In Other Words The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
It can be hard to pin down just what constitutes an author’s voice: vernacular, syntax, tone, point of view — all of these contribute to the distinct flavor a writer brings to a story. Mary Karr’s voice is unmistakable: hardbitten, rueful, melancholy, and undeniably Southernfried. She first beguiled readers with it in her 1995 bestselling memoir The Liars’
Club, in which she recounted her tough Texas childhood, and which has been widely credited for sparking the so-called memoir boom of the 1990s. Karr followed
The Liars’ Club with two more memoirs, and now, even as publishers’ thirst for autobiography has subsided somewhat, she takes on the craft of personal storytelling in her new book, The Art of
Memoir. In it, Karr writes, “Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice.”
Karr’s magic voice works beyond memoir. Her plainspoken yet analytical style buoys this relatively straightforward writing manual into a more elegant and thoughtful volume than most of its peers on the how-to shelf. It’s easy to see the effects of Karr’s long tenure teaching writing at Syracuse University, as she revisits and reexamines some of the staples of her syllabi over the years: Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, and the memoir that made her realize that an authorial voice’s best quality is its authenticity, Harry Crews’ A Childhood. Karr is a careful dissector of literature, and the many passages from other books here are cannily chosen to illustrate her points about when a memoir works, and why.
The points Karr gets across are applicable not simply to writing, but to memory and recollection in general. She recounts an exercise she does with her memoir students on the first day of class, staging an elaborate and explosive fight with a colleague in the classroom. After the ruse is explained, the students are asked to record the events as they experienced them. The exercise uncovers the tendency we all have to blur and warp facts; Karr writes, “the mistakes pop up like dandelion greens,” as some students impose their own preoccupations on the narrative (a girl with a serious illness worries about Karr’s health, for example). Memoirists thus must acquaint themselves with the slippery aspects of their craft, and both acknowledge and supplement their fallibility, sometimes taking necessary liberties. Karr generously addresses how she did this in her own memoirs, and rails against exposed memoirists like James Frey or Greg Mortenson, who constructed stories from whole cloth and got caught in their lies.
Thus truth in memoir boils down to the details, and Karr instructs her readers to be careful in choosing those details. In describing her process of selecting the correct anecdote to illustrate her antipathy toward a childhood adversary, she settles on this gem: “I got him to smoke Nestle’s Quik rolled up in toilet paper, which blistered his tongue.” The reason she chooses this incident? It’s “like nothing I’ve heard elsewhere. It led to a string of physical details: i.e. one dad across the street rolled his smokes on a red-plastic-and-tin roller. We snitched it from a kitchen drawer, along with the Quik from a cabinet. Those concrete images made me trust my memory of the whole scene as mine, not just something I heard about. … There’s an intimate ‘truth’ that helps the reader enter the scene, small and particular.”
Memoir-writing carries with it the danger of letting the tyranny of the self take over: After all, it is an inherently selfish art, and Karr cautions writers to be fair and balanced in their representation. Readers are interested in a narrator with foibles and flaws, she emphasizes, describing how an author should “power past the initial defenses” of sugarcoating oneself, “digging past the false self to where the truer one waits to tell the more complicated story.” Karr herself suffered from this type of myopia in writing her 2009 bestseller Lit, which details her alcoholism and recovery, and pinpoints her moment of turnaround when a Jesuit friend asked her, “What would you write if you weren’t afraid?” She says she didn’t know at first, “but I knew that finding the answer would unlock the writing for me.”
Karr is at her best when sussing out why we read memoir, and freely admits that some of the critical drubbing from the literary establishment that the genre received in the ’90s is behind her mission to elucidate its art. Of critics like William Gass and James Wolcott who mocked the boom, she writes, “Their ultimately impotent campaigns put me in mind of how early novels were mocked for being mere ‘fancies,’ lacking the moral rigor of philosophy and sermons and the formal rigor of poetry.” For Karr, memoir’s “democratic (some say ghetto-ass primitive), anybody-who’s-lived-can-write-one aspect” is part of its draw, in addition to its relatable, redemptive qualities. But she rightly stresses throughout that “memoir done right is an art, a made thing. It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page … you’re shaping the past’s meaning.”
— Molly Boyle