Mary Karr nods to structure & obsesses over honesty in events, perspective, persona. She sees inner conflict as a story’s driver.
[T]he human heart in conflict with itself . . . alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.—William Faulkner, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. Harper, 229 pp.
Mary Karr’s credibility as an author of three memoirs and her devotion as a reader to the genre make The Art of Memoir absorbing. And sometimes surprising. Given how much writers discuss and obsess over structure, it’s striking that Karr devotes scant pages directly to it: one chapter of under two pages. Yet “On Book Structure and the Order of Information” is helpful and clarifying:
In terms of basic book shape, I’ve used the same approach in all three of mine: I start with a flash forward that shows what’s at stake emotionally for me over the course of the book, then tell the story in straightforward linear time.
So begins Karr, and you realize this is the template, at least for trade press memoirs. To take two current mega-bestselling examples: Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle (discussed) and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (analyzed). Of course the two books showcase different strengths. I plundered Wild for ways to enhance my own book’s structure. Karr tells students to explore theirs by telling their stories to friends. Another tip is to write the little stories, which in time reveal the Big Story. For it’s your perspective that determines in the first place the story you structure:
Usually the big story seems simple: They were assholes. I was a saint. If you look at it ruthlessly, you may find the story was more like: I richly provoked them, and they became assholes; or, They were mostly assholes, but could be a lot of fun to be with; or, They were so sick and sad, they couldn’t help being assholes, the poor bastards; or, We took turns being assholes.
Thus Karr reiterates her own obsession: honesty. She’s been criticized in the past for protesting a bit much about memoirists not fabricating. Her practice of sharing pages with those mentioned seems unassailable, except on reflection. The revelation in The Art of Memoir is how she unites her factual concern with the thrilling imperative to find an authentic perspective/voice/persona. As she puts it:
Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice. . . . The goal of a voice is to speak not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity.
Maybe that sounds easy. Just talk; be yourself. Karr tells how she broke the delete key on her computer and discarded 1,200 finished pages of her last memoir, the bestseller Lit (reviewed). All this because she couldn’t get right the perspective—and thus the portrayal—of her ex-husband (who refused to read drafts). In despair, she dreamed of him and herself when they were young and in love, and the key turned. She makes a powerful point here beyond the sturdy advice of employing a “dual persona”—presenting the perspective of you “now” and you “then.” Look, Karr says, the “now” you writing the story can forget without even realizing it who the “then” you actually was. How she loved, feared, yearned. This embodies the mysterious nature of memory, upon which memoir (and much of adult life) rests.
Karr admits to another fault that seems as intrinsic to writing. Which is wanting to seem somehow elevated—maybe smarter, classier, more artistic or virtuous than you feel or actually live. Now, she’s a celebrated poet and memoirist, a literary arts high priestess; but she’s also a sawed-off, scabby-kneed kid who grew in the ringworm belt. She’s gritty, a survivor. She can’t scrub her Texas twang from the page without harm. Yet her truth also includes being wicked smart, obscenely well read, a celebrated English professor, a deeply devout convert to Catholicism. Freeing her inner and past kid from the shadows of those adult attainments involves finding her again.
For Karr, as for me, this means first writing like we remember the sentences of smart, hyper-literary folk made us feel. Or of anyone who impressed us at an impressionable stage. But the power and beauty of the voices we recall probably isn’t the same as ours. Thus Karr circles back to her everlasting concern, authenticity. And how to find a suitable prose style for it. She dives through the past’s layers by locating what she calls “carnal” details—sensory impressions, often smells or textures—that bypass thought.
Maybe finding our own authentic perspective—our fair truth—is why we honor personal writing, if we do. Maybe this subset of literature is, in its beauty and failure, a scale model of the larger struggle to be awake and human. Karr’s implication throughout is that anyone’s inner conflict is her memoir’s real driving force:
The split self or inner conflict must manifest on the first pages and form the book’s thrust or through line—some journey toward the self’s overhaul by book’s end. However random or episodic a book seems, a blazing psychic struggle holds it together . . .
Although Karr’s family was epically dysfunctional, and therefore uniquely scarring, doesn’t any human endure profound inner rifts? Karr believes so: “We’re doomed to drama.” And whether we succeed or fail in memoir’s task of portraying our urge to connect, we cannot help but reveal ourselves in personal writing. Even (or especially) when we’re writing about others. Here’s Karr discussing Michael Herr’s self-portrait in Dispatches, a memoir that arose from Herr’s Vietnam reportage for Esquire:
The carnage, of course, sparks a natural urge toward moral outrage, a position that demands somebody be blamed. But blame makes deep compassion impossible, and in spiritual terms—which is what Herr grows into by book’s end, when he becomes a Buddhist—only compassion can bring about deep healing.
I found The Art of Memoir steadily interesting and Karr’s analysis of a few memoirs pleasantly quirky. Of course there’s that rascal Vladimir Nabokov’s classic Speak, Memory (reviewed)—thankfully with a touch of Karr Vinegar for his swollen ego. Near the end of the book, Karr offers three principles from other accomplished writers she has hounded:
- Writing is painful, fun only for beginners or hacks.
- With rare exceptions, good work comes only from revision.
- The best revisers read books published before the current age.
There are other useful, less ouchy tips scattered amidst her analysis. But Karr has written not so much a how-to book as a companionable guide for kindred souls.