Handling the Truth

Handling the Truth

On the Writing of Memoir

Written by:

Additional Formats
  • Ebook
  • ISBN 9781101620182
  • 224 Pages
  • Avery
  • Adult


In the tradition of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a critically acclaimed National Book Award finalist shares inspiration and practical advice for writing a memoir.

Writing memoir is a deeply personal, and consequential, undertaking. As the acclaimed author of five memoirs spanning significant turning points in her life, Beth Kephart has been both blessed and bruised by the genre. In Handling the Truth, she thinks out loud about the form—on how it gets made, on what it means to make it, on the searing language of truth, on the thin line between remembering and imagining, and, finally, on the rights of memoirists. Drawing on proven writing lessons and classic examples, on the work of her students and on her own memories of weather, landscape, color, and love, Kephart probes the wrenching and essential questions that lie at the heart of memoir.

A beautifully written work in its own right, Handling the Truth is Kephart’s memoir-writing guide for those who read or seek to write the truth.
Handling the Truth

Handling the Truth

Written by: Beth Kephart


“Beth Kephart’s A Slant of Sun offers a most original and moving examination of what it means to be a parent. The book also offers a thought-provoking way of looking at children and their differences….Kephart is a very gifted and insightful writer.” — USA Today

“In page after page of intimate, searching prose. . .this brave book serves as a parenting guide stripped to its essentials, a testament to the open heart of one mother and solid proof that. . .parents do matter.” — Salon.com

“[Kephart] writes eloquently in A Slant of Sun…of her panic before his diagnosis and his first rounds of speech therapy….A Slant of Sun is a memoir–a personal and not a prescriptive book–but one of its strengths is that it makes us think…not just for Jeremy but for other idiosyncratic children too.” — The New York Times Book Review

"There are lessons here for everyone about, quite simply, what it means to be fully alive." — Salon Magazine

“A mother’s bittersweet account of raising a son to whom experts had given the ungainly label… Her efforts… for Jeremy are a story of determination, frustration, ingenuity, partial successes, tireless efforts, and most of all, a mother’s love. While Kephart does not claim to have cured her [son], parents who have received a similar diagnosis will find her revealing story immensely encouraging.” — Kirkus Reviews

“[Beth] Kephart conveys her frantic reaction to the original diagnosis, her furious desire to change conditions for Jeremy at once and her ultimate realization that a tangible, positive outcome was possible, given great patience. Kephart tells an affecting story of parental dedication." — Publishers Weekly

“Her affecting story will make a welcome addition to any collection.” — Library Journal

"Beth Kephart . . . is a gifted, even poetic writer." — The New York Times

Praise for Into The Tangle of Friendship:

“Kephart is nothing short of a virtuoso when it comes to dissecting the many friendships people experience.”

Orlando Sentinel

“With grace and quiet wisdom, with lyrical prose and astonishing insight, Beth Kephart…embarks on a journey." — Baltimore Sun

“Kephart in a single voice, lyrically and poignantly explores the dimensions of friendship.”

Library Journal

“Her lyrical yet conversational prose neatly evokes friendship’s delicate balancing act.” — The New York Times Book Review

“Invigorating…earnest and endearing. Kephart succeeds at drawing a stirring picture of our humanity through the prism of her… relationships.” — Salon

“With infectious passion and hard-won wisdom, Beth Kephart eloquently celebrates the rigors and rewards of the creative process and – equally necessary – the art of crafting a meaningful life.  Part memoir and part memoirist’s manifesto, this small, urgent book inspires on many levels.  Read it and learn how to tell your story.  Better yet, read it and begin to understand why your story matters.” — Katrina Kenison, author of MAGICAL JOURNEY: An Apprenticeship in Contentment


A Conversation with Beth Kephart, author of HANDLING THE TRUTH
What is memoir, and what is not?

Real memoirists write to discover a life, to understand its meaning, to share what has been learned, to reach beyond themselves.  They do not write to pronounce, proclaim, accuse, retaliate, lecture, or self glorify.  They leave therapy to the paid professionals.
Why write a book like this now? Hasn’t the memoir form morphed and leaked into a catchall phrase?

Yes, Handling the Truth is a brave endeavor.  But what was my choice, really?  I fully believe that memoir, done right, can heal, uplift, and instruct.  That it is an embattled form of community, worthy of defense and explanation.  

Can you really teach someone to write memoir?

I believe that you can help aspiring memoirists discover their purpose as writers, frame their lives against the backdrop of meaningful questions, and identify and wield the most telling details.  I have been amazed by the engineers who emerge from my classroom as talented and ultimately published young memoirists.  I have been gratified to watch the journeys of young and old writers—those who weren’t sure at first, and who became sure in time.
What are the biggest mistakes memoir writers make?  Why does it matter that they get those things right?

So much to say here, and so little room.  Perhaps it’s easiest to say this:  Beginning memoirists tend to believe that just because something happened to them, that something will be of interest to others.  But it’s never the thing that happened that matters most.  It’s what has been learned, and how the learning has been shaped.
Which memoirs have been most influential for you?

The first memoir I read was Natalie Kusz’s extraordinary Road Song.  I still teach that book, and I still cry when I read it.  Running in the Family (Michael Ondaatje), The Duke of Deception (Geoffrey Wolff), Just Kids (Patti Smith), Let’s Take the Long Way Home (Gail Caldwell)—I’m afraid I could go on and on here.  As for those who have written about the making of memoir, I am a giant Patricia Hampl fan and Vivian Gornick was quite smart in her delineation of the situation and the story.   

Can you ever really tell the truth?

We can tell our truth.  That’s all we’ve got.  We know when we start to exaggerate.  We know when we “lie” to make things fit or to make the story turn out a certain, perfectly symmetrical, deeply self-congratulatory way.  We know when what we write will not resonate with others who have lived the adventure alongside us.  We know what we are doing.
Do you always hurt someone when you write a memoir?

You don’t have to.  There are those who haven’t.  But goodness, it is a difficult, dangerous, so slippery slope.  We forget that even when we write out of love and toward love, we can hurt simply by freezing another in time, by not giving them room to change on the page.
Why do beauty and authenticity still matter?

Oh my goodness, how could they not?  What do we have without beauty?  What can we trust in the absence of the authentic?  What good are we, especially as writers, if we do not aspire toward both?

What is the difference between memoir and autobiography?

Memoir yearns to understand what a life means.  Autobiography merely tells you, most often in chronological fashion, what happened.  The first celebrates our shared human condition.  The second shouts, Look at me.

What do you ultimately want readers to take away from HANDLING THE TRUTH?

I have written this book for both readers and writers, for teachers and students, for the questing souls out there.  If I have to name one single thing that I hope readers will take away from this (beyond all the books I recommend and hope they will read), it is this:  Truth matters. It can change a life.
If you could recommend one memoir that every aspiring memoirist should read, what would it be? Why?

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, because this extraordinary book proves how powerful—and wholly artistic—memoir can be.  Running is a poem, a pastiche, a collage, a plot, a confession.  It stretches our idea of the form.  It changes every time that we read it, just like life itself.