in appreciation of our teachers: an interview with beth kephart

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I have been reading Beth Kephart’s work since before I could call myself a writer and really believe it. And when I say I was reading Beth’s work, I mean I was studying it. Because each of her books and essays seems effortless, as if she reached up and pulled the words from the sky. Voilà! It’s never that easy, of course. I know that. So I study her work to understand how she does it.

I remember that early on in the writing of Ready for Air, I turned to Beth’s words, particularly to her memoir Still Love in Strange Places, to figure out how to write Donny—to really get him down on the page in a living, breathing way, to write our relationship with all its love and complexity and to write it with as much honesty and reverence as I could.

Six years ago, I wrote these words:

“I needed to see that it was possible to show the different ways that Donny and I think and inhabit and experience the world. (And indeed, when Stella was in the hospital—and in the months after she was home and I was stuck inside with her, quarantined from the world—we seemed to experience everything differently.) And so I would tumble into Kephart’s books, and think yes, yes. It’s all there.”

I still feel that way about her work, still tumble into it searching for guidance, for answers. So I was *so* excited to hear that she’d published a book on writing memoir. Handling the Truth is full of exercises and gems of wisdom. But you will want to read this book not only for the instruction and inspiration, but because Beth invites you into her own life, illustrating in her gorgeous prose the power of memoir.

Thank you, Beth, for helping me find my way into the words I have needed to write. And thank you for taking the time to be here at Motherhood & Words today! I’m honored to have Beth here today chatting with me:

KH:  You write, “Teaching memoir is teaching vulnerability is teaching voice is teaching self.” Can you talk a little more about that? How have you seen these three things—vulnerability, voice and self—emerge in your students over your years of teaching?

BK:  I love this question, and can I answer the second part first? I do see vulnerability, voice, and self emerge in my students. I do, and it thrills me every single time this happens.

But to answer your first question, what I’m really writing about there is posture. I am encouraging writers to put aside any defensive attitudes, any cocky self-assurance, any presumptions. I am saying, Come to this work raw. Expect to be changed by the process of writing memoir. Don’t assume you know all the answers—or even all the questions—before you start. Voice emerges over time, just as story emerges over time. And you won’t attain either if you don’t allow yourself to be moved and surprised by the search for your own story.

KH:  Oh I love that. It’s something that I always come back to with my students: writing is an act of discovery.

You write memoir, fiction and poetry. Does your writing process change depending on the genre in which you’re working? And as a follow-up: Last week I was able to hear Edwidge Danticat speak, and she said that her subject often dictates the genre. Has this been the case for you?

BK:  Kate, I so often wish it was easier. I can only tell you how it looks from here, where I am in the midst of writing my eighteenth book, a young adult novel. I find writing to be brutally difficult, every time out. Experience might make self-critiquing easier, but it doesn’t help with the raw structuring and writing. I want to be original, to approach the page with fresh eyes and ears. The more I write the harder it becomes not to repeat myself. The more I write the more I have to change the writing process, and the shape of the challenge.

In general, I wait to write until something seizes me. After that, I will write many pages, play with many voices, switch the tenses, use different filters until the work seems to have some integrity. And only then do I know if it is a poem, a story, a blog post, a novel. Sometimes I have to start at the beginning and work through to the end. Sometimes I begin in the middle of a book, and then something breaks and I won’t know the beginning for a long time. And sometimes all I have is an image of the end. This is true, no matter what genre I’m working on.

KH: How do these three genres inform each other in your writing?

BK: Memoir, to me, is an extended poem. It is an extension of an image, an idea, a journey. I feel the same hush around me whenever I write either—and if I don’t, I simply set the work aside until I am ready for it.

With fiction it takes me longer, often, to achieve that hush, that urgency, that power. I have to write most novels dozens of times (Small Damages took more than eighty drafts) until I have the immediacy, relevancy, emotional accuracy, and knowing that I believe every book must have, no matter the genre. Writing fiction helps me strengthen the narrative tension of my memoirs (or now, my memoiristic essays). Writing poetry helps me find the core idea, or single most compelling image. Writing memoiristically helps me ensure that everything I’m doing is somehow true.

KH:  I can’t find your words in the book right now, but you say something about having been ready to move away from memoir after you had written five of them. I definitely felt I needed a break from myself on the page after writing Use Your Words and Ready for Air, so I really relate to this. How does writing fiction feed you in a different way? Does memoir still tug at you?

BK:  I do feel that we put so much at stake—and the lives of our loved ones at stake—when writing memoir, and I have not wanted to wade into those waters again. I have learned my lessons. But Handling the Truth is full of small true moments in my life—my mother, my father, my friends, conversations I have had, moments in the classroom. It was easy to write those scenes. I was happy writing this book.

And I am being asked, more and more, to write memoristic essays for magazines and newspapers. So I am not writing a full memoir. I don’t know that I’d ever do that again, though I’ll never say never. But I am enjoying writing these memoiristic essays. Each piece is a fresh journey.

KH:  I learned about writing weather and using weather to reflect the emotional truth of scene from reading your work. Please talk a little about the importance of weather in your writing. Also, how do you get your students to let weather seep into their prose and become a character on the page?

BK:  Landscape is a character to me. Weather is also a character—physical, metaphorical, symbolic, mood. We can’t write weather unless we actively look for it, actively remember it, document it. So I want my students to get into the habit of writing weather down, of taking the time to notice it.

Their prose changes as they realize that they have many responsibilities as memoir writers—that they are not just rendering a self, but rendering a world. I always tell my students what is missing, what they didn’t enable me to see or feel. And then they return to their work, and the weather seeps in.

KH:  For me Handling the Truth is, in part, a letter of appreciation to your students. You have been teaching for several years. How have your students and your teaching affected you and your own writing?

BK:  I have taught for many years. Early on I was teaching children, in my home and at a local garden. Later I began to teach workshops for both children and adults. I came to Penn first to mentor a single student and then as an adjunct. I only teach in the spring semesters. I am hugely engaged with my students, work to give each one the right education, to find each one the right books, to be there, for each one, long after the last grades are in. I can’t really write much—or, I should say, write extended narratives—when I teach. Writing is private and teaching is public. And since I also run a business that takes enormous focus, something has to go. My long-form writing goes when I teach.

But when I am not teaching, my students are there—in my heart and in my life. The novel I am writing now is inspired by two of the young women I’ve come to know and respect. I’m not writing about their lives at all; I’m not telling their stories—I would not do that. I’ve simply named my characters for them (with my students’ permission) because every single time I type their names, I am inspired.

KH:  Oh yes, that’s exactly it—it’s so unexpected the ways our students end up inspiring us and informing our work. Thank you, Beth, for taking the time to answer these questions and share your many gifts!

handling_the_truthFINAL

Friends, you can enter to win a copy of Handing the Truth by leaving a comment below by Friday, October 11th about who has inspired you—writers, teachers, blogger, someone else in your life? (*Winner must be in the continental U.S.) I look forward to your thoughts!

 

 

47 Comments

  1. Thank you, Kate, for this insightful, meaty interview. I am reading Handling the Truth right now and loving it!

  2. Kate, your story of Ready for Air inspires me, and taking Motherhood and Words last year got me writing my story, or maybe started me writing, but started me writing with more focus and purpose.

    Great interview—and this book is already on my to read list!

  3. Kate, I am so hugely honored by even being on this page with you. And now I read your introduction and you’ve made me cry.

    Thank you. I am posting now on my blog.

    And ladies and gentlemen reading this, Kate’s brand-new memoir is incredible. I can’t wait to blog about it in a month or so!

  4. Oh Sara, thank you. And YOU inspire me. Thank you for your incredible prose and your powerful story!

  5. no need to enter me as I have the book, but Beth is such a gem and she reveals so much in her answers.

  6. What a great interview, Kate. Sounds like a great book. I’ve been inspired by many writing teachers, including, of course, you! Right now I’m working with a mentor–Aaron Hamburger–who provides the exact perfect combination of encouragement, praise, and targeted critique aimed at helping to make the work better. He is a true teacher and I feel fortunate to work with im.

  7. I have been hugely inspired by the amazing bloggers writing from all sides of adoption; mothers, fathers, adult children. It has been an education for me to see how some have changed over the years of growing, parenting, reading and writing. The community of adoption bloggers has been a dramatic force for good in my life. This type of blogging is a kin to memoir writing, I believe. I would really love to win a copy of Beth’s book!

    • Oh wonderful, Andromeda! It *is* amazing what kind of community can develop because of blogs, isn’t it? Thanks for stopping by and commenting. You’re in the running for Beth’s book.

  8. I’m inspired by people like Joan Didion, Yo-Yo Ma, and Joyce Carol Oates, whom I never will meet and properly thank – often, in fact, by famous people whose growth as artists and people I have appreciated over the years. Many people in my life has inspired me as well, but none more than my grandmother, syrupy as it may be, for being the one with the clearest eye and purest responses to life –

    I’d love to read this book! Thank you.

    • Oh Melanie, I love that! What a beautiful way to put it: ” the one with the clearest eye and purest responses to life.” Thanks for stopping by, and you’re in the running for Beth’s book!

  9. I enjoyed the depth of your interview with Beth. I felt like I was eavesdropping on an intimate chat. I already have the book and am reading it slowly to savour it. It will be dog eared I can tell 🙂

  10. Kate! You, your book, and your blog, and your dedication has inspired me. Really! And I would love to be entered in the drawing.

  11. No need for a copy, as I’ve already read and loved Beth’s book, but today I also had the pleasure of reading “Ready for Air” — while in the air. On my way to deliver my own “baby” to college, yours was the book I chose for the journey; somehow it was perfect, even though I was brushing away tears throughout the second flight. So, how wonderful to find you both here tonight, sharing your thoughts about the creative life and about the voyage of discovery that is memoir. “Not just rendering a self, rendering a world”: yes. You are both writers who inspire me to stretch further and to dig deeper.

    • Oh Katrina, thank you so much. I’m so honored that you chose my book to accompany you on your journey. Oh how emotional you must be right now. Your BABY! Thinking of you, and grateful, as always, for your words.

  12. Kate Hopper, you inspire me — as a writer, as someone who faces setbacks and keeps going toward her dreams, and as a brave person figuring out how to live with uncertainty, and to do so generously and joyfully.

  13. Oh Nina, thank you so much.

  14. Thank you Beth and Kate, for sharing all this! Well, “The Line is White, and It is Narrow” is my favorite essay of all the time. I was blown away by it the first time I read it in your class, Kate. I will look forward to reading Beth’s new book too.

    As for who has inspired me, of course…Kate! And I think you know why. Even long after I finished your class you’ve continued to be there for me. And knowing how hard you have pushed yourself too, and being so honest about all your struggles along the way…

    • Oh Cecilia, thank you! I didn’t mean for this to turn into a Kate lovefest, but I love knowing my teaching has made a difference. What could be better?

      I’m just grateful that you’re sharing you’re beautiful writing with the world!

  15. I am deeply, deeply moved by all these responses, these thoughts about teachers and teaching texts. This memory about a certain essay about white lines. Thank you to all. Thank you to Kate.

  16. I am new to both your blog, Kate, and to Beth’s blog and am learning lots. Wonderful interview. Thank you both, Kate and Beth, for this insight into memoir writing. I would love to obtain a copy of Beth’s book. I’m going to look into your books, too, Kate.

    I was an LPS student when I graduated from UPenn, and was unable to take one of Beth’s courses, although I had two wonderful non-fiction professors, Lise Funderburg and Kitsy Watterson. I am presently writing about my experience attending college as a mother of five. My children were and are the center of my life and their presence punctuates my memoir.

    I’m going to follow your blog, Kate, as I follow Beth’s. Thank you both again for all the tips and assistance you give to new writers. ~Victoria Marie Lees

  17. Kate, you inspire me! And was so fun to see you on the starting line of the Tri. Amazing. Can’t wait to see you read tonight and to pick up Beth’s new book. Love you both.

    (and yes, this can be a Kate lovefest)

    • Oh Jen, thank you! And it was such a relief to see you at the starting line. I didn’t realize how nervous I was! Next year will feel like a breeze, I hope! See you tonight!

  18. Pingback: beth kephart: more love | Motherhood & Words

  19. Thank you for such a wonderful interview with an author (and by an author) who I admire. There are so many people who have inspired me throughout the years…too many to name here…except to say that Jane Goodall inspired me to go after my passion. After listening to a lecture by her while I was in high school, my life changed in enormous ways as I was thrust into seeing the world in a different way. Since then, some of my gusto for my dreams and passions has diminished, but I still consider Jane Goodall to be the inspiration for many choices I made as a young adult.

    • Dear Amy, I love that! Jane Goodall was a huge inspiration to my younger sister, as well. I think she has that effect on so many people. Thanks so much for your comment!

  20. You Kate! For sure. Also Anne Lamott & Natalie Goldberg. When I am in a rut and looking for a way out, I can turn to any page of Use your Words, Bird by Bird, or Writing Down the Bones and I am with friends. I remember that I am a writer……. these three books live in my nightstand for this reason. Like friends to keep close…..

  21. Am I too late? I love Beth Kephart and have already read “Handling the Truth,” among others of hers, but I would love to have my own copy and would certainly use it with my writing students, and to fuel my own writing.

    Inspiring? Somehow, everything Anne Lamott writes whooshes right to my heart and makes me feel human. Use Your Words is also sure to jar me out of any block, and as i’ve used it in my creative non-fiction classes, it can translate to unlocking the writer’s mind even outside of writing about motherhood. Love the tips, exercises and stories within.

    • Oh Rachel, not too late at all. I’ll draw names tomorrow morning! Oh I know about AL, and I’m so glad that Use Your Words helps, too!! Thank you, my dear!

  22. Oh, Kate, I love this! I can’t believe I’ve never read Beth’s work and am going to remedy that IMMEDIATELY. The notion of memoir as an extended poem took my breath away. Wonderful. xox

  23. I’ll go all the way back…in second grade, I read Mom, You’re Fired by Nancy K. Robinson. The moment I finished my first novel still shines bright. How could she understand me so well? How did she do that? Could I write like that? Decades later, I’m still trying.

    Also, Kephart’s A Slant of Sun remains one of the best books regarding a child’s autism spectrum disorder I’ve read.

  24. Just found this and love it. So many great thoughts, quotes. The 80 drafts goes in the Oh My God category, makes me feel like a slacker with my memoir’s six versions…

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