2 July 2020

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr


I had heard many different authors reference Mary Karr's work (David Foster Wallace, Lena Dunham, Stephen King, Chuck Klosterman) and they all made me so excited to read one of the great modern memoirists. A few Christmases ago I got The Liar's Club (reviewed in full here) and I couldn't believe how talented she is. I've been really into reading author's work on the craft of writing and after finishing Stephen King's go at it I knew I had to read Karr's.

King mentioned in the first few pages of his book On Writing (reviewed in full here) how he wished he had half the recall Karr seems to possess, and when reading The Liar's Club I was amazed by how detailed her memories were. I've always really loved memoir and I love trying to figure out what is autobiographical in an author's fiction. I've spent most of my life shying away from biography, especially when there's an opportunity to hear it from the subject's own voice.

The Art of Memoir is Karr's how-to guide on writing memoir. She teaches classes every year on it at Syracuse University where she is a professor. She covers everything from how to write tactile information to how to approach the truth. Her book opens up with something she overheard mentor Don DeLillo say: "a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them." Her book is grounded in this philosophy.

Hearing each other's stories actually raises our levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin, which is what nursing mothers secrete when they breastfeed - what partly helps them bond with their young. It helps to join us together in some tribal way."

One of the major topics Karr covers is the importance of voice. She says all the great memoirists she's met sound on the page exactly as they do in person. I think it's obvious that voice is one of the most important aspects of memoirs, but I also think it's something amateurs often forgot. Even when Meg and I started this blog the goal was to write about why we liked/disliked a book and what made us pick it up... we didn't want to write stuff we would have submitted when we were 18 in ENG1000.

Karr has an incredibly distinctive voice. She is from a small, rural hick-town (her words) and her word choice often reflects it (she talks a lot about butt-whipping). This was something that was definitely echoed in King's book - pick words you actually use yourself. If I had to describe Karr's approach to writing and how she expresses her voice, I'd say it's through humour:

Bleak humour right at the edge of being wrong has kept me alive, so it's wound up in my work. Asked by my sister why I was sexually assaulted as a child but she wasn't, I quipped, 'Maybe you're not cute enough' - which takes one of the darkest events in my life and tries to turn it into a putdown for somebody else. Talk about grim. To chirp my story as some bouncy cheerleader would be to lie. That grimness has to make it in."
Mary Karr and her sister Leica who passed away in June 2020
She also spends a lot of time talking about telling the truth. Every year Karr fakes an altercation with another professor in front of the classroom and then asks her students to write about it. She says it's amazing to see how different everyone's perspective is. Some students think she started it, the other half think the other prof did.

One chapter in The Art of Memoir talks about famous memoirs who have been "debunked." The most famous modern case is probably James Frey's A Million Little Pieces which was on Oprah's book club before an investigation pointed out many of these events never happened. The book was later marketed as "semi-fictional." I think this is something all readers wonder about - is what I'm reading actually true? 

Something that really stuck with me was in some writing by John Gregory Dunne (Joan Didion's husband). He mentioned how one of his writer friends said he always starts a new project by writing his memoir... once he starts lying he knows he has his next fiction book.

How you approach the truth depends on your passions - Russian books and surreal metaphor, journal keeping and poetry and hiking."

One of my favourite parts of reading The Art of Memoir was all the references to other memoirs and authors. She constantly refers to Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild and she also talks about David Foster Wallace and Jon Krakauer. She says her favourite parts of DFW's Infinite Jest were most certainly nonfictional, and how Krakauer makes his publishers insane because he is so fact driven. Apparently Krakauer spent 10 years trying to learn organic chemistry so he would rewrite what he thinks poisoned Chris McCandless in a new edition of Into the Wild. I love hearing about this kind of stuff.

Most stale of all is the butt-whipping memoir, which abounds these days: 'I took a butt-whipping, I got up and took another. Poor me, here came yet another.' The great Holocaust memoirs portray not just great suffering but great ope and wisdom and forms of psychological endurance and curiosity. They seem written to help us understand something complex, not to prove a single point in dreary repetition."

Mary Karr
My favourite books always inspire me to read more, and just like King's On Writing, Karr's book ends with a massive list of recommendations. She also uses a select few memoirs to reiterate her points throughout the book which I really enjoyed. As soon as I finished reading I ordered Dispatches by Michael Herr, a memoir about his time as a correspondent in Vietnam that she mentions frequently. I was super tempted to order Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov because Karr holds it in such high esteem and teaches it every year. But I hated Lolita and can't stand his fluffy, stuck up prose ... still, I loved her chapter "Don't Try This at Home: The Seductive, Narcissistic Count," on it.

I would recommend anyone who enjoys memoirs give this a read. Even if you don't like the "educational" nature of it I can guarantee you will walk away with a minimum of 10 memoirs you want to read. If you won't read The Art of Memoir at least do yourself the favour of reading The Liar's Club or some of Karr's poetry. She is insanely talented. I'll end this review with a favourite passage I've heard before. It's from Hilary Mantel's memoir Giving Up the Ghost:

Why does the act of writing generate so much anxiety? Margaret Atwood says, 'the written word is so much like evidence - like something that can be used against you.' I used to think that autobiography was a form of weakness, and perhaps I still do. But I also think that, if you're weak, it's childish to pretend to be strong."

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