The Art of Memoir

By Mary Karr

Harpers | 2015 | 256 pages

Reviewed by Emily Rosen

Mary Karr

I have been teaching memoir writing workshops for the past 15 years. For all those years, I’ve been defending the genre against the elite literati, for whom only fiction and poetry hold any true artistic value

The phrase “good writing is good writing – whether on a tombstone or a love note or an ad for ED pills,” rings hollow to the tone-deaf guardians of invented stories and some

kinds of poetry.

To them I say, “Get over it!”
 Memoirs are here to stay and they share the same ratio of exquisite soul-searing inspiration to mundane claptrap as any other genre. And Mary Karr is the go-to person to point out all the nuances that confer to it, legitimacy and, as appropriate, eminence and artistic value.

Simply stated, she avers: ..”It’s from the need to capture the shared connections between us that symphonies were invented. Ditto memoirs.”

    Kirkus referred to the “Sassy Texas wit” of the multi published Syracuse University literature professor, who can legitimately rest on the “laurels” received from each of her three memoirs, The Liar’s Club, Cherry and Lit.- and five non memoir books. (the thing about “memoir” is that one can write them in the same prodigious quantity as Joyce Carol Oates can produce her endless fiction ---  and still not reveal every aspect of a life ) ---  Indeed, one does hear echoes of the late Texas wit,  Molly Ivins,  in the “voice” of Karr who, though disparaging writers who quote from themselves, succinctly  tells us, “If I didn’t have to pay out the wazoo to quote from better books than my own, I’d have more Nabokov in here.”

She is a stickler for “truthiness,” (thanks for that word, Stephen Colbert)  “wholly opposing” making things up, but nonetheless is “wholly” cognizant of the tricks of memory and inadvertent misstatement, covering that issue in all of its possible iterations. Citing some of the more reviled examples of “corrupted” memoirs, James Frey’s a Million Little Pieces and Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea among them, she has little tolerance for its base falsifications.

“Carnality … by that I mean, can you apprehend it through the five senses,” is possibly the most salient of her writer-tips.  “A great glutton can evoke the salty bite of pastrami on black rye, the sex addict will excel at smooth flesh…Every memoir should brim over with physical experiences ...the smell of garlicy gumbo,  your hand in an animal’s fur, …” 

Of course, that goes for good writing in any genre.

But it is “interiority” that makes a book rereadable, says Karr, …” translation: Great. Your connections to most authors (Nabokov and a few others aside) rests on how you may identify with them.. the better memoirist organizes a life story around that inner enemy – a psychic struggle against herself that works like a thread or a plot engine.”  

In my own classes, I call this “a theme.”  It digs deep into the psychic well – and who hasn’t experienced some inner conflict in the course of a lifetime? Conflict is deep in the reservoir of the memoir, even as it is the roaring engine of great novels.

Another concern addressed by Karr that is germane only to the memoir, is how to handle the subordinate characters, that is, the people in your life about whom truth telling is essential. Karr chooses to come clean and shows her manuscript to them, accompanied by a rationale and offering to use a pseudonym. One can only imagine the conversations that have taken place in this regard.

Note to readers (like me) who read books with pencil and paper at hand: You will want to record the many memoirs she recommends and those from which she quotes juicy excerpts. To name just a few, two being new* to me:  Harry Crews, Mary McCarthy, Kathryn Harrison, Maya Angelou, Frank Conroy, Saint Augustine*, Michael Herr*, (Viet Nam War memoir, Dispatches, 1977), Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff, Vladimir Nabokov.

Despite its occasional redundancy and tilt towards bloat, this book will probably take its place with Ann Lamott’s Bird By Bird as a writer’s most frequently recommended  “read” and a memoir writer’s “essential.”

If you’re looking for heavy plotting and lightning action or a thrilling who-dun-it, this book is not for you. But of course, you knew that before you finished my first sentence and probably never made it to the end anyway.

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