by Annie Scholl
Beth Kephart, a National Book Award finalist, has written three dozen books in a range of genres, including nonfiction, poetry, and young adult fiction. Her books have received starred reviews and have been named to “Best of Year” lists. Most recently, she’s authored a craft book, We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class, and a memoir in the form of a series of essays, Wife|Daughter|Self. Her essays, interviews, and reviews have been widely published, including in The New York Times, the Washington Post, Tin House, and Brevity. Kephart teaches memoir writing, both at the University of Pennsylvania and through Juncture Workshops, which she co-founded with her husband Bill. They live outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Kephart has also recently become a book artist. Using materials like old books, handmade paper, canvas, antique store fabrics, recycled leather, and cork, Kephart and her husband have been making blank books and cards. “Maybe the thing I love the most-est about this making of books,” she explains, “is discovering, buying, touching, reframing materials I never even imagined existed.”
In this interview, Kephart answers questions about where she is in her writing life—and in her life in general—after first losing her father a year ago and then recently breaking her ankle.
In August of last year, you lost your father. This past August, you broke your ankle. How have these events affected you as a writer?
The loss of my father was heartbreaking. I had spent so much time with him—had designed my life around him in so many ways—and yet, because he died during the Covid pandemic, I had been barred from seeing him in person for months. They did let me in to see him in his last hour, so I was with him in those final, haunting moments. He died suddenly and frighteningly. Because of Covid, I could not hold the kind of memorial I’d wanted to hold for him. I found that I missed him in impossible ways. It shut me down for a long time. I think the silence and the hurt will always be there.
I broke my ankle during a year in which I had already been facing myriad other health issues and had been unsettled by an angry stalker. So, it was the proverbial last straw. And it led to other health challenges that were even more overwhelming, scary, and painful. I need to walk in order to effectively think, and I could not walk for a time, so I was left on the couch, day and night, with a thousand thoughts and feelings in my head that I could never write as story. That said, I recognize how blessed I am in general. People have far worse things happen to them: it was just my story.
What has been the greatest challenge during this time? Has any gift come out of it?
For me, the great gift has been a chance for a reckoning: making decisions about how I will protect myself going forward, what I will write, how I’ll write it, and how I want to spend what is left of my life. It gave me a lot of time to think about who I want to be. I’ve realized that I don’t want to feel too trammeled, too often, by other people’s needs and desires, and that I matter too—not in an arrogant, selfish, all-about-me way, but in a way that honors my best instincts about where to place my focus, and on whom.
Your memoir-in-essay Wife|Daughter|Self is exquisite. What was different about your approach to writing it, compared to your other memoirs? Why did you take this approach?
When I wrote WDS, I had not written a memoir for a long time. I had been teaching memoir writing instead, paving the way for other writers, listening for their stories, helping them find those stories. For a long time, I didn’t feel I had a right to write about my own newly emerged truths; I felt that this right belonged to my students. But then I became obsessed with writing a book that would contain everything I’d taught myself—and was teaching others—about the form. I was curious to discover what such a book would look like. And WDS became that book.
You also have a craft book out: We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class. Why did you write it?
During the Covid months, my husband Bill and I moved our memoir workshops online. At that point, I decided that I would teach in a new way, discover new truths, sources, prompts, and ideas. We developed two very different Zoom workshops, which was a massive undertaking. I began to write up my presentations in essay form—I couldn’t help myself. Also, I’d been studying Virginia Woolf for years, and she had been influencing my thinking. The book incorporates all these things.
You’ve said that both of these books grew out of your teaching. How does teaching inform your writing—and make you a better writer?
I am constantly reading and analyzing new memoirs and essays in order to teach them to my students, and I am always hungry to apply what I learn from doing that. In the past two years I’ve wrestled with a concept I call obsession vessels. I’ve thought in depth about how to instill the empathetic imagination into true stories. I’ve taught in new ways about topics like regret, character development, self-portraiture, and how to incorporate telling details. It’s deep-thinking work. And it keeps me awake to what is possible.
You and Bill have been collaborating on your handmade books. How and why did this start?
The making of books began after my father’s passing. I felt silenced, emptied. I wanted only to work with my hands. It was an audacious decision, given that I’m not the artist in the family. I think I sent out about 150 handmade cards and booklets in the immediate aftermath of my father’s passing, to honor him. Then I made hundreds more. This past September, I dared to think that we might be able to sell some of these books—that I had learned enough about the art to share it in a more public way—and so we opened an Etsy shop: BINDbyBIND.
In one of your early Facebook posts about the journals, you noted that you had used leather you found at an antique store. You wrote, “I have realized that saving the things that are special to you only means that you are doing nothing with the things that are special to you.” How is this also true for writers and writing?
Don’t save your work. Don’t save something because it feels precious. What feels precious in the moment will grow dusty over time. Use what you have when it is electrifying to you. That is how you keep your work urgent.
How has making these journals helped you? How have they been your “salve”?
Each journal is unique. Each is the start of a new story—what paper will we use? What shape, what color, what thread, what stitching, what dried flowers, what materials, what word-extracts? I love feeling that in making them, I am creating space for others—making room for stories that aren’t my own. For example, I love getting commissions to make journals. And I love learning from a customer about that customer’s friend, and then building a book made specifically for that friend. Every book I make includes an embedded prompt. That’s the teacher in me, I suppose.
How is putting these books out into the world different from—or similar to—putting your writing out into the world?
Sharing these blank books is an entirely different experience. There are no public critics to worry about—just a singular person, receiving a singular book. And the blank books are a collaboration—between Bill and me, as I collage his art in, and between the recipients and us, as they take possession.
What is your hope for these handmade books?
My hope is that those who receive them use them—right away. I hope they don’t set them aside as precious. I hope they find themselves writing something they had not imagined was within them.
How is the making of these journals informing your writing? Are they taking you closer to the page or further away?
I love this question because I don’t have an answer to it yet—and I don’t want one yet. I am trying not to be too analytical. I know that I have no interest in writing books at the moment. I’m writing essays, but not books. I’m having more fun making the journals.
What words of wisdom do you have for others who are going through tumultuous times in their writing life, or their life in general?
Spend time with people who love you for who you are and not for what you can do for them. Think hard about what you love: do that. Watch the skies and open the windows. Gratitude blows in—and out.
Editors’ note: Annie Scholl last interviewed Beth about the craft of writing in April 2017. Find that piece here.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr.