In Other Words The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Pasatiempo - - CONTENT - by Mary Karr, HarperCollins, 227 pages

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

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