The Sunday Salon: Handling the Truth

No one can or should tell you what to write about. But if you don’t know where the memoir impulse is coming from, if you can’t trace it, can’t defend it, can’t articulate an answer when somebody asks “Why’d you want to write a memoir anyway?” – stop. Hold those memoir horses. Either the mind has been teased for years upon years, or there’s that small thing that won’t be refused, or there’s something else genuine and worthy. But nobody wants to hear that you’re writing memoir because you need some quick cash, or because you think it will make you famous, or because your boyfriend said there’s a movie in this, or because you’re so mad and it’s about time you get to tell your version.  from Handling the Truth, on the writing of memoir, by Beth Kephart

handlingthetruthI love Beth Kephart’s writing. I love every lyrical, magical, evocative word of it.  I wallow in a Kephart book, marvel at the way she uses language like a paintbrush, eat up her daily blog posts like part of my healthy breakfast.

So how happy am I that she has finally written a book about writing?


Handling the Truth distills the wisdom from Kephart’s own experience as a writer of memoir, from her class at the University of Pennsylvania, and from the work of those writers  whom she most admires. It’s chock full of sound writing principles and  imaginative exercises, set out in a systematic way to prepare you for the actual writing of your memoir.  If you follow it, you will have a firm foundation for writing your personal story.

But what I love most about Handling the Truth is that it reveals a side of Beth Kephart I’ve not seen before. She is fierce in this book, like a mama bear protecting her cub. Kephart has written five memoirs of her own, each one astoundingly good, each one proving anew her passion for this genre. And throughout handling the truth she exhorts all of us – we fledgling, aspiring memoir writers – not to take this work she loves and mess it up. In the opening pages, she gives us a forthright and adamant list of what memoir is NOT – not “a lecture, a lesson, a stew of information and facts.” NOT “a self-administered therapy session.” NOT “an exercise in self-glorification.” NOT a “trumped-up, fantastical idea of what an interesting life might have been, if only.”

What must we do, then, in order to write the stuff of our lives that is good and strong and true? The stuff that speaks?  Real memoirists “open themselves to self-discovery,” she says, “and, in the process, make themselves vulnerable…They yearn, and they are yearned with. They declare a want to know. They seek out loud. They quest. They lessen the distance. They lean toward.”

Makers of memoir “shape what they have lived and what they have seen. They honor what they love and defend what they believe. They dwell with ideas and language and with themselves, countering complexity with clarity and manipulating time. They locate stories inside the contradictions of their lives…they write the stories once; they write them several times. (…) And when their voices are true, we hear them.”

If there is something in your mind that’s been “teasing you for years,” if there is “some small thing that won’t be refused,” if you are brave enough to take up the memoir standard, then Handling the Truth is the book you must read.

I have purchased a copy of Handling the Truth to give away to an interested reader. Simply leave a comment with the name of your favorite memoir.  Winner will be chosen at random on August 18.

Handling the Truth, by Beth Kephart

Copyright 2013, Gotham Books, published by the Penguin Group

ISBN: 978-1-592-40815-3

Purchase the book here:

Barnes and Noble
Books A Million


9 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Handling the Truth

  1. I love what Kephart outlines as what NOT to do in a memoir…too many “famous” people could have taken a page from her!

  2. Walden and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I couldn’t just pick one. These are the first two that came to mind, so they are my favorites for now. This looks to be a must-read. Thanks for reviewing it!

  3. It sounds to me as though Kephart has lessons about handling the truth that work with any writing. I would like to read it and test my own thoughts about writing a memoir against her “Don’ts.” I know i’ll learning something valuable.

  4. Thoughtful post on memoir-writing, I really enjoyed reading this. There is something tickling at the back of my mind that wants writing, in my life, as well as all the poetry and fiction I write. I will remember this lovely post and idea to write the truth, and keep writing until you get to the truth, and remember it is still a story we tell about our lives.

  5. I was headed here to comment before I knew there was a contest. 🙂 Favorite memoir? I had one, but I sense that is changing. I just read WIld, and I loved it. And now, I’m reading Kate Hopper’s (advanced reader copy) of Ready for Air and it’s really good and real… and although I know that memoir took years and years and years of work, the writing feels very accessible to me and it makes me feel hopeful about the memoir I am (re)writing. Kate pointed me to Kephart’s memoir A Slant of Sun, to illustrate the art of going deeper into a scene. It recently arrived on my doorstep. Finally, I plan to do a vlog about memoir, and I’m thinking about using a Kephart quote (from the blog post where she interviews herself… that was a good one).

    I’m so glad you wrote this post, Becca. You know it’s right up my alley. So much to learn, such challenging work, but so worth it!

  6. I enjoyed this thought provoking post. My favorite memoir is A Lucky Child by Thomas Buergenthal. Moving, memorable and special.

  7. Very interesting post. My favorite memoir is : Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, My second favorite is ‘Tis by the same author. They’re both very emotional reads that are still with me years after reading them.

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