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Beth Kephart’s first memoir was a National Book Award finalist and was named best book of the year (1998) by several publications. Her subsequent four memoirs earned her additional acclaim and standing among memoir readers. A respected reviewer, essayist, and blogger, Kephart chaired juries for both the National Book Awards and the PEN First Nonfiction Awards. A veteran writing teacher, she currently teaches memoir at the University of Pennsylvania.
A Conversation with Beth Kephart, author of HANDLING THE TRUTH What is memoir, and what is not?Real memoirists write to discover a life, to understand its meaning, to share what has been learned, to reach beyond themselves. They do not write to pronounce, proclaim, accuse, retaliate, lecture, or self glorify. They leave therapy to the paid professionals. Why write a book like this now? Hasn’t the memoir form morphed and leaked into a catchall phrase?Yes, Handling the Truth is a brave endeavor. But what was my choice, really? I fully believe that memoir, done right, can heal, uplift, and instruct. That it is an embattled form of community, worthy of defense and explanation. Can you really teach someone to write memoir?I believe that you can help aspiring memoirists discover their purpose as writers, frame their lives against the backdrop of meaningful questions, and identify and wield the most telling details. I have been amazed by the engineers who emerge from my classroom as talented and ultimately published young memoirists. I have been gratified to watch the journeys of young and old writers—those who weren’t sure at first, and who became sure in time. What are the biggest mistakes memoir writers make? Why does it matter that they get those things right?So much to say here, and so little room. Perhaps it’s easiest to say this: Beginning memoirists tend to believe that just because something happened to them, that something will be of interest to others. But it’s never the thing that happened that matters most. It’s what has been learned, and how the learning has been shaped. Which memoirs have been most influential for you?The first memoir I read was Natalie Kusz’s extraordinary Road Song. I still teach that book, and I still cry when I read it. Running in the Family (Michael Ondaatje), The Duke of Deception (Geoffrey Wolff), Just Kids (Patti Smith), Let’s Take the Long Way Home (Gail Caldwell)—I’m afraid I could go on and on here. As for those who have written about the making of memoir, I am a giant Patricia Hampl fan and Vivian Gornick was quite smart in her delineation of the situation and the story. Can you ever really tell the truth?We can tell our truth. That’s all we’ve got. We know when we start to exaggerate. We know when we “lie” to make things fit or to make the story turn out a certain, perfectly symmetrical, deeply self-congratulatory way. We know when what we write will not resonate with others who have lived the adventure alongside us. We know what we are doing. Do you always hurt someone when you write a memoir?You don’t have to. There are those who haven’t. But goodness, it is a difficult, dangerous, so slippery slope. We forget that even when we write out of love and toward love, we can hurt simply by freezing another in time, by not giving them room to change on the page. Why do beauty and authenticity still matter?Oh my goodness, how could they not? What do we have without beauty? What can we trust in the absence of the authentic? What good are we, especially as writers, if we do not aspire toward both?What is the difference between memoir and autobiography?Memoir yearns to understand what a life means. Autobiography merely tells you, most often in chronological fashion, what happened. The first celebrates our shared human condition. The second shouts, Look at me.What do you ultimately want readers to take away from HANDLING THE TRUTH?I have written this book for both readers and writers, for teachers and students, for the questing souls out there. If I have to name one single thing that I hope readers will take away from this (beyond all the books I recommend and hope they will read), it is this: Truth matters. It can change a life. If you could recommend one memoir that every aspiring memoirist should read, what would it be? Why?Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, because this extraordinary book proves how powerful—and wholly artistic—memoir can be. Running is a poem, a pastiche, a collage, a plot, a confession. It stretches our idea of the form. It changes every time that we read it, just like life itself.
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