The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
It was inevitable that Mary Karr write The Art of Memoir. Inevitable because Karr is the author of such acclaimed memoirs as The Liar’s Club and Lit, and also because the title recalls Philip Lopate’s excellent collection The Art of the Personal Essay. The Art of Memoir is similarly a book for writers that also happens to be a great read.
Karr’s book is difficult to like at first. She preemptively scolds would-be memoirists, and she focuses on how difficult memoir is to write and how much it will hurt, annoy, and stymie the person who wants to write it. Only if you feel absolutely driven and compelled should you attempt it, and even then you might not do a good job. You’ll have to choose your words carefully and be able to remember your memories honestly.
The third chapter is called “Why Not to Write a Memoir: Plus a Pop Quiz to Protect the Bleeding and Box Out the Rigid.” Karr is irreverent and seems to rely on shock value for effect. She is loud, opinionated, and confident with an insecure streak. “Maybe any writer who yaps about her work outside brief interviews comes off as a car salesman. Or worse, as if she’s touting herself as the doyenne. Believe me, I’m not—no one can be.”
Karr quotes her own work, often to show how she handled a particular writing problem, and she quotes a lot of other writers too. One of the book’s several delights is reading the memoirists Karr admires. Another is the “Required Reading” section at the end. Karr has even starred the memoirs she’s taught her students—and left us a note: “Does this mean they’re better written? Absolutely.”
Much technique is contained in chapters about the craft of writing memoir. Karr follows the old adage, “show; don’t tell.” She tells us plenty in chapters called “On Book Structure and the Order of Information,” “How to Choose a Detail,” and “Why Memoirs Fail.” But watch what she shows here: “For the vast majority of writers, we’re better off with simpler vocabulary—the shorter, often monosyllabic words you use all the dang time…. Throwing in three-dollar words will just make you look like a dick.” And here: “It’s ironic that the very redneckese I’d spent some time trying to rise above wound up branding my work like hot iron on a steer’s ass. Without borrowing from Daddy’s voice—without the grit and grime of where I’d grown up—I’d been playing with one hand tied back.”
Karr feels strongly that a memoirist has to remember events and be honest about them. Lest readers be too daunted, she sprinkles her own memories into the text of the book, first just a few, but then more and more. She shows us how to craft a memoir out of individual memories. How to choose the right language. How to speak with honesty even when you fear family members will disown you (they probably won’t, she reports). As Karr’s editor says, “In addition to having written three acclaimed, prize-winning memoirs…Mary Karr teaches a graduate class on memoir writing at Syracuse. So it stands to reason that writing a book entitled The Art of Memoir should have been a snap for her.” Well, it wasn’t; she labored over it, and we’re the beneficiaries of her hard work. All writers who feel a memoir bubbling up inside them will benefit from the advice and examples in this book.