Saturday, August 5, 2017
The story of your life is the story of a truth. --Beth Kephart
Since Socrates posited that "the unexamined life is not worth living," writers have been pondering the nature of human existence. This is the role of the memoirist: to examine one's own life, and in that examination, peel back the layers that hide truth.
Jane Friedman examined the rise in popularity of memoir in a 2012 article: "Why is There a Surge in Memoir? Is It a Good Thing?" The popularity of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, some argue, sparked the age of memoir in which we find ourselves. As I read McCourt's account of his mother years ago, I laughed and cried and recalled my own mother, to whom Angela bears a striking resemblance.
As I've read other memoirs and contemplated the lives storytellers share about their lives, I return to my own memories and think about how to give the stories that populate my memory form and function.
Now, National Book Award nominee for nonfiction Beth Kephart offers those wishing to examine their lives through memoir a practical and evocative resource for telling our truths.
Tell the Truth: Make It Matter guides readers through a series of exercises Kephart has designed to help readers rediscover their memories, and in rediscovering their lives, writers acknowledge universal truths.
True stories are life stories, artfully (and honestly) resurrected. They are one person's story--with an eye toward universal consequences. It is the writer speaking not just of himself but of the human condition.
This idea of sharing universal truths through our stories resonates with me as I consider teaching the personal memoir (narrative) and teaching literature during the upcoming school year. Toward the end of the workbook, Kephart returns to this idea after guiding readers through numerous writing responses. In a chapter aptly titled "It's Not (Just) About You," she directs us to
focus on themes--go beyond the anecdotes and facts themselves so as to discover binding notions about what it is to be alive.
Kephart likens memoir to a quest--a search for answers to guiding questions. Reading the list of questions she offers, my mind wandered to the universal themes handout I give students in AP Lit and Comp at the beginning of the year. These universal themes we teach students to consider when reading a novel or short story or poem parallel those memoirists explore through their own lives.
One way AP Lit and Comp teachers can fuse our study of literature with personal writing is with these universal themes. Kephart offers a way in a series of exercises culminating in one called MAKE A SCENE:
One of the most beneficial uses teachers will notice in using Kephart's workbook is in her teasing out revisions that result in multiple drafts of a common assignment: the personal narrative. Consider, for example, several exercises focused on doors.
An early exercises directs us to "write the story of the door to your bedroom." In a twist, Kephart instructs us to personify the door. To assist writers, she offers suggestions that prick our memory. This initial writing resurrected a memory of my doorless bedroom in the room I occupied from seventh grade through my senior year in high school.
From there, I found myself thinking about other doors: the door my Aunt Fern propped against the kitchen wall as a decoration and memo board; the door to Aunt Nellie's house, a neighbor with whom I spent many hours but who wasn't really a relative; the front door that I watched as I awaited my absent mother, a mother who rarely arrived for her scheduled visits; the back door my stepmother used to quietly stroll to the back alley where she met the man my father later suspected of being her boyfriend and whom he later asked me about. So many doors, both literal and figurative shutter my life.
A few exercises later, Kephart asks us to return to the door and use it
to unlock some measure of the past.
This exercise also speaks to me about the literature I've read and taught. In Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, a door symbolizes Nora's quest for freedom from patriarchy. The door's iconic status resonates throughout literature and is frequently referenced in feminist studies.
An article in Quirk tells us that doors embody magic in literature. From Platform 9 3/4 in the Harry Potter books, to doors in classic children's and YA books, to doors in literary classics, these gateways to stories invite us to explore the significant doors that represent universal truths in our own lives. I have a vision of a "door" for a lesson I'll teach prior to my AP Lit and Comp students reading of A Doll's House this fall.
Tell the Truth: Make It Matter has me rethinking the literature I teach in ways that will offer students new ways of seeing their stories in those of iconic texts from the cannon. Behind the cover of this valuable resource I see opportunities for my students to write their truths, opportunities for staff PD that focuses on our shared stories and struggles in the classroom, and an invitation for families to write together as we share family photos and see through the poses to the truths beyond the lens.
Why is there a surge in memoir? To answer: Our stories matter, especially in these perplexing times, and as we write our stories, we can remember what happened and make it matter as we seek to make sense of our world and our truths.
*DISCLOSURE: I received a copy of Tell the Truth: Make It Matter as a gift from Beth Kephart. Beth sent the workbook to me without expectation of a review or endorsement. She simply asked for my address.
**RESOURCES: On her blog, Beth offers three pages from the book's interior for download. Additional pages are on the Juncture Workshop site Beth and her husband run here.
***GIVEAWAY: I'd like to pay-it-forward and send a copy of Tell the Truth: Make It Matter to someone who comments on this post. Be sure to leave your unpublished contact info or a twitter handle in the comments so I can contact the randomly chosen winner. I'll draw a winner August 13, 2017.
****Update to include link to additional resources at 9:43 MST Sunday, August 6.