Interview: Beth Kephart, author of Handling the Truth, on the writing of memoir

Interview by Lori M. Myers, Interviews Editor

beth kephartI recently posted on my Facebook writer page a wonderful quote from E.B. White that goes something like this: “Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound.” It’s something I asked author Beth Kephart about in this interview because her words have breathed music and life in more than a dozen books and numerous stories and essays. She is the recipient of a list of awards and honors including a National Book Award finalist for her memoir A Slant of Sun.
Lori: In your latest book Handling the Truth, you encourage writers to become vulnerable. What advice do you have for accomplishing that? Why is vulnerability so important?

Beth: When I talk about vulnerability I’m really talking about letting down your guard. To let the past seep into you. To not approach your life story with a sense (early on, at least) that you already know what it all was and what it all meant and now all you have to do is write it down. Memories besiege us. They confuse us. They scatter us. Then they congeal. Let it all happen to you—the hard stuff, the bewildering stuff, the ambiguity, the possibilities—before you try to write your memoir. Evocation is the watchword. Pre-judging isn’t allowed. Reporting isn’t interesting.

If we aren’t vulnerable than we are simply recording the facts as we think they happened. We aren’t allowing ourselves to wonder what it all means.

In Handling the Truth, I suggest a number of exercises—written and otherwise—that put us in that vulnerable frame of mind. Writing about the weather, writing about critical junctures, recreating landscapes, re-experiencing recipes—it all gets us there.

Memories besiege us. They confuse us. They scatter us.

cover of handing the truth title coming out of typewriterIn “Handling the Truth,” you cite many memoirs you admire. What are your top three? Why do they stand out?

I am not a person who typically declares favorites, though just this past week I did announce some top-three-isms (in fiction), and then felt foolish afterwards.

But. Read Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception. Start with those, at least. Then read all 75 others that I cite in the annotated appendix. Because you’ll be happy you did.
Words and music were fascinations for you as a child. What is it about “words” that have  influenced your life. Their meaning? The visual?

What a beautiful question. Their sound. I think it all began with sound. I have danced, ice skated, choreographed, whooshed through this world. I love the sound of words and how, together and intensified, they make of something broken a whole.

I find books that are devoid of empathy to be very empty, unbeautiful books.

Recently, you stated that the best writers of memoir demonstrate empathy. Explain the importance of that and how it can make a difference in the writing of a passage.

When writing memoir you are asking readers to stand for a long time in your shoes. You are asking for far more than that, but you are, bottom line, expecting some degree of empathy from your readers. You want them to see your world your way. You want them to willingly follow your journey, to give you the benefit of the doubt. Give your subjects—the other characters in your memoir—the same empathy you expect of your readers. Think about how they feel, or might feel, frozen on your page. Ask yourself if they have moved on from the terrible moment, or if they will hurt by seeing themselves isolated in time.

It’s not just about what’s fair or who will feel hurt or who will read what. It’s about beauty. I find books that are devoid of empathy to be very empty, unbeautiful books. I don’t gain anything from reading them—only the char of someone’s self-involvement, or, often, anger.
You are so multi-published — memoir, fiction, nonfiction, essays. You teach, you speak, you’re a multi-award winner. Is there anything else in the literary field you want to explore?

Wow, well, I have yet to feel as if I have succeeded, truly. Everything has a touch of imperfection about it. I would love to publish a novel for adults someday. I would be honored to participate in the creation of a screenplay. It would be fun to collect my poems into a single, illustrated book.
Your next book Going Over is a novel that takes place in 1983 Berlin. For you, does writing fiction form an escape from memoir?

I haven’t written a full-length memoir for many years, and that’s on purpose. Recently I agreed to write nearly 8,000 memoiristic words for SheBooks, and it was the first time in a very long time that I stretched in that way with material so personal. It was intensely interesting and gratifying to write the piece—on a number of levels. It was also very frightening. I love writing memoir—absolutely. I tremble when it comes to publishing it. I live with a divided psyche.

It’s actually quite challenging for me to write fiction, though I do love that work as well. I think I write, period, to escape the real world, no matter what genre I’m attempting.
What are your interests beyond the wonderful words you write and teach? Hobbies? Sports?

Well, I’m an old, old, old, old woman. In my youth I was pretty much nothing but an athlete, with a little obsessive compulsive academics thrown in. Now I ballroom dance, do pottery, cook a lot, garden when I can, take long walks, thrill when I can take and publish photographs, travel when I can. But mostly I run a boutique communications business. It keeps me up at night.

Lori M. Myers, Senior Interviews Editor

Lori M. Myers is an award-winning writer and Pushcart Prize nominee of creative nonfiction, fiction, essays, and plays. Her work has been seen in more than 45 national and regional magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. Her plays have been produced on seven regional stages, two have been published, and one was a Broadway World Award nominee. Lori has a masters in creative writing from Wilkes University and currently teaches at Dominican College in New York.

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