Beth Kephart is the author of more than thirty books spanning multiple genres. Her work has been celebrated as a finalist for a National Book Award, and she has been the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships including a National Endowment for the Arts grant and Pew fellowships. She is a highly respected teacher of memoir, having created the Juncture workshops, guiding many writers on the paths of their own stories.
Kephart’s new memoir, Wife | Daughter | Self: A Memoir in Essays, is a deeply personal exploration of identity through memory and the mirrors that are held up within relationships. Here we see a celebrated author and memoirist unfolding and refolding the origami of personal storytelling, showing us herself and revealing the intricate craft of writing.
It was a pleasure to interview Beth recently over email and speak about freezing truth in this moment, writing about love, and the transformative experience of writing about the self.
The Rumpus: It may seem backward, but I’d like to start with the afterword of your memoir, which is a delightful surprise essay titled, “Small Pieces: On the making of Wife | Daughter | Self.” You write that writing memoir is a journey to self. You also write: ”I’d convinced myself that my own self mattered.”
Why does writing about the self matter?
Beth Kephart: What a great question. I’ll admit that when I wrote those words, I was thinking about the many years I’d spent teaching and critiquing the true stories written by others—and the growing urge I’d felt to spend time writing memoir myself, putting into play some of the many ideas about the form I’d been developing.
But did I have the right? Hadn’t I written memoir—multiple memoirs—years before? Did the world really need another true story from me?
It seemed to me that my own self would matter on the page if—and only if—I wrote a wholly universal memoir. If the story I wrote took readers on a journey that would lead them toward a greater understanding of themselves. We’re all yearning, thwarted, loving, losing, grieving, laughing, crying, hoping. Our selves matter when we write stories that illuminate the human condition.
Rumpus: I tend to think there is a certain point in life where, as a person gets older, they begin to review the story of their life. Memoir, though, seems to be doing something else. You write: “Memoir is the life wanting to be transformed. It is the life we have been waiting for.” Could you speak more to this and also of what you discovered in the process of writing Wife | Daughter | Self ?
Kephart: I think of memoir as a well-choreographed dance with theme and story, time and truth.
Over the past few years, my artist-husband and I set out to combine our interests and create a memoir workshop/memoir experience we call Juncture. We placed memoir at the heart of our next shared chapter and then built communities in special places—bringing together art and literature, craft and reflection. We watched the impact those workshops had on those who joined us—and the impact they had on us. We were deeply transformed by the process; we continue to be. This kind of collaboration—this decision to build something small for a handful of people and create meaningful, lasting experiences—was, as it turned out, the life we had been waiting for.
As for what I learned in the process of writing Wife | Daughter | Self? If I had to name just one thing, I’d say that I learned even more than I previously thought I knew about forgiveness. Forgiveness of others. Forgiveness of ourselves. And forgiveness when we can’t quite find the words we think we need to tell the story we have lived. When we write memoir—when we deeply remember, when we deeply research, when we deeply consider and reconsider—we have the chance to be transformed by discovering, perhaps, that our mother actually did love us. By discovering, perhaps, that we did, in the end, do all we could for our father. By discovering our voice and our place in our larger communities.
Rumpus: Woven throughout the book are many exquisite insights that come from your work as a teacher of memoir writing. In particular, I admired the essay “Second Coming,” where you talk about the difficulty of achieving absolute truth and how “writing freezes what was in time, and time cannot be frozen, and what is here on this page will be left on this page, and you will keep on moving.” Could you talk about truth in memoir and how you gave yourself permission to freeze time on this understanding in this moment?
Kephart: I believe there are some universal truths that we discover when we write—and that those truths do transcend; they speak for many; they live forward.
For example, the child who is four years old on the memoir page will always be four years old to many readers, even twenty years after the book is published. So, when I assert, in the quoted passage above, that “writing freezes what was in time,” I am asserting an enduring truth; that sentiment is as true today as it was when I wrote it a few years ago. Also true: we keep moving forward, we keep changing. These universal truths have staying power.
The stories of my life, however, shift as I learn more or forget better or ask my brother what he thinks was true or find a photograph or a letter. In Wife | Daughter | Self, I acknowledge the fluidity of the personal story by writing my personal story fluidly. Which is to say, I revisit some stories over the course of the book, adapting them as new “facts” or realizations emerge. The stories rise and dissipate and rise again, shifting as I shift.
Rumpus: This is a book that is filled with both the tender and the complicated moments of loving and of “the people we become in relationship to others.” Writing about love can be tricky, particularly the moments when we are most vulnerable in our loving. To get the fullest emotions on the page requires a kind of restraint, which I think you achieve beautifully. For example, there is a moment with your husband in the essay, “A Shelter for the Truth” where you capture so much with so few words: “I reach. I touch his soft, white, dear head.” I think that scene worked so well because of the space between the words. I wonder if you could speak to the concept of “strike the empty,” and also the idea of “knowing the question you are writing to.” And, if you want to push this even a bit further, how do these writing concepts map over to being in relationship with others?
Kephart: Again, Jackie, you find that particular image that made me tremble when I wrote it. There are all kinds of love in the two sentences you quote above. All kinds. So much love. But, as you say, I didn’t need an exclamation mark. I didn’t need witnesses or proof. I didn’t need to do anything more than to suggest tenderness, to suggest our age.
This relates directly to the concept of striking the empty, which is about whittling the work to its bone. Not about flattening language or sentences, but about finding out what is essential and stripping the work until only the essential remains. Wife | Daughter | Self is the product of hundreds of discarded pages, lines, images, stories—it is, I mean to say, what remains after I rid the book of all that might have been pretty or anecdotal or interesting but not absolutely essential to the question I was pursuing which was: how do we become our most elemental self?
As for love? After all these decades with my husband, our commitment to being truthful and respectful with each other keeps us focused on what matters. We have nothing to prove to each other. We have put the big fights behind us, we shrug off the mutual annoyances, we give each other plenty of room. We have eliminated, to the extent possible, the noise of our relationship. We are very different people, but we share a desire to live our lives in pursuit of kindness and art.
Rumpus: In addition to memoir, you have published extensively in a variety of genres (children’s literature, YA, literary fiction, nonfiction) and been recognized for your work with awards. Do you see a theme or connection between your books?
Kephart: I do see connections, funnily enough. Each book, of course, is propelled by its own question; each book has its own internal engine. But, ultimately, my books are written with an eye toward bridging—how we search for each other, how we find each other, how we take care of each other, how we value each other. Language, too, impels me: the sound of the stories themselves.
Rumpus: Along a similar vein, Wife | Daughter | Self comes from Forest Avenue Press, an indie publisher in Oregon. You have published with both large publishers and smaller independent publishers. How have these experiences differed and how have they been the same?
Kephart: Ah, this could be a book unto itself, but best if I answer succinctly. It is a very good thing to feel valued for your stories, to be seen as a person and not as a product. It is an honor to engage with the editors and teams that help you bring your books to the world. One can find deep caring in large and small houses. Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press is, as you know so well, Jackie, for you’ve published with her yourself, enormously caring. My conversations with Laura throughout the making of this book have been a steadfast glory. It is an intimate book, a vulnerable book. It belongs to both of us, and I would not have made it with another.
Rumpus: The illustrations in the book are gorgeous. I was moved by them and feel that they each tell some of the story to come. I was especially drawn to the image that opens the “Daughter” section. Would you tell us about them?
Kephart: Thank you so much. The illustrations are my husband’s work. He wanted to create an old-time, wood-cut feeling and approached the project in a number of ways until he was happy with what he had produced. Bill knew my father very well. He watched me with him. He saw the times when my father wanted me near and the times when he did not, the times when I was exuberant as a daughter and the times when I was conflicted. I, too, was moved by this particular father-daughter image. It depicts a truth. It is me, giving my father room to read his beloved history books while also standing near. Here if you need me, Dad. That’s what this image is and says. And now, my father gone, I’m still near. Still near if he needs me. Near, with this book.
Rumpus: While we are talking about your dad, you write about these later days in his life, and we see that he is nearing the end. But you don’t put the dying on the page. I am interested in how you made this choice.
Kephart: In early February of last year, I threw my father a birthday party at his retirement village, inviting some of his new friends, coordinating with family. My brother assembled a slide show. We all shared a favorite memory. My father had fought with me about this party. He had said he didn’t want it. And then the day came, and it was good. The day came, and he was happy, and later he called and said he was sorry he had given me so much trouble, that having a party was the right thing to do.
Just a few weeks later, the world went into lockdown. His world, our world, shut down. Every story about COVID and quarantine matters deeply. The losses have piled up, the losses have become numbers, but every loss is particular, situational, and crushing. My father, like millions of others, was not allowed to leave his small two-room world. He was brought each meal on a plastic tray and sat there, alone, eating what seemed tasteless to him. He and I had talked every day by phone, often more than that, but with terrifying swiftness, he lost an understanding of the technology, was angered by Skype, did not appreciate the GrandPad that was bought for him. With devastating speed, he grew devastatingly confused. Frustrated. Angry. Often angry at me when others placed the call and I answered.
There would be moments of clarity. There were some wonderful aides—one in particular named Clare—who stepped in. But he grew farther and farther away. I lost him incrementally. I was able to see him just twice during all that time—outside, in a parking lot, separated by a plastic screen and some ten feet, while a lawnmower and leaf blower were filling the air with noise. Let’s just say that these two visits were far, far less than ideal. Or even human.
And then one weekend I decided to drop off a cake and brownies and cookies and other party things. I wasn’t allowed to see him that day, but I was allowed to drop these things off. I asked Clare to invite the aides to his room, to have him host a party.
She did. He did.
He seemed okay, she told me, in one of her many endearing texts. He seemed appreciative.
Then, just two days later, my father fell and hit his head, and while no one seemed enormously concerned by this during the day (he was walking, he was talking, he’ll be fine, the nurses said), by evening it became clear that he was in very bad shape. I barely heard the phone when it rang late at night. I was confused by the words the nurses were using, the questions they were asking. Finally, I just said, Can I see him? And when they said yes, I knew. I knew that the end had come.
That was August 4. Wife | Daughter | Self was going through the first round of deep copyediting. I was adding some essays even then and taking a large number of essays out (bless Laura Stanfill, my editor, for allowing me this), and I could have written something new; there was time.
But I had told my father about this book. He knew he was part of it, he knew what I was searching for as I wrote, and I knew, that just as books do freeze people in time, they also keep people alive. Sure, it’s an illusion. But when I read the book now, as I just did for the audio recording, I am reading him alive. I am there with him. He has not been vanquished yet by the enormous cruelty of COVID, the miserable, criminal (in my mind) federal mismanagement of the virus, the isolation and frustration.
He has not been vanquished. He never will be, inside the pages of the book.
Photograph of Beth Kephart by William Sulit.