Making Memoir Work

Jen Doll interviews Beth Kephart, author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, about the genre’s weaknesses and strengths:

Why do you think memoir gets a bad rap? 

The popularity of the genre came out of the great success of Mary Karr and others who radicalized the form, and it quickly became the genre, until it was hurt, battered, banged up by so many untrue memoirs that were problematic to the reputation of the form. And also, the categorization of memoir: That’s an illness memoir, that’s a divorce memoir, it felt to readers like if they’d read one they’d read them all. The great success of a genre is always followed by many who want to reap the benefits of the success who don’t break the boundaries of the form.

Where do you feel we are with the genre now?

Memoir will not go away because there are so many beautiful stories and great memoirists continue to break form—like Terry Tempest Williams in her new book, When Women Were Birds, or another I just read, Stephanie LaCava’s An Extraordinary Theory of Objects, in which she examines the objects in her life; it’s wrapped around the odyssey of collections with these interesting footnotes about the origins of things. Terry Tempest Williams, before her mother passed away, she told her to look for her journals, and when Terry did that, she discovered that all of the journals were blank. In her book, Terry works to understand her life against the profusion of possible conclusions one can draw from so many blank journals. Each interpretation is a lens through which she views her life. Artistry and thoughtfulness are very much there. Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index is another of these books. It’s organized as an index, and through that she’s organizing her contemplation—not just as my father killed himself on this day, but the almost jarring collision of how to look at this, which is the honest approach to life, there is no true continuity.