A Review of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir

This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.

memoirMary Karr is the unassuming master of the modern memoir. Her three offerings–1995’s The Liar’s Club, 2005’s Cherry, and 2009’s Lit–are adored by readers and were roundly praised by critics. Her writing is sensual but serious, funny but heartbreaking, unsparingly honest. Her life has been unique but not spectacularly so; her memoirs soar on Karr’s ability to take us deep inside a lived human life, making the (relatively) common remarkable and the remarkable accessible.

In addition to writing Karr has been teaching the craft at Syracuse University for three decades. It only makes sense she would choose to combine her two vocations and write a book about memoir writing. The Art of Memoir is likely to become the definitive text on the topic. Karr’s book is practical, funny, humble, and at time even inspiring. Karr discusses the spirit behind memoir writing, providing overarching perspective on what the form can accomplish, but the largest part of the book (and its real worth) is in the hands-on guidance she provides for those seeking to become better writers of memoir. Too many books on writing are compendiums of inspirational aphorisms, tickling the egos of  nascent writers and then leaving them with no more pragmatic knowledge than they had when they started. Karr knows the hard work memoir writing demands and gives helpful guidance for embarking on the journey of getting your story down on paper.

Karr’s instruction covers every stage of the writing process, from conception of an idea and the painful stages of finding voice and structure to the daily work of getting started from a dead stop, describing a scene, keeping voice consistent. She addresses how to write about people who might not come off in the best light on the page, and how to make sure you aren’t always the one who does–“All the good lines can’t be the memoirist’s.” (page 38).

“Usually the big story seems simple: ‘They were assholes, I was a saint.’ If you look at it ruthlessly, you may find the story was more like: ‘I richly provoked them, and they became assholes;’ or, ‘They were mostly assholes, but could be a lot of fun to be with;’ or, ‘They were so sick and sad, they couldn’t help being assholes, the poor bastards;’ or, ‘We took turns being assholes.’… (I always joke with students that everything I’ve ever written started out: ‘I am sad. The end. By Mary Karr.’)” – page 148

She hammers home the insistence that above all memoir must be true, it must be honest, it must be lived experience. The memoirist cannot spare herself, cannot spare those around her, cannot decorate with invention and convenient lies. If you want to tell something other than what really happened, write fiction. Memoir is for truth-telling.

“No matter how self-aware you are, memoir wrenches at your insides precisely because it makes you battle with your very self–your neat analyses and tidy excuses. One not-really-a-joke saying in my family is, ‘The trouble started when you hit me back.’ Your small pieties and impenetrable, mostly unconscious poses invariably trip you up.” – page xxi

Karr analyzes some of the masterful memoirs she’s taught over the years, and breaks down what makes them so effective. She is not above the catharsis of a list now and then either, providing easy-to-remember tips for writers in the trudge of daily writing. Far from being an aloof and superior master to her apprentices, Karr is honest about her process, her failures, her insecurities, her shortcoming, her strengths (“I am not much of a writer, but I am a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser.” – page 215). In The Art of Memoir we are given the gift of sitting in a class Mary Karr has been teaching for thirty years. This book amounts to the syllabus representing the condensed and collected knowledge from one of the masters of the art of writing memoir. If you’re a writer, you won’t want to miss this one.

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