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.
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.