Exploring the art of prose


On Crafting the Memoir in Pieces

Image shows vintage photographs and cardstock overlapping on a table, a twig of pine in the foreground; title card for the new craft essay, "On Crafting the Memoir in Pieces," by Beth Kephart.


By Beth Kephart •

The writer of the memoir in pieces is an assembly artist—a hunter, a gatherer, an arranger, a culler, a keeper. They are not at work on a collection of essays loosely bound by voice, style, or theme. They are not carrying a first-person story forward, continuously, with invisible seams. They are, instead, building a repertoire of juxtapositions, clarifying oppositions, unanticipated associations. They favor recurrence over redundancy, the suggested over the shouted, the echo in the chamber, accruals and accretions.

To write a memoir in pieces is to forge and find, to pattern and arrange, to gather and adhere, to pierce and bind.

To make a blank book by hand is to traffic the same verbs.

I keep learning the one art from the other.

[Forge/Find] Sometimes the sound of a girl yelling insults to the sky is the sound of my own keening, and on a scrap of a nearby something, I approximate the sound. Or the suburban drag racers wake me at night, and, rattled with the wreckage I imagine, I turn the light on, write it.

Memories hint, whack, whir, and I transcribe them—words my mother said, the look around the eyes of a long-lost friend, the smell of fish whipping the dock with their tails, the aurora borealis I either dreamed or saw, it was so long ago, I can’t remember now if it was real or if it was fiction. There’s the look of moss on a grave on a day gray with rain, the hooves of deer on the crack of wildflower seeds, the ruinous discovery of old letters, the smell of vanilla, the tail of a newspaper kite, a question, a wish, the scene I forgot to throw away, the lines of a poem I retrieved.

It is nothing yet but material, something I might use someday.

Sometimes, in an old flea market, I find the leather they tore from a grandfather’s chair and I bring it home with me. Or a foreign language dictionary—words I don’t understand, written with letters I can’t read, pressed onto pages stained with age. Or a box of buttons fallen from two sleeves.

At home, I steal the dahlias from my garden, the browning oakleaf hydrangea, the deep red fringe of my Japanese maple. I gesso canvas with an old foam brush, set it to dry. I flick oxgalled acrylic onto a floating bed of carrageenan, rake the color with a comb of nails (lengthwise, crosswise, swirl), press a page of alum to the color face, and pull up paisleys. I palm a print off the pucker of a gelli plate. I shred the books I’ve written with my own rough hands and set the pulp aside, the broken alphabets drying on a screen in the sun. I buy cork, metal bugs, waxed linen, sulfite paper both stiff and slim. My friends send gifts of Irish lace, damaged filmstrips, vintage gift wrap, antique pins, the detritus of board games.

It is nothing yet but material, something I might use someday.


[Pattern/Arrange] “I had no idea what I was doing,” CJ Hauser said, about writing her memoir in essays, The Crane Wife. “I had an index card board—I call it a ‘murder board’—on the wall with different pieces and where they would go. As things came together and the pieces started speaking to each other, the process of working with my editor and agent became one of ‘What does this piece have to say to that one?’”

Anything can happen with a loose pile of raw pages. The prevailing question, for the writer of the memoir in pieces, for me, is: What if? What if I arrange the fragments according to their seeming dispositions—here is the hope, here is the fury, here are the values in between, is that the story? What if I place the doubt beside the forgiveness and the forgiveness before the confession and the discarded coda right up front, as a kind of preface? What if rhythm becomes my guide—the long lyric interrupted by the short exhale, the single sentence setting an extended crisis into motion? What if I leave the pieces by an open window and a breeze blows in and the fragments rearrange themselves and the truth is finally found right there—in the accidentally adjacent? What if my raw material runs thin? What if I am forced to start again, to forge, to find new fragments?

When Lex Orgera was writing Head Case: My Father, Alzheimer’s & Other Brainstorms, her memoir in pieces, she arranged and rearranged, searching for a pattern. Toward the very end, she told me once, she wrote an encapsulating list: “Blueprints, time’s wave, morning coffee, football sweats, pirate ship, people watcher,” it begins. This list became the heart of the book, the half a page that acknowledges or anticipates all the other pages. It nests close to the start of the book—a warning and invitation.

When I was writing Wife | Daughter | Self, my memoir in essays, I didn’t understand, for a stretch of years, that a long segment titled “The Apostrophe Wife” was speaking for the book. The apostrophe wife, in the segment, was the artist Henriette Wyeth—N. C. Wyeth’s daughter, Andrew Wyeth’s sister, Peter Hurd’s wife, three children’s mother. But the apostrophe wife was also me, and I had, in that one segment, explored the tangle. In one arrangement of the book, I had placed “The Apostrophe Wife” at the very start. In another, I had placed it last. It was only when I slipped the pages three-quarters in that I understood its ricochets and echoes, how it spoke for and to the rest of the book, how other elements that had seemed so fundamental to the telling now had no narrative purpose.

The truths we writers of memoirs in pieces are pursuing will always be elusive. The story we think we want to write shifts with each emerging pattern. We were lucky. We were poor. We believed in God. We didn’t. We loved more than we were ever loved. We hardly loved at all. What had once seemed central fades. What had been peripheral takes on color, texture, weight. We arrange and rearrange. We delete and summon. We fashion a map of our own intuition and climb our way back into ourselves.

In the room where I make my blank books, the table is tall, its surface is a landscape, the mess of materials is my mess. Hills, runnels, plains of stuff. Canvas. Cork. Handmade paper thick as my father’s oatmeal, inflected with my garden flowers. Words torn from Mrs. Dalloway, a paper aardvark, a Russian coloring book. A dried sheath of a leaf. A fringe of Khadi. Cotton rag. Miniature keys. Circa 1920’s prescriptions.

I don’t know what I’ll need, but I will need.

I don’t know how to choose, but I will choose.

The prevailing question is: What if? What if that color of cork backgrounds that crust of old leaf? What if I run a Khadi-paper fringe between two paisley prints? What if the words I tore from a Virginia Woolf page collide with a scene from the coloring book?

What if?

I shuffle and sort. I stand back to see. I rearrange my landscape of possibilities—build stacks, fan colors, drop a broken feather beside a porcelain button. Nothing will occur until something does, until a pattern (sly) emerges. The prevailing attitude will be: And so. And so the cardinal color is moss green. And so the cork is compatible with the canvas. And so tall and narrow will govern the dimensions. And so the sheath of the leaf is a keeper, and so is the button, and so is the paisley shape and so are Virginia’s words, and I will need that flame-orange waxed linen thread, those stacks of sulfite paper for the signatures, and so this will be a coptic-stitch blank book, which is to say not an accordion-fold book, and not a three-hole pamphlet, which are entirely different genres.

We keep what we want and shelve what we don’t. We make room for our making.


[Gather/Adhere] The map of my intuition has emerged, and my story in its prevailing patterns. It is loosely leafed, it is not yet bound, if you were to come see me with my book on my lap, you would still see only pieces. You would find that my fingers are still tucking there and turning here, and now: a new deletion, or a small distortion of the pronouns.

Mostly you would find me busy with transitions, with the weighing of relationships among the juxtaposed. I’m asking questions: Does the last line of this one piece foreshadow the first line of the next? Does it foreshadow too explicitly, too neatly? Do my metaphors shout across the gaps or achieve a harmony? Is my dictionary of tropes static or evolving? Why was I so adamant that I needed suburban drag racers?

We must teach ourselves about what is happening between our pieces, and across them. Transitions, as it turns out, are the adhesive. And when the going gets hard and we lose our way, we return to the map of our intuition. We look for what the patterns want to teach us.

The landscape of my tabletop is neater now; it has less heaped upon it. I stand in the breeze with the music off, studying the pattern that’s emerged from the colors, textures, weights. I make the inevitable refinements—decide against the feather, decide against the button, build a better escalation of the textures. I find my triangle, my cutting board, my X-acto knife, my box cutter, my scissors. I dig out my foam brush, my bone folder, my big and sticky bottle of Lineco Neutral pH Adhesive whose bottle cap is tacky, crooked. I lean in. I measure and I mark dimensions. I chop cover boards, I slice the cork and the paisley print. I pare Virginia down to half a sentence.

Any unintended angle will read as rush. Any crooked seam will remain crooked. Every accident will have its consequence.

Now I wrap both cover boards with canvas. Now I glue down the endpapers. Now, on the front of the first board, I work my layers and transitions—cork over the canvas, paisley print over the cork, sheath of the leaf along the edge of the paisley, Virginia’s words embedded in the leaf. Every element makes room for the next. The artistry here is the art of transitions.

The boards must dry and set. I wrap them in parchment paper and slip them beneath the weights on the floor. I turn my attention to the signatures that must be cut and bone-folded and pressed and trimmed so that they’ll fit within my covers.

We make the history of our choosing manifest by our gathering and adhering. We memorialize our process.


[Pierce/Bind] At the very end of the writing of a memoir in pieces, everything approximates a whole. If you were to come see me with my book in my lap, you would find no mess around me.

Still, I’d be sitting there with a pen in my hand, redlining the lines that now strike me as dull or redundant, unnecessary or obvious, self-congratulatory or falsely modest, purple and consequently plain. I’d be piercing lines I’d been desperate not to lose. I’d be scrapping my very best metaphors for a next book, relegating them to the forge-and-find pile. I’d be reconfiguring subtitles and more accurately signaling the responsibilities of white spaces.

And then, at last, I would relinquish what I’ve made to the binder.

Because, in the end, our books are bound. In the end, they are not ours to play with, they do not belong to us. In the end, we write our memoirs in pieces so that those who read them will be returned to themselves, to their own memories, to the fashion of the stories.

To bind a book is to design a spine, is to draw a needle through our pages, is to knot in.

I need (we need): a punching cradle, an awl, a punching template (first hole and last hole a half inch from the end, middle holes designating lovely patterns), that length of flame-orange waxed linen thread (there’s still time to swap out for a cooler color, if we need it), and, because my particular book (our particular book) is a coptic-stitch book (is a memoir in pieces), a tiny-eyed curved needle.

We will find that some of our signatures are still not as neatly sliced as we’d imagined; we will adjust things. We will find that our waxed linen is too waxy; we will run the length of it through the eye of our needle in order to refine it. We will find as we work that our thread bunches and clots in the wrong places; we will do what must be done to fix it.

And when we reach that last hole and tie that last knot and snip those last loose threads, we will understand that the book does not belong to us. That we will send it away to a stranger somewhere who will fill the blank pages with their story.


BETH KEPHART is an award-winning writer, teacher, and book artist. My Life in Paper: Adventures in Ephemera is forthcoming from Temple University Press in November 2023. Learn more about her handmade books at BindbyBind on Etsy. Find Beth on Instagram @bethkephartnow.


Featured image courtesy of Joanna Kosinka, courtesy of Unsplash.