Beth Kephart

Write On Wednesday: What’s Next?

Long ago on another blog far away, I held a weekly writer’s roundtable every Wednesday. It was anchored by a short essay, and I invited writers to weigh in on the topic of the day. Connections were created around this table. It was where I first met Andi Cumbo Floyd, Jeanie Croope, Kerstin Martin - women with whom I continue to draw inspiration for creative work (not just writing). 

Since Life In General was published, I’ve been thinking about what’s next for me in this writing practice which I depend upon, and I thought it might be fun to explore that in a new series of Write on Wednesday posts. For the past two years my writing goals were focused on putting Life In General together. It was a satisfying process and a superb learning experience. Publishing it put a cap on eight years worth of writing and tied it up nice and neatly.  

But Life Goes On. That’s the theme that seems to be emerging for my online writing, the essays I write here on this blog. How do I use what I’ve learned in this decade of my 50’s and go forward with it into my 60’s? You know those guiding principles I talk about in the Afterword of Life In General? How are they working out for me as life moves forward? How will they help me handle the inevitable changes yet to come? 

Beyond that, though, I feel an urgency to try something new, to start from scratch on writing something that might turn into another book. I’ve hinted at it here from time to time, I’ve made a few false starts and even have part of a “shitty rough draft.” It’s a topic that fascinates me, that makes me ponder family legacy and how it affects our personalities and the choices we make for our own lives. It’s also about roads not taken, and how our lives are steered by what we don’t do as much as what we do.

But there is much work ahead, and much to think about. I’m reading a lot right now, reading even more memoirs than I usually do (which is saying a lot). But I’m reading them with an eye to form and structure and voice, rather than immersing myself solely in the story. I’m studying books about writing memoir, starting with my friend Beth Kephart’s challenging text Handling the Truth. And it is challenging me - to think and re-think every early assumption I made about this project, with an eye on the “universal question” within which to frame it.

But it’s all good. I’m not in a hurry. 

It feels like a hike in the wilderness on a cool spring day. A fresh breeze tingles on my skin, clouds scuttle across the blue sky above, my feet crackle and crunch on the forest path, one step after the next, my gait steady but unhurried. The day is long, there is plenty of sunlight, and much to see and hear. I’m simply enjoying the walk. 

That’s what’s next for me.

Writer and artist friends: What’s next for you? 


The Sunday Salon: Handling the Truth

No one can or should tell you what to write about. But if you don't know where the memoir impulse is coming from, if you can't trace it, can't defend it, can't articulate an answer when somebody asks "Why'd you want to write a memoir anyway?" - stop. Hold those memoir horses. Either the mind has been teased for years upon years, or there's that small thing that won't be refused, or there's something else genuine and worthy. But nobody wants to hear that you're writing memoir because you need some quick cash, or because you think it will make you famous, or because your boyfriend said there's a movie in this, or because you're so mad and it's about time you get to tell your version.  from Handling the Truth, on the writing of memoir, by Beth Kephart

handlingthetruthI love Beth Kephart's writing. I love every lyrical, magical, evocative word of it.  I wallow in a Kephart book, marvel at the way she uses language like a paintbrush, eat up her daily blog posts like part of my healthy breakfast.

So how happy am I that she has finally written a book about writing?


Handling the Truth distills the wisdom from Kephart's own experience as a writer of memoir, from her class at the University of Pennsylvania, and from the work of those writers  whom she most admires. It's chock full of sound writing principles and  imaginative exercises, set out in a systematic way to prepare you for the actual writing of your memoir.  If you follow it, you will have a firm foundation for writing your personal story.

But what I love most about Handling the Truth is that it reveals a side of Beth Kephart I've not seen before. She is fierce in this book, like a mama bear protecting her cub. Kephart has written five memoirs of her own, each one astoundingly good, each one proving anew her passion for this genre. And throughout handling the truth she exhorts all of us - we fledgling, aspiring memoir writers - not to take this work she loves and mess it up. In the opening pages, she gives us a forthright and adamant list of what memoir is NOT - not "a lecture, a lesson, a stew of information and facts." NOT "a self-administered therapy session." NOT "an exercise in self-glorification." NOT a "trumped-up, fantastical idea of what an interesting life might have been, if only."

What must we do, then, in order to write the stuff of our lives that is good and strong and true? The stuff that speaks?  Real memoirists "open themselves to self-discovery," she says, "and, in the process, make themselves vulnerable...They yearn, and they are yearned with. They declare a want to know. They seek out loud. They quest. They lessen the distance. They lean toward."

Makers of memoir "shape what they have lived and what they have seen. They honor what they love and defend what they believe. They dwell with ideas and language and with themselves, countering complexity with clarity and manipulating time. They locate stories inside the contradictions of their lives...they write the stories once; they write them several times. (...) And when their voices are true, we hear them."

If there is something in your mind that's been "teasing you for years," if there is "some small thing that won't be refused," if you are brave enough to take up the memoir standard, then Handling the Truth is the book you must read.

I have purchased a copy of Handling the Truth to give away to an interested reader. Simply leave a comment with the name of your favorite memoir.  Winner will be chosen at random on August 18.

Handling the Truth, by Beth Kephart

Copyright 2013, Gotham Books, published by the Penguin Group

ISBN: 978-1-592-40815-3

Purchase the book here:

Amazon Barnes and Noble Books A Million Indiebound  iTunes 

A Work in Progress

My friend Beth Kephart instigated a flurry of writerly activity this morning when she "tagged" her Facebook friends to post some lines from their "work in progress." Since she was kind enough to include me among that number, here is a snippet of memoir resulting from the online class I've been taking (led by the incomparable Andi Cumbo).

Over the years, I gathered enough information from innuendo and overheard conversations to understand why I was an only child. It was a reason that I’d probably never share with any of the people who asked me outright about my singleton status, but one that made perfect sense to me.

My mother didn’t have more children because she didn’t like children, especially babies.

The story of her unexpected pregnancy was legion in our little family. She told it to me every year on my birthday. “I was so mad at that doctor when he told me I was pregnant,” she would say, as she brushed my long, wavy hair and fussed with the bow on the back of my new birthday party dress. “I came home and cried and threw things. ‘Damn that doctor!’” She laughed. “And your Granny would say, ‘Well, missy, it’s not the doctor’s fault!”

Then we would both laugh, even though I wasn’t sure what was so funny about that comment.

But rather than making me feel insecure or unwanted, my mother’s professed dismay at my impending birth always made me feel a little smug. Because my mother (and my father and my grandparents) obviously loved me so much when I arrived, and continued to love and pamper and adore me more every year, I must have been something very special in order to change those initial feelings. So the thought that my mother at one time didn’t really want me – well, that was just laughable in the face of her abiding love and affection, as well as her obvious happiness with her role.



Writing in Color

The handbell group I rang with prided themselves on an unusually expressive musical style which they called "ringing in color." It was a term that came to identify their performances to such an extent that they legally trademarked it. When asked about it, our director was happy to explain what the term meant to us. "We want our playing to take the black and white notes off the page and bring them into full color," she would say. This was achieved by careful attention to dynamics, phrasing, melodic  and harmonic lines, and overall visual presentation, so the group was "as much fun to watch as it was to hear."

I'm well acquainted with the musical practice of analyzing each line of music, looking for the climax of the phrase, searching out the melody notes which might be hidden amongst the inner voices and the leading tones in chords. I know how to emphasize notes in order to make the music more meaningful as well as more pleasurable to the listener. It's a painstaking task, looking at a piece of music line by line, analyzing, dissecting, listening and learning to feel the best possible interpretation.

I never thought about applying this process to writing until this morning.

Beth Kephart, is one of my favorite writers and blogging friends, an author well-known for extraordinarily lyrical and descriptive writing style, the very embodiment of the "writing in color" idea. Beth  is hosting a sentence challenge for NaNoWriMo participants. She is seeking  "a single sentence as it was first written in the heat of a NaNo moment, and that same sentence after it has been reconsidered, revised."

As  examples, she shows us "before and after" versions of  sentences from her own work in progress. The first example is perfectly functional, grammatically correct, and clearly conveys its meaning. But the revised sentence reads as smoothly as warm dark chocolate, leaving a satisfying aftertaste in the readers brain. The first sentence is a clearly black and white while the second jumps off the page in living color.

Beth has said she can spend hours, days in fact, getting one sentence just right.  "I care perhaps too much about language," she writes in a blog post. " I want to take risks with it, yearn to push it.  (...) because I think we have a responsibility as writers not just to tell stories, but to try to tell stories artfully, with originality and daring."

I never fully understood the possibility of such an undertaking, but I'm beginning to.  Crafting colorful sentences requires the skillful combination of vocabulary and grammar but also that unexplainable "X" factor which allows you to recognize when the words appear in living color. Like any skill, it takes practice and committment plus careful and thoughtful study, particularly study of other writers who are successful with this concept.

Each writers voice brings a unique style to their sentences, just as a musicians touch does to their instrument. Beyond  basic good writing skills the best writers will take an extra step to compose sentences which transcend black and white ink on the page and develop into vivid colors in the reader's mind.

That's really writing in color.