Finding the Shape for Memoir, with Beth Kaplan


Links in this Episode

Beth Kaplan’s website

Midlife Solo

True to Life

Creative Nonfiction Collective

Finding the Shape for Memoir, with Beth Kaplan [Full Transcript]


Well, hey there, Writer. Welcome to the Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm your host, Rhonda Douglas. And this is the podcast for writers who want to create and sustain a writing life they love. Because let's face it, the writing life has its ups and downs, and we want to not just write, but also to be able to enjoy the process so that we'll spend more time with our butt-in-chair getting those words on the page.

This podcast is for writers who love books and everything that goes into the making of them. For writers who want to learn and grow in their craft and improve their writing skills. Writers who want to finish their books and get them out into the world so their ideal readers can enjoy them. Writers who want to spend more time in that flow state. Writers who want to connect with other writers to celebrate and be in community. In this crazy roller coaster ride, we call the writing life.

We are resilient writers. We're writing for the rest of our lives and we're having a good time doing it. So welcome Writer, I'm so glad you're here. Let's jump right into today's show.


Well, hey there Writer, welcome back to another episode of Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm your host Rhonda Douglas and today, we're gonna talk about the personal essay and writing from our lives.

So my guest today is Beth Kaplan. Beth is the author of five non-fiction books. She's a long time teacher of creative writing at the University of Toronto. She's been an editor and a former actor, a lover of the Beatles, France, John Stewart, cheese reading in her garden, among other things. Her current book, her most recent book is Midlife Solo, a book of, I would... Could we describe it as a memoir in personal essay form? Would you say that's fair?


Absolutely, yes. Memoir in essays.


Yeah, so I love that. Did you start with the idea that you were going to write a memoir in personal essays or did you start with one essay?


No, so I have written two book length essays, which were about very specific parts of my life. You know, that's what I teach; is that you need to pick very dramatic moments in your life if you want to sort of spin it out into a book. And so I had those, but before I wrote those books, I was a single mother.

I had earned an MFA through a decade of being a stay at home mother. And I wanted to be a writer. I'd been an actress in my twenties and had no idea how to start as a writer, especially as I was. you know, in the chaos of raising kids. And I started writing essays, personal essays. The Globe and Mail, which is Canada's national newspaper, had a back page, which was all for essays.


I remember that. Yes, I loved those.


Yeah, Facts and Arguments, they were called. And I was looking, reading them one day. I mean, I loved them. And I thought, wait a minute, I could do this. You know, it was about a thousand words, up to 1200 words. And so one day I wrote a story about my children's public school, what I felt about public schools, and I sent it in. And two weeks later, it was in the newspaper with a big picture. And I was, OK, this is how I can begin as a writer, is with essays.

Because I had time, you can kind of blurt it out, shape it. Of course, it takes a lot of rewriting. But then you send it in and if you're lucky, it appears quite quickly and it's very affirming for someone who has never had anything published before. I had a ton of essays.

You know, my kids got used to – there's a story in the book about where I had a wonderful talk with my son at one point, he was about 15. And at the end of it, I said, that was a great talk, Sam. And he said, mom, is this gonna be in the Globe and Mail in two weeks? I love that. And it probably was, you know, because everything, I mean, I never published anything without their permission. I always let them read, you know, particularly the one about my daughter that's called Chilling and Puking, which is about what a nightmare she was for a few years there. But they didn't care. They kind of liked the notoriety.

And of course I was writing about many other things, the neighborhood and my travels and you know. things, sort of the garden. So they were all there. But I had done nothing. I had compiled them into a collection published, I like to say, by that great Canadian publisher, Kinko's copying, you know, I self published a Sirlox bound book, just so that I'd preserve some of them.

And a student read them and he said these are terrific you should do something with them and I went really because they've been written 20 or 25 years before but a lot of the topics about divorce about being a single mother about being a solid you know as a single woman yeah were still relevant and so the best of them I wrestled them into shape. It really, I thought it would be really easy, you know, great, they're already written. I just, you know, shoved them into a book.


Yeah, absolutely. Add page numbers, off you go.


Yeah, exactly. No, they needed to be divided into sections and then they needed an arc. You know, any book needs an arc. You need to feel that the narrator is on a journey. You're starting somewhere and you're going to end up somewhere else. And it was hard to figure out the material that was already there. Right.

Sometimes I even pulled material, you know, I'd done a workshop with Dinty Moore, you know, from Brevity Man. And he had us do some in-class writing and I'd written a piece about my divorce that I'd never published. I'd written it in class and I went, and I looked it out, you know, cause I needed to fill that gap. And there it was. And I just changed a few words and it went in. So not everything in the book had already been published, but a great deal had.


And then how did you make, so I think of that as, whether it's personal essays, short stories or poetry, there comes a point in the making of the collection when you go from the pieces to the whole, where you have to do this process that I think of as like curating it, right? Giving it the arc. What was your process for that? How did you go about doing it? Like, how did you decide what sections you had?


Yes. Yeah. Eventually, I needed to find a good editor, because when you're dealing with your own life, it is very hard to figure out what is going to really resonate for other people. And so finally, I found an editor who helped me pick the pieces. So she would say, well, this piece is good, but it kind of covers the same territory as that piece. I don't think you need both. And sometimes I would argue, you know, but this one is different. You know, this one has so much of my heart and soul. But she was mostly right about picking the very strongest pieces. And then we finally sort of figured out how to divide them into these sections.

So, you know, the break, the new reality, community, friends, lovers and significant others looking back. because I had a few pieces that were about childhood and how to stick those in when this is about being a divorced single mother. So I had a whole section of real memory pieces, crazy time, which is about my kids, about the fire in my basement coming through and are we there yet?

So it was kind of like gradually you see this woman achieving a kind of peace. Her children are growing up, she's figuring out who she is and you know, what life is all about. And I hope that that's the arc. That's the arc. Yeah. To the extent we ever figure out what life is all about. Ongoing.


Yeah, ongoing. So I loved the section at the end, it was called status update. Right. Oh, and it's sort of you reflecting on, okay, well, where are we now? And some commentary. kind of as a whole. Did you, and I was assuming that was written after you had everything else, is that correct?


Yes, I felt that people would want to know, if the book ends, say 2020, when I'm about 65 or even a bit younger, I've gone through menopause, my kids have left home, kind of I'm calm. People would want to know what has happened since. And I really especially wanted to reflect on being a single woman for a long time. And what that means, you know, looking at friends of mine, I divide my friends into what I call the terminally marrieds and the terminally singles.


I could identify. I'm midlife solo as well. So I identify.


There are a lot of us. And so I was trying to figure out what it is about my friends, you know, I have friends who have been married 52 years for God's sake. And then I have friends like me who often were in one fairly long relationship. I mean, I was married for 11 years and then, but then have mostly been single with a few, you know, flings here and there. And, you know, and so I'm trying to figure that out, that maybe they have an ability to compromise. I'm not willing to compromise for it.

And maybe that has to do with being a writer or just with who I am. So, you know, part of it was I wanted other single people to reflect with me and to the fact that in the end, despite the difficulties of being a single woman, running a house, running my life, doing everything on my own, traveling alone, which is the one thing I wish Sometimes I had companionship, but that there is so much to celebrate in a life of independence, where as I say, there are no consulting partners. I can do whatever I want. No negotiating. It's my life and I'm responsible for it. And there's tremendous pleasure and joy in that as well. That definitely comes across.

Rhonda: Yeah. So, Beth, you've also taught memoir writing for many years and you have a fabulous book actually called True to Life. And the subtitle, I think I just love it, it's so clear: 50 steps to help you tell your story. Can you tell me when you meet memoir writers for the first time when you're teaching them, what are the biggest sort of myths that they come into writing a memoir with, would you say?


Oh, first of all, I love those first moments in a class when you see, you know, 10 or 12 or 14 terrified people going, Oh, my God, get me out of here. What have I done? Yeah. Why am I here? And of course, my job is to reassure them that they're safe, that they will be safe in that classroom with each other and with me.

And then, I think one of the most important things for non-experienced writers is about drafts. Is to tell them about the difference between the first draft and the fourth draft and the ninth draft. When they begin, I think people get an idea that writing is, you know, you think about it for a while and you figure it all out and then you sit down and it's like laying an egg.

You know, you sit down at the desk and this perfect, beautiful thing comes out and you, there it is and it's ready to go out into the world.


Hit publish, it's all done.


Exactly, that's it. And of course people will pay you a lot of money and love every minute, you know. So I have to dispel this myth that writing is an incredibly messy long-term process. that the first draft is meant to be bad. That's its job. We all quote Anne Lamott, the shitty first draft, that we have to forgive ourselves for being fallible human beings, that in the first draft, you're still figuring out, what am I saying? What is this about? Where is it going? Does this really matter? Where does it begin? Where does it end? What tense am I using? What point of view am I?

You've got a million things to figure out. And if you sit and try to figure them all out before you begin, you'll never begin. No, and it just doesn't work. You just get overwhelmed. And then the next thing you're cleaning the fridge. Exactly. Or having a very large snack, which is what I tend to do, or plucking my eyebrows, which can take a very, very long time. So, so yes, I tell them, you know, I give them an exercise to try to figure out the most important stories they have to tell. And I think that's the other thing, is that it is very important to not waste the reader's time with petty things, to really get to the key, key scenes in your life.

And so I talk about what I call the Spielberg list, which I stole from somebody a long time ago, which was to imagine that Steven Spielberg calls you up and says, I'm gonna make a film of your fabulously interesting life. you need to give me the 10 most important scenes that need to be in this film. And those are the scenes where something changed for you forever. Wow, okay. Something changed for you forever. Forever. And those can be those big moments, a cancer diagnosis, falling in love, having a baby. You know, we all have these huge moments when from one moment to the next, you're different. There are moments that no one else can see, but something in you shifts forever.

So, I mean, there's a moment in Loose Woman, which is about when I was 29 and my life changed completely in a few months. And one of the scenes is that I was visiting a friend of mine who had three children, and I hated... I mean, I had no interest in children, no interest in getting married. They were messy. They were smelly. And so I resented all of the time and the noise and the mess in the house. And then one night she was putting her children to bed. They were asleep. That was key. They were asleep and they smelled so good and they were so beautiful in their little beds. And I was standing watching her waiting for our lives to begin. and something hit me in the chest so hard, I nearly fell over. And it was a voice saying, I want a baby. Wow. I don't, I don't want a baby. You don't know, what are you talking about? And within a year, I had a baby.

To me, Mother Nature grabbed me by the collar and she said, sweetheart, you're gonna be 29 soon. You've got a job to do. Yeah, exactly. This is going to happen whether you like it or not. Yeah. But that was a moment invisible to anybody else and yet it completely changed my life. That little moment, you know, leaning against my friend's door. So those are the moments that I urge people to think of the arc of their lives and pinpoint these dramatic moments and then to pick the ones that matter most and to write about those and those form the basis. of a memoir.

To me, for example, the two book-length memoirs are about a dramatic year. One, when I was 14 and we went to live in Paris for a year, and the other when I was 28, 29, and this realization came to me. And so these are very dramatic moments in which from the beginning of the book to the end, I become a completely different person. And that is forward momentum that we want. We don't want kind of a reflection on, you know, this was nice and, oh, and then this happened and then this happened and oh, and that was really fun. You know, we want dramatic momentum and movement. Drama, we want the Spielberg list. I


I love that idea of that list. I think, you know, there's two things that I often see. The first one is the confusion between autobiography and memoir, people want to tell the whole story as opposed to, you know, the interesting kind of thematic hot moments or whatever. And then the second one is people are often confused about what to include and what to exclude. So you've got a really great way of saying, you know, here's what to include. Do you have any tips for what to just not bother with when you're writing a particularly a thematic memoir, right?

So this one, Midlife Solo, it's a memoir about midlife. You have other memoirs about other times in your life. So when you're writing a memoir, kind of like a slice of your life, a thematic slice of your life, how do you make the decision about what not to put in there?


That's very difficult because even in the books, which are about very specific times, context for this person, we need to understand who this narrator is. And so sometimes we do need those scenes, a scene from childhood. We need, you know, the context of a flashback. And so, again, sometimes you can't tell yourself. I always say, you know, in the early drafts, put it all in. That's what you do. Shove it all in there. This is great. This is really, you know, blurred it all out.

And then you have to go back and you ask yourself the really tough questions, which is, you know, what is this really about? And so does this advance the story? Does this move my story forward? Or is it static? And if it's static, is it necessary? Sometimes, for example, the description of a room, you could say, well, this is static. But on the other hand, if it's important, the narrator, if it's an important part of childhood or something that matters in that description, you know, and we're setting the characters in the place, we need that.

So it's a matter of really line by line paragraph, page by page, asking yourself, is this advancing the narrative? Is this advancing the narrative?


Yeah. So, am I correct in thinking that this is the first memoir in essays that you've written? The others have been book length, right?




So was there anything that you tripped over? Um, and did you ever have a moment of like, oh my God, this is never going to be a book. Like it's never going to come together.


Yes. Oh, yes, I absolutely did. Particularly because as I said, I thought it was going to be so easy, you know, they're already written. And then it turned out to be one of the hardest things because I was manipulating stuff that was already there and trying to figure out a shape for it.

And it was literally kind of moving around and someone would come in and say, no, you should do it. Not chronologically, do it by section. Like have a section on your kids and a section on divorce and a section on your own moving forward. And I tried that and no, that didn't work at all because my kids are threaded throughout. my life and my own, you know, so I tried a whole bunch of different things.

So no, I mean, I don't have many more essays. So you know, they're mostly lying around to turn into something. I have been writing more since because I love essays. And you know, partly because you can deal with very important things, but in 3000 words, or you know, 2500 words or 5000 words, it feels like it's doable. And then, you know, there are literary magazines, you know, online. You can place them, as you said, sort of maybe more easily place an essay than you can an entire book.


Oh, for sure. Absolutely.


And it also does then, it gives you, it feels like a stepping stone, you know, that you're out there, you have something published, you can talk about it, you can post it online. You know, people can begin to get a sense of your writing, who you are. And you gain confidence as you get pieces accepted and published.


Right. Which is so important, you know, that confidence over a well over a lifetime, really, as a writer. Yes, for sure. It takes a lifetime. Yeah. So you belong, if I have this correct, you belong to the Creative Nonfiction Collective, right? Can you talk a little bit about that in the role of community in your writing life?


You're sitting alone in a room poking yourself in the gut, going, surely there's something more useful I can do with my time. Because I think it's also Anne Lamott who said once, believe me, no one in your family is happy that you're writing a memoir. And no one is out there going, please, I beg you, tell us your story. So you need to have tremendous faith in yourself. to sit there and do this hard, hard work, particularly because there's no guarantee of publication and certainly no guarantee of money, making any kind of recompense for all of that work.

So why do we do this? And so we need to have other crazy people out there doing the same thing. And so I was very happy for some reason for me, it's always been nonfiction. I took an MFA and I did poetry and drama and nonfiction. It never even occurred to me to take a fiction course. I'm not interested in making up stories. To me, a true story, life is so fascinating. Why would you want to invent? I'm a fan of fiction. I love reading J.K. Rowling to Harry Potter to my grandsons right now, and the inventiveness, you know, the way she's invented this incredible world – I admire it, but I want a real voice telling me a real story.

And so finding out that there was a group of people in Canada who had created this creative nonfiction collective, it is a collective in that there's only one paid person sort of part-time keeping things going, but it's mostly volunteer. So I went to their first meeting. I did a workshop, in fact, the first time I went, called Performance for Writers, which was about teaching writers to speak, to have confidence in speaking on a stage or on camera. And I discovered this world of my people. These were my people. They were all nonfiction, memoir, travel writers, you know, essay writers. And I met... dear friends, I met a friend, in fact, who's flying from Vancouver to stay here tonight. She lives in Vancouver, I live here, but we talk to each other on Zoom almost every Friday. Fabulous. She reads my first drafts, I read her first drafts. I'm following the progress of her book, she's following the progress of my books.

So it's a group of like-minded people doing the same thing. We have an annual conference. Of course, it went online because of the pandemic. There are monthly webinars and they're just, you meet people who are doing the same crazy thing that you're doing and it matters a lot.


Yeah, it helps you just to not feel so alone with all of the crazy voices that are in your head, you know. So Beth, as you know, this is the Resilient Writers Radio Show. So I wanted to ask you, what does it mean to you to be a resilient writer?


Well, if you're not a resilient writer, you're not going to survive because what do we need? You know, it's about solitude, as we've just said, it's about rejection. You know, I sent my very best essay, an essay that meant the world to me, to a competition. And it wasn't even on the 10th long list. That is horribly unfair. And I eventually got it published and people loved it and I knew it was unfair. But you know, it happens all the time. You need to say, okay, they didn't like it, it didn't fit what they needed, I'm going to send it somewhere else. I'm going to start again. I mean, the other thing is, you know, you work and you work and you publish an essay or you publish a book and then what do you do? You start the next one.

You know, so, and the next one is going to be different. You're going to have to come up with a different approach. It's a whole different set of skills. So you're constantly reinventing yourself. You're constantly picking yourself up from rejection. And you just, you need that little flame inside that says, my words matter, my story matters. I have something to say to the world and I'm going to say it. And I hope that it will be meaningful. you know, to a few people, if not to a lot of people. But, you know, after I die, those words are still gonna be there. My books are gonna be on a shelf somewhere. Yeah, libraries, bookshelves, somebody's personal collection, absolutely.

We can all think of the books that just meant so much to us, right? Yeah. I speak about Anne Frank as one of my greatest heroes, that she needed to write that story. She wrote it beautifully and she changed the world. A 13 year old girl with a notebook changed the world. So, you know, the way that we looked at the war changed after we read that book. And so you never know where your words are going to end up and who they will matter to.


Love that. Thank you so much, Beth. So Beth's book is called Midlife Solo. And it's by Mosaic Press. I will include a link in the show notes. I'm also going to link to your memoir, and your True to Lifebook, because I think that's just fabulous. And there are so few really good books that kind of step by step you through the considerations of memoir. So I'll link to that one as well. Thanks so much for being here, Beth. I really enjoyed talking to you.

Beth: It's a pleasure. Wonderful questions. Thank you so much.


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