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!
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!