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Handling the Truth by Beth Kephart

Source: Purchased from Hooray for Books
Paperback, 252 pages
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The best teachers are those that give of themselves freely to their students and their craft, and with reference books available on various ways to write, what to write, and when to write, many will glance at yet another writing reference and dismiss it out of hand. What does that mean? That those people are fools — for Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart, released today, is not a reference, it is a memoir about writing memoir (marking a 6th memoir from her). It is a reference guide written from the perspective of a teacher and writer on how to approach a genre riddled with scandal and debunked by naysayers.  Not only does she peel back the layers that can and should be part of memoir creation, but she also peels back her own experiences and perspective to shed light on the hard work memoirists should expect of themselves.

“Teaching memoir is teaching vulnerability is teaching voice is teaching self.”  (page xii)

“Some of the best memoirs are built not from sensate titillations but from the contemplation of universal questions within a framed perspective.” (page 10)

She shares her favorite places, her favorite music, her favorite memoirs, and her students’ work, and she begs that anyone interested in writing memoir do it because the story must be told and is relate-able to someone outside the self.  Writing the genre requires the writer to be as honest with herself as she can be and to fill the gaps in memory with facts from documents or cross-referencing conversations and moments with those that share the memory.  Reading this reference memoir is like getting to know Kephart on a personal level, but it’s also about getting to know the writer inside you — the one that wants to write the book but doesn’t know where to start.  Although this advice is geared toward those who wish to write their own personal histories, there is sage advice for other writers — fiction writers struggling with what tense to put their book in, for example.

On Mark Richard’s memoir House of Prayer No. 2, she says, “He does it because, in this case, the you is more intimate, more forgiving, more moving than the I ever will be.  It enables Richard to say things about himself and his ungodly circumstance that would be otherwise unthinkable.”  (page 46)

Readers and writers will love the explanations, which are peppered with examples from other writers’ memoirs to demonstrate why certain forms and styles are selected, because at Kephart’s core is a dedicated teacher.  It is these dedicated people who write the best reference books because they put more of themselves and more of their passions into writing them, making them innately more engaging and interesting than other reference guides that merely spout out bullet point advice and little else.  Kephart not only references the memoirs she loves, pulling apart the choices authors made in creating them, but also the ways in which she gets students (and now the readers of her book) to think about memoir and their own lives.  Writing exercises that not only focus on early memories, but also the backgrounds of photos (which can be like those fuzzy memories that have little detail) and poems (from some of my favorites like Ted Kooser).

“A way of eating passes away with your mother.  How you held the sugar on your tongue.  How you stirred the crumbled cheese into the oiled broth.  How you savored the sweet grit of flour in the gravy pot, and the thick pink of the beef, and the heated pear with its nutmeg top, and the brownies with the confectioner’s crust.  You will dig through the freezer at your father’s house, mad for one last frozen roll of checkerboard cookie dough, one Tupperware of thick red sauce, one crystallized slice of eggplant parmesan.  You will burn your fingers with the cold.  Your mother’s cooking will be gone.”  (page 92)

But at all costs, she reminds us that “writing is a privilege,” and that privilege should NEVER be taken lightly.  Effectively, she dispels the myths about memoir, explains what memoir is not, and ensures readers and writers look deeper than the memories and events in their lives to uncover the recurring themes, which could provide insight to others and generate empathy, if not understanding and connection.  More importantly, she reminds readers that memoirs by-and-large leave huge chunks of people’s lives off the page, despite the journaling, writing, and researching done into every aspect.  Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart is an intelligent, passionate reference that not only guides writers on how to tackle memoir writing, but also inspires them to read the memoirs of others and to learn from, as well as advising them on how to live with openness and curiosity.

***I don’t have too many writing reference books because I only keep the ones that speak to me and offer the best advice, and each of those is chock full of sticky flags, and Kephart’s book is going on that shelf.***

Also, check out how this book made me almost cry when reading it.

About the Author:

Beth Kephart is the author of 10 books, including the National Book Award finalist A Slant of Sun; the Book Sense pick Ghosts in the Garden; the autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, Flow; the acclaimed business fable Zenobia; and the critically acclaimed novels for young adults, Undercover and House of Dance. A third YA novel, Nothing but Ghosts, is due out in June 2009. And a fourth young adult novel, The Heart Is Not a Size, will be released in March 2010. “The Longest Distance,” a short story, appears in the May 2009 HarperTeen anthology, No Such Thing as the Real World.

Kephart is a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. Kephart’s essays are frequently anthologized, she has judged numerous competitions, and she has taught workshops at many institutions, to all ages. In the fall of 2009, Kephart will teach the advanced nonfiction workshop at the University of Pennsylvania.

  • I normally do not read memoirs, but because Beth wrote this book, I will read it. I love, love her writing. My dad was the cook in our family and I so miss his specialites. None of us can get it right.

    • Nise, I’m so glad that you will read this. I think this is wonderfully passionate.

  • I’ve yet to get to this amazing author.

  • Ti

    A memoir about writing a memoir, now that’s interesting.

    I have a story to tell, but what keeps me from telling it is that I have to revisit the past to do it and I am not sure I want to.

    • It felt like a memoir to me, even though it does have the feel of an advice book for writers. You’ll know when you’re ready to revisit the past…and that story, Ti.

  • Oh, wow — this sounds amazing!! I need to get it, especially as I’m doing some writing (I hope) over my sabbatical!

    • I hope that you get some writing done. If you need some pick-me-up reference books that have great advice, I have some to recommend.

  • Incredibly grateful, Serena. Incredibly grateful. I cried writing about my mother’s cooking, too. I do miss it, and her, so much. Thank you so much. These words for you: http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2013/08/today-is-day-winner-is-and-thank-you.html

    • Losing my nana was hard enough on me; I cannot fathom losing either of my parents….Thanks for including part of my review on your launch day post.

  • I’ve come to expect exceptional work from Kephart and it sounds like this book delivers.

    • Indeed, it does, Kathy.

  • I can see that this book really affected you. It sounds like the perfect writing reference. I can also see how you’d almost cry reading that excerpt about cooking. Great review!

    • Thanks, Anna. I really loved this one.