Book Talk: HANDLING THE TRUTH, by Beth Kephart

Disclosure (non-standard): I received a personally-inscribed galley of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir from the author, Beth Kephart, in an expression of the friendship that has grown out of reading, writing, and Facebook. What follows is not a “review” of the book, but it is my honest response to it.

Twitter conversation 11Aug2013

Beth Kephart is one of a small number of authors who has made me reconsider whether I might not be too old for “young adult”, but she was first published as a writer of nonfiction. One of Salon.com’s “Mothers Who Think”–foremothers of the mom bloggers– in the dark ages of the Internet (read: the late 1990s), Beth’s first book, A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage, was a memoir of her early years of motherhood, and a finalist for the National Book Award. Four more memoirs followed that one, and while Beth has spent more time writing acclaimed young-adult fiction in recent years, memoir still matters to her. In her Creative Nonfiction classes at the University of Pennsylvania, she teaches the art of making memoir to a group of undergraduates every spring. In Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, she brings some of those lessons to those of us not lucky enough to sit in her classroom.

I’m pretty familiar with Beth’s writerly voice now, and while there’s something of her in everything she writes, I’ve never heard that voice more strong and true than in Handling the Truth. When I said that memoir “matters” to Beth, I understated her feelings; memoir done right–experience and truth, shaped by insight into art–is her passion, and this book makes that abundantly clear to both those who want to write memoir and those who just want to read it. Instructive but never pedantic, it’s meant to make you better at both. And Beth leaves no doubt that writers of memoir must be readers of memoir. Handling the Truth abounds with excerpts and examples, and features a generous (50-page!), well-curated list of recommended further reading in both the art and craft of memoir writing.

One thing that Beth clarifies early on is that memoir is a distinct literary form from both fiction and autobiography, although it draws on the facts of the latter and often shapes them with the forms and devices of the former. Thanks to her establishing this distinction so well, I will refer to my preferred guilty-pleasure reading as “celebrity autobiography” from now on, unless it’s clear that the personal story the celebrity has written really is memoir–and I should be able to tell the difference better now.

HANDLING THE TRUTH by Beth KephartHandling the Truth is a practical guide to reading and writing memoir. It breaks down the various elements of the form, and offers illustrations and exercises drawn from the classroom. At the same time, it’s a memoir of Beth Kephart’s own experience with the writing, reading, and teaching of memoir…and the book accomplishes both missions without being overly self-referential or meta. It’s a celebration, examination, and defense of the form. It’s honest and direct about where and how it can go wrong, and why that makes it so important to get it right.

In addition to the tools it offers to be a more discerning reader and a more effective writer–no matter what you’re writing–Handling the Truth has a bigger message for me. I know I’ll never write my autobiography. I’ll probably never write a memoir, either. But I’m always working toward a better understanding of my own story…and if that understanding ever becomes something that could mean something to anyone besides me, it could be memoir.

My copy of Handling the Truth was a gift from its creator, but this book is a gift to all readers and writers, no matter what truths you’re trying to handle. Because this is not a review, I’m not adding a rating to the end of this post, but I am giving a most enthusiastic recommendation. Two of the books cited as “Helpful Texts” in the reading list are Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, both of which also double as writing manuals and memoirs of writing; Handling the Truth belongs right with them on the shelf.

BEA 2011 Beth and me
Beth Kephart (r.) and me at BEA 2011

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir
Beth Kephart
Gotham (August 2013), trade paper (ISBN 159240815X / 9781592408153),
Nonfiction: writing/memoir, 224 pages

Writing memoir is a deeply personal, and consequential, undertaking. As the acclaimed author of five memoirs spanning significant turning points in her life, Beth Kephart has been both blessed and bruised by the genre. In Handling the Truth, she thinks out loud about the form—on how it gets made, on what it means to make it, on the searing language of truth, on the thin line between remembering and imagining, and, finally, on the rights of memoirists. Drawing on proven writing lessons and classic examples, on the work of her students and on her own memories of weather, landscape, color, and love, Kephart probes the wrenching and essential questions that lie at the heart of memoir.

A beautifully written work in its own right, Handling the Truth opens Kephart’s memoir-making classroom—and thoughts—to all those who read or seek to write the truth.

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