Handling the Truth [book review]

Let's chat about Handling the Truth: On The Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart. After the disappointment that was On Writing by Steven King (which I read previously), I was a little wary about diving into this book. But I shouldn’t have been, because I loved it.

Before writing this book, Kephart wrote five memoirs. Even here, Kephart’s writing is as much memoir itself as it is about writing memoir, which gives the reader a glimpse of the form she’s attempting to learn about (I find that very helpful, don’t you?). Her poetic prose is warm and inviting as well as instructive—she shows you how to write memoir while she also tells you what to write about in memoir.

Much of Kephart’s teaching in Handling the Truth is done through stories and examples. Honestly, my one big beef with this book is the number of examples (excerpts from other books)—there are too many. Sometimes it felt like they just kept coming, one after the other. They illustrate Kephart’s point, certainly, but after a while all I could think was “I get it, move on.” Still, it was nice to read a few different ways of approaching each tactic Kephart suggested.

And her suggestions in the book are good. In fact, I found them super useful for my own writing, even though I’m not planning to bust out a book anytime soon. Because memoir is about personal experience, I think reading about the form is a really (really!) good way to get some inspiration for your journaling. Kephart pushes you to write about even ordinary things in new ways. She asks readers to find meaning in simple moments and to record the nitty gritty details of a time, a place, or an event. I can’t think of any reason why a journal-keeper wouldn’t want to practice those exact skills.

If you are planning to write a memoir, there’s a rather foundational piece of advice Kephart gives that I think is probably pretty important: take it slow. Ease yourself into the genre with essays or blog posts before you try to tackle a whole book head on. That’s hard for an aspiring writer to hear—don’t write your book just yet—but it’s a basic life lesson that practicing before taking on the big things is a good idea. So you can’t deny that it’s sound advice.

Whether you’re an aspiring memoirist or “just” a journaler, I think Handling the Truth would be a good book to pick up. I got my copy from the library, but I wished several times that I’d bought it instead so I could underline and highlight pieces of it. I filled more than a dozen pages in my journal just copying down the parts of the book I wanted to remember or that connected with me in some way. Here are a few of my favorites about memoir/writing in general:

“Be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” (Quoting Henry James)

“Words are the weights that hold our histories in place.”

“A journal is written so that a journal might be studied. A journal is where the work-in-progress writer begins to wrestle herself down, begins to understand or tussle with her own authority and authenticity. How will you write toward the truth? How will you wade in, deep? How will you know what is superfluous and what matters? Where is the artist in you? What can you do to a sentence?”

“Put present time down. Teach yourself the range of your own voice.”

“Because it doesn’t matter how many essays you’ve already written, or how many books. It doesn’t matter what others have said or what the juries have decided. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in an Ivy League classroom or at home alone. If you are not awake to the world, if you do not approach the work as if it’s the first hing you’ve ever written or the last words you’ll ever say, you have no business writing. Writing is not a task; it is no job. Writing is a privilege.”

“If we do not recognize our circumstances and our stories and hold them dear, then what do we have to recognize at all?”

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