By Jerry Waxler
A couple of years ago, I heard Beth Kephart deliver the keynote speech at the Philadelphia Stories “Push to Publish” conference. She offered an interesting perspective on memoir, having written more than one, including an unusual first person account of a river. After the talk, I went up to meet her, and that was the last I thought about her until I picked her memoir “Slant of Sun” out of my ever-deepening pile and started to read. The book impressed me as a lovely, deep, impeccable memoir and I stopped and stayed with it for quite a while. The longer I lingered the more I saw and appreciated. Within the pages, I identified twenty lessons for memoir writers, which I shared in previous posts. In this entry, I interview Beth Kephart about her experience as a writer.
Jerry Waxler: Considering the authentic feel of your dialog, I’m guessing you kept a journal. So did you?
Beth Kephart: The truth is that essay writing and, now, blogging is my form of keeping a diary or a journal. The chapters that ultimately became A Slant of Sun were often written in the near wake of the events they record. “Waiting for the Red Baron,” for example, was written the evening and next morning following an experience I’d had on the playground with my son. Dialogue in memoir is, indeed, very tricky. It, above all else, can lead to doubt in the reader’s mind. I tried to record only that that was fresh in memory or that which had remained there, indelible, for good reason.
Jerry: When did you decide to write a book about this period in your life?
Beth: I never planned on writing a book per se. I was simply writing down the stories as they happened and reading them to my son–a way of memorializing the days we had together. It all came together as a book after Jayne Anne Phillips and Rosellen Brown and others saw the pieces and suggested that they may make a meaningful whole. I spent a long time considering whether or not to follow that suggestion.
Jerry: Do you keep a writer’s notebook now?
Beth: My blog serves, in many ways, as my notebook. And my last many books have been fiction, and so I scrawl things to myself in strange places and hope I can find them later. But mostly, when I write fiction, I am writing sentence to the next sentence. Each new sentence unlocks an unforeseen door.
Jerry: When I read the memoir a month ago, it didn’t matter to me that you had written it years earlier. Your experience moved me just as much as if it happened yesterday. As a reader, that seems kind of obvious. But what does it feel like as a writer? Do you love your old books or are they hard to relate to?
Beth: I don’t, by and large, go back and read anything I’ve written once it is published–it’s even difficult for me to do readings from books I’ve just recently put out into the world. I imagine that that has to do with a certain kind of fear that the book isn’t all I might have wanted it to be, or all I would do now, and that there simply is no way to change things. Memoirs are particularly difficult to return to. When I do–when I must–I am left raw with surges of emotion. A sense of loss. A sense of what if? A sense of if only. But mostly a sense of time passing. The people we write of in memoirs grow up. We grow up, too. Nothing is permanent, save for those words on the page.
Jerry: I imagine most memoir writers don’t think (or can’t even guess) how this memoir will feel to them ten years later. What have you learned about memoirs and the passage of time that you wish you could have told yourself when you wrote it, or that you would tell other memoir writers as they aspire to publish their stories?
Beth: You are absolutely right: We are incapable of imagining ourselves ten years on, our books beside us. Incapable. I have written five memoirs. In each, I was working and writing toward universal messages and themes, and not toward a simple chronicling of my own small life. With each I thought I was speaking for all of time. I wasn’t. I’m still learning about those themes. I’m still making decisions or changing my mind. I’m still emerging, despite my age. My advice to writers of memoir is to be aware, always, that a memoir is not an absolute, not a black and white, not a he said, she said. It is a grappling toward understanding, and that grappling will continue long after the book is out.
Jerry: To the reader, a memoir looks like a complete book that starts on page one and proceeds to the end. But the author has to do a lot of work to decide where to start and how to focus the book. Can you tell us about that process for you, how did you make those decisions?
Beth: It all comes back to those themes. I have done all my shaping–all my deciding about what goes in and what stays out, about how much emphasis to put on one thing or another–by standing back and asking myself: Does this scene advance your themes? Often some of the very best stories must be set aside. But memoir is not autobiography. The point is to leave the reader understanding more not just about you, but about him or herself. It’s up to the writer to help the reader in that process.
Jerry: How did writing the memoir fit into your journey of becoming a lifelong book author?
Beth: Well, I’ve been very lucky, in many ways, with writing. Before I wrote memoir, I published dozens of short stories in literary magazines, and each time out, I learned something new. Memoir taught me many things — and the published books and the honors they received opened more doors, let me experiment with new forms, gave me a platform from which to speak and teach. That is not to say that it is easy. Ever. In many ways, in this publishing environment, it gets harder. But everything you write, published or not, teaches you something about what you are capable of and what you are still battling. And every reaction you get to your work helps you see your best efforts from the outside.
Jerry: How did the memoir writing inform your later YA novel writing? (Note: Beth Kephart’s fifth YA novel Dangerous Neighbors is winning critical acclaim.)
Beth: After I wrote the five memoirs, I wrote an autobiography of the Schuylkill River called Flow, which felt, very much, like a river’s memoir. I clung to that first-person voice, because I understood it, because through it I could speak most honestly. My first four young adult novels were all first-person novels, and in each of the books the main characters contained aspects of me that I understood and unfurled, just as if I were unfurling my own thoughts in memoir. The other day I was teaching in a classroom and the students, who had read one of my YA novels, were sure that the novel was memoir. I asked them why. They said because it felt urgent and honest. The blog, too, allows me to exercise the first-person voice.
Jerry: Writers have many responsibilities: to say a thing clearly being in my opinion number one, and get to the heart of it, perhaps number two. But to do those two things and at the same time to add beauty of language seems to me to be almost a transcendent goal. Not only is it difficult to find colorful language. It can even be risky.
Beth: You are very right about language being risky. But in my mind, there’s no point to writing a book if you aren’t willing to put your heart, soul, and imagination on the line, in almost every sentence. Push as hard as you can, then edit back. Try to create something original and new.
Jerry: As a writer, I limit my use of metaphors and other artistic devices, because I fear they could be distracting, calling attention to the words and away from the purpose of the sentence. Then I read a book like yours and remember how uplifting and invigorating language arts can be.
Beth: Thank you. Part of my “style” comes from the fact that I was a skater as a kid and I’m a dancer now and I believe in choreography and movement and color. They are like religions to me.
Jerry: On many pages of Slant of Sun, I caught my breath, gasping at the simplicity, elegance, and originality of your word choices. Your phrasing lifted me, made me happy, and at the same time brought me deeper into your experience. On only two or three sentences in the entire book, I thought the word-image was a tiny bit out of center, but instead of distracting me, those moments merely made me grateful for all the passion you had put into your writing. Could you give me some idea about how you achieve your style or voice? Do you practice? Is it a lifelong obsession? Did you go through a period of honing your voice? Do you remember some of the tools, techniques, or strategies you used to develop the knack?
Beth: Thank you (again). I think voice–real voice–comes from an authentic, untrained place. The impulse for an image, the idea for a metaphor — it can’t be taught. What can be taught is self editing. Toning it down. Making it work. I work on that all the time, and sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I don’t. There’s no getting anywhere, though, if you don’t read a lot. I do that all the time. Just this morning I finished reading and blogging about one of the best memoirs I’ve read in years–Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home. I think it’s pitch perfect, all the way through.
Jerry: Will you write another memoir?
Beth: Sometimes I wish I had the courage. I teach memoir writing at Penn. I think about it. I do. But nothing is in the works. My blog is my memoir at the moment.
Jerry: What are you working on now?
Beth: I am in the midst of finishing two novels — one, ten years in the making, the other, three. I have just released a book that took me five years to write. It means a lot to me, for it is about Centennial Philadelphia. Normally I run from promoting a book. This new book, Dangerous Neighbors, is a book I am fighting for. I’ve prepared a teacher’s guide (which is on my blog) and I am spending the time and energy it takes to share the book with teachers with the hope that local students will read the book and be transported back in time to a city I love.
Here are links to all the parts of my multi-part review of “Slant of Sun” by Beth Kephart and an interview with the author:
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.