A Conversation About How to Write Memoir

by Jen Doll

Beth Kephart has written 16 books, five of which are memoirs. Her most recent, Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, came out in August, and it’s a lovely, insightful exploration of what it means to share the stories you’ve experienced firsthand (which, as it happens with life, usually happen to be the stories of others, too). She details what can go right, what might go wrong, and how to do it in a way that is respectful to everyone involved. Full disclosure: I’ve always loved reading other people’s true-life tales — I was BIG on biographies as a kid — but with my own memoir coming out in May, I’ve grown increasingly interested in, and sometimes terrified about, what it means to open up one’s own life on a page. (I’m certainly not alone there.) Print can feel so very permanent sometimes! Reading Beth’s book gave me some much-needed perspective, and whether you already write about yourself or others (or both), you aspire to do so, or you simply love memoir, I think it’s a valuable resource.

I talked to Beth about her book and her feelings about writing, and reading, the genre. Our conversation follows. She is wise.

Jen: Let’s start with what you love to read. There’s an appendix at at the back of your book that’s a pretty awesome memoir reading list. Which are your favorites?

Beth: There are no favorites. There are memoirs that mean a lot to me. I go to them on different days. Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, it’s a life revealed through white space, through collage, through present and past. It’s written by a man whose sensibilities and soul I instinctively trust. I go on the journey with him. I don’t know anything about Sri Lanka, I won’t meet his family, but I feel he’s a fellow traveler. I love Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home. That book is extremely generous in its depiction of best friendship, and it feels like a lesson in grief and surviving grief. The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolf, it becomes memoiristic when we understand the depth of forgiveness for his father. Mark Richard, House of Prayer No. 2, for his use of the second person. Patti Smith’s Just Kids, I love that book. The Suicide Index, a brilliant collage approach from the author to understand why her father took his life. Borrowed Finery. Work by Calvin Trillin, who shows us what a light touch means. There are more than 75 memoirs in the book proper. There are so many that I need and love in my life.

People criticize memoir for being “easy,” and I’ve heard it said that memoirists are narcissistic or compulsive oversharers. Of course I tend to disagree. What would we lose without the genre?

We would lose authenticity. Fiction glamorizes or reduces or fantasizes, or can tell a story as close to realism as possible, but there’s something that can get lost. I don’t want to suggest that I don’t believe fiction and poetry and cinema and dance and photography can’t achieve what memoir does, but we’d lose one of the vehicles of authenticity if we lost memoir.

Why do you think memoir gets a bad rap?

The popularity of the genre came out of the great success of Mary Karr and others who radicalized the form, and it quickly became the genre, until it was hurt, battered, banged up by so many untrue memoirs that were problematic to the reputation of the form. And also, the categorization of memoir: That’s an illness memoir, that’s a divorce memoir, it felt to readers like if they’d read one they’d read them all. The great success of a genre is always followed by many who want to reap the benefits of the success who don’t break the boundaries of the form.

Where do you feel we are with the genre now?

Memoir will not go away because there are so many beautiful stories and great memoirists continue to break form — like Terry Tempest Williams in her new book, When Women Were Birds, or another I just read, Stephanie LaCava’s An Extraordinary Theory of Objects, in which she examines the objects in her life; it’s wrapped around the odyssey of collections with these interesting footnotes about the origins of things. Terry Tempest Williams, before her mother passed away, she told her to look for her journals, and when Terry did that, she discovered that all of the journals were blank. In her book, Terry works to understand her life against the profusion of possible conclusions one can draw from so many blank journals. Each interpretation is a lens through which she views her life. Artistry and thoughtfulness are very much there. Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index is another of these books. It’s organized as an index, and through that she’s organizing her contemplation — not just as my father killed himself on this day, but the almost jarring collision of how to look at this, which is the honest approach to life, there is no true continuity.

Going back to the question of people being criticized as oversharing narcissists for writing memoir — I feel like this is something that often gets slung at women telling stories about themselves, about women. How would you respond to that?

I hate any generalizations, any conversation that might pit a woman’s memoir against a man’s in a general fashion. Every one stands on its own. I have not participated in or looked at this conversation in any systematic way, but what I have to say is that when women write fiction it’s sometimes considered that “these are small details, these are small lives,” and women’s memoir probably faces the same criticism. We, by nature, live different lives than men do; often we have elements that are distinct and should be shared. If women who write memoir get lost in a solitary reflection on very small details, they can get themselves in trouble. We all need to see the momentum, the narrative charge, the reason this particular life is important and should be shared. Women have a lot to say, and a responsibility, just as men do, to tell their story well. They don’t have to go trekking across a mountain, go to Nepal, or fly solo around the world. Some of the most interesting memoirs are built — as with the case of Stephanie LaCava — on choosing to live life in an interesting way.

Memoir can be about anything if it’s done well. What are the rules for telling a story well?

That’s really what Handling the Truth is about. With my two-page list of what memoir is not, I think readers navigate around the not, and they’re going to get to the yeses. It’s not therapy, judgment, retaliation. Take away all that and you get to the possibilities for good. I’m committed to teaching memoir as a process, a program where you first ask yourself what you expect of other writers, then, what do you expect of yourself, and you do exercises to see if you should be writing in past or present or some combination. A real writer will test some of the many possibilities and in the process will discover the questions and the framing that are going to make the book good. So many people come to me and say, “I’m writing a memoir and it’s about the time when my sister stole the cutlery and went across the country and left me abandoned with my mother.”

“That’s a situation,” I’ll say, “but what is the story?” (That’s Vivian Gornick’s terminology.) People have a lot harder time figuring out what the story is. But, if you go through the process with this book, you’ll know what this story is. You’ll know what to leave out, what details you’re good at rendering, how to use dialogue. All of these things matter.

What should you do first if you want to write memoir?

Read. Read phenomenal memoirs. Assess for yourself what is working, what is riveting, what makes the writer do her job better. If you don’t have that analytical eye as you read the work of others, you will not be able to bring it to your own work. Every writer has to now the difference between good and bad.

Do you regret anything you’ve written?

Sure. One of the reasons I teach and wrote this book was as a warning. I don’t want other people to go through what I went through. I wrote out of love every time. I showed people the passages; I didn’t write anything scandalous or unkind. Even so, there are regrets. Because the thing no one warned me about is that books freeze people in time, and people change with time. You’ve put it down and maybe the person says yes, and five years later, they might not feel it’s O.K. The more that memoirists write toward big questions and universal issues, the more they also protect themselves from hurting others, because their aims are bigger and their objectives are more pure. They’re not there to hurt another or get back at another. Even at the end of The Liars’ Club, for all the mother put them through, we still like the mother. That’s because Mary Karr is so gifted, she could really let us see what it’s like. We don’t judge her in the end because Mary doesn’t judge her.

What do you think will happen next with the genre?

I know that there’s been more reluctance on the part of many publishers to publish memoirs, because of those who simply didn’t tell the truth, and because of legal suits, and people think the categories have run dry. I think bloggers are becoming … not quite memoir … but their Twitter feeds and first person stories become books. In the book, I’m also talking about how to live your life and how to articulate to yourself and others what matters. I hope in doing that a writer becomes more engaged in the world, maybe a little kinder, less quick to judge. I don’t know what will happen to it as a form but I believe the lessons of memoiristic writing will prevail through human time. We should get better at it.

Previously: If Breakfast Foods Were Book Characters…

Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin.