Mary Karr on The Art of Memoir

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Mary Karr Does Not Traffic in B.S.

Not only does Mary Karr write amazing, often painfully acute memoirs like The Liars’ Clubbut she’s the opposite of a precious writer who thinks their process is mystical and trademarked. I was excited to read her new book, The Art of Memoir, wherein she shares her teacher’s wisdom about mastering this genre. I grabbed the audiobook since she reads it herself, which is a huge bonus because her voice has so much character. (You can also experience her voice on this episode of Fresh Air.) In The Art of Memoir, Karr is honest about the imperfections and struggles of learning to write, finding your voice and understanding what is truth and what is just ego.

Dealing with the Social Awkwardness of Memoir
One thing that completely shocked me about her process is that she sends pages to everyone she’s writing about to get their approval. For some reason I just assumed that most memoirists either gave into the fact that they were about to burn a bunch of bridges with their book or just waited until key players were dead to write about them.

Karr though, argues that all true memoirists are motivated by gaining as clear an understanding of the past as possible, probably because what they’re writing about is so important to them that they’ve rehashed it countless times, often in therapy. They don’t want to further obscure and personalize these events, but bring them to light and gain some sense of closure. For that reason, asking the people who experienced them with you what happened in their eyes makes complete sense.

Her Reminder: Your Story Can’t Be You vs. The World
She argues that you should write about people with a sense of empathy for them, even if they’re people who have hurt you. Your story arc cannot be “I was perfect and everyone else fucked up.” You need to understand your own role in events, and that you can be the antagonist as well as the protagnist. When you write about everyone in a way that tries to validate and understand them, you can get permission to include people a lot more easily. (She also advises that you should let them pick their own fake names.)

Dark Memoirs Can Heal a Family
She shares several stories about how memoirs that brought hard subjects for families to the surface actually helped those families heal and brought a new sense of pride and togetherness. If you think about it, if someone did something that fucked you up, they probably feel bad about it, and according to her argument, writing about it in the right way can bring both of you closure. She has written about some very delicate subjects, including her mother’s alcoholism, with a lot of candor and they seem to still have a relationship.

Step One: Get Rid of Your Ego
One of the biggest things that gets in the way of memoir, she says, is ego. The more you can give up your idea of who you wish you were, the more you can write about who you actually are. She shares some early writing of her own, laughing at how she’s trying to write about herself as if she’s some kind of little bo peep.

Would I Recommend this Book?

I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in any type of writing. You don’t have to want to write a memoir yourself to learn valuable writing advice from this book. A lot of the advice in The Art of Memoir was relevant to the writing I do, from blogging to fiction writing. (I don’t have plans to write a memoir any time in the next decade.) Any writer can benefit from learning to master what she calls carnal details (sense memories), and making sure to choose ones with some kind of emotional significance.
For people more into writing fiction like myself, memoir helps you understand how thin the line is between memoir and fiction. There’s a lot of fabrication of details/ dialogue/ purposely obscured characters in memoir and and a lot of truth and memory that gets converted into fiction. Who wants to be the next James Frey?

In Short …
I thought The Art of Memoir was fantastic. Karr has no interest in making her process of learning to write look effortless. She leaves out little and covers all the sticky, painful things that come to light in writing memoir. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to be a better writer.

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