Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

Beth Kephart on Writing Memoir

August 29, 2013

Handling_the_TruthFINALFINALbeth2Today we are going to talk with Beth Kephart about writing memoir.  Beth is the author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir published this year by Gotham Books. She is the author of five memoirs, one of which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Beth teaches creative non-fiction at The University of Pennsylvania.

Andy: Beth, there are a lot of books out there about the art and craft of memoir writing. Why did you decide to write Handling the Truth?

Beth: Handling emerged somewhat despite myself. I was full of this love for the young people I meet and teach; I wanted to celebrate them and what they taught me. I grew intent, too, on sharing my thoughts about the many memoirs that have inspired and instructed me and to liberate this much-tarnished form from some of the damaging mythology. Finally, I felt compelled to save others from the mistakes I’ve made, and to offer cautions.

Andy: Let’s start with the basics. What’s a memoir? Or to clear up a prevailing misconception, how is memoir different from autobiography?

Beth: I think it’s so much easier to define memoir by what it’s not, which of course I do in the opening pages of the book.  Memoir is not a chronological recitation of a life. It’s not therapy. It’s not an accusation. It’s not a boast. It’s not fiction. It’s not gossip. Memoir is a search to understand the human condition—to tell a personal, resonating story. Memoir writers look back with empathy—toward themselves and toward others. They fabricate nothing on purpose. They know what to leave out. And they recognize—explicitly and implicitly—they are not the only ones in the room. Their readers matter, too.

Andy: In my work as an agent, I get pitched a lot of memoir. There seems to be an endless number of projects dealing with dysfunctional families, surviving cancer, interesting travels to exotic places, and the like. You mentioned in the book that Neil Genzlinger called memoir “an absurdly bloated genre.”  And my experience with publishers is that they are pretty cynical about these well-mined themes. Aside from an appreciation of good writing style, do you really believe there’s anything new and important to say about some of these overworked subjects?

Beth: I think we have to stop imprisoning memoirs in marketing categories. The minute we start to think that we are writing an illness memoir, say, or a grief memoir, is the minute that we’ve lost sight of the bigger possibilities of the personal story. It’s never just about what happened. It’s about what it meant. Memoirists must continue to look for new structures, new ways of asking and answering the big questions. Look at what Joan Wickersham does in The Suicide Index, for example. That is a book about the aftermath of a father’s suicide. And it is a story you’ve never seen told like that before. It’s a story that makes you think newly on a familiar topic, precisely because Wickersham has been inventive with structure and smart about elisions and inclusions.

In the end, someone will categorize Wickersham’s book as a suicide memoir—perhaps. But it’s clear that she wrote it with bigger ambitions in mind. It’s clear that she was not suffocated by a label.

Andy: You speak at length in the book about honesty in writing memoir. There’s a tension between telling your story accurately and shaping a story that is artistically true and aesthetically pleasing. Can we really remember a dialogue that took place twenty years ago. Do we really recall our feelings about visiting Gramma’s house for the first time?  How much are memoirists permitted to invent? Or maybe just fudge a little bit?

Beth: I’m a pretty big stickler for telling the truth, as much as possible. I don’t believe in the deliberate fudging of facts, the rearrangements of time, the reassignments of characters, the remapping of locales. You start making it up on purpose and you’ve lost the heart of the matter. Memoir writing is, in some ways, like writing a villanelle or a sonnet. You are bound by the rules of what happened, by what you remember, by what you can research (don’t forget, memoir writers, about the power of research to help support the telling of story). The truth constricts your work. It also shapes it. Find a way. Don’t make it up. And when you don’t remember, just say so. Your credibility matters.

Andy: Sometimes I tell an author that their memoir might work better as a novel, a roman á clef. But writing a novel is very different from writing memoir. Do you have any advice to writers who are undecided about which path to pursue?

Beth: Read books that fall on both sides of the line. Vaddey Ratner, in writing In the Shadow of the Banyan, recreated her childhood but also gave herself room to change some of the personal details. Everything in that book comes from a known experience, from something lived throughout the Cambodian genocide. And yet Banyan is a novel. Ratner never lies, but she still writes from a pure, authentic place.

Writing fiction is just as important and personal an enterprise as writing memoir (I write both). But be clear about what you are doing. Count the trade-offs and decide.

Andy: But even if you are writing memoir, the story has to be compelling or else no one will read it. When I get a rejection from  an editor (which happens far too often), one of the standard explanations is that there is no “narrative arc.” Well, real life doesn’t always correspond to a classic 3 act narrative structure. What’s a memoirist to do?

Beth: Stop thinking chronologically. Chronology can be—not always, but sometimes—the death of memoir. It locks people into saying this happened, this happened, this happened. It can be claustrophobic. Be inventive. Study Howard Norman or Rebecca Solnit. See what they make of their lives. See how they selectively shape the interesting stuff and leave out all the filler.

Andy: In my work with authors, particularly those who write memoir and fiction, I’m always amazed at how little perspective they have. Characters and scenes that have been living in the heart and mind of the author for years may leave the reader cold. And as you said, the reader is always in the room.  I tell my clients that the reader is king and is usually unforgiving. If the first page is boring, the reader will throw the book down and never pick it up again. That seems particularly challenging to memoirists. After all, everyone’s life is a hero’s journey. Why should we care about someone else’s?

Beth: We only care if it speaks to us in an inclusive fashion. We only care if the right questions have been asked. The celebrity memoir is often exclusionary, and in fact, the celebrity memoir is often (not always!) not a memoir at all but an autobiography. Patti Smith and Diane Keaton are celebrities, but they’ve written true memoir—they’ve made their life stories relevant to the rest of us by wondering out loud about the nature of love, the nature of relationships, the nature of fidelity to another. Edna O’Brien is a celebrity author, but her “memoir” is less a memoir than a recounting of events and famous people/places. We are all just people in the end. A memoir’s purpose is to lower gates and open doors. Boring books are self-inflating, self-congratulatory, and, ultimately, self-isolating. If we are boring someone at a cocktail party, we are also likely boring them with our memoirs.

Andy: You write a lot about style in memoir. You have, for instance, a whole chapter on weather. I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that writers seem to look down on the weather these days. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s immortal “It was a dark and stormy night” is often considered the worst first line in all of literature.  Were you trying to tweak a few noses  at the literary snoots when you wrote that chapter?

Beth: I’m not writing about style so much as writing about ways of remembering our lives. Too often people stare at the events of their lives and don’t stop to think about the ambiance or mood, the meaning, the possibilities in all that “background” stuff. I’m not suggesting that memoirists go out and fill a book with storms and sunshine. I am saying, use everything you’ve got, every sense, to find your personal story. And then figure out what it means, and what is worth keeping. And sometimes weather will signify. And when it does, recognize the opportunity.

Andy: You distinguish between real memoirs and “pseudo memoirs.”  I’ve never heard that expression before.  In your analysis a pseudo memoir is not the same as a bad memoir. Can you discuss this a little?

Beth: Ha! I love the question. Pseudo memoirs are half steps toward the truth. They speak of lives that have not been fully explored, examined, wrestled with. Bad memoirs are bad memoirs. Badly written, badly structured, and published for the wrong reasons. Sometimes all a pseudo memoirist needs in order  to write a real memoir is more time and more reflection.

Andy:  And here’s the $64,000 question: what’s your favorite memoir?

Beth: Can’t do this! Handling the Truth discusses nearly 100 memoirs, many in detail. So there is the first memoir I loved (Natalie Kusz’s Road Song) and the one I most often teach (Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family) and the books I’m still discovering now (Howard Norman’s I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place). But come to my house. See all my shelves and boxes. I’m in love with a lot of books.

Thank you so much, Andy, for these thoughtful questions. I hope anyone who wants to learn more and to read about some memoirs that aren’t in my book (some additional exercises, some additional essays) will consider visiting my blog, www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com, or buying the book.

Andy: And thank you, Beth. As I said earlier, in the business of book publishing, it’s pretty easy to get cynical and discouraged about memoirs. Every once in awhile, you need to remember about those great ones that changed your life. Your book was an inspiration. Oh, yes, and by the way, I just wanted to say that my last book deal was for a memoir. Yes!

Ann Lamott (and Albert Camus) on Writing

October 6, 2009

BIRD BY BIRDI just finished reading Anne Lamott’s remarkable book about the process of writing,  Bird By Bird. What a revelation!. I don’t know why I have never read it before. It was written in 1995. I must have sold 5000 copies at Cody’s over the years. I know a lot of writers who have said that this book changed their life.

I suppose the reason I never  read it is that I just didn’t think  very deeply about the process of writing during my 35 years in retail. I read a lot and knew a lot about what was going on in the book business. But  by the time a book arrived  at  the store, the process was over.  

So now I’m at the other end of the publishing food chain. I’m not exactly the midwife to the book;  more like the Lamaze teacher. I see a lot of “shitty first drafts”. That is Anne Lamott’s  luminous term of art. More on that later. Now most of my work  has to do with the process of writing. Well, this is not exactly true, but the other things I do are for another blog and another time.

 Anyway, back to Anne Lamott.  Bird By Bird.  It is at times hysterically funny, wise, tough-minded but encouraging. She is secure  enough as a writer to share with you her own experiences   of her all-too-human insecurities about life in general and writing  in particular.

 Look at her 3rd chapter entitled: “Shitty First Drafts”. When I see these by writers  in the course of  my work (which is all the time), I want to give up on the author.  Sometimes I want to give up on being an agent. Lamott says that these “shitty first drafts”  are an inherent part of the writing process, even a necessary part, even an admirable part. It allows the writer to get the material, shitty though it may be,  onto the page. And the work of the accomplished  author is finding the one sentence in the two shitty pages sitting in front of her  that she will want to remember and use.

Lamott  had a wonderful chapter on writing dialogue. I read it at about three o’clock  in the morning and emailed my client  immediately about some changes that needed to be made in her book proposal.  You can’t just write down a conversation between two people. You have to make sure that the voices of the characters are differentiated in the dialogue. You can’t just use dialogue to further the plot. It also has to deepen the character.  Otherwise it becomes flat and confusing. But this makes writing dialogue devilishly hard.

One of the most amusing, but spot-on,  chapters is about thoughts that get in the way of your writing. She calls it tuning into radio station KFKD, or K-Fucked. She says: “station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker…will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement…Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing.”  (God, I’m feeling that right now).

She also has a lot to say about getting published. This was especially poignant for me, since my job is actually to get my clients published. Lamott said something very wise. She said: “Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won’t do any of those things….”

 I think about this a lot in my own work as an agent. I  go to a lot of writers’ conferences. I talk to a lot  of writers at these. They send me their book proposals and writing samples. Then we have a meeting about it that lasts for 15-30 minutes. I also participate in a lot of agents’ panels. And I have started giving some workshops on writing book proposals. (Don’t tell anyone my dirty little secret. Two years ago, when I was still a bookseller, I didn’t know what a book proposal was).

I  found a couple of clients at these conferences. One of them just got a publishing contract. But mostly I talk to people who are  not going to get published. A lot of them have written personal memoirs,  a genre much out of fashion with publishers right now.  They call them “me-moirs”. ‘Nuff said.

The writers at the conferences have poured their hearts and souls into these projects. And I have no doubt that they have learned so much about themselves and the world in the process. Anne Lamott tells these writers that this is the real value of writing.  Publication is overrated.

 Frequently I get graded by the participants after I give a workshop or presentation. Although I try to  be realistic and emphasize the dismal reality of getting published,  I take a lot of criticism for being unnecessarily discouraging to writers. After reading Anne Lamott, I think I would have to accept this criticism as valid.

When you really think about it, everyone is a hero in their own life story. Every memoir of a life is an epic. Paradoxically every person’s life is larger than life. But this is quite different from  the mundane and commercial considerations that publishers consider in their decision to acquire a book.

What I have started telling writers, what I would like them to hear from me, and what Anne Lamott has said so much better than I ever could,  is that writing is an incredibly courageous undertaking. It is an activity that begins in the dark  without any real knowledge of where the journey is destined to end.  Or to use another metaphor of a race.   Sometimes  you will cross the finish line, receive the silver jug  and go off into the sunset. But more often  you will slip on a banana peel and break your leg 20 yards before  the end of the race. But what an adventure it has been!

camus Which brings us to Camus. Albert Camus wrote his masterpiece, The Myth of Sisyphus.  in 1942. A lot of you probably read it in your freshman humanities course. Camus always took on the big themes, in this case, the meaning of life.  Sisyphus is condemned  by the gods for all eternity to roll a boulder up a mountain, whence it will then roll down of its own weight. For Camus this was a metaphor of  human life, a ceaseless striving in a universe without meaning.

It strikes me that this is also a metaphor for the work of the writer. For Camus,  Sisyphus’s effort is heroic and filled with grandeur. In the final, unforgettable lines of his book, Camus says: ” Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”