the book you want to read now:
Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth
(and a give-away)

163560For sixteen years I had what was arguably the best job in the world. It certainly was the best job for me. As a first-time mother of an infant, I wanted nothing more than to be at home with my new baby. At the same time, I’d loved my career as a literary editor and I still had to earn a living. By some miraculous stroke of luck and grace, the universe afforded me the chance to do both.

A week after my baby was born, I got word that I’d been chosen to be the new series editor of The Best American Short Stories, an annual anthology beloved by readers and writers alike. Three months later, I hired some help, bought my first desktop computer, set up a system to keep track of everything (magazines logged into FileMakerPro, the stories themselves written up by hand on file cards), and got down to work. It was amazing — I was getting paid to read.

I dressed for my new job in stretchy old black leggings and sweatshirts spotted with baby drool. I had no set hours and three deadlines a year. The magazines arrived by the box load and the babysitter came for a few hours every morning. While she was there, and while my son slept, and in every other spare moment of the day, I read short stories.

Sixteen years flew by. During that time, two little babies grew up into teenagers and sixteen volumes got published and I read thousands and thousands of stories. I had the joy of “discovering” such new voices as Amy Bloom, Junot Diaz, Akhil Sharma, Edith Pearlman, and Nathan Englander, and helping to introduce them to wider audiences. Meanwhile, I also had the privilege of working closely with some of our most accomplished writers — chatting about what made certain stories work and others miss the mark with the likes of Louise Erdrich, Tobias Wolff, Garrison Keillor, Barbara Kingsolver, E. L. Doctorow and many others. Co-editing with John Updike The Best American Short Stories of the Century allowed me not only the happy, prodigious task of reading every story ever published in the series since its inception in 1915, but also the privilege of engaging in an intensive, congenial, two-year correspondence with one of my lifelong literary heroes.

But without doubt the greatest good fortune that befell me as the editor of BASS was my enduring friendship with writer Ann Patchett, guest editor of the final volume of my tenure. After working together for over a year, getting to know each other by email and phone and letter, we finally met in person for the first time in Harvard Square at a PEN reading for The Best American Short Stories of 2006. It was a bittersweet night for me. Handing off the editorial baton to my successor seemed like the end of an era, the end of my professional identity, the end of steady income, the end of structure to my days. I had no idea what I’d do next. [continue…]

Magic

Katrina Kenison & Magical Journey book signing at Parnassus Books, NashvilleJust over a year ago, I hit the wall. I’d been writing for months, throwing away more pages than I kept, feeling less sure of myself and what I was doing with every passing day. I had a deadline, the end of March. But I wasn’t at all sure I had a book.

Two days after New Years, with both sons back at school, I flew to Florida and set up camp in the guest bedroom of my parents’ house. My mom, keeping her promise not to tempt me with distractions, went about her carefree retiree’s life. Meanwhile, I holed up in my self-created bunker, sitting cross-legged on the bed for hours on end, bent over my laptop, pretending no one would ever read what I was writing. My immediate goal was not to send words out into the world, but to be quiet and disciplined and attentive enough to find out if I actually had anything to say.

Now, twelve months later, the book that finally began to take shape during those weeks is in the bookstores. The irony of the title Magical Journey, of course, is that I didn’t actually go much of anywhere, except in search of a bit of solitude and silence. Sometimes the most challenging journeys aren’t the ones that require backpacks and sturdy shoes, but rather a willingness to turn inward, to seek something deep and as yet unformed within ourselves. And sometimes, as the last two weeks have revealed to me, it is the work done in lonely isolation that ultimately forges and affirms our most essential human connections out in the world.

This morning, home again after a flurry of nonstop travel and bookstore appearances, I paged through the journal I kept last winter. Every day, I attempted to clear my mind and face my fears by writing longhand in a notebook before turning on my laptop and confronting my manuscript. A few excerpts from those arduous, uncertain days exactly a year ago:

“I am so slow. What I’ve written is probably not terrible. I’m trying to convince myself that it is at least good enough. Yet moving forward feels really hard. What is the right attitude? Maybe just to try to keep on writing without judging, to think my thoughts and feel my feelings, and get something down on the page, and then decide later whether it’s any good or not.”

And this:

“The slowness, the uncertainty. What am I learning from this process? That in my writing, first and foremost, I must put my faith in the truth. That the truth is mundane, embarrassing at times, difficult to distill clearly, yet still worth reaching for. That the only way through is through. That it doesn’t get easier. That living wholeheartedly can mean going within, rather than without. Not fun, exactly, but wholehearted nonetheless.”

And also:

“So strange to be in a time of life, a place, where Steve and Henry and Jack can all be living separate lives in different places. They are doing just fine away from me; I’m the one who feels the loss of all that used to be. All I used to be. Guess that’s what it’s been like for my own mom for years now. Perhaps I’ll get used to it. I feel alive in different ways – alive when I’m needed at the center of my family, making dinner or having a heart-to-heart with one of the boys, keeping all the balls in the air. And alive in a totally different way now, in solitude, when all the structure and to-dos fall away, and I’m left with my own thoughts, my own demons and dreams, my own inner landscape. Time slows. There is nothing to do but honor my commitment to keep at this, uncomfortable and hard as it is. But I wonder: to write from this vulnerable place, to be who I really am on the page – is this in itself some kind of path or calling? Perhaps, for now anyway, it is. And perhaps, if I can just stick it out, it will even lead to joy. Or at least lead me back out of myself, with some sense of where I’m meant to go next.”

Yesterday, my friend Dani Shapiro, wrote a thoughtful, lovely post about the difference between taking risks in life and on the page. Most of us, as she points out, will go to any length to keep our loved ones safe. Learning how to assess risk is part of growing up; making prudent calls, at the heart of every mother’s job description. And yet, says Dani, “When it comes to the writer’s life, risk is what it’s all about.”

She’s right, of course. We have to step out on that high wire again and again, even though we teeter with every step, even though we’re dogged by insecurity: “Maybe it won’t work. . . . Maybe it will suck. Maybe I’ll waste my time and precious energy on a piece of prose that will be dead on arrival.”

I don’t suppose there’s any way to avoid the inexorable loneliness of the process, the feelings of frustration and powerlessness that come at the end of a day in which the only thing you really accomplished was staying put in your chair. Still, I wish that when I was sitting alone with myself in that Florida bedroom, I could have flashed forward a year, to the joyous scene last week in a hotel room in Nashville.

Every single woman from my book group had flown in earlier in the afternoon to celebrate the launch of Magical Journey with me and to attend my reading at Ann Patchett’s beautiful bookstore, Parnassus. On that first evening, we were all gathered together, toasting our trip, our thirteen years of books and lives shared, and the publication of this new memoir of mine (despite the fact that the work of writing it had kept me from attending a single meeting last year.)

The conversation soon turned to vulnerability, and risk, and the importance of sharing our stories, even the painful ones. After all these years together, we trust one another completely, hold little back, know that we can close the door and bare our souls in safety. And yet, as my friends began to share their first reactions to my book, we found ourselves talking as well about taking risks in public and on the page. And how, perhaps, in taking some risks myself, I’ve cleared a space in which other women might be more willing to share their own stories, or at least come to feel a little less alone.

This, it seems to me, is the reason any writer undertakes the speculative work of memoir. Not so much to tell “what happened,” as to illuminate the slow, halting process by which we learn to make our peace with what is. And in that vulnerable revealing, in the stumbling, wayward truth of that story, lies something that is worth offering: not the gift of what we have accomplished but rather the gift of who we really are.

To be vulnerable on the page is indeed a risk – hang yourself out on the line, and anyone can come along and take a swing at you. Yet my own experience over these last two weeks has been the opposite. People are kind, and words build bridges. As I’ve met and talked with readers in Connecticut and Nashville and Washington, DC, and as I’ve read and responded to the letters and Facebook messages and emails from strangers, I’ve been moved deeply by the stories women have shared with me, joyful stories of change and growth, but also intimate stories of loss and hardship, suffering and grief. Stories told in confidence within this safe space, a space created by kinship and kindness and courage. Publishing a book, any book, is an act of faith – in oneself of course, but in one’s readers even more. How humbling and gratifying it is to have that faith returned a thousandfold.

I would not want to relive last January, all those days spent, as Dani says, “in the teeming, writhing darkness,” trying to beat back my own self-doubt long enough to make something lasting and sturdy out of words. But I’m glad now that I did it. What I’m learning, I think, is something one of my most admired writers, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, knew all too well.

“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches,” she writes in Gift from the Sea. “If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.” This, it seems to me, is the work of the writer: finding something of value to add to the suffering. Sometimes, yes, it is isolating, to dwell in that place of risk and revelation. And yet what we find on the other side is so worth the effort: community, connection, kinship, healing. Nothing less than the road back to grace.

To all of you who are supporting the birth of this book with your heartfelt letters, your messages, your words of encouragement, your online reviews and your real live attendance at my readings, a most heartfelt thank you. I am honored to be a part of this ongoing conversation, to meet you and to share the path with you, to be reminded that none of us journeys alone, that we are all connected, that my story is your story — and vice versa.

News from the road. . .

Building an audience is the writer’s job once the book is published — and that’s what I’m up to now.  (A far cry from that writerly solitude of a year ago.)  Want to help me spread the word?

Here are three things you can do:

1. Write a brief review on Amazon.

2.  Like my page on Facebook and share posts with your friends.

3. Share the book!  (One of my favorite stories: A reader wrote to tell me she was ordering five copies for friends for Valentines Day.  No sooner had she placed her order than an Amazon rep called to ask if there had been some mistake.  “No,” she replied, “I loved this book, so I’m buying more for my friends.”  The Amazon clerk read the description and said, “It does sound good.  I’m going to buy it too!”  Talk about word of mouth!)

Also, check my Events page to see if I’m coming to a bookstore near you. I’m visiting lots of independent bookstores — we need these stores in our towns, and they need our business to survive.  (This week I’ll be in:  Concord, NH; Portsmouth, NH; Manchester, VT; and Cohasset, MA.)

If you haven’t read Priscilla Gilman’s probing interview with me, Click Here.

A nice review from the Chicago Tribune (Editor’s Choice).

Finally, a word about The View from My Window, the collection of blog posts my husband gave me for Christmas.  Your comments — all 264 of them!–stunned me.  I read each one of them with gratitude.  And then I wished I could send every single one of you a copy of the book.  Which of course made me think:  there has to be a way.  For now, all I can say is, stay tuned. (This sounds like a project to take up a bit later, after Magical Journey is well on its way.)  Meanwhile, congratulations to winners Ann Laurence and Louise Olmstead, whose names were drawn at random on my pub. date.  

Occupy Downtown

Every year at this time, I find myself thinking about how to make the holiday season simpler and more meaningful. More joyful and less stressful. A reflection of our family’s values and what really matters to us, rather than a last-minute scramble to make sure there are enough wrapped packages under the tree.

Last weekend, while checking things off my to-do list downtown, I suddenly had a revelation: I am so lucky to live in a town where there still IS such a thing as “downtown.”

And that’s when I decided that, much as I appreciate the impulse behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, my own theme this holiday season is going to be: “Occupy Downtown.”

My hometown is still a place where you can buy organic vegetables or a snowblower, a cup of pea soup to go or a fair-trade basket from Peru, art supplies or plumbing supplies, antique linens or a toy for a toddler, a hand knit hat or a pair of hiking boots, local honey or imported cheese. You can browse at the Toadstool, attend a poetry reading, eat lunch at the diner, stroll through an art gallery, and go to a movie. Or you can drop off your dry cleaning, pick up batteries and trash bags, bring a load of cans to the recycling center, and get your oil changed. Chances are, wherever you go, someone will know your name. The bag boy at the market will carry your groceries out to your car. The owner of the clothing store will know it’s your birthday month and what size jeans you wear. The clerk in the bookstore will have saved the last copy of Joan Didion just for you.

This is the way small-town life is supposed to be. This is my definition of the good life. It is also a way of life that is vanishing before our eyes. If we want our downtowns to survive, we have to inhabit them.

“Out-sourcing” is not just something big corporations do, it’s a habit I’ve fallen into myself. How often do I click a button and order from Amazon, instead of buying from a shopkeeper right here in town? More often than I like to admit. The truth is, I can buy every single thing I need or want locally. And yet too many of my dollars end up elsewhere, in the well-stuffed pockets of huge corporations that have no connection with my everyday life.

Well, I’m done. I care about the place I live and I care about the people who make this town the lively, vibrant, inviting community it is. These folks don’t live on air. They depend on cash register receipts. Their stores can’t continue to exist just for my idle sight-seeing and window-shopping pleasure; they need me — they need all of us — to walk through the doors and open our wallets.

And so, I vow here and now to Occupy Downtown this holiday season. I’m shopping in my own back yard, and no where else. I may buy less, but I’ll feel good about where every dollar lands. I’ll take time to chat with the shopkeepers and let them know how grateful I am that they’re here. Simple. Meaningful. Stress free.

I invite you to join me. Occupy your own downtown. Swear off one-click ordering, and go out and see what that funky little shop on the corner has to offer. Our dollars have power. When we spend them locally, we put money back into the towns we love — for city services, road repairs, schools. We support the businesses that meet our needs and desires, that hire our neighbors, that donate to our causes, and that enrich our lives. And we connect face-to-face with real people instead of interfacing with computer screens and feeding the coffers of anonymous corporations.

A holiday gift for you!

I’d love to send you a Christmas gift from my town. Leave a note here and share the “Occupy Downtown” message someplace else — Facebook, Twitter, a blog, whatever. I will draw a name at random after midnight on November 23 to receive a special gift from my town.

And speaking of independent bookstores. . .

My dear friend Ann Patchett is doing a pretty amazing job of occupying downtown herself. When the last independent bookstore in Nashville closed its doors, she decided to open her own. But she’s under no illusions; even a bookstore owned by a best-selling author can’t exist without customers. As she says, “This is not a showroom, this is not where you come in to scan your barcode. If you like this thing, it’s your responsibility to keep this thing alive.”

Here’s the whole story — page one of today’s New York Times.