The Art of Memoir: A Review

Art of Memoir Review

Writing a memoir is not for the weak-hearted. There can be crying involved. Sometimes even a good, stiff martini. But through it all, we come to understand ourselves better: our truths, our hopes. Our crushing flaws.

As you know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I am a huge fan of Mary Karr. Her first memoir, The Liars’ Club, was at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year.  It is the book that first hooked me on the genre. She wrote two more, Cherry and Lit, and they were critically acclaimed as well.

Her latest work, The Art of Memoir, is not your typical how-to-write-a-memoir book. It doesn’t focus on researching (Karr calls it “postponing writing”), finding your plot points, or fleshing out your characters. Yet she cuts to the heart of the form in her chapters on voice, choosing details, fighting the writer’s inner enemies and other timely topics. She hits the issue of dealing with your ‘beloveds’ (family members who might be upset that you are writing about them) squarely on the head.

And her short (two-page) chapter on the dangers of exaggeration is worth the price of the book alone.

The Art of Memoir: Something for everyone

For the more experienced or emerging memoirist, the chapters on dissecting famous memoirs to figure out what made them work are highly useful. As I reorganize and rethink my own manuscript, Karr’s truths about her own struggles in keeping he knowledge she has now, years later, from coloring her memories of the past are hitting home.


“For the reader, the voice has to exist from the first sentence.”

The beauty of The Art of Memoir is that, within its pages, the commonalities are there, the things we all struggle with as we write. But if I had to boil down the essence of this book, without giving too much away, it would be that the events we choose when writing our memoirs are the ones that have intense meaning for us. And those events create the story. 

But the way in which it is told, the author’s voice, keeps readers hanging in there to hear how the story ends.   

“We are inward-looking goofballs who spill on our blouses and look befuddled in our selfies.”           

As gifted and full of brilliance as she is, Karr has a humility rarely seen in wildly successful authors. On the last page, in an eloquent tribute to writers everywhere—no matter our circumstances or our publishing credits—she invites us to share a camaraderie with all authors, the living and the long dead:

“Just picking up the pen makes you part of a tradition of writers that dates thousands of years back and includes Homer and Toni Morrison and cave artists sketching buffalo. It’s a corny attitude to revere writers in this celebrity age, when even academics cry the author is dead. Go to any book award ceremony, and we’re like America’s Homeliest Video. We are the inward-looking goofballs who spill on our blouses and look befuddled in our selfies.”

And in recognition of the incredible bravery of writers who tangle with their past, to make some sense of it, to dig out the universal gems that help us connect with each other—and their readers:

“But I still feel awe for us—yes, for the masters who wrought lasting beauty from their hard lives, but for the rest of us, too,  for the great courage all of us show trying to wring some truth from the godawful mess of a single life. To bring oneself to others makes the whole planet less lonely. The nobility of everybody trying boggles the mind.”

This is that rare book on memoir writing that has equal portions of art and craft, equal appeal to novices and experienced writers. There is truly something for everyone in The Art of Memoir.

You can buy The Art of Memoir here.

Just one more thing: As I was close to publishing this post, a new piece by Mary Karr popped up in The New Yorker. Sacred Carnality”  explores the use of sensual data to lure the reader into your physical universe. Not a lengthy read and well worth your time.

Make sure you don’t miss a post.


  1. Joan Z. Rough October 13, 2015 at 6:59 am #

    It’s sitting on my night stand, next in line. Can’t wait. I too have loved all of Mary karr’s books. I love her raw honesty!

    Hope you and Bob are well, Judy! My memoir will be published next fall through She Writes Press. Very excited!


    • Judy Lee Dunn October 13, 2015 at 2:45 pm #


      It’s good to hear from you!And so exciting that your book is making its way to publication. What a feeling that must be.

      I think you will enjoy Mary’s book very much. I wish I had read it before I had started my manuscript.

      Much love to you. Bob and I are toiling away here on the island. I’ve been helping out with some of the blog content on lately, so I have a full plate right now. Thanks for stopping by, my friend.


  2. Patricia Singleton October 13, 2015 at 8:34 am #

    Thanks for sharing this book. I am at the beginning of writing my own memoir about healing from incest so this will be helpful.


    • Judy Lee Dunn October 17, 2015 at 10:00 am #

      So sorry, Patricia. Your comment got flagged and was sitting in moderation all that time. The only thing I can figure is that “incest” was one of their trigger words or something. Strange.

      You are writing your own memoir now? That is so great to hear, Patricia! You must send me an email sometime and fill me in on that.

      You have so much to say and it is such an important story to tell. We have talked about this before and we have a similar history with that theme, although for me, it is my mom’s story. I think that Mary’s book will be perfect for you at the stage you are. I wish she had written it sooner, when I was starting my memoir. Although, it gives me much inspiration and some excellent tools and measures as I work on my second draft.

      Oh, and thank you for sharing this post on Twitter, my friend.


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