Beth asks Beth: A Handling the Truth Interview

Monday, August 5, 2013

Back in December, I sat down and asked myself a few questions about teaching and truth. I don't know who felt more nervous—the interviewee or the interviewer. But I share the essence of that little just-girls chat below, on the eve of the launch of this book, the galleys for which I have held in my hand for close to a year. I am so eager for tomorrow—eager for the book, eager to celebrate authors I love and the students who inspire me, and eager to see some of you at the Free Library of Philadelphia for a talk and workshop (start time is 7:30 PM).

The Handling the Truth giveaway is still live. More about the contest here. And more about the book here.

What is memoir, and what is not?

Real memoirists write to discover a life, to understand its meaning, to share what has been learned, to reach beyond themselves.  They do not write to pronounce, proclaim, accuse, retaliate, lecture, or self glorify.  They leave therapy to the paid professionals.

Why write a book like this now? Hasn’t the memoir form morphed and leaked into a catchall phrase?

Yes, HANDLING is a brave endeavor.  But what was my choice, really?  I fully believe that memoir, done right, can heal, uplift, and instruct.  That it is an embattled form of community, worthy of defense and explanation.

Can you really teach someone to write memoir?

I believe that you can help aspiring memoirists discover their purpose as writers, frame their lives against the backdrop of meaningful questions, and identify and wield the most telling details.  I have been amazed by the engineers who emerge from my classroom as talented and ultimately published young memoirists.  I have been gratified to watch the journeys of young and old writers—those who weren’t sure at first, and who became sure in time.

What are the biggest mistakes memoir writers make?  Why does it matter that they get those things right?

So much to say here, and so little room.  Perhaps it’s easiest to say this:  Beginning memoirists tend to believe that just because something happened to them, that something will be of interest to others.  But it’s never the thing that happened that matters most.  It’s what has been learned, and how the learning has been shaped.

Which memoirs have been most influential for you?

The first memoir I read was Natalie Kusz’s extraordinary Road Song.  I still teach that book, and I still cry when I read it.  Running in the Family (Michael Ondaatje), The Duke of Deception (Geoffrey Wolff), Just Kids (Patti Smith), Let’s Take the Long Way Home (Gail Caldwell)—I’m afraid I could go on and on here.  As for those who have written about the making of memoir, I am a giant Patricia Hampl fan and Vivian Gornick was quite smart in her delineation of the situation and the story.

Can you ever really tell the truth?

We can tell our truth.  That’s all we’ve got.  We know when we start to exaggerate.  We know when we “lie” to make things fit or to make the story turn out a certain, perfectly symmetrical, deeply self-congratulatory way.  We know when what we write will not resonate with others who have lived the adventure alongside us.  We know what we are doing.

Do you always hurt someone when you write a memoir?

You don’t have to.  There are those who haven’t.  But goodness, it is a difficult, dangerous, so slippery slope.  We forget that even when we write out of love and toward love, we can hurt simply by freezing another in time, by not giving them room to change on the page.

Why do beauty and authenticity still matter?

How could they not?  What do we have without beauty?  What can we trust in the absence of the authentic?  What good are we, especially as writers, if we do not aspire toward both?

What is the difference between memoir and autobiography?

Memoir yearns to understand what a life means.  Autobiography merely tells you, most often in chronological fashion, what happened.  The first celebrates our shared human condition.  The second shouts, Look at me.

What do you ultimately want readers to take away from HANDLING THE TRUTH?

I have written this book for both readers and writers, for teachers and students, for the questing souls out there.  If I have to name one single thing that I hope readers will take away from this (beyond all the books I recommend and hope they will read), it is this:  Truth matters. It can change a life.

If you could recommend one memoir that every aspiring memoirist should read, what would it be? Why?

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, because this extraordinary book proves how powerful—and wholly artistic—memoir can be.  Running is a poem, a pastiche, a collage, a plot, a confession.  It stretches our idea of the form.  It changes every time that we read it, just like life itself.
What do teachers of memoir do?

I have learned the answer to this question over time.  Teachers of memoir create a safe space for truth telling.  They ask the right questions and generate the kinds of exercises (which may involve cameras, food, long walks, photographic research) that enable minds to travel backward through time and to emerge, in the present, with a deepened understanding of both self and others (and, of course, the world).  Teachers of memoir suggest the right books to read.  They listen before they assert.  They never judge another’s experience, only help shape it into art.

Is it good, as a writer, to be and feel vulnerable?

Absolutely.  Vulnerability is, in many ways, the key to writing memoir.  All true memoirists reckon honestly with the imperfect, the splintered, the flawed.  All true memoirists are human.

Have we run out of topics, as memoirists? 

I might have thought we had run out of topics, but then I started teaching at Penn.  The personal stories my students tell are so original, heartbreaking, and surprising that I just hold my breath and wait and receive. 

A Muslim-Hindu young man, born in Canada, writes about what it is to become an American.  A young woman writes of watching her best friend die in a tragic accident.  Another writes of her young obsession with cooking, another of the loss of a young brother.  A young man writes of his struggle with religion, another writes of his obsession with power training, another writes of the aftermath of a breakup of an almost-secret relationship, another writes of stepping out into the world as a gay man, another writes of his love for his mother, another writes of nearly dying and worrying for his mother’s soul.  These stories are sui generis because they have only been lived once, this specifically, and this specifically detailed. 

Memoir reminds us of just how significant and particular and ripe with potential each one of us is.

You have a chapter titled “Do You Love?” in Handling the Truth.  What’s that about?

It’s sort of simple, really.  If we don’t know what we love, what we’re passionate about, what makes us crazy with desire, what we yearn for, we’re not ready to write memoir.  Autobiography, maybe.  But not memoir.

Is the first-person pronoun the only way to write memoir?

Isn’t it great that the answer to this question is no?  Memoirs come in second person, third person, even graphic art or photographically assisted formulations—and any manner of variation.  I’m very insistent that my students find their right truth-telling form.  I ask them to read memoirists like Mark Richard, Dorothy Allison, and Alison Bechdel before they go too far.

You have written eight acclaimed novels for young adults and have two more set to launch.  Yet you teach memoir at Penn.  Why?  Why not teach writing for children?

I get asked this question a lot.  I write novels for young adults because my students remind me, again and again, of just how intelligent they are, how searching, how open to new kinds of stories, how deserving of them.  I write novels for young adults because I believe, so firmly, in the imagination of the young, in its generosity.  I love to write the teen story that transcends—that speaks to every generation.

But I feel I have a responsibility, as one who has also written and studied memoir, to teach these young minds what happens when you begin to frame a true story, when you begin to speak truthfully about yourself.  There are a whole lot of ways to get “truth telling” wrong.  And there can be consequences even when you get it right.  If I can protect somehow, if I can caution, if I can help my students live their real lives with even greater integrity, then that is what I am drawn to do. 

It’s hard to put into words just how much I love my students.  I feel I can serve them best by teaching memoir, on the one hand, and by writing stories that I hope will help broaden their worlds, on the other.

Basically, I’m privileged to live in both worlds.


Jessica Keener said...

Beautiful line you wrote: "We forget that even when we write out of love and toward love, we can hurt simply by freezing another in time, by not giving them room to change on the page."

Wonderful insights.

Alicia D said...

I am newly invigorated and deeply inspired reading this post, especially after hearing you speak at the library last night. Can't wait until my four children settle down so I can get started on reading your book!!

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