Handling the Truth in Memoir: Book Summary

I recently read Handling the Truth by Beth Kephart and thought a summary would be useful for other memoirists.

Part 1: What is and what is not a memoir?

I love that she says it’s not about the author winning that final battle or winning some war she thinks she is in with someone else, but an exploration of her own darkness and light to discover both self and lie.
She asks her students a question all authors need to ask themselves. “What do you expect of others as you read, and what do you expect of yourself as a writer?”
The Chapter ‘Great Expectations’ gives samples of answers to the above questions from some of her students. You want to know what your readers want? Read these.
To end this section, Kephart warns us that in writing our memoirs we interrupt and throw others into upheaval: people who did not ask and may never have wanted their vulnerabilities shared. Beware.

Part 2: Raw Materials

Keep a journal. When you write and when you go back to read, be curious about yourself, this human, this writer, and be curious about the thoughts, the sentences, the words you choose.
Be thoughtful about what tense you are using. Do you use past tense or present tense? Or another tense? And be thoughtful of your reader when writing your memoir and choose what works best for the story and the audience.
Kephart believes memoirs are love stories about coming through something to the place of love.
She suggests taking photos and looking beyond the subjects. Memoirists should do this with family photos. What else is in the picture besides the obvious subjects?
She also discusses the power of context through the example of weather. What was the weather in your most important moments? This is the same point she is making when she suggests we look past the obvious in photographs.
From there, she moves to the use of landscape to set mood, give context, and as a metaphor.
She has a wonderful section on using songs: using music while you write and using different styles of music to evoke distinct memories, words, sentence structures.
She spends some time talking about dialogue, which is tricky in memoir as we don’t remember exactly what was said and readers want the closest approximation of truth we can give them so she suggests using dialogue sparingly and looking at your sources to get it as accurate as possible, and if you can, ask the person to read what they said.
Like landscape and weather, what we eat, and how we eat brings a richness to who we are. Food can be used to describe or used as metaphor. Closely related to taste, smell can also both define and transport us.
In class, Kephart asks students to empty their pockets and discusses how things are essential to us that might mean nothing to another person. We keep things for a reason, carry them with us, when we lose them more than the actual thing is lost – personal treasures with personal meanings.
She then tells us that using the right details paints a picture that tells the reader, the context, the emotions, the pain, and the joy.
She closes this section by warning that memories are untrustable – so do your research. Research through images, news, photos, interviews, official records, and even google maps, if necessary.
And above all, remain vulnerable.

Part 3: Putting Words on Paper

She asks, “How does my story get me closer to us?” What a great quote!
And she asks, “Where does your memoir impulse come from?”
Memoir is more than the telling of a story. Writing a memoir is not a linear path, it is an exploration of self. Memoirs are about the theme: heartbreak, resilience, love during war, feeling unwanted and learning to want yourself, not about the time that…
Memoirs that focus on events that happened rather than the meaning are Pseudo memoirs. Memoirs are of what happened; the experiences, what the story means, and how it relates to the readers matters most.

Part 4: Parting Words

She tells her readers that as a memoirist our readers trust us to help them see, or think, or remind them that they are not alone. Don’t fake it, Be authentic. If you fictionalize it for whatever reason, publish it in another genre. And don’t pretend your story is airtight.
Empathy is essential. Your job is not to win or take someone else’s dignity or point fingers but to see different perspectives, to question, to explore, to build a new world and invite in your readers. That takes empathy.
Finally, she leaves us with the reminder to seek beauty. Is your view of the scene considered? Are your words poetic?
That’s it. Read it yourself. Do the exercises and allow it to inform your journey as a memoirist.

– Keep writing

Melody Ann

Author Nation is your go-to resource for becoming a successful nonfiction author, from planning to promotion and everything in between. Download the resource for the stage you are in.

Disclaimer: This blog may contain affiliate links, which means that if you choose to make a purchase, we will earn a small commission. Please understand that we have experience with these products, and we recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions we make.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *