Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, by Beth Kephart. Gotham Books/Penguin Group, New York, 2013. 254 pages. $16.

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by National Book Award finalist Beth Kephart may seem targeted to the writer of memoir. But the subtitle is more encompassing. We are right to expand the scope of the books target market to include all students of memoir. Any fan writer or reader is going to appreciate Handling the Truth, where many of our questions are addressed.

A second bit of business to take care of: Though there are harsh critics of the so-called memoir glut (Neil Genzlinger, writing in the New York Times Book Review, decried this absurdly bloated genre), the numbers and the passion of memoir readers win out. Good memoirs are personal and therefore embraceable, unforgettable, instructive, enlightening, often beautifully written and, therefore, works of literary art. Bad memoirs, writes Kephart, can commit any number of errors from Me Speak to lack of reflection and understanding to vengeful.

Kephart, author of 17 books, five of which are memoirs, asks a couple of great questions: What do you, reader, expect of a memoir? What do you, writer of memoirs, expect of yourself as a writer? From this vantage point Kephart, who also teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania, launches in on her discussion. Grab a highlighter because she cites numerous memoirs you may want to read later.

In the books five main parts, Kephart covers definitions and cautions, raw material, writing, clarity and truth, and, finally, a valuable listing of good memoirs arranged by topic.

Handling the Truth gives us many ways to think about memoirs. For example, its not easy to deliver an elevator speech about a good memoir. What readers want is meaning, writes Kephart. They want a story so rich, complex, thought through, and learned from that it cant, in fact, be revealed by a headline or two; it cant be satisfactorily summarized. Among the ways Kephart characterizes memoir: it imparts understanding; its a work of art; first and foremost a meditation and a quest; active, alert, not lazy.

Not all memoirists speak to all people. But if the voice is true and authentic, Kephart says, then it is likely a voice we will trust. A voice contains tone, mood and attitude. But be careful not to mistake attitude for bravado, distance from authenticity or anger. These are more likely tirades lacking in comprehension and little connection to a greater world where humanity and meaning reside.

Memoir, she says, bears witness. Memoir is also the work of thieves. There are consequences. Memoir writers have no control over how their cast of characters will feel about what has taken up residency on your page. Memoir is grand larceny. Kephart keeps notebooks, studies conversation, saves dialogue. Train your ear to the habit of speech, she says. Kephart contacts those in her books and confirms the accuracy of her material. She also implores writers to practice empathy with those they use in their writing. It stops you from hurting the people who are essential to your story. To not do so, she warns, is to corrupt, if not doom, the book. Research is another tool for broadening scope and insight. Without it, she says, you could be perceived as a narcissistic bore.

It is not always possible for a memoirist to be accurate. If their topic is addiction, most likely theres a lot they cant remember. The same is true for mental illness. Memory is fallible and concessions must be made. Sometimes memoirists warn in advance of the limitations of recall, as Dorothy Allison does in Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. Though truth is your obsession, memoirists are writers and storytellers. Ive heard David Sedaris admit he embellishes his stories, sometimes heavily. And Orhan Pamuk, who wrote the acclaimed Istanbul, likes to exaggerate.

Kephart is a natural born teacher. She writes with a certain style that can, at times, evoke a squirm. Shes writing creative prose primarily for writers, which sometimes leads her to peacocking displaying her stuff. She does so with tremendous style, nonetheless.

My own current memoir, written in the present tense, seems to have to work hard to express meaning. I learned why when reading Kephart. Present tense is emotive and experiential. Past tense sets a sturdier stage for cognition and consideration. Its where you put knowing over feeling. Tense is a hard choice, but many authors move back and forth. Another thing memoirs are free to do is get experimental. The author bell hooks in Bone Black is a good example.

One day on the train Kephart encounters a student who asks her what she does. She tells him, eventually, that shes written five memoirs. Five? he asks. Isnt five a lot? I mean, how much have you lived? Its a funny story, but it also points out what we dont always understand about memoir. Its just one more way, in literature, to get at truth. You dont need big bad tragedies to do this, just a story, rich in detail and demonstrating an active search for understandings we can all appreciate.

Rae Padilla Francoeurs memoir, Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair, is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at rae.francoeur@verizon.net. Or read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF. Her creative marketing business, New Arts Collaborative, helps creative businesses find and connect with their audiences.