Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart

When I look at vendor's catalogs or review journals, I marvel at how many memoirs are being published. While the starting point of the memoir flood can be debated, many people agree that there are more now than ever before. National Book Award finalist Beth Kephart, who has written five memoirs herself, has a vested interest in the genre and has written a guide for its writers called Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir.

In Handling the Truth, Kephart draws from her experiences as a reader, a writer, and an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania. She quotes from both her favorite authors and her students in this how-to that somewhat parallels a course she teaches. Readers will find most of the book to be encouraging, cheering potential memoirists to write to discover and define their own lives, but she adds a good dose of caution. She warns that almost any truthful memoir is bound to upset some friends or family, which may not be worth the price of its publishing. Memoir writers must prepare themselves for the consequences of people reading versions of their past which they regret or reject.

In her guide, Kephart is especially critical of writers who have broken faith with their readers, posing fiction as fact. She extends her opposition from pure fabrications to memoirs that merely change names and details of stories to minimize hurt to others. Kephart thinks the writers of these books ought to admit they have strayed into fiction for the sake of readers and those who are trying to be truthful in their memoir writings. Likewise, she charges memoir writers who do strive for truth do diligent research and interview others to make sure their stories are fair. She asks writers seriously to weigh whether unflattering details are truly needed to tell the story before they are included.

The last section of Handling the Truth is filled with short reviews of what Kephart considers to be top-grade memoirs, which she encourages potential authors to read before starting their own memoir quests. Any reader who enjoys memoirs can find some additions to his or her reading list. You don't have to be a potential writer to enjoy this book. I found numerous useful comments about the memoir that my book club will be discussing this month. Kephart's book is a good addition to public library writing collections.

Kephart, Beth. Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir. Gotham Books, 2013. 254p. ISBN 9781592408153.

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