Pulling on dozens of literary stars — from Rilke to Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, New York Times columnist David Carr to Mary Karr, author of the Liar's Club, and the work of her own students at Penn, author Beth Kephart has given us a wise new guide to writing memoir, Handling the Truth, out August 6 from Gotham Books.
Kephart is assertive and daring in her defense of memoir as a top literary form. She's tired of it being disparaged by critics who see only self-indulgent dreck and of would be memoirists who peddle little more than overheated diary. "If you want to write memoir," she notes, "you need to set the caterwauling narcissism to the side."
And you better listen up, for Kephart, who has written four memoirs, one nominated for the National Book Award, has produced a comprehensive guide to the form. Read memoir, she insists (and includes a reading list), and make yourself emotionally vulnerable. "Whenever I teach memoir… when I have the urge to again write it, I live in the danger zone."
Throughout the book, Kephart speaks directly to the aspiring writer in language that is both direct and rather wonderfully imaginative; this alone is inspiring. She discusses the transformation of diary and personal events into literary meaning, choices of tense, the interplay of photography, memory, landscape, and the force of the weather. She demands truth and authenticity — and courage. "You may," she reminds her reader, "be ridiculed, harassed, taken down in the court of public opinion."
She says you'd better have empathy, seek beauty, and try to understand love.
All this sage advice and the wide-ranging texts she employs to support it make this a book useful for any writer, in just about any form (and all forms cross-pollinate and cross over anyway). Working on a novel? Well, you'd better have empathy. Consider yourself a poet: probably a good idea to listen equally well to yourself and the outside world. A journalist? Your stories will be all the more powerful if you can ascribe meaning to prosaic events.