[Zetta’s Reference Desk] – Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir

handling truthThis week’s recommendation comes from my guest, Tynia Thomassie. Tynia has written 4 children’s books: Feliciana Feydra LerRoux: A Cajun Tall Tale, Feliciana Meets D’Loup Garou, Cajun Through and Through and Mimi’s Tutu. She won the Louisiana Choice Young Reader’s Honor Award in 2000 and her Feliciana books have been turned into plays. Her poetry was included in Oil and Water And Other Things That Don’t Mix and chapters of her memoir in progress have been published as essays in Fairleigh Dickinson’s The Literary Review.

Title: Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir

Author(s): Beth Kephart

Year: 2013

Pages: 272

Purchased: Amazon

I don’t know if it was the screaming neon-red cover or the title, Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir that made me first reach for Beth Kephart’s book on writing memoir, but I could practically hear Jack Nicholson barking, “You can’t handle the truth,” and I thought, “True, d’at.”  At the time I found Kephart’s book, I was at a choked place writing my own memoir. I had graduated from a superb MFA creative nonfiction program at Fairleigh Dickinson, and had already advanced my work significantly. But a few good men, namely my brothers, questioned my need to dredge up the past and relive events they felt were best left private. They remembered things differently than I did in some instances and I allowed their reactions to stymie my process. When I discovered Kephart’s book, anything she had to say about handling truth was welcomed.

Perhaps I knew I was in good hands when I flipped to a page and read,

“Memoir writers have no control over how their cast of characters – which is to say their mothers, their fathers, their siblings … will feel about what has taken residency on your page.”

Or maybe it was the next passage I thumbed to where Kephart shifted from the impressions of others to the internal battle of the writer:

“Memoirs freeze people in time. Sometimes that isn’t the most loving thing to do. Others may forgive you, but will you forgive yourself?”

More perusing, and I read that memoir writing—

“is about melding the eye and the I into something that actually matters, while at the same time talking through the messiness of life. It’s about giving the writer room to know himself…”

—and with that, I trotted to the checkout counter. My copy of Handling the Truth is annotated, dog-eared, water-stained, underlined and at my side whenever I find myself in quicksand with my own writing process.

The book is divided into 4 sections: Part 1: Definitions, Preliminaries, Cautions, Part 2: Raw Material, Part 3: Get Moving and Part 4: Fake Not and Other Last Words, followed by an Appendix entitled “Read. Please.” where Kephart presents a wide variety of short abstracts about notable memoirs she considers consummate. This is one of my favorite aspects of Handling the Truth. Kephart’s knowledge of the genre is extensive, and she makes her points with exemplary samples that instruct and enhance her observations, throughout.

Part 1 (Definitions) chews over an essential understanding: what Memoir is NOT and what Memoir IS. The very term “creative non-fiction” can seem like an oxymoron, but Kephart addresses the means by which a memoirist comes to terms with his or her own processing of a past comprised of subjective, sometimes flawed memory. But she scrutinizes the seam of “creative” and “non-fiction” so that selected memories don’t tip into lies or the corruption of truth.

Part 2 (Raw Material) addresses craft and form with a series of exercises, suggestions for approach, and writing prompts to grasp at elusive memories. Kephart provides tools to excavate the unmined, unpolished places of the past. Play with verb tense and see how that frees (or constrains) your story, study backgrounds of pictures, goad the senses—remember. Taste, smell—write.  Hear, touch a similar texture–write. Do it. Now. She helps you walk a plank over what is “remembered, and what I came to know.”

Part 3 (Get Moving) poses a series of probing questions: “What world do you live in? And how will you bridge your world to mine? And what will you say when somebody asks you: what is your memoir about?” Kephart produces all sorts of motivation from other teachers of memoir to help dislodge the reader’s story and to help give permission to continue. And it helps.

Part 4 (Fake Not) is rich with personal anecdotes, as Kephart admits she is still a tireless student of the genre herself.

 “Memoir is about life knowingly, thoughtfully lived. I will be the perpetual student and teacher of memoir until the last fleet of stars in the last night sky performs its light for me.”

Ahhh, a satisfying swallow of water for this dehydrated gal.

I am all too prone to doubt my right and ability to tell my own story. Consequently, I reach out for help from experts who are willing to share their insights. But I can’t handle truths expressed such as these from Stephen King’s On Writing: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Or Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

Really? While I’m a far cry from King, statements such as these shut me down. They are akin to telling an overweight person, “Eat less” and a drug addict “just say no.” While these are ABSOLUTELY truths, I need assistance with expansion, not contraction. Help me with the “how.” I seek motivation, stimulation, and examples of greatness. That is what Handling the Truth: On Writing the Memoir provides for this she-writer. I urge you to give this book a go.



©2015. Zetta Brown. All Rights Reserved.

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5 thoughts on “[Zetta’s Reference Desk] – Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir

  1. This looks like a good one, Zetta! I never grow weary of reading about writing memoir, and the writing itself! I will gladly accept your invitation to one day be a guest on your blog.

    1. Thanks, SomerEmpress! I never knew memoir writing was so popular, but it is and I think it’s growing in popularity. My friend Leslie Lutz (who wrote the recommendation on Jan 28, 2015) has been getting a lot of clients who are writing memoirs.

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