TELLING THE TRUTH — how to do it, why it’s important, and how to avoid the temptation to stray from it – is perhaps the gnarliest of topics for memoir writers. And so I leave it to Beth Kephart, author of the marvelous new book, Handling the Truth, On The Writing of Memoir, to take on this round with you. I’ve have at this topic before, and it’s a good one. Beth’s book, just out, is a must-read for all of us who love this genre. Here’s a preview. Enjoy.
Telling the Truth When Writing Memoir
By Beth Kephart
Memoir—that lovely, misunderstood, often contorted beast of a genre—is not, contrary to what some might say, the literary equivalent of a confessional. It is not the Sacrament of Penance. It is not an unmodulated whisper. Memoir is a life story, artfully (honestly) resurrected. It is a quest to understand those things that matter. It is a singular tale with universal consequence. It is the writer speaking not just of herself but of the human condition.
Or should be.
Loved by many, attacked ferociously, honored and muddied, memoir persists because we persist because we all have stories. I teach the genre and I’ve dared to write it. I watch it get made, broken down, and reconciled.
And what surprises me still, after all this time, is how eager some memoir writers are to bend or break the truth. It didn’t really happen quite like that, but the fiction makes for a better tale. It wasn’t winter when it happened, but I’m better with the details of summer. I will change her name and every single thing about her, so that she can’t come after me, complaining. She was sipping tea, but I prefer soda.
It’s true, of course, that truth is elusive, that memory is hardly reliable, that my version is not your version, and that elisions are, by their very nature, a form of white lie. What concerns me—what alarms me—is the active distortion of truth for the sake of a somehow “better” story.
It begins, I find, with the knowing disruption of a single, minor detail. The car he drove. The horse’s color. The size of the caterpillar. No harm in that, the writer thinks. But all of a sudden there’s a hole in the dike. There’s a little of gush of fiction flowing, and pretty soon anything goes. Give yourself permission to lie on purpose with one little thing, and you’ve yourself permission to lie writing forward.
Vigilance is constraining, it’s a wagging finger, it’s an old school marm. It’s so much easier to lie; like comfort food, it can feel good at the time. But truth—your best rendering of it, your most honest try—is, in the end, what you must stand behind. Don’t lie on the little things. Don’t start the precipitous slide.
Handling the Truth, an excerpt
Maybe the audacity of it thrills you. Maybe it’s always been like this: You out on the edge with your verity serums, your odd-sized heart, your wet eyes, urging. Maybe this is what you are good for, after all, or good at, though there, you’ve done it again: wanted proof, suggested the possibility. You teach memoir. You negotiate truth. Goodness doesn’t matter here. Bearing witness does.
Memoir is a strut and a confession, a whisper in the ear, a scream. Memoir performs, then cedes. It is the work of thieves. It is a seduction and a sleight of hand, and the world won’t rise above it.
Or you won’t. You in the Victorian manse at the edge of the Ivy League campus, where you arrive early and sit in the attitude of prayer. You who know something not just of the toil but also of the psychic cost, the pummeling doubt, the lacerating regrets that live in the aftermath of public confession. You have written memoir in search of the lessons children teach and in confusion over the entanglements of friendships. You have written in despair regarding the sensational impossibility of knowing another, in defense of the imperiled imagination, and in the throes of the lonesome sink toward middle age. You have written quiet and expected quiet, and yet a terrible noise has hurried in— a churlish self-recrimination that cluttered the early hours when clear-minded nonmemoirists slept. You have learned from all that. You have decided. Memoir is, and will still be, but cautions must be taken.
Teaching memoir is teaching verge. It’s teaching questions: Who are you? Where have you been? Where are you going? What do you believe in? What will you fight for? What is the sound of your voice? It’s teaching now against then, and leave that out to put this in, and yes, maybe that happened, but what does it mean? An affront? You hope not. A calling? Probably.
You enter a classroom of students you have never seen before, and over the course of a semester you travel—their forgotten paraphernalia in the well of their backpacks, those tattoos on their wrists, those bio notes inked onto the palm of one hand. They will remember their mother’s London broil, but not the recipe. They will proffer a profusion of umbrellas and a poor-fitting snowsuit, a pair of polka-dotted boots, red roses at a Pakistani grave, a white billiard ball, a pink-and-orange sari, a box with a secret bottom, Ciao Bella gelato. Someone will make a rat-a-tat out of a remembered list. Someone will walk you through the corridors of the sick or through the staged room of a movie set or beside the big bike that will take them far. Someone will say, Teach me how to write like this, and someone will ask what good writing is, and you will read out loud from the memoirs you have loved, debunk (systematically) and proselytize (effusively), perform Patti Smith and Terrence Des Pres, Geoffrey Wolff and Mark Richard, Marie Arana and Mary Karr, William Fiennes and Michael Ondaatje, C. K. Williams and Natalie Kusz. You will play recordings of Sylvia Plath reciting “Lady Lazarus” and Etheridge Knight intoning “The Idea of Ancestry,” and you will say, in a room made dark by encrusted velvet and mahogany stain, You tell me good. You tell me why. Know your opinions and defend them.
These aspiring makers of memoir are who you believe and what you believe in—the smiley face tie he wears on Frat Rush Tuesdays, the cheerful interval between her two front teeth, the planks he carries in his dark-blue backpack, the accoutrements of power lifting. Enamored of the color red and hip-hop, declaring you their “galentine,” impersonating Whitman, missing their mothers, missing their dead, they are, simply and complexly, human, and they may not trust themselves with truth, but they have to trust one another. You insist that they earn the trust of one another.
And so you will send them out into the world with cameras. And so you will sit them down with songs. And so you will ask them to retrieve what they lost and, after that, to leave aside the merely incidental. You will set a box of cookies on the table, some chocolate-covered berries, some salt-encrusted chips, and then (at last) get out of the way, for every memoir must in the end and on its own emerge and bleed and scab.
Audacity was the wrong word; you see that now. The word, in fact, is privilege. Teaching, after all these years, is the marrow in your bones. Truth is your obsession.
Excerpted from HANDLING THE TRUTH by Beth Kephart. Copyright (c) 2013 by Beth Kephart. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.
Beth Kephart teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, which is just out and published by Gotham. She blogs daily on literature and life at beth-kephart.blogspot.com.
AND THE WINNER IS…
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons.
The winner of Beth Kephart’s fine book is Jenn. Congratulations, Jenn! I’ll be in touch to send your book.