Thursday, October 17, 2013

Book Review: Handling the Truth

When I noticed this book on the recent acquisitions list at our library, I placed my name on the hold list. Although the book is about memoir writing, and I have no plans for ever writing a memoir, I figured it couldn't hurt to read someone's insights into the writing process for this genre.  Plus, in the back of my mind, I was remembering a request from one of my GED students (back when we lived in DeKalb).  She asked that I write up her life story (which is biography, but a kin to memoir, certainly) and she has quite a story to tell (raped at 11 by a family friend, she gave birth to her first-born at 12 and went on to establish a solid marriage and have two more children).

One of the first suggestions Beth Kephart makes is one I wholeheartedly support, the need to immerse yourself in other memoirs in order to prepare for writing one's own. (I have done this with YA novels to prepare myself for writing my own.)  Sadly, as the author shared illustrations of the craft, I realized that I was unfamiliar with most of the memoirs mentioned in this book.  Her appendix of suggested reading at the back would no doubt be quite helpful to any writer interested in writing memoir.  Instead of merely providing the titles of read-worthy memoirs, Kephart highlights each book with an explanation of what the book is about and why it would be helpful as an example of good writing.  I was thrilled to discover that one of my favorite writers, Oliver Sacks, has written a memoir.  This, along with a few others, will be added to my lengthy list of books to one day read.

For me, the key take-away from this book was the idea that memoir must have meaning above and beyond the mere cataloguing of what happened.  The writer has to find a way to share experience in a way that the reader will relate to and benefit from.  The author quotes Vivian Gornick as saying, "A memoir is ... under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom."  Truly great memoirs find a way to draw meaning from the events of life.

I cannot say whether this is the best book to read about writing memoir (I don't feel qualified to make that judgment). There were times when the flowery language of it made me wish the author would just say things in a more concrete manner.  Moreover, I didn't really glean many general writing tips that I hadn't already encountered elsewhere.  I know that Sheila, of The Deliberate Reader, highly recommends The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith.  Plus, Kephart herself suggests a list of profitable titles to read on the art of writing memoir.  If nothing else, this book will certainly provide you with more reading fodder and anyone who wants to write books should be prepared to read many books, both books of instruction and books of example.

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