Memoir Writing: Find The Past – Advice from Beth Kephart

Posted by October 10th, 2013

handling_the_truthFINALThis is a guest post by HANDLING THE TRUTH: ON THE WRITING OF MEMOIR author Beth Kephart. ~LS

Earlier today my niece, Julia, and I opened the door to my father’s attic, where a single box among many boxes bears my name. I had agreed to help Julia with a school photography project—to search, with her, for elements from my past that would somehow explain who I am.

Letters were there—old boyfriends, a marriage proposal, a key-sized envelope containing the dust of some prom flowers. A postcard upon which each hand-inked letter was no larger than a sugar ant. Names: Tanya, Steven, Pierre, Rob. An evaluation from the library where I’d worked as a University of Pennsylvania student; the supervisor noted, in square boxes, that I’d been “excellent” in all things. I also read, however: Although Beth chats to her friends at the checkout desk for long periods of time, she seems to be able to continue working and be accurate.

I had not touched these things—these documents from a life, this proof—for some thirty years, but there I was, the young me, back again. I chatted? I thought, and then I remembered: Oh, yes, as a matter of fact I did (and now I could smell the books that came in on the returns and hear the wheels squeaking on the carts and see my friend, Richard, beside me).

Over and again my memoir-writing students searching for memories come up short. And then, searching, they find their memories again—in letters, in scrapbooks, in photograph albums, in the conversations they take the time to have with those who were with them back then. One small thing can take us back—the taste, for example, of root beer. And then, if we give ourselves the room, if we trust ourselves in the stillness of remembering, taste becomes smell becomes memory.

Memories are unreliable; of course they are. Everybody has her own version. And yet: Newspapers can give us back the weather, the news, the mood of a lost day. And high school yearbooks will tell us her name. And letters will remind us of the thing our friend said. And our family knows something, and the neighbors might, too.

Say the name Pierre, for example, and I see him. I remember the year our families had spent in Boston together when I was just a kid. I remember the weekend (now I was a teen) that his family came and stayed with mine for a too-short weekend. I remember the friendship that erupted and the flurry of letters afterward—the wait as his words crossed the ocean.

But if I were to ever write of Pierre today I would hunt down the photographs, I would talk to my father, I would listen to the music from that era, I would read newspapers with dates that correspond to the letters that he sent to me on paper slightly pale blue. I would try to remember what my mother baked that weekend. I would ask my brother if he knew.

There’s far more to memory than Perhaps it was like this. There are facts, there are sure things, there are records.

Memoirists must find them.

About Beth Kephart: 


Photo courtesy of the author

Beth Kephart, a National Book Award Finalist, is the award-winning author of five memoirs and numerous novels for young adults. HANDLING THE TRUTH: ON THE WRITING OF MEMOIR (Gotham Books), recalls her work on memoir writing with her students at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter @BethKephart. Visit her blog,

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