Content Tagged ‘Mary Karr’

Sign me, Bemused

December 3, 2015 | 30 Comments

Why write?!

October 28, 2015 | 6 Comments

Writing is discovery, listening, love, and gift-giving over discipline and suffering. Mary Karr’s concise comment likening writing to hardship—fun only for neophytes and hacks—in The Art of Memoir has served as a magnet to attract to me emendations and counter-arguments. Like poet Claudia Rankine’s. In her recent essay for the Washington Post she admits to struggle. But the point of writing for Rankine seems to be its rewards, including sending her to read books.

There’s loving reading. There’s liking making sentences. There’s the discovery and attempted perfection of your truth. Isaac Asimov supposedly said, “Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” Yes, writing is concentrated thought, which makes it hard, though saying it that way that misses the emotional component that Rankine alludes to. I too pull books from the shelves—just to see how a brilliant book is made of many great and ordinary sentences.

Literature’s demands and ideals militate against mere egotism. Writers speak for the mute Other and the muted populace. If those imperatives seem passé in the age of social media, print culture won’t let them pass. Reading and writing epitomize interpersonal connection and personal transcendence.

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Structure & style

October 14, 2015 | 13 Comments

Published writers always say revision is the sin qua non of effective prose. Dinty W. Moore just affirmed it in my interview with him—he claims to produce weak first drafts, which become strong as they undergo up to 50 revisions. In her new The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr says one of her poems might take 60 versions. “I am not much of a writer,” she says, “but I am a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser.”

I used to think I was a great reviser myself. Probably because I edit and polish as I go, and then polish some more. Recently I’ve seen that two factors that impair my revising also seem to afflict some other writers.

The first issue involves resistance to complete structural overhauls. I saw this in my book. I put it through six versions, which embodied two excellent, hired developmental edits; one free problematic one; a paid whole-book copy edit; and countless piecemeal edits from friends and fellow writers. After all that, I resisted—because I feared—the mere idea of soliciting one more opinion. I was scared that someone would show me clearly that I needed a whole new approach that would send me back to the blank screen.

I’ve seen this resistance in other writers, and it’s a problem if the writer has stopped too soon—no matter how many years s/he’s labored. Ironically, and thankfully, while reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild at the eleventh hour, I saw a key structural move I needed. And a new template for my prologue. I’ve written about this breakthrough, which I saw only because of years of work, including the advice I had been receptive to. After learning how to use backstory from Strayed, and writing a new prologue that like hers showcases a dramatic moment, I knew my book was ready.

It gives me chills to recall that an editor had actually suggested, at the very start of my writing, the restructuring I took from Wild—but I’d forgotten his advice

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Memoir’s fiery psychic struggle

October 7, 2015 | 15 Comments

In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr reiterates her everlasting obsession: honesty in personal prose. She’s been criticized in the past for protesting a bit much about memoirists not fabricating. Her practice is of sharing pages with those mentioned. The revelation here is how she unites this basic 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.”

She skims over many writers’ obsession, structure, feeling 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.”

Karr observes that the you writing the story can forget without even realizing it who the past you actually was. How she loved, feared, yearned. Karr feels that inner conflict is 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 . . .”

Ah, the mysterious nature of self, memory, and remembered self. Upon these memoir (and much of adult life) rests. Starting with finding your truth-finding-and-telling present self, maybe the macro-struggle to achieve authenticity—a fair truth—is why we honor personal writing, if we do. In Karr’s portrait, this subset of literature is, in its beauty and risk, a scale model of the larger struggle to be awake and human.

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Wounded family

May 19, 2014 | 4 Comments

Lee Martin’s From Our House has an honored place in my personal aesthetic pantheon and in my heart. I’ve read it four times over the years. It concerns his growing up with a rageful father, who had lost both hands in a farming accident, and a meek schoolteacher mother. She stood by, helpless to stop her husband’s harsh treatment of their son, unable to protect young Lee from Roy Martin’s mean words and brutal whippings.

Despite its easygoing narrative, rich in plot yet also feeling searchingly essayistic, this portrait of one troubled family possesses a riveting force. You sense that the surface events unfolding as Lee grows up reflect his family’s deep inner struggle to transcend its patriarch’s physical and psychic wounds. Martin evokes his experience in scenes while also slipping into the action musings by his older and wiser self. For one price, we get two points of view—that of the sensitive, difficult boy and that of the wiser adult he became.

This dual quality, layering the story and enriching the reader’s understanding of it, exists in Martin’s narration even when the retrospective writer’s presence is subtle.

Throughout From Our House, the boy’s experience and the writer’s understanding show how pain, regret, and anger—helplessly entwined with love—can ripple forever inside people from dysfunctional families. This can be passed on, an enduring emotional legacy—like the gift to self and others of a happy childhood, though of course different in effect. What makes this fate so painful is that sufferers know old wounds can warp them in the present; their burden clouds when and how and whether they assert themselves. How to be properly and maturely assertive, when your pain and your parental example want aggression—or passivity? But no matter how justified negative emotions feel, any adult who experiences them knows they’re toxic.

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Memoirist, skin thy own cat

October 5, 2012 | 14 Comments

Salman Rushdie on the novel’s debt to memoir, memoir’s debt to New Journalism—and why the novel is harder than either. The foment over Salman Rushdie’s new memoir led me in a roundabout way to interviews with him on YouTube. One of the best is the long talk above, recorded at Emory University, when he was in the midst of writing Joseph Anton—apparently he wrote some of it there—because he drills into memoir’s granular issues. I got the sense in this …

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There’s something about memoir

May 13, 2012 | 9 Comments

. . . and what writers rarely admit about rejection & revision I have a lot of friends who are fiction writers, and they all told me that writing a memoir is different—and hard.—Darin Strauss, in The Washington Post Darin Strauss became a memoirist with Half a Life, reviewed here, after publishing three acclaimed novels. I came across his admission above just after a scholar/essayist/travel writer who was visiting our campus told me, when she heard I was writing a …

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