It has been several weeks since I posted my review of Beth Kephart’s August release, Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about those wise words. My review of the book heaped on the praise, and I think that I’ve merely joined a widening group of reviewers who are in love with this writing reference/memoir — from other bloggers like Florinda and Patty to her former student, Stephanie Trott, the New York Journal of Books, and Booklist. And let’s not forget the elite list the book landed on in O Magazine, alongside another of my favorites, Stephen King.
In addition to all of this talk about her book and her extremely busy schedule, she took a few minutes between the end of her corporate work and her dinner to answer some interview questions about her book and about writing memoir. I’m forever grateful. Please give her a warm welcome:
Do you recommend changing friend/family names in memoir? By the same token, should an author consider a pen name when writing memoir? Why or why not?
Although I try never to say never, I advocate against changing names. It is a slippery slope. A name changes, a detail changes, a scene changes, a year changes, and then…we have fiction. Yes, I recognize the importance of protecting others. But if the story is so dicey that people will be upset if their real names are used, should you be telling the story? For truly, at the end of the day—name changed or not changed—the person who is being written about is going to recognize herself/himself. And so, most likely, will the neighbor.
In the book, you talk about asking your students to take photos and then write about something in the background, rather than the foreground. Should students apply this to their own memoir writing by not writing about the first most obvious memory or issue they think of and seek the memories or ideas just at the periphery?
A great question. I believe that we often write our very best when we don’t take the straight on path toward a story. Approach the memoir from multiple angles. Value the oblique. Dwell in the unexpected tangent. See what happens.
As a follow-up to that question, how would you advise a student who also dabbles in photography, but prefers to fill the frame with their chosen subject (i.e. a niece’s face, a tree, et. al.) so that nothing, if just a bit of sky is visible in the background?
Well, there you go. Another great question. But, Serena, even with a macro lens there is something just beyond the image’s true focus. There is something unintentional, in other words. What is it? Why is it there?
When you began your writing of memoirs, what types of fears did you suppress in order to send out that first manuscript? Did you think it was polished enough and how did you know? Was it a different type of fear because it was memoir and more personal, rather than separateness that fiction affords sometimes or do you find that the anxieties are similar?
I was a completely naïve first-time writer, with no connections, no expectations, no real sense of the writing life. Remember, this was the pre-blogging era. This was me—a full-time mother and freelance business writer with no writing friends, no book groups, no teacher until I went to Spoleto on a family vacation and met Rosellen Brown and Reginald Gibbons. I did not know what I was in for, and so I meandered toward dangers I did not even foresee. I believed I’d written a story that only a handful of friends might read. When Television came knocking, Radio, Prizes, Off Broadway (I capitalize, for I grew to fear these things), I was both unprepared and anxious (and to most things I also said no). I’ve written history, poetry, fable, and young adult literature since. There are anxieties bound up in every genre.
What vulnerabilities do you see showcased in memoir that are not observed in poetry or fiction?
The best memoirs are born of absolute vulnerability. It is the writer saying not, This happened to me, but, This happened to me and I need to know what it means. The search for meaning is the human being at her most vulnerable. We search for meaning in fiction and poetry, too. All good writing comes from this raw place.
What poets/poems or fiction have taught you techniques or styles that would work well in memoir? Please feel free to share any examples.
I could go on and on in answer to this question. But, simply: Gerald Stern, the poet, teaches what the conversational sounds like, even within the space of a monologuing poem. Michael Ondaatje and Alice McDermott teach the power of honesty, no matter the form. I never think about technique. I think about impact.
Finally, what would you have done for a career had you not taught and written books?
Well, I smile, for I guess I am living that career. I’ve had my own business since I was twenty-five, writing annual reports, histories, books, and employee magazines/newsletters for companies and not-for-profits. It consumes upwards of eighty hours each week. Writing and teaching are what I do on the side.
What are your thoughts on memoirs — the writing and reading of them?
For one lucky reader interested in writing memoir or otherwise, please comment about what your memoir would be and why.
You’ll be entered to win a copy of Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth.
This giveaway is international. Deadline to enter is Aug. 30, 2013 at 11:59 PM EST.