Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of more than three-dozen books in multiple genres, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, co-founder of Juncture Workshops, and a widely published essayist and critic, appearing in the New York Times, Life magazine, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Ninth Letter, North American Review (online), Catapult, CRAFT, Creative Nonfiction, Salon.com, and elsewhere. Her new book, Wife | Daughter | Self: a memoir in essays, received a starred Booklist review. More at bethkephartbooks.com.
Krys Malcolm Belc: I love fragmented memoir, so I was so excited about the project of Wife/Daughter/Self and the way it’s centered on relationships and then explodes into this exploration of self. Now that it’s going to be a physical object, there’s a big emphasis on art and the physicality of art in the book so I am interested in how you conceive of it. It has visual elements to it—it has sketches, it has white space, it has a frank discussion of photography and art. I’d love to hear about the play between words and art in your writing.
Beth Kephart: I’m married to an artist and until very recently, when I began to make books myself and to do gelli printing and to really explore the handmade thing, I always held visual art in a place that I could never get to. I love the object. I love the thing we can hold in our hands. I love the white space, as you said. My husband has illustrated a number of my books over the years. The cover became a collaborative effort using some of my husband’s sketches and then the editor and designer—we thought about the color of the book, the feeling of the book, the woodblock color cream—it’s printed on cream paper—the sense of it being definitely not “trendy,” something that feels like it has existed all along.
Your question is interesting because this is a book built of fragments and once you put something onto the page and you bind it, you no longer have the fluidity of choreographing your fragments anymore. They are now stuck. They are where you placed them, and you can’t do a darn thing about it. I found that as we were finishing the book I had more I wanted to put in there. At one point towards the end, I had poems that would be perfect bookends for the book. I had yet another epilogue on epilogue on epilogue. Because I didn’t want the book to end. I didn’t want the making of it to be over.
KMB: I’m interested in this impulse to add more! What did you feel about actually setting the order things were in. Did you have a moment when you were kind of like, this is the way that it is and has to be, or do you still feel like it could shift and move?
BK: Actually, I don’t feel any longer that it could shift and move. We were very close to having finished the book when I decided that six or seven of the long essays had to leave. They weren’t good enough, they weren’t echoing off each other. The resonances weren’t working. They weren’t working as a melody. My editor was so kind when I said, I’m going to pull a bunch of the stuff and I’m going to write brand new. A lot of that happened in the father section, some of it happened in the self section. Because I was aware of what music I heard in my head, or what I wanted to hear, I knew how those new pieces had to feel. I knew what color had to rise through some so that that color could be seen again later on. I knew from earlier in the book what hadn’t been re-addressed or re-configured or re-considered. And so pulling those many pages, writing the new pages, knowing exactly where they had to go, I felt like: you’re playing to the song that you want to sing. But it took me an enormous amount of time to get there. Many many drafts, much disappointment. One of the things that finally put the choreography into place for me were the sections about why I never learned to speak my husband’s language. That’s approached early on, approached again, and then approached towards the end. And as small as they are, those are the evolution of Beth across the course of the pages. The deepening of truth, the greater reckoning, and once I knew what those pages were and where they were going to sit I could kind of play off of them with other echo pieces.
KMB: I really appreciate hearing about the musicality in how you’re thinking about how things fit together. I’m a visual thinker so I was always thinking in terms of how things are looking—the size of the essays and how they sit next to each other. That was very resonant for me as a reader, but having these additional layers is very cool.
BK: I also care about the size. I’m a big thinker about white space. What I wanted was this sort of urgency. Quick urgency, small piece, then something extended. It wasn’t short-long-short-long, wasn’t any kind of repeated patterning, but there was this feeling. Once I had it close to set. How will the reader feel right here? Will they feel rushed toward the next thing, will they feel like, “I want to stay here for a long time”? I think that white space and my husband’s illustrations that divide the sections help with that feeling. So it is both visual and sound for me.
KMB: In addition to how the book is constructed, something I was really interested in was this idea that you not only are exploring by virtue of the fact that it’s a sixth memoir, but also explicitly writing about Virginia Woolf:
“Here I come to one of the memoir writer’s difficulties—one of the reasons
why, though I read so many, so many are failures,” Virginia Woolf wrote
in her unfinished A Sketch of the Past. “They leave out the person to
whom things happened.”
I found this invocation very satisfying not only because I’m obsessed with Moments of Being—it as a project, it next to A Sketch of the Past—I’ve thought a lot about that myself. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about retracing and rewriting similar ideas that you may have touched on this past, or things you may have skipped over that you’ve dwelled on heavily in the past.
BK: First of all, we have to have a Virginia Woolf conversation! I’ve just spent two years obsessing over writing a book about it, and that whole book failed! All that came out of it were a few short essays. And why am I making books right now? Because of Hogarth Press.
My third memoir, Still Love in Strange Places, was about my marriage to my Salvadoran husband. It asks the question, how well can we ever come to know the people we love? Because when he’s in his country, when he’s speaking Spanish, he’s quite foreign to me. I don’t know what he’s saying. The volume, the gestures are different. The hilarity is more extreme. Here he’s very quiet. So that was a history of El Salvador, a look at the civil war, a look at my marriage within that. And a book that took fifteen years. It started as a novel—you know this story, from yourself! And then it became a memoir.
Wife | Daughter | Self returns to what it is to be married, but now it is what it is to be married over a long period of time, what it is to love over a long period of time, what it is to watch two artists’ careers rise and fall but at different times. How do we negotiate possible envy, or comparative senses of being less than because of? My understanding of marriage has changed dramatically since I wrote Still Love in Strange Places. My idea of what love does and is and is capable of has been changed by the gift of all these years with my husband. And so I am returning to this idea of What is marriage? but with a whole different sensibility about it.
When I come to “Daughter,” I hadn’t written much about being a daughter in the past because I have very conflicted ideas about who I was as a daughter, who my parents were, and how we navigated our relationships, as you can see in the book in the “Self” section. My terrible need to know whether I had been loved by my mother is answered only because I decided to read some letters that had been sitting in boxes for a long time.
I’m continuously—and I think we are all continuously—astonished by what we don’t know, and what we didn’t know, and the assumptions that we made about people in our lives, and as we get older we keep discovering. And with every discovery, we are made new in our understanding. I hadn’t written a lot about being a daughter, but I had so much to say about it, not just because I was discovering finally, perhaps, what love looked like between my mother and myself, but because I spent, after my mother passed away, so much time with my father. So much time. Daily, hours, until he passed away this past year in August. I didn’t really know what it was, I had these small memories of being a daughter. And then when I started to spend all this time with my dad that small little trickle became a river became an ocean and there was so much to say. Everybody said that I look just like my dad as I said in the book. I have so many of his tendencies. And yet, I struggled with him, he was a challenge, and when I was struggling with him I was struggling with myself.
All of that is new. None of that had ever been put to paper because I had never reckoned with it.
When we get to the section of “Self,” I had started that section with the Henriette Wyeth work, because I saw in her so much of me. I went on a quest: if I can understand Henriette Wyeth, I’ll be able to understand myself! And of course that entire enterprise shatters as well, and that shattering is included in the pages.
KMB: I’m really interested in the fact that the Wyeth piece is the beginning of the “Self” section! In the project of memoir we’re always writing ourselves as characters, but in that essay it’s so pronounced that you’ve made this decision to write in third person. Other times it’s second person and that feels a little bit like—I don’t want to say distanced because it’s just a different decision. I love second person, but I know it’s a choice that really says something.
BK: Abigail Thomas, bell hooks, Mark Richards—they gave the memoir writer the privilege and the permission to write in multiple points of view. They made it work, and I’ve always been interested in how, for example, in Safekeeping, Abigail Thomas was able to take third person, second person, first person, shatter this frame that she had where something that happened recently was right next to something that happened years ago.
Every time I choose a point of view it is with great deliberation. With the second person chapter, I’m talking about being a liar. I’m talking about being this person who never felt like she was interesting enough, and so she had to start making things up. And she’s fabricating her persona. To have written that in first person would have been merely reporting on that. To write it in second is to evoke what happened, how I was thinking of myself across those years.
For Henriette Wyeth, I was trying to build what became a false equivalency: the two shes. She and she, her and her. Wow! We’re the same pronoun. We share so many passions, restrictions, hopes. Why don’t I just see what it’s like if I go side-by-side?
Every time I made a tense or point-of-view decision, it was to get me as close as possible to the material itself.
KMB: Yeah, I thought that that second person impulse was especially interesting because you’re interrogating your own goodness, that concept of What is goodness? There’s been so much that has happened before that moment, that as a reader I was on your team! Because I had been reading alongside your life. Not that there’s no questioning of self before that, but then I was like, No! She is good!
BK: Thank you, Krys! You can always be on my team!
But I felt inadequate. I felt uninteresting as a child. I still don’t see myself as being vastly interesting. I just think a lot about things, and I love the sound of language. It was my uncle Danny who believed in me as a writer. My writing was terrible, terrible as a teen. I’m mortified. I was named to the Radnor High School Hall of Fame, and the whole time I’m thinking, Please, don’t let them pull out the Facets Magazines to see what I was before. And of course I take that trembling decision at Penn to pin my poems onto a wall so I can start to evaluate how to fix them, and I walk in on a roommate and some friends finding my writing the most hysterical thing ever, and that took a long time to recover from.
So there is always the fabrication of self as a writer. Are you good enough? Do you have something to say? Will anybody listen? Who will be your teacher? Who will you believe? When will you believe that you deserve to be thought of as a writer, if not by anybody else, then at least by yourself? And so this idea of goodness is also just about other kinds of goodness, but the goodness, too, of whether you have something to say.
KMB: This seems like a good time to ask a question about teaching. I am an educator but I don’t teach creative writing, and I never have. I assume you teach folks of all ages, but I assume at Penn you teach many young adults. I’m wondering about how it is to work with students who are in the earlier parts of their life to help them understand the impulse to be a memoirist and their essayistic tendencies. Not that nineteen year olds haven’t had a ton of experience, but they don’t have the lens that you might have been able to put on your own life in this book. So how do you work with that limitation?
BK: I love my students, and I’ve actually taught memoir to children as young as eight and nine years old. And then I’ve taught people up to the age of ninety and perhaps even beyond! I am never disappointed by the quality of thinking and the ingenuity of the students I have the privilege of teaching. They have great depth. They ask great questions.
One of my many jobs I feel I have is to not let them close the door on their stories too fast—you’ve told me something really interesting there, there’s a detail inside that scene, it’s bigger than you’ve given it room to be right now. What else is there? Where does it take you? Don’t conclude this! Don’t write an end sentence that feels like a summary. Leave this open-ended. I want to take the journey with you and I don’t want to feel like the journey has stopped.
Every semester I teach differently. The only thing that I always do is this truth essay. It’s 800 words, and they have to answer the question as innovatively and in whatever form they want—What is the truth and why does it matter? I’ve never had one essay come in that is remotely like any other. The way they go about it, the stories they tell, the philosophy they bring to it, the life questions they bring to it. That sets the stage. That’s the first thing they do. We use their truth essays to evaluate their large final projects. In the truth essay they tell us what they think truth is or is not, and then they anticipate how they will make truth matter throughout the course of the semester and in their final project. I’m giving them an opportunity to define their own ambition early on, giving them a language early on. They will be exposed to possibly ninety different writers through small excerpts and lectures that I give, and then we build a community of trust. Within the first 30-40 minutes, something magical always happens. They are able to speak more openly and deeply with each other. You can teach any age when you don’t have the community of trust. Once that is there, the depths that they can go to are extraordinary. In the past, my students have dealt with very traumatic deaths, very great losses, the sort of things that might take many people sixty years to experience, many of my students already have. And they come to me for a specific reason, which is not to say that I think memoir must be built on the backbone of tragedy. I do not. I love a funny memoir. I don’t think we have to go into these black places to write memoir. But if that’s where my students are, there’s room for them to be there.