I am a step behind in writing about Beth Kephart’s new book, Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir. Since Handling The Truth came out this past summer, this versatile and prolific writer has already geared up for release of her next book, a novel, Going Over, due out in April 2014. But better a step behind, I figure, than not taking the journey at all, especially the journey offered by this book, which, despite its subtitle, is not just a book for memoir writers, or memoir readers, or for writers or readers of any stripe. It works as a book for anyone who has had a childhood or a past.
I turned to Handling the Truth in August. I took to reading it while in my mother’s apartment—either sitting in her bedroom as she dozed, or stretched out on the sofa in another room while attempting to let the home health aides do their job. If this sounds peaceful, don’t be misled. I now read death notices that begin with the formula “Peacefully at home. . . .” with a skeptical eye. But I did find time to read this book.
(There will come a time, I know, when everything I read and write doesn’t seem to me to relate to the loss of my mother. That time hasn’t come yet, however.)
I mention the circumstances of my reading because they were not ideal for reading any book—and yet this book was ideal reading for the circumstances. This is not to say that you should be at your mother’s deathbed with Handling the Truth. Rather, the point is that the ideas and insights in this book, both gentle and penetrating, are ones that can inform and uplift you as you think about your life and the people in it even from the most disadvantageous vantage point.
From an early chapter:
If you want to write memoir, you need to set caterwauling narcissism to the side. You need to soften your stance. You need to work through the explosives—anger, aggrandizement, injustice, misfortune, despair, fumes—toward mercy.
The pages that follow offer not so much a primer on memoir-writing as a companion. Beth’s tone and substance encompass seriousness of purpose, humor, and encouragement vis-à-vis the creation of memoir. Yes, there are suggested exercises, many of them, for thinking about and writing memoir—for example, on writing about the weather:
Look outside, go outside, write this right now: The quality of breeze. The evidence of dew. The pile of clouds on the horizon. Find the words. . . . Rain as the sound. Sun as a caution sign. A moon that has gone fishing. A cranberry-colored landscape. . . .
. . . Write the weather of your wedding day, now, or the weather of your first school day, or the weather of a funeral day, or the weather of a carefree day.
Too many people forget. . . . the reality that things are always bigger than you or me.
I may never write a memoir, but I found myself stopping and thinking at the close of nearly every chapter about how I might incorporate the lessons, observations, and gentle proddings into my own non-memoir writing. Don’t forget the weather. Don’t forget the landscape (“Don’t pretend to see what you cannot”). What about the food and tastes, the smells, the things people carry in their pockets? And this, which one can ask of any writer: “[H]ow will you bridge your world to mine?”
I’ll take it one step further and say that, really, Handling the Truth is for anybody who wishes to reflect meaningfully on his or her life, or on the life of another. If you like, writing can have nothing to do with it. The prompts offered by the author can serve as excavating tools for the archaeological site of your personal history or of a person or subject of interest to you.
And this is why the book was the ideal read for me during the final weeks of my mother’s life, and why I keep turning back to it now, more than two months later. Handling the Truth has prompted me to think of the smell of toasted barley baking in the oven, of the smeared ink of old recipes, of my mother singing me the Cole Porter song “I Love Paris” but substituting the words “I Love Debbie,” of the jingle of the old Pine-Sol commercials on TV, of Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames.
But the reward here is not merely a long string of sepia-toned memories, although remembering “I love Debbie in the summer when it sizzles” does gladden the heart. In another corner of my life, recently I’ve had conversations with friends about how they handle anger toward a family member or friend. My tendency, and my counsel, for what it’s worth, has been to turn toward pity as a way of backing away from anger. Consider the other’s situation or limitations, I’ve said. Might that transform the anger into something more like pity? I’d rather pity someone than detest him.
To my surprise, this has been a tough sell. On further reflection, I think I really meant something slightly different. That entreaty I quoted from the first pages of Handling the Truth—“toward mercy”—that’s what I’m really embracing. The idea of working toward mercy in writing memoir is at the heart of Beth Kephart’s book. And I think if working toward mercy were also at the heart of coming to terms with one’s past, present, and future, and if working toward mercy were the alternative route to anger and disappointment in relationships–these would be positive things. Toward mercy. As a mantra, you could do worse.
A final note: I met Beth Kephart last July when Ellen Klein, co-owner of the Hooray for Books bookstore in Alexandria, Virginia, put us together for an event at the store, and we’ve stayed in touch since then. I’d be saying everything I’m saying about her book even if we were strangers.
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