Handling the Truth
by Richard Gilbert, Contributing Editor
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of over 20 books of poetry, fiction, and memoir for teens and adults. She is a partner in Juncture Workshops and a professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania, where she received the 2015 Beltran Family Award for Innovative Teaching & Mentoring. She writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer as well as the Chicago Tribune and has been or is being translated into sixteen languages.
Gilbert: In Handling the Truth you keep returning to language. Your prose in the book and elsewhere is deeply felt, simple, precise, and sturdy. These qualities make it gorgeous. How can people learn to write like that? How do you foster that ability in students and in yourself?
Kephart: You ask a wonderful question. Often I’ll be working with a writer whose language is not quite yet there because the story itself is not quite yet there. The particular why of the scene, the thematic intent, the hoped-for mood and tone—none of that has been fully established in the mind of the writer and so the language informs but doesn’t lift, it narrates but doesn’t compel, it reports but doesn’t evoke. One must do a lot of work to find, feel, then sustain the urgency of one’s own story. There are ways to get at that. It takes time and patience.
But even after the writer understands her story, knows what she is after, pushes to get there, the language might falter. It helps to have someone else read that work out loud, so that the writer can hear how it sounds to someone else (what we hear in our own work is frequently not at all what others hear in it). It also helps to study the rhythms, pauses, white spaces, and signifying symbols of established writers—to intimately deconstruct what works and then apply that analysis to one’s own work. Finally, I’ll often help lift a student to a next level by writing all over and through a section or two. I’ll strike words, add pauses, leave blanks for necessary moments, then ask the student to listen as I read the original out loud and then read the reconstructed. What has changed? I’ll ask. What do you learn from this? What can be applied to your own work?
I don’t want students to sound like me or to sound like any other author. But I do want students to expand their sense of what language is and can do.
Gilbert: By the same token, you’re not only a sensitive writer, you’re a productive one. What sustains your practice? Can you teach others what might help keep them going as writers?
Kephart: I’m always at a loss about how to answer this sort of question. Weeks, months, entire half years go by when I am not able to write any book of my own. I ran a business for many years that consumed up to 80 hours a week. I’m building a new business now, and it is all encompassing. I don’t write anything but book reviews, blog posts, and a monthly column on place when I am teaching. So in my own estimation I’m often not working as a real writer.
But I am out there seeing, observing the world, feeling. I’m taking those photographs you talk about. I’m listening to others. I’m imagining things. I take a few notes here and there. I send myself research and put it into electronic files (research is crucial to all of the work I do). I walk around with the beginning of a story in my head, a smattering of characters, a landscape, and that keeps me company in the dark of night. That keeps me believing that I will, again, have a story to write.
But it is never easy for me to find the time to write. And it is never easy for me to write well once I do find that time. I am, as you mentioned, not a brilliant first drafter, third drafter, tenth drafter, and I would assert that I am not brilliant, finally, at all. I love language. I love story. I fight my way back to writing and through it, because writing keeps me whole.
It’s the thing I claim for myself.
Gilbert: Handling the Truth grew out of your teaching undergraduate students, and one of your new initiatives is a proprietary workshop series you’re calling Juncture that shifts location—so far, five day’s writing on a farm, or beside the sea, or along the woods. Could you talk about what you’ve learned in the past year by teaching students in those settings?
Kephart: Juncture has become this next chapter in my life and in the life of my husband, an artist and photographer and web builder and newsletter designer and videographer (we also make educational videos) and all the rest of it, all these components that we have discovered that we need as we create this entity.
Our first memoir workshop was on a farm, and Richard, it was extraordinary. Our inaugural writers entered this world that was at the time deep into an utterly unanticipated drought. The writers didn’t know each other (for the most part). They didn’t know us. They didn’t know that roosters could sing (if you want to call it that) at 3 a.m. or that a goose would walk beside you in the dark of night or that peahens are a startling white or that the buzz of flies over dropped fruit sound like a storm. We used that farm as backdrop. We found ourselves stripped down and then built back up by all that we encountered. We found our memories in a foreign place; the foreign place startled those memories free. We went big and we were transformed.
I had thought the landscapes would lead us somewhere essential. The thrill of it all was that it did.
In two weeks we will work with writers at the Jersey shore. While my framework for teaching will be similar there, my prompts, invitations, explorations, world-and-book building will all be shaped by the weather and landscape of the off-season sea. We will have an entirely different experience because the landscape is so different.
Next year I’ll teach in a garden. And we are currently looking at other landscapes.
Gilbert: In your experience with Juncture and at Penn, what are the top three issues that memoirists often struggle with or, at the least, need to learn as soon as they can? Another way to ask this is: How and where might a novice to memoir start writing one?
Kephart: The memoirist needs to recognize, pretty early on, that memoir is not autobiography. Memoir is a search for universal truth, a quest. Autobiography is a chronological report on a life.
The memoirist must set aside the desire to win the war she might have had with another, to out the aggressor, to have the last word. Any reader can see through that. And it makes for a one-dimensional book.
The memoirist might begin by crafting a single glorious scene. By that I mean: Think toward a quiet place. Gather old photographs, scrapbooks, letters, whatever it takes. Remember one moment in time—the landscape, the people, the weather, the feeling, the truth of it. Remember vividly. Then write and shape and write and shape and let that one small scene speak. Let it establish a rhythm, a mood. Who knows how or even if that scene will show up in the final book. It doesn’t matter. The memoirist has claimed a way of speaking, a tone, an idea about the past. All of that will sail the memoir forward.
Gilbert: I sometimes wonder if writers in other forms complain as much as memoirists do about their genre’s difficulty. But memoir does seem to present unique challenges, in part because readers judge memoirists in a way they don’t novelists, say. The memoirist is the narrator, and almost by definition a main character. She must be honest and open, admit faults, yet not alienate. Those are things we do with friends—close friends—but how does one best do this for unknown readers? Any tips or rules of thumb for managing the writer’s persona?
Kephart: Memoir is hard for all these reasons, and for many more. Truth is a challenge, right? A memoirist wants her book to received as the truth, despite the obvious reality that every individual will live and perceive and remember a moment differently. So right there, it’s prickly. And the persona of the writer is going to matter. Are we going to trust the memoirist? Are we going to find her smug, intimidated, intimidating, big, small, boring, self-engrossed, inflated, minimal?
I have no rules of thumb, except for this: Get to the truest part of your story with your own most true voice. You may be funny; go for it. You may be unabashedly lyrical; that is you, write you. You may be, as Hope Jahren is in Lab Girl, a scientist with fine literary powers; don’t be afraid to combine the two.
If you are being honest with yourself, if you strip away pretension, if you are committed to universal truths, if you are pursuing elemental themes, if you have a story to tell, we, your readers, are going to welcome you in.
Be no one but yourself.
Gilbert: You clearly cherish books and love to read. Can you explain how you read as a writer? When you are writing memoir, are there memoirs you always return to for certain qualities?
Kephart: How I read as a writer! That is another one of your genius questions, Richard. Boy. This could be a thesis, or this could be a moment, and since I want to respect your readers, let me keep this short.
I read hungrily, greedily, happily, when the book in my hands is a good one. I am insatiable, I am moved, I am pumping my fist for the writer of fine work. Yes, I want to tell them. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yesterday, I was working with students in Philadelphia, eighth graders, and they asked me if I am ever jealous of great writers. I said what is true: I am grateful as heck for great writers. They teach me life. And they teach me writing.
I like form breakers. I like memoirists who teach me the world and not just themselves. I don’t mind being temporarily confused. I will circle (yes, I do write in my books) and exclaim and underline and return to lines I need.
I sometimes get up to dance when a passage is exquisite.
I just can’t help it.
Since my writing time is so rare, I often don’t read when I am writing. But I am reading all the rest of the time. I’ll go back to a Michael Ondaatje, Alice McDermott, Colum McCann, Olivia Laing, Helen Macdonald, Sarah Manguso, Virginia Woolf, Alison Bechdel, many dozens of others’ books any time, and melt before them, grateful for a twist in a sentence, a twist in an idea.
Copyright 2016 Woven Tale Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.