Mary Karr: Lone Gunman for the Truth Book Review

The Art of Memoir

Mary Karr

Harper Collins

229 Pages



978-0-06-222307- 4


Move over Bird by Bird, the time has come for a new writing classic and Mary Karr’s, The Art of Memoir could be it. Karr comes well-armed with three best-selling memoirs: Liar’s Club, Lit and Cherry. Her other credentials include thirty years of teaching the stuff; she has taught the likes of Cheryl Strayed (Wild) and Koren Zailckas (Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood). The Art of Memoir is a perfect combination of readability and structural advice, including an appendix with over two hundred reading recommendations. In this book, Karr will lasso your heart and won’t let go until you share her joy of memoir.

Karr writes with a distinctive tough girl vernacular filled with vibrant metaphors: “Memory is a pinball in a machine—it messily ricochets around between image, idea, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard.” She goes on to explain that what sets memoir apart from other genres is its simplicity of form, “One event follows another. Birth leads to puberty leads to sex.”

This book is intended to inspire both readers and writers of memoir. Karr selects real-life examples from the likes of Michael Herr to Maxine Hong Kingston to Nabokov. Karr received a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry in 2005 and it shows. Her pages are filled with poetic language:

“So enchanting is the atmosphere Nabokov conjures in my brain that reading him almost rewires it. I lift my face from a folded-down page to find colors brighter, edges sharper. Trash I glimpse on my otherwise shoddy street—a ticket stub or lipsticky cigarette butt—come across as souvenirs from some intrigue that dissolved right before I looked up. The world becomes a magic collage or mysterious art box à la found object assembler Joseph Cornell. And it works every time you reread—miraculous widget for perceptual transformation.”

Karr describes herself as a “lone gunman for the truth.” Some of her longer chapters are devoted to this quest, such as the eighteen-page chapter titled, “The Truth Contract Twixt Writer and Reader,” and another ten pages describing the attributes of “Hucksters, the Deluded, and Big Fat Liars.” She explains:

“No matter how much you’re gunning for the truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle.”

A whole chapter is spent defending Kathryn Harrison’s memoir, The Kiss. Harrison’s memoir is about an affair she had with her preacher father. Literary critics tried to debunk her book by saying it was based on lies. Both Karr and Harrison began their writing careers in fiction but found that it was too difficult to mask true events. In Harrison’s case she likened writing her difficult memoir to chemotherapy. Karr champions not only Harrison’s prose but also highlights the inequalities between men and women memoirists. She goes on to say that “rather than vilify her, critics should’ve given her a medal for public service.”

Mary Karr teaches literature at Syracuse University. Her tone is like an encouraging teacher: “much of what I say may well apply to writing novels or poems of love letters or bank application of parole board pleas—in short, any kind of scribbling.” Her shorter chapters with numbered lists include personal writing advice such as, “I skip the dull parts,” and “start with a flash forward that shows what’s at stake emotionally.” In the chapter, “Old School Technologies for the Stalled Novice,” Karr says, “write longhand letters to your complicated characters, or even the dead.” She also advises you to memorize poems and keep not only a writing journal but to keep a reading journal with descriptive quotes.

In a chapter on “Why Memoirs Fail” Karr goes on to say, “another way a crap memoir fails is if the narrator fails to change over time. Characters who don’t transform or who lack depth become predictable.” Here she stresses the importance of finding your own voice. A voice needs to be “distinct enough to sound alive and compelling.” About discovering her own voice Karr claims, “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’s memoirs emerged from growing up in a small town in Texas that she gave the imaginary name of Leechfield.

Karr uses concrete examples from both well-known memoirs and from her own work. She devotes a whole chapter to explaining her process for revising her memoirs Cherry and Lit. Here she provides some useful technical advice, “ask yourself if you aren’t strapping your current self across the past to hide the real story.”

The author set out to write this book as a “Theory of Everything About the Form,” and I believe she has inadvertently achieved this goal. While Anne Lamott’s, Bird by Bird provides inspiration and encouragement to be a writer in general, Karr’s book is targeted for those in love with both reading and writing real-life stories.

“A great voice renders the dullest event remarkable,” says Karr. If this is the case, then she has succeeded in creating a book about writing memoir as readable as her own previous memoirs; her voice rings clear as a triangle bell at dinnertime, calling you in for some grub. Later you just might linger over dessert to discuss your love of memoir.

( This is my secret desire to have Mary Karr invite me over for dinner.)


Photo from Mary Karr author website.

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