Helping Writers to Rise and Thrive

What Does it Mean to Review a Memoir?

Beth Kephart, a professor of memoir at the University of Pennsylvania, raises some critical points here in her column in the Chicago Tribune about reviewing memoirs. The same holds true for memoir workshops. The goal, time and again, is to focus on the work on the page, not the author’s experiences. This can be a tricky tango when smart, intelligent, caring people gather to work on their pieces. Kephart writes, “We sit side by side and elbow to elbow around an old rectangular table. We read one another’s lives. We see one another’s eyes. We have not come to judge how much he drinks, how much she hurts, how little she now speaks to her own mother. We don’t engage in gossip.

Instead, we say to one another: Here is where I lived your story, and here is where I somehow couldn’t. Here is where your present tense interferes with your search for wisdom. Here is where the story grows fussy, and here is where the lines grow fuzzy. Here is where the detail is neither clarifying nor seductive. And here is where you do not seem to fairly regard the others in your story. We say: What would happen if you told this story in second person, or began your prologue where the epilogue ends, or set aside this too-familiar theme in favor of another? We say, is this, in fact, the right story to tell?”

The goal is to honor the experience and to strengthen the telling of it. CLD

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