A MEMOIR CONVERSATION
with David Marchino and Beth Kephart
A former student (now a writer and a teacher) finds himself in his once-teacher’s memoir. A conversation ensues about mirrors, facsimiles, and blankness.
Hello, friend. Before we get into the thick of this, I’d like to thank you for having this conversation with me. I’d been anticipating Wife | Daughter | Self for a while now. I must admit though that one of the reasons I was excited was that in a few places throughout the book I show up and rear my head. Just last night, I read one of these sections—“The Four Times I Became a Teacher”, which originally appeared in LitHub—to my partner just before bed.
My reading started as a joke, some faux bravado: I’m in a book. But that section so moves me, and it did last night. I hear your voice in those words, and, boy, does your writing insist on being read aloud. It became an intervention almost, my reading: That’s who I was then, and that’s where I came into now. Reading it aloud, then, closed a distance for me.
I know you’ve recorded yourself reading the book, a days-long marathon session. What was that experience like for you?
Dear Mr. Marchino—
Remember all the different ways you would sign your emails to me, and to others—your great talent at the sign-off? May your jawn be pristine, you’d write. Keep Warm and See You Tuesday. Or: Walk. Don’t Run. I am thinking about that now as we have this email conversation—how to address you, what to say, how we will begin (now that we’ve begun) and how we will sign off.
But what I want to say first is that having you read WDS and having a conversation about it with you is, to me, a big thing. WDS is a memoir about relationships, of course—who we are in relationship to others and who we are in relationship to ourselves. But it is also a meta creation, a reflection on memoir as genre and craft woven into the memoir that is being made and unmade. I learned memoir by reading, writing, and teaching it, by walking into a classroom with students such as yourself and realizing all I didn’t know and had better find out soon. You are in the book because you’d have to be in the book. And what a privilege it has been to watch you emerge as a teacher in your own right—you teaching memoir to communities of those who grieve, teaching memoir to the young, writing memoir as you teach memoir. Teachers open the door, make room for the next. The next lives inside WDS, which is to say, you do
To answer your question: Reading this book aloud for the Blackstone audio version was tremendously challenging. There were the technical bits—the cold room, the Covid era, the fact that I was a child lisper and still have trouble saying some words. But mostly it was deeply emotional. It was like reading one long prose poem and not trying to cry when confronted with the hard stuff again. I actually got very emotional reading the pages you reference here. Because, gosh, being a teacher is really beautiful and exceptionally hard. I was thinking how I almost blew it with you, while trying to advise you on your honors thesis. How I pushed you to the brink—and yet you didn’t fall.
Something I’ve been thinking about lately is Charles D’Ambrosio and his book of essays, Loitering. Do you remember how you’d go to the Penn bookstore and read the volume, sitting on the floor? Well, there’s an essay in there called “Any Resemblance to Anyone Living,” where D’Ambrosio is talking about what it’s like to find himself in the pages of an ex-lover’s novel. WDS is memoir, of course, but doesn’t the D’Ambrosio essay echo for us—this experience of being in another’s book, this experience of writing another into your book?
Loitering–yes! That was my escape text back in college. When I was overwhelmed by class readings, I’d drift into the bookstore and hide somewhere with that book. Thinking about the essay you mention, I’m drawn to D’Ambrosio’s use of the word “redecorated”. He’s portrayed in a work by an ex-lover but finds that this representation is redecorated: his rough edges are smoothed out. His character is neutered, he says, less interesting. I read this and think shag carpet over hardwood, a bathroom tile wallpapered over. Not bad necessarily but absent something. Robbed of a certain, well, character.
When I’ve taught memoir, I’ve always stressed that writers should take care of their characters, but that language is reductive, too, not far from D’Ambrosio’s redecorating. Really, I should have said, “Show your characters from all sides. Give us the good and the bad.” That’s the trick, I think. Just as no one wants to be made out as the antagonist–and I wonder if such a thing can even exist in a memoir–nobody wants to be sanctified. Our nostrils burn should the writer blow too much smoke. Honest, I think the greatest kindness a memoirist can do for the folks they write about is show them as richly complex as they are. Nobody really wants to be damned or revered, only seen. And seen completely.
I think that’s why reading myself in that section of WDS impacted me. It was clear you had seen me, and you were sharing that in this book. You did push me with that thesis, but, also, I was a bit of a jerk. You were my writing coach, and I was skipping practice.
On the subject of being written, you’re the main character of this book, but what I find interesting is how much time you spend looking to others. Even the title is telling, you define yourself by what you call “the apostrophes”: someone’s wife, someone’s daughter. Your exploration of self–your reflection–came through the lens of so many others. Could you talk about this decision, or why you decided to structure the book this way?
Dear A Mirror: One of the best parts of (still) learning how to teach is trying to imagine the right books for the right writers at the right time. Loitering was, at that time, the perfect book for you. D’Ambrosio is, actually, always current, always pressing, and this notion of his, of redecorating—which you beautifully articulate (hey, did you ever think about teaching D’Ambrosio yourself?)—holds great currency with me. So do your words about burning nostrils and anti-antagonists and wanting to be seen.
(Also, I don’t think I’ll ever quite be able to think of you as a jerk, A Mirror. Just as a student writing the hardest story of his life. A story with consequences.)
WDS is, in many ways, a recursive book. I return to themes, reexamine assertions, untie the conclusions, start again. I wanted the book to mirror life in that way. We never really do know, do we, about others. Nor do we ever truly know about ourselves. We are endlessly compromising and negotiating our path toward and away from the family we were born into, the people we have chosen, and all of those in between. We want to please them or we want to extract ourselves from them, we want to know them, we want them to know us (or we don’t). We hold parts of ourselves in check, eternally. But what parts of ourselves? Who are we when in the company of a lover or a father—a version of ourselves, or our actual selves? Who are we when we are alone, in the company of memories that haunt us precisely because we cannot—we never will—fully establish these memories as true or truly interpreted.
Did my father love me? Did I love him in the best possible way? Was I less of me because I gave so much time and care to him? Or is caring who I naturally am? Is caring me at my finest?
I wrote to find out. That is part (but only part) of what memoir is for.
I remember you and I once having a conversation about these sorts of things. One of your lines from that conversation is also floated through the book. Have you found it yet?
I can’t pin down my line, which actually feels appropriate for this conversation. I think we’re circling around the idea that it’s exceedingly difficult to truly “see” yourself. Whatever line of mine you included, held some essential quality of me for you. For me, it was just noise to fill the air, a passing thought. That you’ve held on to it and included it is more evidence of your keen eye, but, for me, it proves it’s near impossible to observe your own life while you’re still in the thick of it.
I asked you about reflections earlier and about finding the right lens so to speak. But, even a perfect reflection transforms its viewer. All these recent hours spent on Zoom have taught me this. We can examine ourselves but only obliquely. We catch glimpses from the periphery. This has me thinking about WDS as a search for a more perfect mirror: the person or relationship in your life that will fully reveal you to yourself. You keep returning to themes because you never get that perfect view. The search continues.
This search, this attempt to find out, you say is part of what memoir is for, and this brings me to my last (and most unfair) question. Throughout the book, you make brief gestures to current events or the news, and your characters try to find ways to withdraw from all of it. In the course of the pandemic, at one point or another, everyone I know has wished for an escape. As a writer, myself, I thought my writing would be the way out, but I’ve been frozen by all that’s happening. Frequently, I’ve asked myself what room is there right now for one person’s story? And so, I ask you (unfairly) what can memoir do for us who feel immobilized by the world around us? I ask you, who teaches memoir at the University of Pennsylvania and through your own Juncture Workshops. I ask you, who has written extensively and profoundly on the memoir genre in Handling the Truth and, again, in your memoir workbook Tell the Truth. Make It Matter. I ask you only because I can think of no one more equipped to answer.
Good Luck, My Friend,
And yet. Look at this question. Look at all the interludes that are yours, in this conversation of ours. You are writing. You have written. Your words (beautiful as always) are here.
To answer your perfectly fair and considered question: A blankness settled in with this pandemic. Suddenly, we were all turning off pieces of our lives—taking long, masked walks on the opposite sides of the street from other masked walkers, standing far apart in grocery stores trying to express ourselves through the slivers of our faces still available to others, closing our doors, watching doors close on us, sending cards and tiny handmade things in lieu of — so many things. Our lives became in-lieu-of lives, and yet we memoirists, or many of us, felt that, with words, we could at least persist. We were alone. We had time. We didn’t need to travel anywhere but into the contours of our own minds.
But how hard that writing became. How hard it was to believe that our struggles, our sadness, our loneliness, our losses, our stories meant anything at all in the face of Covid news. How hard it was to stop feeling anonymous, just one of many millions waiting, fearing, hoping for hope. Some of my dearest friends took notes on their days, so that they would have these notes later, for when they were ready to write truly again. Some stopped writing altogether. I began to make blank books, a symbol for the vast wordlessness I was so often feeling.
But slowly, very slowly, I began to write essays again. Small pieces. No big book in mind. I found that I had begun to pay attention to different things—the sound of silence, say; the artifacts we might leave behind; the intensity of the love we’ve felt but hadn’t taken the time to fully language. I found that, in the stark surrounds of the pandemic, within the blankness, I was feeling, seeing, hearing the world in new ways, in ways that challenged me, in ways that changed my relationship to the world and to myself.
This, then, is the answer to your question. We must allow ourselves to experience the paralysis. We must not force the words. We must sit with ourselves until the world is made new to us, and when we have the words for that newness—of observation, of reckoning, of emotion—we write those words down. We write them so that others might be awakened with us, so that their paralysis might quietly shift, so that we might, quietly, leave a trail away from blankness.
I hate leaving a trail away from this conversation, but we are more than 2,000 words in. I wondered, when we started, how I would sign off, but I’ve decided. I’m not signing off.
David Marchino is a Philadelphia-based creative nonfiction writer and educator whose work has appeared in The Penn Review, RKVRY Quarterly, Cleaver, and elsewhere. His essay “No Goodbyes” won the 2016 Penn PubCo Award for Best First-Person Narrative, and his personal narrative “Going Places” was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart. In the past, he served as a citizen-artist on behalf of ArtistYear, teaching a creative writing curriculum at Alexander Adaire Elementary in Philadelphia. Currently, he is assistant director of the Summer Workshop for Young Writers at the Kelly Writers House and the administrative assistant at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of three-dozen books in multiple genres, a teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, co-founder of Juncture Workshops, and a widely published essayist. Her memoir-in-essays, Wife | Daughter | Self, is due out from Forest Avenue Press on March 2. More at bethkephartbooks.com