The Magic Basement



On Friday, May 2nd at 3:45, at Kelly Writers House, students from Lorene Cary’s “One Book, One Philadelphia, One Penn,” and “Learn!” courses read four-minute excerpts of their own work along with selections from the work of students they’d taught at Mighty Writers West and Saul High School. Penn student writers engaged the community and moved through the city: from the Rosenbach Museum and Library, to Saul High School for Agricultural Sciences, to Mighty Writers, and the Free Library. Their work reflected how they reached outward—and inward—to create stories worth hearing, and how they wrote them over and over and over to structure stories and language sufficient to contain their energy and passion. Brava!  

We will link to the Writers House podcast as soon as it is available. Meanwhile, to view the website that our fiction writers created, linking One Book One Philadelphia to younger writers, please visit OneBookOnHenry.

May 5


I’ve been thinking about “intention” a lot lately. This semester I was enrolled in an English seminar called “Fellows,” where we studied three eminent contemporary writers who then visited our class for a three-hour session. This year’s roster included Buzz Bissinger, T.C. Boyle, and Rae Armantrout. Though each had a diverse and unique body of work, we often circled the same questions in class: how does the form of the piece inform its function? Why is this written the way it is? When T.C. Boyle came, we asked him about his writing process: does he plan out the events of a novel or story, or what he wants its structure to be? His answer was an emphatic no—his writing and its structure is just an organic part of the creative process. Though I think some in my class found this unsettling or unbelievable, I found it reassuring. I’ve always worked in a similar way, plunging into a story without any idea of the direction it will take—I find writing so pleasurable because of the discovery it entails, each new piece an adventure. But when you write without a plan, this often means that the editing process is just as significant a part of creating a story, if not more so. I often feel as though I’m not sure what I was trying to say until I finish a first draft. And then it’s time to sift the “intention” from the jumble of words I’ve written. I’ve often wondered what is the best way to do this, and reading Susan Bell’s chapter on the “Macro-Edit” in The Artful Edit, which devotes a section to “intention,” was illuminating. Her question “Why do you want this piece of writing to live?” is one I know I’ll keep in mind in the future. Yet although Bell stresses the necessity of intention, she also encourages “the meander” initially, because “we discover, as we wander, new meanings in our work that w can carry back to the narrative highway.” I found the section on “intention” reassuring in the same way as Boyle’s answer: it’s okay if you don’t know where you’re going at first, as long as you find your destination along the way.

-Alina Grabowski

May 3

Learn it: ABCS means Academically Based Community Service

Lorene Cary writes: I always forget the acronym.  But having read the presentation sophomore Alina Grabowski prepared for the ABCS summit this month, I’ll remember it now, for sure:

The first paragraph describing Lorene Cary’s advanced fiction class on the Penn Creative Writing website reads as follows: “In this class students will write fiction and revise and edit their own and others’ writing in the context of the One Book One Philadelphia project. We will read the year’s featured One Book novel, Kevin Powers’ Yellow Birds, and use it as an anchor. The citywide program, in which we’ll participate, will act as our extended classroom.” In this class, we were outside the classroom as much as we were in it. For me, this was a class about sharing—sharing writing, spaces, and ourselves. 

On the way to Saul Agricultural High School, where we teach a class of AP English students for one period, Professor Cary drives through parts of Philly unfamiliar to us. She has picked us up in her car, and we listen as she not only passes streets and buildings new to us, but describes them. As these histories of Philadelphia are shared, our eyes don’t leave the window—new parts of the city are opening to us.

The students we work with open to us, too. They show us into their lives and are generous enough to leave parts of them on paper for us. Before we visit Saul we test out our lesson plan at Mighty Writers, an after-school creative writing program with a branch in West Philly. Our writing exercises revolve around The Yellow Birds, but these students have not read the book, as the ones at Saul will have. They patiently read the excerpts we have photocopied, and seem to like it. The novel is about a soldier’s experience in the Iraq War, and I have chosen to have my two-person group read a passage where the main character visits a cathedral. After discussing the excerpt, we write about our own sacred places.

Read More

End-of-term Reading 5/2 at 3:45 pm

On Friday, May 2nd at 3:45, join us at Kelly Writers House to hear readings from LORENE CARY’s “One Book, One Philadelphia, One Penn,” and “Learn!” courses. Students in these courses engaged the community and moved through the city: from the Rosenbach Museum and Library, to Saul High School for Agricultural Sciences, to Mighty Writers, and the Free Library. Come hear their work and see the website where they joined with younger writers to post blogs and haiku! To view the website in anticipation of the reading, visit

Please come; please share!

To Edit Is To Listen

At the beginning of The Artful Edit, Susan Bell asserts that “to edit is to listen.” In the case of self-editing, the writer must learn how to listen to her own voice. This distinction made me stop and think about my own experience with writing and editing. For years, I have given my sister notes on her original screenplays and TV pilots. I love to edit her work because she has a humorous voice that is distinctly “Romi.” Lately, I’ve begun to wonder: what does a voice that is distinctly “Berni” sound like? While I’ve done a ton of analytical writing at Penn, I haven’t done any creative writing since elementary school. So, my mission is two-fold: “to learn to hear [myself] better” and to figure out what story I want to tell (2).

- Berni

The Rosenbach: A Book Museum in All Its Glory

The Rosenbach is not for the hyperactive of mind—that is to say, if one has a short attention span for flashy relics or giant paintings, the Rosenbach will seem tame, small, dare I say… quiet. It’s the kind of place only a book lover will love. 

We had a few minutes before our mini-tour began to explore the first floor. The Rosenbach is currently displaying an exhibition on Maurice Sendak. The posters and pictures hailed his work for challenging traditional ideals of kid’s literature: his drawings are scary and his characters openly question authority. While the exhibition harkened back to the 60s, the museum is working to integrate social media as well. They had a photo area where people could put on Wild Thing costumes and tweet their photos. Lorene declined to tweet. 

Before long, we began our tour. We started in a small room where our tour guide gave us a short history of the museum. It was first the home of the Rosenbach brothers who became rare book collectors by way of apprenticeships at their uncle’s bookstore. After they died, they asked that their home house their library collection in a museum open to the public. The Rosenbach is unique from other rare book collections in that anyone can visit to look at the books. They needn’t have a specific research project or proposal in mind. 

Next, we walked around the actual house of the Rosenbach brothers. It was much of what you’d expect from highly educated, well-connected brothers—a beautiful dining room for entertaining guests, statues of bare-chested women and wooden chests on every floor near the stairs, historic royal documents displayed on the wall, and wide staircases covered in fine carpet. The house was spacious and sunny. 

We ended our tour in one of the brother’s libraries. Most of his books were housed in tiny boxes built to look like the outer cover of a book. Our guide was kind enough to pull out original manuscripts from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to show us the dramatis personae of the work. Stoker’s original concept for the work was a play! Needless to say, all four of us were crowded around a single piece of paper trying to decipher the scribbles of an author who put pen to paper over 100 years ago. 

We had a brief discussion about the changes to archiving rare works in today’s digital world. Book collectors are looking at new ways to collect, maintain, and display first drafts that are “born digital” or typed completely on a computer. Collectors have a whole new set of challenges to face that don’t have anything to do with sunlight, ripped pages, or fading ink. 

Lastly, we visited the reading room where Alina and Berni shared their stories. It was a relaxing afternoon spent marveling at literary treasures new (from the class’s works) and old. 

Though I would describe the Rosenbach as a reading nook tucked into Rittenhouse Square, that is not to say that the museum doesn’t have its wild side. As I was walking out the door, an employee urged me to grab a magnet before I left. It read “Get Lit at the Rosenbach.” 

Thanks, Rosenbach!

For a wonderful Rosenbach Museum and Library mini-tour and class in your reading room.  Quel luxe!

Coming up:

  • Reading a 3-minute excerpt of your work at the class reading: Friday, May 2, at 3:45 pm at Kelly Writers House.

  • A final portfolio DUE May 1 - May 5 including: one short story, submitted for publication; one document that compiles your critiques of Saul and Mighty Writers’ work; one critique of a classmate’s story; one blog, revised, short, sharp on The Yellow Birds, and one on The Artful Edit.  
Apr 8
From a Cary English writing alumnus who’s now teaching.  So grateful he shared this! Read it here.

From a Cary English writing alumnus who’s now teaching.  So grateful he shared this! Read it here.

Apr 8

Ladies lunch

At my house. See your email for details.  


In The Yellow Birds, John says “I had to learn that freedom is not the same thing as the absence of responsibility.” With the marching cadence, I think of the freedom of the yellow bird, who’s “perched upon my windowsill”, residing between the open exterior of the outdoors and confined interior of the house. He could easily fly away, but instead he is “lured [not guided, not urged]… in.” I think the innocence, perhaps even naiveté, of the yellow bird is highlighted by the contrast of the harsh, brutal language of the last lines: “I smashed/His fucking head.” 

Whereas the marching cadence recounts freedom snatched by someone else, the Browne quotation speaks to how we can sabotage our own freedom. Soldiers with PTSD are not familiar with nature’s “merciful provision”; instead their sense do indeed “relaps[e] into cutting remembrances” and their sorrows are “kept raw by the edge of repetitions.” Usually ignorance and forgetfulness are thought of unfavorably, but here they’re necessary to find relief from the haunting memories of war. Memories, which we so often strive to keep alive, and which we use to sustain the narratives of history, are here the enemy. How do you find peace with your current state if your mind won’t allow you to forget “evils past”?


Cutting Remembrances

When I read the Traditional U.S. Marching Cadence, I picture Sergeant Sterling reciting it with the same disturbing enthusiasm he displays while firing at human beings. As a reader, I react to these passages with horror and struggle to comprehend the words on the page. If I feel this way reading it, what must it have felt like to live it? Sterling’s lived experience strikes me as one unsettling connection between the two parts of the epigraph; perhaps he arrived at the attitude captured in the marching cadence by adopting the mindset described in the Browne quote. For most of the book, Sterling deals with his immersion in so much evil by distancing himself from it emotionally. Bartle, on the other hand, cannot do so; years later, his senses are still “relapsing into cutting remembrances.”


Innocence: You Can’t Go Back

“And now, as I remember it, I can feel how young I was. I can feel my body before it was scarred.” When Sterling asked Bartle his age, he responded 21. There he was, standing with 18-year-old Murph, from “a place where a few facts are enough to define you.” In the Traditional US Army Marching Cadence, war lures in the innocent yellow bird. The first simple, rhythmic, childlike lines add to the harsh effect of the last two lines. Here are these young, innocent boys with simple dreams who the war strips of their innocence and humanity completely and irredeemably. The contrast between the yellow bird on a windowsill and its smashed head provides intense juxtaposition between the innocence and excitement of the young soldiers with what they turn into during and after the war. Murph describes combat as being “like a car accident… feels pretty helpless actually, like you’ve been riding along same as always, then it’s there staring you in the face and you don’t have the power to do shit about it.” This quote and the Marching Cadence make a mockery of heroism and free will in war. They show soldiers as inert beings to whom things just happen. The effect of this is demonstrated in Browne’s quote, which speaks to Bartle when he returns home and feels like he’s “being eaten from the inside out.” His PTSD puts him in a position where his memories inhibit his existence in a normal reality. His life becomes inhibited by the repetitions of a senseless story. He tries to remember and tries not to. There is no now but a kaleidoscope of memories, but these are “cutting remembrances,” too hard to remember, but too hard to forget. 


And I smashed: the enemy, my memory, our soldier

It’s natural to cringe at The Yellow Birds marching cadence. It is emblematic of the unadulterated violence of the book. Why do soldiers sing it? Soldiers must be conditioned to accept such violence in their lives in order to survive. For example, the narrator states, “…we only grieved those we knew. All others were a part of the landscape…” All smashed yellow birds are simply a part of the landscape.

The quote from Sir Thomas Browne can be analyzed in three ways in relation to memory. Soldiers, especially those who suffer from PTSD, often have problems with memory loss. This is a “mercifull provision” that protects them from the evils they encountered and perpetuated. Secondly, society is implicated. It forgets the wrongs it commits against other nations and we are not kept “raw by the edge of repetitions.” Because of this, we are more willing to move forward with destructive behaviors. Lastly, the soldiers suffer at the hands of society. People are quick to send the military to war but, after the war is done, “we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes” and we forget our soldiers. They end up abandoned: drunk in a river, in jail, homeless, dead from alcoholism and addiction. And society forgets to care.  

Gionni Ponce is a budding writer with roots in Phoenix, Detroit, and Philadelphia. Her poetry and prose has been published in La Vida Magazine, CRED Philly, and the WordXWord website. She is interested in the intersection of activism and writing. Email her at