The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Reading a memoir is a bit like stalking someone on Facebook. You might feel a little guilty but that probably won’t stop you from hungrily searching through the private parts of their life. I’m fascinated by this genre—and even hope to write a memoir someday myself—so I found The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr an incredible read. Not only is it is an excellent resource for anyone who is interested in memoir (or writing in general), it’s also funny and easy-to-read. I haven’t actually read any of Karr’s memoirs yet (gasp!) but that didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of this book.

Karr draws on her own experience and the experience of other authors to answer questions like:

  • Where’s the line between truth and untruth?
  • What do you do when your memory conflicts with a family member’s or friend’s?
  • How do I know if I’m ready to write a memoir?
  • How do I translate lived experience onto the page?
  • How do I find my voice?
  • How do I convey myself as a true-to-life character?
  • How do I write about a scene that’s vague in my memory? How do I remember physical details?

Karr pulls from other authors and memoirs to answer these questions and references her own work only after she’s won our trust. I especially liked a chapter near the end of the book where Karr takes readers through all the pretentious voices she tried on as a young writer before landing on the voice that reflected herself most accurately.

Near the end of the book, Karr addresses a glaring question. Why should we publish personal stories? Why air out our shit for the world to see? To answer this, she brings up Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, a memoir about Harrison’s incestuous relationship with her father. For Harrison—and for many memoirists—publishing the book was a way of reclaiming herself. For many abuse victims, silence perpetuates victimhood. Writing and publishing a memoir is a way of taking back that voice that an abuser has robbed from us.

Here are a couple of my favorite quotes.

  • On memory: “Memory is a pinball in a machine… a single image can split open the hard seed of the past” (p.1-2)
  • On finding your true voice: “The author of a lasting memoir manages to power past the initial defenses, digging past the false self to where the truer one waits to tell the more complicated story” (p.102).
  • On creating yourself as a true-to-life character: “[W]riting has never been linear for me. I always circle my own stories, avoiding the truth like a pooch stakes to a clothesline pole, spiraling closer and closer with each revision till—with each book—my false self finally lines up eye to eye with the true one” (161).
  • On being a young writer: “In my experience, young writers may stumble early on by misunderstanding the basic nature of their talents. We want to be who we’re not. The badass wants to be a saint, the saint a slut, the slut an intellectual in pince-nez glasses.” This one spoke to me… I’m the worst when it comes to using big words I don’t understand or trying to make myself sound like a badass instead of a nerd.

Last but not least, here are the books that made it from these pages onto my TBR list:

  1. The Liar’s Club and Lit by Mary Karr
  2. Speak, Memory by Nabakov. It’s “a mesmerizing meditation on the nature of beauty, time, an loss…Nothing in his existence is banal” (Karr 57). He uses language way more poetic and ornate than most people could pull off.
  3. Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy was one of the first memoirs to use dialogue from memory.
  4. Black Boy by Richard Wright started the American memoir craze. It’s a bitter book that shuns charm.
  5. Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel is a crazy, fantastical, mystical read. I’m fascinated by the idea of a memoir that uses fantasy.
  6. The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman. According to Karr, Batuman is an “adorably obsessive kook” whose passion for Russian literature affects us all. I’m hoping this book will scratch my own (pretentious) obsession with Russian lit.

“Asking me how to write a memoir is a little like saying, ‘I really want to have sex, where do I start?” – The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr, p.27


15 thoughts on “The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr”

  1. Thanks Ashley for once again reminding us about this wonderful and important book (for writers especially). I got the opportunity to meet Mary at The Miami Book Fair last November. What a hoot! FYI: She facilitates a workshop every June in Greece.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What a great review! I absolutely love Mary Karr’s memoirs, the first one, The Liars’ Club, is an absolute must-read. Speak, Memory is beautiful too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book, it sounds fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting post, Ashley. It touched home with me because my first published book was a memoir of my tour of duty with the Marines from boot camp through combat in Vietnam. It began as a “journal” of sorts, part of therapy as I was involved with a group of vets in treatment for PTSD. It soon began to take book form. My group leader encouraged me to write it like I remembered it, warts and all (and there were warts galore!). I chose first person present, trying to capture the “voice” of the 18-19 yr. old Marine I was then. The book was published in 1990 and remains in print today with Simon & Schuster.
    As for conflicting memory: this was one aspect that really bothered me while writing the book. The fog of combat and the years that passed had me questioning a few things I remembered happening. Did they, or not? A few years after the book came out I met up with my old squad leader who had read it. He confirmed several passages in the book, although we differed slightly over a couple of “time sequences.” In actuality, that scared me. (There was one rather horrific incident that I THOUGHT had happened and so included it in the book. My squad leader confirmed it, and I later saw it mentioned in another non-fiction book written by an historian. It bothered me because there were a few “scenes” I omitted; I hoped they hadn’t happened. Did they? To this day I’m not sure.)
    Sorry to get carried away, but this post really “stirred my pot.” Thanks again for a great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can totally relate to this. We like to talk about events like they are black and white – it either happened or it didn’t. But try to sit down and write a true story and you’ll discover pretty quickly that truth is slippery. I think you’d enjoy Mary Karr’s perspective on this. She makes some good points about allowing for the slippery nature of memory without betraying the reader’s trust.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great post. Thank you so much! It reassured me that I really want to get on my own memoir, soon, as well. I believe that every good book has one component, which keep us engaged as readers: The human experience of overcoming obstacles. It is exactly what we want to hear because it gives us hope. Additionally, reality is often stranger than fiction and each of us, at some point, has interesting stories to tell. Let’s hear them!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on Petra's Free Muse and commented:
    What a great post. For one, I will put this book on my wish list. Secondly, this post reassured me that I really want to get on writing my own memoir, which has been on my mind for a while now, as well.
    I believe that every good book has one component, which keep us engaged as readers: The human experience of overcoming obstacles. It is exactly what we want to hear because it gives us hope in the proverbial “Pandora’s Box” of life. While we, each, often have different viewpoints of the same events, I feel there is no need to dispute, which perspective is wrong and which is right. Perhaps, there is a reason why we are blessed with our own unique perception of these happenings. It is my belief that a specific meaning is hidden for us within such events, which makes the experience special for each individual, in the context of his or her own life. Additionally, reality is often stranger than fiction and everyone, at some point, has interesting stories to tell. Let’s hear them!


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