True Stories

The Art of Memoir BY Mary Karr. Harper. Hardcover, 256 pages. $24.

The cover of The Art of Memoir

Teaching writers to record their life stories involves no small amount of hand-holding—and for good reason. Even after years of journaling or jotting down passing thoughts, the act of sharing your first-person stories with the world can feel like a kind of perversion, like sweating all over someone’s couch or coughing into the clam dip at a cocktail party. On the wrong day, even popular writers’ rallying cries—such as Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird or Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones—feel like gorgeously embossed invitations to spread your germs far and wide.

Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir (Harper, $25) does not share this tone of gentle enticement. Although Karr’s book will doubtless be used in creative-nonfiction classes, her tract abandons the “Just do it!” school of scribe-coaching in favor of a more pressing question: Should you really commit your story to the page? For example, do you have a damn good memory for minutiae? Karr’s memory is exceptional; each of her three memoirs is jam-packed with details, from the “eerie roachlike clacking noise” of a swarm of locusts hitting the windshield in The Liars’ Club to the dog-eared, crumpled mash note she returns to her crush’s Superman lunch box in Cherry to a line from a poem written by a developmentally disabled student she teaches in Lit (“I get to dance with the deep boys and the day boys”). She even recalls a small seahorse embroidered on her crush’s shirt during a kissing game the summer before junior high; the crush tells her years later, “You’re some kinda witch if you remember that.”

But having a great memory is just the tip of the iceberg, Karr suggests. Can you describe sights, smells, sounds, and feelings in detail? Are you ready and willing to revisit (and reveal) your most painful or shameful memories? Can you examine your worst deeds unflinchingly, unearthing your inner conflicts to jack up suspense if necessary? And even if you can do all the above, do you have a strong voice as a writer? Can you be consistent and convincing on every page? Are you a likable human being? Do you even know yourself at all? If not, you’re probably not ready to write your story yet. “Call a pal, book a massage, go for a walk,” Karr advises.

Rather than ushering us sweetly into the land of personal storytelling, then, Karr prefers to shove us off a cliff and into an inky abyss. If you have the will to gather your broken bones together and tackle the whole ordeal again, so be it, but “God help you.” Because next, your fractured skeleton will navigate a gauntlet of standards and practices more demanding than an obstacle course on a Japanese reality-TV show. You must be rigorous with the facts of your story but present them all gracefully to avoid “sounding like a shampoo bottle’s list of ingredients.” You must conjure decades-old memories without ever veering into the lamentable realm of fabricators like James Frey and Binjamin Wilkomirski (whom Karr blurbed before she realized his 1996 Holocaust memoir, Fragments, was fake). You must be honest about your darkest hours but never belabor your own suffering, because “it’s the disparities in your childhood, your life between ass-whippings, that throws past pain into stark relief for a reader.” Even Nabokov, whose Speak, Memory is praised extensively and poetically in one full chapter of Karr’s book, comes under fire for his pretentious indulgences later. “Nabokov devotes the third chapter of Speak, Memory to all his family estates and heraldry and his fancy-pants ancestors, Baron von So-and-So and Count Suck-On-This.” (After laughing out loud at this line, I misread Karr’s Nabokov excerpt about “Prince Wittgenstein’s Druzhnoselie” as “Prince Wittgenstein’s Douchenozzle.”)

Indeed, Karr’s unapologetic swagger and sense of humor repeatedly rescue The Art of Memoir from its own crushingly high standards. And this particular moment of levity points to a crucial dimension of Mary Karr that Mary Karr herself, in her efforts to urge us all to hold ourselves to the same impossibly high standards to which Mary Karr holds herself, sometimes forgets: The unique magic of Mary Karr is not easily reproduced by lesser writers. In truth, very few authors, living or dead, could gracefully incorporate humor, slang, bluster, remorse, rage, melancholy, elaborate detail, heart-crushing losses, and, yes, a whole hell of a lot of book learning (even if most of it was self-administered) into not one but three great books about their lives.

Still, Karr tries to convince us that, despite her well-documented arrogance as a kid, she was never that sharp. She claims she never could have written The Liars’ Club without years of therapy and heavy lifting and dark days of reckoning. Yes, she palled around with a powerful set of buddies. (George Saunders, Jerry Stahl, David Foster Wallace. Who else—Elvis, Andy Warhol, the Dalai Lama?) But she paints herself as a kind of Cousin Itt among such sophisticates. Forget good old-fashioned hard work, luck, a great story, terrible secrets, grueling edits, or even “the self-discipline to work in scary blankness for some period of time.” There is only one Mary Karr. Having a great memory, a few decades of therapy under your belt, and a dog-eared copy of The Art of Memoir won’t even get you close to her raw skills as a storyteller, her wit, or her charm.

And none of this is to mention her unique way of infusing each sentence with the driving tensions and nagging doubts of her protagonist. “Los Angeles. You’ve never been there, never been to any city newscasters mention on TV. Still, in the three months since you’ve decided to head for California, you like to lie on the bare floor your mom let you yank the carpet out of and then lacquer black while you say the city’s name over and over as in prayer: Los Angeles, Los Angeles, Los Angeles.” How do you teach a writer to craft sentences like that? Karr builds suspense with every word, painting her inner world with such bold strokes that the reader can’t help but feel honored to live inside her skin for as long as she’ll allow it. There’s a kind of exhilarating joy to understanding your narrator as well as Karr allows us to understand her—even as the world around her fails to achieve any such understanding. Here’s Karr, a few paragraphs later in Cherry, on San Francisco: “You’re told this place is aswarm with longhaired boys—blond and anorectic looking. These boys are not like the meat-eating, car-disemboweling, football-watching, squirrel-murdering boys you grew up dodging spitballs from. These west coast boys subsist on brown rice and ceramic bowls of clear broth in which sheer ideograms of seaweed float.” But for all her wordy precision, Karr also knows how to use very few words in order to maximize her devastation. In The Liars’ Club, she writes of her assailant: “He didn’t even have to threaten me to keep quiet. I knew what I would be if I told.”

What is revelatory about The Art of Memoir isn’t Karr’s direct advice on writing a memoir—though it’s as good advice as you’ll find anywhere. The real gift Karr offers us here is the gift of her humility in serving up, in painstaking detail, the ways her early attempts at writing fell into familiar, clumsy, clichéd shapes. Because, from her first writing class, Karr wanted desperately to be anything but Mary Karr. She wanted to be a different kind of writer than she naturally was—preferably a cool, aloof intellectual poet like T. S. Eliot or Emily Dickinson. Karr revisits “an execrable excerpt” from her “pretentious” 1978 poem “Civilization and Its Discontents” as proof. In it, Karr writes that her mother “once danced flamenco in a bowling alley.” But her mother never did this. In fact, she did other stuff that was “way more interesting”; for example, “when she adjudged the small-town supermarket’s Parmesan unworthy, she upended the whole cheese display.”

Eventually, Karr finds herself in a poetry workshop taught by the ex-con and poet Etheridge Knight, and her work is found wanting. “During this time, my much-loved old man was killing himself with drink,” Karr writes. “And the one poem Etheridge kinda liked of mine was about a suicidal dog. (The first line was ‘Don’t do it, Dog.’) That jokey riff was as close as I could come to the deep mourning that corroded my insides like battery acid as I drove Etheridge crazy with my evasions, spiraling around the home-based subjects haunting me.”

The lesson, of course, is that you can’t write first-person nonfiction without finding the courage to be as honest and as vulnerable on the page as possible. Or as Karr memorably puts it, “One can’t mount a stripper pole wearing a metal diving suit.”

Much as T. S. Eliot tempted Karr to write just like T. S. Eliot, The Art of Memoir may tempt lots of writers to write just like Mary Karr. But, Mary Karr says, “Don’t do it, Dog.” Write like you instead—charming, unfortunate, unbearable you.

Heather Havrilesky is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead, 2010).