A Conversation with Beth Kephart, author of My Life in Paper: Adventures in Ephemera (Temple University Press)

I had the chance to have a conversation with Beth Kephart, whose new book, My Life in Paper, has recently been published. Our conversation took place over email, one back and forth a day for about a week. Widely creative as well as accomplished, Beth became absorbed in making handmade books and paper during the pandemic, a practice that is central to My Life in Paper.

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Michelle: Congratulations on the publication of your beautiful new book, My Life in Paper: Adventures in Ephemera. Your book invites making connections of many kinds, craft to craft, potting happening in the basement and papermaking a floor above, the writing of a book to the making of paper. I want to start with a comparison of your working to that of a potter, with a specific potter in mind. This is something of a chance comparison, but I am really curious to see where it sends our conversation. I live in Toronto, and in Toronto we have a museum of ceramics, the Gardiner Museum. There is an extraordinary exhibit at the Gardiner now, of work by one of the world’s greatest ceramic artists working today, Magdalene Odundo. I was able to hear Magdalene Odundo speak about her work—and her working—and one of the many striking things she spoke about is what it is like for her when she is working. She describes being very much alone and in a private space while she is making her pots. She speaks of being alone with the pots and the clay and alone with her thoughts while working, and how her thoughts are inside her pots. The pots hold and contain her thoughts. And the interior of the pots is so important to the exterior of the pots, the wholeness of the pots. There is this fascinating thing that takes place, then, where these profoundly personally charged pieces become embodied and individual and out in the world, as the pieces are that are gathered in the exhibit at the Gardiner Museum, right now, in Toronto. I wondered if you might talk about this idea or feeling that Odundo has shared, about a creative person putting so much of themself in their work before it goes out into the world for others to experience and interact with. 

Beth Kephart
Beth Kephart

Beth: First, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this book, to enter into its realm, and to talk to me about it. And what an interesting question this is, a provocative place to start. You’ve phrased the question in a way that is quieting. I feel as if I am answering from inside one of Odundo’s pots.

To me, there’s nothing more settling than writing a sentence or crafting a physical book. All that noise in your head, in your life, in the world is suddenly happening elsewhere, leaving you alone to search, to fail, to quietly exclaim: Oh, yes, this. The sentence, you think, works. Or the binding does. Or the silence is not silence because it contains the sound of your whispering the sentence out loud or the sound of the needle pulling the waxed linen thread through the hole. This is peace. This is who you are.

But then the sentence becomes a paragraph becomes a book with a cover and an ISBN number and a listing on a digital sales page. But then the handmade book sits in your craft booth on a cold, windy day and passersby pick it up and turn it over and then put it back where it was. And you think, about both things: Was what I made enough? Too strange? Too idiosyncratic? And Am I enough, too strange, too idiosyncratic? And suddenly what was not judged has become judged, and there’s a small wall between you and your made thing.

There’s a tremble.

It must be overcome.

It’s up to you to overcome it.

Michelle: This is who you are. And: there’s nothing more settling than writing a sentence or crafting a physical book. Let’s start here. Returning to pottery, there’s centering taking place. And the more you work at the thing, the more natural this act of centering becomes. You put the clay on the wheel or the words on the page, and the clay or the words work with you and respond to you, and you in turn respond to the clay or the words. There’s real conversation with the material: when you write a letter to Dard Hunter and allow yourself to feel a great connection with him, you are learning about yourself and the world. There’s ease and fluency, listening and struggling.

I am thinking about the circumstances of making—of doing creative work—and how important it is to be attuned to self and material. Magdalene’s pots have a vitality, an aliveness, as do your paragraphs, your pages. You grapple with identity and grief, with how to live a good life, you connect with your mother through a book gifted you from her shelf by your brother, you quest, you forgive, and all these elements are felt in your pages, sometimes in your words and sometimes below them. There’s an underpinning to the book alike to what I sense Magdalene means when she describes the inside, not fully visible parts of her pots.

I am going back to what you wrote to me, to the idea of putting the noise aside (including judgment and questions of enough-ness, I’d guess), to being alone to search, to fail. . . I think you’ve quietly slipped the idea of failure into our conversation, and I wonder about the importance to you of making space for failure. Does being willing to fail contribute to the strength of the pot and the sentence, to fluency and craft and skill?

Beth: Failure. I do write and think about failure, which seems to be a rounded word, a rounded concept, whereas success, the word, feels more clinical to me. Success feels like something others often try to define for us. Failure—the possibility, even the probability of it—feels like a space within which to explore. If it is okay to fail, it is okay to venture forth or venture in, it is okay to put the wrong color beside the wrong color, the best word inside the most-frail sentence. Nothing is finished until we decide that it is, and so we keep trying, we keep failing, until something announces itself as done. The sentence is done. The handmade book needs no more flourish. The many-layered cyanotype holds just the right number of ghosts. We get to decide the done-ness. After that, the thing cannot finally fail, for we have believed in it and learned from it. Whether it sells, whether it makes us famous, whether we are remembered for it, whether we can retire with the money that it made—that can’t be as important as this: We made it.

Michelle: That brings us to the making of My Life in Paper. I wondered if you’d talk a little about the project, and also the process of making this book.

Beth: My Life in Paper is, as the title suggests, a book about paper—how it shapes and holds and records our lives, how paper ephemera—those letters, diaries, wills, scribbled envelopes, report cards, resumes, deeds, menus, paper games, syllabi—carry our small triumphs and large shames and ordinary disappointments forward. Structurally and tonally the book is a memoir in essays with a twist. That twist is a series of letters I write to Dard Hunter, the late great paper adventurer who sought to understand and revive handmade paper at a time when commercial paper mills made the stuff fast and cheap, with great harm to the environment.

The book emerged as such layered books do—when multiple forces begin to merge in one’s mind. I have, in recent years, been making paper art and handmade books. I also became enormously interested in the life of this Dard Hunter. And as a memoirist I do think a lot about the question: What will remain of us when we are gone? The stories we have committed to the page, or the things we’ve left behind?

I wrote the book in pieces, assembled it over time, was grateful to Temple University Press for giving me leeway and also the opportunity to design the cover art and the marbled end papers. The book is a book of heart and hands.

Michelle: Among the many accomplishments of your book are the portraits of your relationship with your parents. Also the way you construct these portraits with language. In the opening of “Spreadsheet” you write:

The deadline days, the to-do ticks, the ideas that had preceded whatever had reliably and rushedly come next—and I think of my father in his hawk-hunch at his desk, his thumb and forefinger cradling his thoughts, his lamplight slashing in from the left, his pens thickened with old ink, and his pencils stubbed, and a nearby coil of FOREVER stamps uncoiling, a perpetuating coil of unsent stamps. My father—twice retired from his final corporate stint (he’d gone back after the first quit; he could not quit) and still, at eighty-six, eighty-seven, eighty-eight, eighty-nine, working phantom jobs. 

My father, spreadsheeting the void.

You then, with a few brushstrokes of imagined dialogue, show us a moment of loss, a father missing a chance to talk with the daughter who wants nothing more than to talk with him. There are things for the daughter to do, too, to fill the void. There is papermaking and blank book making, the sewing of bindings and learning all things Dard Hunter.

I was so moved, reaching the end of “Spreadsheet,” a piece that illuminates your loss on your father’s passing, to turn the page and come to the next section, “Making.” That turn was, for me, just right.

As you describe, this project is layered. I think what I was feeling is related to a feeling that comes not only from what the words say or the way you say things, but also from the arrangement and composition of the pieces: the writing becomes for me like a painting, the words are not simply signs but have a material place in the world, in the book, which is powerful. I wondered if you’d talk more about being a writer who also makes physical books and paper and other visual art. How does one art inform another?

Beth: I have been changed as a writer by my work with paper. My long obsessions with urgent writing, and with the sound of words, and with the power of juxtaposition, and with the quest for the universal have been expanded, hopefully elevated, by my new obsession with the tactile weight of paper, the layering and ghosting of images and forms, the knotting in of signatures, and all the rest. Can I write a passage or even a book that feels as if it were made not just by my head and heart, but by my hands? Can I envelop the reader with scenes and symbols and suggestions that leave them feeling—maybe the word is hued? Maybe the phrase is braided into? The great poet Carolyn Forché, whose papermaking molds and deckles I now use to make paper of my own, once told me about classes she taught, in which she and a colleague would teach the poets how to make the paper they would then write their poems on. Each page sacred in that way. I want what I write to feel as if it was all handwritten onto handmade paper and left, as a gift, by the door. To be picked up, turned over, sat with. To be shared over hot chocolate or tea. My story. Theirs.

Michelle: Thanks for what you’ve written here. If we were sitting at a café together having this conversation, I would pause here, we would pour the tea.

Here is an example of the writing in My Life in Paper where the words lifted off the page, with hue, for me:

You subsisted on acrylic possibilities while your grief raged on. You located your childhood in color. Teal was the community pool at the edge of the day where your chlorine-saturated father swam off the smells of the job at the refinery, while you sat watching. Cadmium Yellow was the glaze of dawn on winter ice and the ’67 Dodge Dart that your father drove, both of you silent and careful on the slick. Terre Verte was the frost that dimmed the path in the garden called Longwood, where you and your father walked toward the sound of a fountain overspilling. Gold was you by the sea beside your father, the sun doing its casting.

The language is both visual and written. One of the notes I jotted down while reading and thinking about your book: a meditation, or free association, or grieving, with all things paper. First: condolences on the loss of your mother and more recently your father. In writing My Life in Paper, you let us witness changes in your relationship with your parents. In your grief, you write and make paper and repair. In my community, each year mourners mark the anniversary of the death of a loved one with a special blessing, and we add to that an invitation to say a few words about the person we are remembering. I wondered if you’d like to say a few words about your mother and about your father here. Would you like to talk about the place of writing in grieving?

Beth: Michelle, after we paused and poured the tea, after its steam rose up, after the water in our cups darkened with—lavender? ginger? lemon?—we would then, I think, turn toward the cafe window in mutual silence, and watch as the people, or the birds, passed by. Time.

I would say, after more time passed, Thank you, Michelle, for your questions.

Say a few words about your mother and your father, about grieving. So very much to say. So much in the rounding silence. This attestation: I believe not in writing what I know, but in writing toward what I sense is out there—far, nearer, near. In writing My Life in Paper I found my mother, young, in my imagination; I found the ways I might have been kinder; I found answers to questions I never asked her; I found more questions. I found my father, on the other hand, close by, the age he finally became, a man who would like a ride to the river, a man who is still talking to me—and, I hope, listening. There are things I so desperately wish I could tell them both. Apologies I would make. Old papers I would bring them. Colors I would serve up on a tray. I would say, Look. I have moved beyond words and deeper toward love. I have become so much older, since you knew me.


Michelle Fost is a writer living in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in Geist Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere. She is a book review and fiction editor at Cleaver.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of nearly 40 books in multiple genres, an award-winning teacher, co-founder of Juncture Workshops, and a book artist. Beth’s newest book, the acclaimed My Life in Paper: Adventures in Ephemera, sprang from her own obsession with paper. Beth’s most recent craft books are We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class and Consequential Truths: On Writing the Lived Life. More at bethkephartbooks.com and bind-arts.com. Sign up for Beth’s February 25 workshop here.
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