The first moment most of us become writers begins with a journal. Journal writing is thrust upon us in elementary school by English teachers or family members. Some of us -- as Beth Kephart show us -- choose to never stop collecting notebooks as the years go by. Beth Kephart published her first memoir 20 years ago; it was an honor recipient for the national book award. She teaches memoir writing at the University of Penn and specializes in writing authentically.
“As we turn into adults, we don’t necessarily remember our childhood selves for how we were,” Lin says, as she introduces Beth. “We remember us as sentimental versions of ourselves.” Therefore, we can turn to our childhood journals, and remember us for what we were -- instead of what we imagined ourselves to be.
Beth immediately introduces a common feeling described when spoken around memoir-writing, which is how self-serving the genre tends to feel, when so much is happening in the world around us.
“Do we have the right to write at this time? How can I matter at a time of necessary we?”
Kephart then goes on to tell a moving anecdote about a time when agent, profusely begging Beth to write for teens, asked her, “what were you like as a teen?” She answered: “I was the girl who boys came to and asked how to get with the other, more popular girls.” This memory sparked her first novel, and the notion of what makes a truly, moving book: Does the writer feel in genuine possession of the story?
“As you look through your old journals, honor your obsessions, honor your choices,” says Beth. “What were they then, what are they now?”
In keeping your reader’s attention, Beth explains that the most important factors are truth and a sense of discovery. It is important to understand, when writing a memoir, that you will never own the story in its entirety; the story also belongs to the others in it.
“If all you’re doing is piling a report of what happened in your life, you aren't writing a memoir. It needs to be motivated by a desire to connect yourself to the greater world,” she says. “When the author writes in the active voice of discovering the story, then you are discovering it together, with the reader… this helps the reader stay with you and pay attention.”
Until next time, for Lesa Cline-Ransome's workshop!
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