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Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir

4.15  ·  Rating details ·  585 ratings  ·  101 reviews
In the tradition of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a critically acclaimed National Book Award finalist shares inspiration and practical advice for writing a memoir.

Writing memoir is a deeply personal, and consequential, undertaking. As the acclaimed author of five memoirs spanning significant turning points in her life, Beth Kephart has been both blessed and bruised by the g
Paperback, 272 pages
Published August 6th 2013 by Avery
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Sylvia Swann-Levkoff
Nov 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
There aren't enough stars for this book. I went in thinking I was reading an instructional book. I soon found myself reading music, sheer poetry.

Beth Kephart is a writers' writer. This book is a gift to us. No matter what you're writing Kephart's wisdom will elevate your work. If you listen hard there's no telling where this book will take you.
Aug 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir, non-fiction
Wow, read this book. Read it if you want to know what to read. Read it if you want to write. Read this book because it is a treasure of devotion to memoir. Read this book because you need Beth Kephart's wisdom, not only to read and write, but to live! ...more
Aug 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Although this is one of those books that should be read and absorbed slowly, I finished it in a couple of days. For me, Kephart's lush language is irresistible, and I also loved learning about her process, and she came into the writing life.

I'm sure that I will revisit this book often for specific suggested exercises, for the lengthy annotated reading list, and for inspiration. For now, my biggest takeaway is that I should not rush to finish my memoir.

I would recommend this book for anyone who i
Ginger Bensman
Apr 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
If you are contemplating writing a memoir, or love reading them, or just love reading writing beautiful enough to break your heart, this is a book you might want to experience. I was looking for a book on how to write memoir and my kind loving wonderful husband gave me this one two Christmases ago—and oh, it is so much more than I expected! What you can expect is a book written with intimate knowledge of memoir, the sensibility of a poet, and the nuance of a novelist. You will also find some pon ...more
Jun 26, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The best teachers are those that give of themselves freely to their students and their craft, and with reference books available on various ways to write, what to write, and when to write, many will glance at yet another writing reference and dismiss it out of hand. What does that mean? That those people are fools — for Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart, released today, is not a reference, it is a memoir about writing memoir (marking a 6th memoir from her). It is a ref ...more
Karen Ashmore
Jun 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Finally, a good book about writing a memoir with practical suggestions on describing landscape, weather, color, tastes, smells, love, empathy, form, voices, detail, grief, vulnerability, tone. You won't believe how many unhelpful memoir writing books are out there. This one had down to earth suggestions supported with examples from some of the great memoirs. ...more
Aug 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Handling the Truth is a practical guide to reading and writing memoir. It breaks down the various elements of the form, and offers illustrations and exercises drawn from the classroom. At the same time, it’s a memoir of Beth Kephart’s own experience with the writing, reading, and teaching of memoir...and the book accomplishes both missions without being overly self-referential or meta. It’s a celebration, examination, and defense of the form. It’s honest and direct about where and how it can go ...more
Sara Habein
Jan 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
Quite enjoyed this, even if my contrary nature bristled a bit when she became prescriptive. ("Do [this]. Let it make you [feel this].") Not really her fault that my reaction to that sort of thing is I DO WHAT I WANT, but otherwise this was good. The appendix also has a lot of great suggestions for further reading. ...more
Mar 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017-4-stars
"Memoir is a strut and a confession." These words rang true throughout this read.

Kephart's challenge of 750 word focused writing is the second time I have seen this prompt in sources to aid the writing of a memoir. She implies that memoirs freeze people in time. What about writing focused memoirs when it is frigid outside?

I have already launched a blog of focused writing ( I am still trying to teach myself the range of my own written voice. It is without a doubt a labo
Sep 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
This writer knows memoirs. She clearly lives, breathes and teaches them. Her writing is fluid and luxurious and her love of language is evident. I really learned a tremendous amount about the genre while reading Handling the Truth. My only hesitation was the undercurrent of perfectionism that seemed to run through this work. While Kephart consistently insists on avoiding the trap of perfectionism, she unwittingly advocates for just that. Perhaps this is because she has mastered (or is close to m ...more
Apr 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing
A must read book for anyone contemplating writing their memoir. If you are stuck, don't know exactly how to start or in need of inspiration, this is the book for you. Full of ideas and thoughts about what memoir is- and isn't-, how to handle as the title states "telling the truth", and beginning the writing process. I thoroughly enjoyed reading through this book, and have "post-it" noted many pages full of inspiration. The author covers everything from the Prologue to the very end! Highly recomm ...more
Cheryl Crotty
Aug 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
If you love writing, any kind of writing, you will love this book. I've read many writing books but this is one of the best. I'm not going to write a memoir but after reading this I might like to go back and jog my memory just to keep a diary. Her words were brilliant and all the little stories by other writes were enjoyed. I have passages underlined in this book than any book I own. It is a book that will sit in my office and get read in pieces over and over. Yes, I will also be getting some of ...more
Sep 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
Kephart, an excellent writer, knows quite a bit about memoirs. As a faculty member in a creative writing program, she gives examples of her best student writing as well as ample samples from excellent writing. Besides being a thorough guide for writers of memoirs, she appends an annotated list of contempory memoirs. A practical book by a highly qualified writer.
Oct 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Super helpful for me as I am working on a memoir. It gave me a lot to think about and I have a lot of work to do.
Jennifer Louden
Jul 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing
What a magnificent book. I feel like i learned so much about what a memoir can be... so much that was unclear to me, Kephart puts into words. Also a great resource for memoir reading!
Sep 02, 2021 rated it liked it
I think I’m becoming a curmudgeon. Many reviewers loved this book. I’ve clearly read way too many on this theme, so many that I was irritated, rather than inspired, by the author’s too obviously ‘poetic’ writing style. Here’s an example:
“Time is the memoirist’s salvation and sin. Time is the tease and the puzzle. Time is the trickster, the tormenter, the vexer. Time solved or resolved is memoir mostly mastered.”
That was on page 44, by which point I was already longing to read Hemingway on the me
Kristin Boldon
Aug 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018, borrowed, writing
Essential reading about the writing of memoir.
Polly Castor
Jan 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I enjoyed this book and found it gives a good introduction to writing in the genre of memoir. The author has written several memoirs and is a professor of the subject at University of Pennsylvania, so she knows what she’s talking about. I really appreciated her fresh tone.

The book does bog down in places, like when she chases her tail on the subject of what tense to write in for a chapter when the take away is that there are no rules and one should do what works for them. The book does a great
Nathaniel Popkin
Oct 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
This review appeared originally in Art Attack/

Pulling on dozens of literary stars — from Rilke to Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, New York Times columnist David Carr to Mary Karr, author of the Liar’s Club, and the work of her own students at Penn, author Beth Kephart has given us a wise new guide to writing memoir, Handling the Truth, out August 6 from Gotham Books.

Kephart is assertive and daring in her defense of memoir as a top literary form. She’s tired of it being disparaged by crit
Tim Johnson
Nov 15, 2015 rated it it was ok
What do I want to say about this guide to writing memoir? Kephart clearly knows enough on the subject, having written at least five memoirs and teaching the subject at the university level, to be an expert. I feel that she sometimes gets carried away with making pretty-sounding sentences. This is good for memoir writing itself but can distract from your message in a guide. What do I know anyway?

That's the only real complaint I have about the book. The author does a decent job of delineating exac
Leigh Kramer
Jun 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Worthy addition to any writer's bookshelf. Kephart has me dreaming memoir-sized dreams. ...more
Edward Sullivan
Mar 29, 2021 rated it really liked it
A great guide, interesting, thoughtful, and practical.
Sauvignon Sing
Jul 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Everything Beth Kephart writes is poetry. Even this.
Emma Lou
May 19, 2016 rated it liked it
Although I am not currently thinking of writing a memoir ( as it would be very short and not really have a point to it ) I did enjoy reading this book for the simple fact that it not only informed me as to the difference between a biography and a memoir, but it also taught me to see my world and my life through the eyes of a memoirist. To take in and notice all the little things that before you might not have thought significant. To relish the smell of your mother's cooking and the sound of her ...more
Reading Cat
Jul 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, writing
Beautifully written, hopeful book about the power of memoir.

Note: I don't write memoir. I literally have nothing to say about my life that would interest anyone. Hell, it doesn't even interest me! But I love reading memoirs and I teach a class in creative nonfiction, and I like to borrow liberally from the experts who do write memoir.

Many good points (make me feel like I'm on the right track in the classroom) about truth and memory, compassion, imagination, and grounding the personal in the la
Nov 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir
I first learned about this book from the Writing Lessons Series on Marion Roach Smith’s blog, The Memoir Project. I enjoyed reading our library copy so much that I want….no… I need my own copy to mark up. The appendix alone feels like a guided tour through a treasured collection of a writing professor. I was happy that I had read many of the memoirs listed in the appendix…but I want to read them all! I could relate when Kephart said she had lost a friend by telling her that she needed to read me ...more
Ashley  Brooks
Jul 07, 2017 rated it liked it
Actual rating: 3.5

I loved this book at first. Kephart's writing is phenomenal, and her use of language is enough to inspire you to write on its own. But the book started dragging somewhere around the halfway point. Kephart gave lots of ideas for writing exercises I wanted to try, but they weren't specific enough or structured enough for me. I like my writing exercises to come with clear instructions and boundaries; having limits helps me push myself. I ended up skimming the last third of the boo
Aug 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
In the fall of 2018 I began writing a memoir, thought I had lived long enough to have something to say about life—particularly the teaching life—believed as long as I told the truth, lay bare the facts , and approached memoir as story w/ plots and themes, I’d be good to go on this journey. Yet Beth Kephart’s essential book for all who aspire to write memoir challenges me to handle the truth, my truth, w/ care; if challenges me to constantly work for beauty and empathy in telling my story, to ask ...more
Lori Johnstone
May 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I am so afraid to write anything, as to render this review insignificant, as this piece of art was of so much importance. I feel as though I were lulled into a song. Not merely instructed as entranced.

As someone intent on writing memoir not for the pain of the memories, but the beauty in a life, the sharing of the soul, I will continue to come back to this book to remind me exactly what memoir is, life as a gift.

Thank-you Beth Kephart.

Now on to read, Michael Ondaatje, and Natalie Kusz, as gen
Oct 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
Kephart gives wonderful advice, asks some tough questions about why you would ever want to write memoir, and has many suggestions on which memoirs to read. I liked her emphasis on reading in this genre before attempting to write in this genre. Her knowledge and skills are obviously top notch, and I enjoyed gleaning from her experience. She went a little thick on using examples from other writers, and at times, I felt I was just reading snippets from books I knew nothing about. But that was my on ...more
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I'm the award-winning writer of more than two-dozen books in multiple genres—memoir, middle grade and young adult fiction, picture books, history, corporate fable, and books on the making of memoir.

I'm also an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, co-founder of Juncture Workshops, and an essayist and critic with work appearing in The New York Times, Life magazine, Ninth Letter,

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