An excerpt from Handling the Truth by Beth Kephart
Maybe the audacity of it thrills you. Maybe it’s always been like this: You out on the edge with your verity serums, your odd-sized heart, your wet eyes, urging. Maybe this is what you are good for, after all, or good at, though there, you’ve done it again: wanted proof, suggested the possibility. You teach memoir. You negotiate truth. Goodness doesn’t matter here. Bearing witness does.
Memoir is a strut and a confession, a whisper in the ear, a scream. Memoir performs, then cedes. It is the work of thieves. It is a seduction and a sleight of hand, and the world won’t rise above it.
Memoir is a strut and a confession, a whisper in the ear, a scream.
Or you won’t. You in the Victorian manse at the edge of the Ivy League campus, where you arrive early and sit in the attitude of prayer. You who know something not just of the toil but also of the psychic cost, the pummeling doubt, the lacerating regrets that live in the aftermath of public confession. You have written memoir in search of the lessons children teach and in confusion over the entanglements of friendships. You have written in despair regarding the sensational impossibility of knowing another, in defense of the imperiled imagination, and in the throes of the lonesome sink toward middle age. You have written quiet and expected quiet, and yet a terrible noise has hurried in— a churlish self-recrimination that cluttered the early hours when clear-minded nonmemoirists slept. You have learned from all that. You have decided. Memoir is, and will still be, but cautions must be taken.
Teaching memoir is teaching verge. It’s teaching questions: Who are you? Where have you been? Where are you going? What do you believe in? What will you fight for? What is the sound of your voice? It’s teaching now against then, and leave that out to put this in, and yes, maybe that happened, but what does it mean? An affront? You hope not. A calling? Probably.
You enter a classroom of students you have never seen before, and over the course of a semester you travel—their forgotten paraphernalia in the well of their backpacks, those tattoos on their wrists, those bio notes inked onto the palm of one hand. They will remember their mother’s London broil, but not the recipe. They will proffer a profusion of umbrellas and a poor-fitting snowsuit, a pair of polka-dotted boots, red roses at a Pakistani grave, a white billiard ball, a pink-and-orange sari, a box with a secret bottom, Ciao Bella gelato. Someone will make a rat-a-tat out of a remembered list. Someone will walk you through the corridors of the sick or through the staged room of a movie set or beside the big bike that will take them far. Someone will say, Teach me how to write like this, and someone will ask what good writing is, and you will read out loud from the memoirs you have loved, debunk (systematically) and proselytize (effusively), perform Patti Smith and Terrence Des Pres, Geoffrey Wolff and Mark Richard, Marie Arana and Mary Karr, William Fiennes and Michael Ondaatje, C. K. Williams and Natalie Kusz. You will play recordings of Sylvia Plath reciting “Lady Lazarus” and Etheridge Knight intoning “The Idea of Ancestry,” and you will say, in a room made dark by encrusted velvet and mahogany stain, You tell me good. You tell me why. Know your opinions and defend them.
These aspiring makers of memoir are who you believe and what you believe in—the smiley face tie he wears on Frat Rush Tuesdays, the cheerful interval between her two front teeth, the planks he carries in his dark-blue backpack, the accoutrements of power lifting. Enamored of the color red and hip-hop, declaring you their “galentine,” impersonating Whitman, missing their mothers, missing their dead, they are, simply and complexly, human, and they may not trust themselves with truth, but they have to trust one another. You insist that they earn the trust of one another.
And so you will send them out into the world with cameras. And so you will sit them down with songs. And so you will ask them to retrieve what they lost and, after that, to leave aside the merely incidental. You will set a box of cookies on the table, some chocolate-covered berries, some salt-encrusted chips, and then (at last) get out of the way, for every memoir must in the end and on its own emerge and bleed and scab.
Audacity was the wrong word; you see that now. The word, in fact, is privilege. Teaching, after all these years, is the marrow in your bones. Truth is your obsession.
Excerpted from Handling The Truth by Beth Kephart. Copyright (c) 2013 by Beth Kephart. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.