Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of sixteen books, including five memoirs. Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham) was recently featured alongside the books of Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and Phillip Lopate as a top writing book in O Magazine. Kephart’s other books include numerous young adult novels, most recently Small Damages, which was named a top book of the year on many lists and was just released in paperback, and three Philadelphia stories: Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, Dangerous Neighbors, and Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent. She is teacher of creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania and a frequent contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer and Chicago Tribune.
I recently interviewed Beth Kephart about Handling The Truth, her favorite memoirs, her best advice to aspiring memoirists, her writing practice, and more. Comment on our conversation to be entered into a random drawing for your very own free copy of Handling The Truth!
1) Why did you decide to write a book about the writing of memoir? What do you hope to accomplish with it?
Handling the Truth arose out of my work at the University of Pennsylvania, where I teach creative nonfiction in the spring. As a teacher, you are forced to think hard about form and genre. What makes memoir memoir, for example? What do I hope students will discover in the books I assign? What do I want for them as writers? Why does memoir even matter? How have I personally been blessed and bruised by the form? What don’t I want for my students as they grow as people and as writers? And then, of course, I just fell in love with my students, and I felt the desire to write about them, and all they were teaching me. I tried not to write the book for awhile. And then I just couldn’t help myself.
2) What’s your favorite
addiction and recovery memoir?
difficult childhood memoir?
Oh, it’s so hard to choose any favorites, really. Because each book teaches something new, and each book rises where you might not expect it, and each book is right for a certain reader at a certain time. It is difficult, too, to classify memoirs, for they often transcend boundaries. I write about some 100 memoirs in Handling the Truth. I can tell you which books I have loved teaching—which books I’m always tempted to assign.
Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje is on the top of that list—a travel memoir, a family memoir, a difficult/interesting childhood memoir, and a don’t-do-this-stuff-as-a-parent memoir. But mostly a collage and a poem and a search.
The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff is right up there as well—the story of the biological father both Geoffrey and his famous brother Tobias shared, though Geoffrey grew up with the dad and Tobias with the mother. This is also a family memoir and a difficult childhood memoir, but I think of it as a forgiveness memoir.
I like to teach Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, which some might classify as an illness memoir, but Lucy herself would cringe at the label. Because really this story of facing disfiguring cancer as a child is a story about beauty, and what it is, and how it matters, and where it can be found.
Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story is infinitely teachable, too. This, of course, is about addiction, but it’s a very universal tale; it isn’t only and exclusively about Caroline and all those years she spent trying to escape her own anxieties with alcohol.
Grief. Elizabeth McCracken and Abigail Thomas write magnificently, understatedly, about grief and their respective losses (a baby, a husband) in An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination and A Three Dog Life, respectively. And Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index, which I read too late to include in Handling, is brilliant.
And parenting. Well. There are so many wonderful books—yours—The Anti-Romantic Child— among them.
I list these books and then I think of all the other memoirs—and memoirists—I love. I mean no harm by not naming them all.
3) What’s the biggest misconception about writing memoir?
That it’s mostly about personal therapy. The process can be therapeutic. But the final book must not simply be a woe-is-me accounting of something that happened. That closes the door on readers.
4) How is writing memoir similar to and different from writing fiction?
Both require imagination. Both should entail research. Both must come from a big place, a big need, a big something to say. But memoir does what it can to map the truth (as difficult as that can be). And fiction is free; it has no bounds.
5) What novels do you think might be especially helpful to aspiring or practicing memoirists?
What a fantastic question!! (You rock, Priscilla Gilman). Why don’t we start with those novels that are very close to truth. Say Her Name, for example, by Francisco Goldman, which recounts his marriage to a young woman who died by force of the sea. It’s her story, but it’s her story reimagined. Goldman doesn’t want anyone to think that it all happened just precisely like this. I’d like also to note Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan as a novel that is hugely autobiographical—retracing the author’s experience during the Cambodian genocide. The book was written, in large part, to honor Ratner’s father. But because the author was a child when so much of the (terrible) action took place—and because she needed the freedom that fiction yields—she wrote her book as a novel.
Why not also look at Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which was labeled as memoir, but which Eggers himself strongly asserts, in so many footnoted ways, may have more fiction in it than “traditional” memoir. And memoirists should make a habit of reading those writers—Alice McDermott, Colum McCann, Ondaatje, again—who can write like hell. All memoirists should write like hell.
6) At the risk of offending, can you name for us a memoir that was lauded by others or sold well, was celebrated or successful, but that you just didn’t like? Why didn’t you like it?
Yes. You know me well. I do worry about offending. I try never to think about liking or not liking, but about whether or not the book is truly memoir (since I teach memoir). I think readers of Handling the Truth may well wonder whether I simply have not read some of the most famous contemporary “memoirs” like The Kiss (magnificently written) or Lucky or Wild or Tender at the Bone of This Boy’s Life. I did the read them (and many others). But for one reason or the other—too purely autobiographical, too ultimately self-involved, too overtly fictionalized—I did not include them in my book. That doesn’t make any of these books bad books by any stretch. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like (some of) them. It just means they are not truly memoir, the way I have come to think of the term. Just because a book isn’t memoir doesn’t mean it is a bad book, I guess I’m saying.
7) What are some of the most obvious no-nos for memoirists?
Don’t preach, don’t condemn, don’t accuse, don’t judge, don’t write autobiography.
8) Is there something that all good memoirists do?
Think beyond themselves.
9) Can you describe your writing practice for us? Where do you write? How often? Do you have a particular routine or set of requirements that you need in order to write?
You know, I’m often so busy with my day job that I just plain don’t have time to write most of the time. But when I do—in stolen weekend hours, or over holidays—I don’t work at the computer until I have to. I sit on the couch, with pen and paper, put my head back and dream. To begin any project I take a walk. Just to clear the air. Just to help me think beyond all the worries that crowd my day. But, gosh. It’s been two months now since I’ve written book material. I wonder if I still know how it gets done.
10) What is your favorite poem and why?
Oh, that’s a tough one. A favorite, she asks! Can I list favorite poets? I will. Stanley Kunitz. Jack Gilbert. Gerald Stern. Mary Oliver. Oh, I will tell you the poem I love so much that I always read it to my younger students (and include in my novel about a young poet, Undercover). It is called “Wild Geese.” It begins:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting….
Just typing those few lines for you right now—it released me. That poem is so empowering and so forgiving and so necessary. I give it to you, to everyone—as powerful as the best memoir anywhere.
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