly.
He read the passage aloud a second time, then a third, then a fourth. With each repetition the pitch of his voice climbed higher. His eyes, which moments before had been swollen with fatigue, were now wide and alert. There was a divine doctrine here, he said. He would inquire of the Lord.
The next morning Dad purged our fridge of milk, yogurt and cheese, and that evening when he came home, his truck was loaded with fifty gallons of honey.
“Isaiah doesn’t say which is evil, butter or honey,” Dad said, grinning as my brothers lugged the white tubs to the basement. “But if you ask, the Lord will tell you!”

The uncertainty of Gerald’s book is a room into which the reader steps. The bold self-confidence of Westover is meant to be received, and not interpreted. Readers will have to decide for themselves which feels most true, most enveloping and persuasive—the not knowing or the knowing, the confession or the report. 

Over the course of the summer, Beth was at work on a number of essays and interviews, some of which have now appeared in various journals, including:

Eroded Tropes and Fears and Consequences: The Millions Interviews Alyson Hagy, The Millions, September 28, 2018

Baby Shoes, Ruminate Blog, September 19, 2018

Paynes Gray: When Watercolors Become Words, Brevity, September 17, 2018

The Four Times I Became a Teacher, LitHub, September 10, 2018

The Four Pinocchios (truth revealed by the original puppet), Cleaver Magazine, August 25, 2018

On Monday, October 8, Beth will be interviewing Casey Gerald, that phenom memoirist and author of the debut There Will Be No Miracles Here, as part of the Blue Stoop interview series. Join us if you can for this event at the Penn Book Center. Our conversation begins at 6:00 PM. More information can be found 

Our five-day memoir workshop in Frenchtown, NJ, is now fully booked. We are in the early stages of planning a new five-day workshop for next May. If you’re interested, drop us a line.
Last month we launched a new series designed to showcase the memoirs that you, our readers, love.  Two-hundred words of pure read-this-book-please. This month Jennifer Shields is sharing her passion for Dorothy Allison; I share that passion.

Dorothy Allison’s memoir, Two Or Three Things I Know For Sure, has been an integral part of my life both as a writer and a therapist since its publication in 1994, an essential reader’s guide for what can and does go awry in families—most families. At a slim 95 pages, it's a book that fits in your back pocket. I have been reading from it to men who batter, women who take the punch, and women who open their legs at knife point, as well as the aunts, uncles, and grandparents who have endured the same. 

Illustrated with photos from Allison’s rural South Carolina, this memoir reads like a picture book for adults, with words and sentences that can slice through brick and mortar—tough and compelling, exact and straight:

Behind my aunt Dot was a legion of female cousins and great-aunts, unknown and nameless—snuff-sucking, empty-faced creatures changing spindles at the textile plant, chewing gum while frying potatoes at the truck stop, exhausted, angry, and never loved enough.

This is also a story about survival and about finding one’s voice—about discovering a better life and breaking free of the multi-generational template of violence and despair. Two or three things I know for sure: Dorothy Allison has changed my life with her compulsion to tell it like it is.


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 22 books, including six memoirs 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.

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