Book review: Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir

Don’t you hate books on how to write by professors who get to enjoy year after year of the attention of an ever-changing parade of  young faces, upturned to receive their wisdom like flowers drinking rain?

Okay, maybe you don’t. Maybe professor-envy is just a peeve of mine, based in my realization too late just how much I would have enjoyed the academic life. (Of course I easily ignore all that “publish or perish” stress and faculty committee obligations. I just envision walking to my next class through sunlight splashed across an ivy-covered campus.)

Envy aside, my reaction to Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth was a touch… tetchy.


Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it, or wouldn’t recommend it to aspiring memoirists. Quite the opposite. This would be an excellent book to take with you on a personal writing retreat. She’s got a poet’s way with language and if you’re able to catch that from her you’ll do some great work. (I’ve noticed that whatever I’m reading influences the voice of what I’m writing. If I read poets, do I write more poetically? I hope so!)

Take this from the opening page of Kephart’s opening chapter…

Memoir is a strut and a confession, a whisper in the ear, a scream. Memoir performs, then cedes. It is the work of thieves. It is a seduction and a sleight of hand, and the world won’t rise above it. Or you won’t.

I don’t exactly know what Kephart means by that, but I enjoyed reading it.

As an author of five memoirs and a teacher of college-level memoir classes, Kephart brings plenty of chops to the task of writing yet ANOTHER book on how to write. One strength and differentiator of this book is the many excerpts from published memoirs it brings together. In an excellent appendix titled “Read. Please.” Kephart doesn’t just list a bibliography but describes what she likes about each. This book would be worth owning just for the recommended reading list.

Chapters are short, and each  ends with some inspiring words and a challenge to the reader-writer. These proceed in a logical and supportive sequence from getting in the right state of mind about memoir (including reading lots of them) to specifics about craft technique, like use of tense, finding a workable frame, and using details. Example: “Tell me how you see your weather, and you will tell me something of yourself. I want to know not just what you see but also how you see, in ever line that you call memoir.”

I could definitely see spending a week in a cabin somewhere with Handling the Truth and a blank notebook. Maybe the reason I’m a little tetchy about this book is that I don’t have the liberty to do that right now. Note to self… make time to write!

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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