Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Handling the Truth in Our Writing, Our Reading, and Our Teaching

I recently read Beth Kephart's Handling the Truth:  On the Writing of Memoir.  What a great book!  It's a perfect book for writers of all sorts and for teachers and for readers.

The book is full of wonderful examples from all sorts of memoirs.  These are the kinds of examples that remind me of why I write, even as they make me despair of my inadequacies and inabilities to be so similarly eloquent.  They inspire me to try harder.

Kephart includes a useful appendix with a list of great memoirs and brief descriptions.  The list is organized by types of memoir.  Want a book about a medical experience?  She's got some suggestions.  Want to get back to nature?  She'll tell you why certain memoirs are her favorites.  Throughout the book, she stresses the importance of being a careful reader as well as a careful writer.

For those of us who have been writing for many years, much of what she says will feel familiar--but it's good to be reminded of the essentials.  And she reminds us so lyrically.

Several times she returns to one of her most important points, one that it's easy to forget in this age when we're all pasting details of our lives online.  Again and again she reminds us that when we're writing memoir, even when we're being positive, we're going to have an impact on the other lives contained in our writing:

"You can't foresee the many ways a book--even a small book, even a self-published one distributed to a mere dozen friends--will carry forward through your life and through the lives of others--leaving indentations here, scars there, a trail of tears, a infiltrated reputation. . . .I speak as one who has systematically sought permission for every line in a book that relates to another, and who has failed nonetheless.  Reviewers will say what they will about your book.  Readers will draw their own conclusions.  You can think you've locked it all up tight, but unforeseen winds will blow through.  The only thing you can control when writing memoir is what you actually say and how you prepare the ones you love for the book's journey into the world" (p. 182).

As you might expect, this book contains great exercises, those you could do alone and those that you should take to your classrooms.  I love the idea of sending students out with cameras; her idea has a twist.  Her students are sure they'll be writing about the pictures in one way; they're thinking they'll be writing about the central focus of the pictures they've taken.  Kephart has them look at the material that's in the background:  the reflections in the windows, the activities happening at the edge of the frame, the table that's underneath the pie that is the focus of the picture. 

It seems like an exercise that would work in a variety of classrooms, both writing classrooms and other types; Psychology and Sociology classes come to mind.

It's interesting to think how many classes in how many disciplines now seem to have much in common with the teaching of memoir.  Some days I think we do students no good service by making every class about their individual lives and experiences.  Some days, I think it's the most effective way into a subject; I just wish that students would as eagerly explore the larger connections too. 

I wonder what this book would say to teachers in other disciplines; I suspect it would say quite a lot for teachers with open minds.

But let me stress, this book has much to say to readers, whether they be teachers, writers, or readers.  It's the best kind of book, the book that reminds me of why I write.  It's the kind of book that makes me want to read more, the kind of book that reminds me of how lucky I am to be in this time period when I'm surrounded by good writing which is available via so many avenues.

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