“Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir,” by Beth Kephart. Gotham Books/Penguin Group, New York, 2013. 254 pages. $16.
“Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir” by National Book Award finalist Beth Kephart may seem targeted to the writer of memoir. But the subtitle is more encompassing. We are right to expand the scope of the book’s target market to include all students of memoir. Any fan — writer or reader — is going to appreciate “Handling the Truth,” where many of our questions are addressed.
A second bit of business to take care of: Though there are harsh critics of the so-called memoir glut (Neil Genzlinger, writing in the New York Times Book Review, decried this “absurdly bloated genre”), the numbers and the passion of memoir readers win out. Good memoirs are personal and therefore embraceable, unforgettable, instructive, enlightening, often beautifully written and, therefore, works of literary art. Bad memoirs, writes Kephart, can commit any number of errors from Me Speak to lack of reflection and understanding to vengeful.
Kephart, author of 17 books, five of which are memoirs, asks a couple of great questions: What do you, reader, expect of a memoir? What do you, writer of memoirs, expect of yourself as a writer? From this vantage point Kephart, who also teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania, launches in on her discussion. Grab a highlighter because she cites numerous memoirs you may want to read later.
In the book’s five main parts, Kephart covers definitions and cautions, raw material, writing, clarity and truth, and, finally, a valuable listing of good memoirs arranged by topic.
“Handling the Truth” gives us many ways to think about memoirs. For example, it’s not easy to deliver an elevator speech about a good memoir. “What readers want is meaning,” writes Kephart. “They want a story so rich, complex, thought through, and learned from that it can’t, in fact, be revealed by a headline or two; it can’t be satisfactorily summarized.” Among the ways Kephart characterizes memoir: it imparts understanding; it’s a work of art; “first and foremost a meditation and a quest”; “active, alert, not lazy.”
Not all memoirists speak to all people. But if the voice is true and authentic, Kephart says, “then it is likely a voice we will trust. A voice contains tone, mood and attitude.” But be careful not to mistake attitude for bravado, distance from authenticity or anger. These are more likely tirades lacking in comprehension and little connection to a greater world where humanity and meaning reside.
Memoir, she says, bears witness. Memoir is also “the work of thieves.” There are consequences. “Memoir writers have no control over how their cast of characters … will feel about what has taken up residency on your page.” Memoir is grand larceny. Kephart keeps notebooks, studies conversation, saves dialogue. “Train your ear to the habit of speech,” she says. Kephart contacts those in her books and confirms the accuracy of her material. She also implores writers to practice empathy with those they use in their writing. It stops you from hurting the people who are essential to your story. To not do so, she warns, is to corrupt, if not doom, the book. Research is another tool for broadening scope and insight. Without it, she says, you could be perceived as a “narcissistic bore.”
Page 2 of 2 - It is not always possible for a memoirist to be accurate. If their topic is addiction, most likely there’s a lot they can’t remember. The same is true for mental illness. Memory is fallible and concessions must be made. Sometimes memoirists warn in advance of the limitations of recall, as Dorothy Allison does in “Two or Three Things I Know for Sure.” Though “truth is your obsession,” memoirists are writers and storytellers. I’ve heard David Sedaris admit he embellishes his stories, sometimes heavily. And Orhan Pamuk, who wrote the acclaimed “Istanbul,” likes to exaggerate.
Kephart is a natural born teacher. She writes with a certain style that can, at times, evoke a squirm. She’s writing creative prose primarily for writers, which sometimes leads her to “peacocking” — displaying her stuff. She does so with tremendous style, nonetheless.
My own current memoir, written in the present tense, seems to have to work hard to express meaning. I learned why when reading Kephart. Present tense is emotive and experiential. Past tense sets a sturdier stage for cognition and consideration. It’s where you “put knowing over feeling.” Tense is a hard choice, but many authors move back and forth. Another thing memoirs are free to do is get experimental. The author bell hooks in “Bone Black” is a good example.
One day on the train Kephart encounters a student who asks her what she does. She tells him, eventually, that she’s written five memoirs. “Five?” he asks. “Isn’t five a lot? I mean, how much have you lived?” It’s a funny story, but it also points out what we don’t always understand about memoir. It’s just one more way, in literature, to get at truth. You don’t need big bad tragedies to do this, just a story, rich in detail and demonstrating an active search for understandings we can all appreciate.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF. Her creative marketing business, New Arts Collaborative, helps creative businesses find and connect with their audiences.