What Would YOU Write?

MARY KARR  (Image Courtesy npr.org.)

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Karr, Mary. HarperCollins, 2015. Image Courtesy: Amazon.com.

For more books on writing craft and how to write to the best of your potential, refer above to the SIDEKICKS page, where you'll find a few books I read on the side to help me with my own craft. 


"At the nadir of my confidence as a writer, I despaired of ever finishing Lit (Harper Perennial, 2010). I considered selling my apartment to give the advance money back. Then a Jesuit pal asked me, quite simply, What would you write if you weren't afraid? I honestly didn't know at first. But I knew finding the answer would unlock the writing for me. ... Now, you may not know what you'd write if you weren't afraid. I seldom do. It's a moment-to-moment struggle. But if you're passionate to find out, then you're ready. God help you." (34)

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"The need to rout out my own inner demons is why I always start off fumbling through my own recollections. [...] The memories I've gnawed on and rehearsed are the ones most key to what's eating me up..." 

(pg 98, Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir, HarperCollins 2015). 

I wrote about letting go of my "demons" in a blog post dated February 2015. The demons which Karr is speaking of above are slightly different: they are the "dirty laundry" of our lives, that which we'd never show the public. What Mary Karr attempts to do for the reader in The Art of Memoir is instruct and guide aspiring memoirists in focusing their memories and recollections (and facts assembled) onto the page in a way that compels the reader to trust them.

If you, reader, have ever desired to write your memoir, this book will help.  

Now. I'll say right out that I did not read every word of this week's book. Yes, The Art of Memoir has been lauded by Cheryl Strayed (Wild, Vintage Books, 2013) as "astonishingly perceptive" and "wildly entertaining." But still: I skimmed the book, and I'm not ashamed. (For one, I didn't like Karr's voice, and two, her initial precautions to the reader in chapter 3, "Why Not to Write a Memoir" made me question my own writing motives). In any case, this book is not for everyone.

Karr is one smart woman--she teaches at Syracuse University as the Peck Professor of Literature--and has taught one heck of a lot of memoirs. The appendix in the back, "Required Reading--Mostly Memoirs and Some Hybrids" (some of which I've included in the sidebar to the right), reveals her level of expertise in this literary genre. Karr is a pro. She knows her style, her strengths, and she's sticking to them. 

There were times in the book, however, when it seemed like Karr didn't actually want to write this book--at least not at first. So had she just changed her mind? And why? Why am I (as the reader) that important to her? I had to wonder, is someone making you write this? An editor? A publishing house? Good stories aren't forced stories, that much I already know. The writer has to want to have a driving force within them if anything good is going to translate from fingertip to page. 

Henceforth, in my self-justified skimming of the book, I noticed when Karr spoke to "why a memoir succeeded/failed." Answer: "Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice." (35). That is, if a memoir does not have a strong, consistent narrator speaking directly to the reader, the stories will feel limp. Readers very simply want to look into the author's eyes. Straight-on. The author can't look away. What does this mean? Every time a memoirist (and fiction writer, too) sits down to write, he or she must first be willing to look straight-on at himself. This is obviously very hard. So the writer must build a safe place for the work, a consistent calm which he or she can return to and leave behind judgment. 

All in one consistent, honest, God-given voice. 

Think of John Wayne's voice in all of his westerns; think of head-sick Marlon Brando's dialogue in "Apocalypse Now"; of Bill Murray's hilarious, innocent-voiced character in "What About Bob?" If you've seen these films, I'll wager that you can still hear these voices and pretty clearly visualize many of the scenes. 

On the page, a voice must be consistent. A constantly changing narrator confuses the reader and causes the reader to doubt the truth of the stories. There is one exception, and it's crucial to memoir-writing: when the memoirist acknowledges the fallibility of his of her stories, acknowledging the possibility of a mistaken memory, the reader will sympathize and likely agree with such fallacy. It's just a simple fact: sometimes, memory is blurry. The memoirist should sit down and start with the clearest memories, and then consider the fuzzier ones, testing them for their importance/relevance to the story/reliability. 

Writing is hard, you know? But oftentimes, it's worth it. Check out The Art of Memoir if you're interested in writing your own story. Or just read it if you like Mary Karr. (Her voice hasn't changed...) 

Next week's book: 

The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx


Books from Appendix, "Required Reading -Mostly Memoirs and Some Hybrids"

The Sum of Our Days (Isabel Allende)

The Women (Hilton Als)

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou)

A Long Way Gone (Ishmael Beah)

Gathering Evidence (Thomas Bernhard)

Black Elk Speaks (Black Elk)

Lakota Woman (Mary Brave Bird)

Heat (Bill Buford)

In Patagonia (Bruce Chatwin)

Boyhood (J.M. Coetzee)

The Souls of Black Folk (W.E.B. DuBois)

A Fan's Notes (Frederick Exley)

On the Rez (Ian Frazier)

A Moveable Feast (Ernest Hemingway)

Dust Tracks on the Road (Zora Neale Hurston)

My Brother (Jamaica Kincaid) 

Surprised by Joy (C.S. Lewis)

Angela's Ashes (Frank McCourt)

Coming Into the Country (John McPhee) 

The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton)

Speak, Memory (Vladimir Nabokov)

South: The Endurance Expedition (Ernest Shackleton)

Ordinary Light (Tracy K. Smith)

One Writer's Beginnings (Eudora Welty)

Night (Elie Wiesel)


Bold-faced titles indicate memoirs referenced in the body of Karr's book or have specifically been noted as very well-written!