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Mary Karr and “The Art of Memoir”

I admit openly: I had, until recently, never read a Mary Karr book. Until I ordered “The Art of Memoir” (Sept, 2015) a few days ago, and devoured it.

Since I am a book editor who recently worked on a spectacular memoir—Christian Picciolini’s “Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead,” about one of the first neo-Nazi skinheads in America in the 80s who got out of the movement and changed his life for the good—and since, furthermore, I am working on outlining and researching for my own memoir, I felt compelled to blog about Karr’s book on the art of the genre.

For the most part, I loved [Karr’s] book. Told in witty, intelligent, practiced prose, Karr stirs the memoir pot by helping the reader understand that memoir is about more than just ‘putting your life down on the page.’ For sure, it is about discerning between fact and fiction (memory can hardly be entirely trusted) and about seeking out the raw, true, vulnerable and protected inside of you and forcing yourself, sometimes aggressively, to hold onto that truth for the bigger, more universal, empathetic connection to said Reader (with a capital ‘R,’ as Karr would say).

She talks about the usual in either fiction or nonfiction writing: show don’t tell; use concrete details and the five senses to paint an authentic picture for us and place us there; use standard fictive techniques like character and story arc (the main character, for instance, must transform by the end of the book); and using dramatic “episodic” scenes like fiction versus simply stating or informing or “telling” the reader information, which usually, except in the case of Nabokov, does not include the reader in the experience directly.

But she takes further steps, moving away from the purely academic and into the realm of writer and human being we can all relate to. For one, she is vulnerable and honest by telling us it took her 17 years (in a certain light) to get the courage together to write her first memoir, “The Liars’ Club.” Once she forged the courage and sat down to actually write the damn thing, she tells us it took her nine months working on just chapter one to “get the voice right,” and two and a half years writing the actual book itself, landing with a nearly print-ready manuscript by that point. Also, she delves into her personal policy of handing out copies of the MS to people she writes about before publication and waiting for feedback, discussion, complaint, rejection, etc (although she claims she’s never once had a rejection).

This made me realize two things: 1) That I feel, for the most part, Christian and I nailed these major points in his book, “Romantic Violence,” and that 2) I understand now that I have a lot more preparation and research and thinking to do around my own personal memoir.

Karr made me realize in “The Art of Memoir” how seriously I need to take the penning of my own story, and how careful I must be around using other people’s identities. She mentions the memoirist should always only write from their own eyes, their own POV, not trying to falsely inject what other people were thinking, since that is literally impossible. It’s hard enough attempting to “accurately” recall what we were thinking all those years ago. She gives numbered points on what to do and not do in memoir—which I found helpful, if not slightly juvenile—and says in passing that you should always “write about your enemies from a place of love.”

She also talks about the inherent importance of the inner and outer enemy. In other words, the protagonist, the main character, should be facing some external hurdle in their life, but they should also be battling themselves in some key manner. An outer enemy, and an inner struggle. This, she argues, creates the literary rub that ultimately drives the “plot” and moves the story forward, as it does in fiction as well.

Karr encourages us to slowly, piece by piece, tear down the many masks we tend to wear and, over the drafting of your memoir, seek to get closer and closer to the “real” truth, whatever that may be. She encourages memoirists to seek the complexity that is innate and inescapable in the human condition, not creating false characters that are black and white, always good in every way or always terrible. Instead, she challenges writers to push through ego fears and societal [in-bred] insecurities and find those deeper, more core, more complex, more realistic character traits that make us all human, that bind us and make us identify and empathize with each other. Do that, she argues, and you will land yourself a worthy audience.

Using examples like Kathryn Harrison (The Kiss), Vladimir Nabokov (Speak, Memory), Michael Herr (Dispatches), and Cheryl Strayed (Wild), as well as many others, she validates her points one by one using concrete examples to demonstrate literary goals. Karr demonstrates with these and other authors (Maya Angelou’s “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings”) how the practiced and artful memoirist can use dramatic scene, concrete detail, the five senses, “carnal” description, and a universal search for The Truth of one’s self that ultimately speaks universally for all of us, in order to deliver magic and change our lives.

Karr says, “I am not much of a writer. But I’m a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser.” Talking ad nauseam about revising and rewriting and editing her manuscripts, we learn the importance of writing the first draft hot, as Stephen King says, and later drafts cold. Meaning allow yourself to write your ass off on the first or second draft. Then go in with your editor’s brain and cut, trim, delete, add, question, research, doubt, ask, wonder, etc. Eventually, you’ll want to hire a professional book editor (like me) to look at the book with objective, respectful but prying and judicious eyes.

In the end, I feel convinced, after reading Karr’s art on the craft of memoir, that this is, indeed, a very important and relevant genre of literature. She mentions that memoir has traditionally always held a backseat to fiction writing in the writing community and, in terms of the global literary conversation, has always been seen as almost what she might call “literary porn.” Lacking in true quality, craft, form, content. Simply telling one’s own tale from no doubt a subjective and faulty point of view. But Karr reminds us that memoir is a secret language between all of us, the language of the heart, and that, by telling our stories, we help shape our own future and we communicate with each other regarding what life is really about.

Authors often say fiction uses lies and deceit to grasp at the bigger truth. No doubt this is true. But memoir aims the arrow directly at it, without any need to hide behind some façade. I am not criticizing fiction (it’s what I mainly write and mainly edit), but only trying to point out that deriding memoir is perhaps just as false. It takes tremendous courage to write one true sentence, as Hemingway famously quipped. Imagine an author like Kathryn Harrison who wrote “The Kiss,” a memoir about incest with her father. (Karr talks about how the media lambasted Harrison for breaking the cultural mold of not talking about such acts.)

We must embrace each other’s truths on the page, recognizing the courage it takes, the fear we must surpass, and the emotion we must inhabit in order to bleed onto the computer. It is no easy feat. As Karr says in “The Art of Memoir,” only the very young see writing as ‘fun.’ The rest of us find it painful. Especially memoir.

If you’re working on a memoir, good luck. If you need those objective eyes, please do let me know. I am about to leave the country on March 11 for two months so would not be able to look at your material in its entirety until late May or June. But I could give an opinion prior to March 11 and potentially provide a [free] test edit on 10-15 pages to give you an idea of my editing. From there we can make a plan. Picciolini’s “Romantic Violence” is being translated into Portuguese and is being used this semester by a Yale professor in her course called “Violent Extremism.”

Michael Mohr

Christian Picciolini’s memoir, “Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead”:

Email me:

Mary Karr interview (about “The Art of Memoir”) with “The Paris Review”:

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