Mary Karr: Boss of memoir

She didn't create the form, but Mary Karr has a lot to say about the art of telling your own story.
By Nicki Porter | Published: November 6, 2015


mary karrWhen I first read Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, the book struck lightning in some deep part of me. Eyes wide, book held close to face, spine as stiff as a board, I didn’t relax once. It was electric; the book pulsed in my hands.

It was the first memoir I read with the same runaway escapism as a novel. Through vivid details resonating with her signature Texan drawl, Karr pulls readers into her world, grabbing them by the neck and not relenting until the last page. I was dizzy in the wake.

The Liars’ Club is a Southern gothic Alice in Wonderland, a horrifying, hilarious tour of Karr’s traumatic childhood, which involved a distant alcoholic father and an unstable mother who once made a bonfire out of her daughters’ toys and threatened the girls with a butcher knife. Sexual abuse, death, her parents’ divorce and her mother’s eventual mental breakdown never lead Karr in the direction of self-pity. Her narrative eye remains steely, gazing into the past, seeking truth.

Although she was an award-winning poet before The Liars’ Club arrived in 1995, the memoir vaulted Karr to literary stardom. The book won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction and was a New York Times best-seller for more than a year, ultimately selling a half million copies. Karr followed the book with more memoirs: Cherry, her coming-of-age story, and Lit, about her struggles with alcoholism, hard-won sobriety and conversion to Catholicism.

THE DAY Karr and I were set to talk by phone, I had the wrong number. I spent 30 minutes doing frantic Google searches to find the right one. Our interview started late. Karr was driving. Sirens shrieked in the background. She needed coffee. I needed Xanax.

“Tell me about the new book,” I say.

“Wait a minute,” Karr says. “I thought this was supposed to be: You ask me questions, and I answer them. So how about you do your job, and I do mine?”

Mary Karr, reigning queen of memoir, has just called me out on my bullshit.

Critics often credit (sometimes blame) Karr for a resurgence of memoir in the last two decades. And the numbers are there: Neilsen Bookscan reports memoir sales increased 400 percent between 2004 and 2008. The Boston Globe calls her “a master,” Kirkus Reviews says she is “one of the best memoirists of our generation” and the Los Angeles Times proclaims her a “grande dame memoirista.”

Yet Karr would almost certainly cringe at this praise. “I’d love to take credit for a cultural norm that started before I was born,” she says dryly. “No one elected me boss of memoir.”

Boss, no. Expert, certainly. Karr has spent more than 50 years reading memoirs, 30 years teaching them, and counts as friends some of the boldest stars in the genre: Tobias Wolff, Geoffrey Wolff, Cheryl Strayed, Kathryn Harrison, Michael Herr. (Her non-memoir literary circle is equally as stunning: Louise Glück is a former teacher, George Saunders is a colleague and David Foster Wallace was a former lover who tattooed her name on his arm.)

In 1965, when Karr was 10, she wrote in her journal, “When I grow up, I will write ½ poetry and ½ autobiography.” This prediction turned out to be nearly 100 percent accurate, but should include a small fraction for Karr’s new book The Art of Memoir, which is part memoir, part how-to book and part meditation on the genre.

“I had begun thinking I was going to write a how-to book and ended by thinking I was writing a book about how you lead an examined life,” she says.

Make no mistake: The book is not your momma’s writing textbook. The text crackles with Karr’s signature wit and no-nonsense attitude. Within the 11-page preface alone, Karr mentions tattoos, strip clubs and Platoon; uses the phrase “ghetto-ass”; and compares memoir writing to a “major-league shit-eating contest.” (This from a woman who tells the barista her venti iced coffee is for “Mary, like the Blessed Mother.”)

Even the chapter titles are unconventional: “Welcome to My Chew Toy;” “Hucksters, the Deluded, and Big Fat Liars;” and “Why Not to Write a Memoir: Plus a Pop Quiz to Protect the Bleeding and Box Out the Rigid.”

“It’s not a compendium of the form,” Karr admits. “It’s a book about how we bullshit ourselves about who we are.”

And no writer may be better at razing her own bullshit than Karr. Before penning The Liars’ Club, she had spent 20 years in therapy sorting out personal truths. Before writing about the past, no matter how small, she ruthlessly interviews herself: “Is that true? Is that really true? Did that happen?”

She won’t write until she has evidence that supports her feelings and opinions. Sometimes that means questioning hard-set opinions of the past. Karr opens Cherry saying goodbye to her father before she heads west to California with a gaggle of surfers and a hollowed-out surfboard stuffed with pot and pharmaceuticals.

“All my life, I’d relied on the premise that Daddy had abandoned me a decade before I took off. So I was shopping for a scene to show the reader his abandonment and perhaps dab a tear from my living eye as I did so,” Karr writes in The Art of Memoir.

But searching her memories, Karr was unable to find any evidence to support her feelings. Instead, she writes, “I’d be at work, and he’d bring me a supper plate wrapped in foil. He’d offer to make me breakfast in the morning or to take me squirrel hunting or fishing; I’d say no.”

It was Karr who abandoned her father, she writes: “He never said he’d be somewhere for me and didn’t show up, and he hated like hell when I left home.”

This sudden reversal shocked Karr to her core. “I’d spent decades discussing his abandonment in therapy, and it was true he’d drunk himself off a barstool when I was just twenty-five. But the view that he’d ever left me was tacit hogwash – a convenient lie I’d told myself to salve my own guilt about leaving him,” she writes.

AND KARR is wickedly adept at catching self-lies. Before a memoir manuscript is published, she sends it to anyone involved, anyone who can vet it and confirm: Yes, that really happened; yes, it was Christmas, not Easter; yes, that’s a fair portrayal of what went down. In many years of writing, in all the pages and accounts she has published, not one of her fact-checkers has ever said what she has written isn’t true, she says, and not a single person has accused her of lying or misrepresenting the truth once her books are published.

Karr is equally merciless in revising as she is in truth-seeking. “I’m not much of a writer, but I am a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser,” she writes in her latest book.

“Anyone who has ever read a rough draft of anything I write is just shocked at how bad it is,” she says. “I write and throw out, write and throw out, write and throw out.”

41R-lShGm4L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Karr threw out 1,200 pages on Lit. She is unable, she says, to suffer a boring sentence.

“[Karr] seems to have been born with the inability to write a dishonest – or boring – sentence,” praises Time critic Lev Grossman in his review of Lit.

“Bad sentences make bad books,” she writes in The Art of Memoir.

Karr says she takes a hard look at every sentence she writes: “Can I make this sentence less boring? More interesting? Prettier? More colorful? More true?”

The result is slow going. “Ts’ok. That’s why the Lord in his infinite wisdom gave us delete keys,” she writes.

It took Karr nine months to write the first chapter of The Liars’ Club, and the majority of that time was spent sorting out the distinctive voice that has become her calling card: poetic, yet profane; rich, yet gravelly; lyrical, yet chock-full of Texan idioms like “a butt like two bulldogs in a bag” for a full-figured woman and “she opened herself up a worm farm” for a lady now deceased. This same voice carries us through the horrors and triumphs of three memoirs. The events change, the cast of characters shifts, but Karr’s distinctive voice is consistent.

“Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice,” she writes in the new book. It’s essential to sort out your own, no matter how much time it takes.

“Everybody has something that’s some gift, some manner of speaking or a way of speaking or a way of looking at the world that’s very singular to you,” she says. “So I happen to be a real physical, in-my-body kind of person, but maybe you’re a more heady, intellectual person. It’s finding the talent for your talents. Every writer has a certain talent, and working on anything is just finding your own sweet spot. I’m not going to out-Nabokov Nabokov, you know?”

kARR’S BOOKS – indeed, the entire genre – all come down to truth. Being true to yourself, to your voice, to your own feelings, to your own telling of what happened. How to shape your own truths; how to dig and render meaning from the past. How to dig past your own vanities and lies in search of what really happened and how it shaped you as a person.

Truthtelling isn’t easy or quick. “Writing the real self seldom seems original enough when you first happen upon it. In fact, usually it growls like a beast and stinks of something rotten,” Karr writes.

But the real self is a key requirement, no matter how long it may take the reader to find it – or how unpleasant a writer’s truths may be.

“I think we’re never comfortable with [the truth],” Karr says. “It’s never fun, and it’s never comfortable to admit, ‘Hey, I was selfish, I was lazy, I was conniving, I was mean-spirited, I was heartless.’”

That’s why Karr despises “big liars” like James Frey, who famously exaggerated or made up several key events in his own memoir A Million Little Pieces.

mary karr recommended reading“Don’t minimize your own feelings or your own suffering,” Karr cautions would-be memoirists. “A look from somebody can be as gut-wrenching and painful as an ass whipping. If I had to go back to my junior high school cafeteria and face the stares of those girls who wouldn’t let me sit with them, I would throw myself off a bridge.”

Human suffering is interesting enough without the memoirist making things up, Karr argues. Respect your feelings. Honor your own experience. Sort out your own truths.

“Be fearless about telling the truth because that’s where the rich writing is going to come from,” she says.

Confronting the personal past can take a writer to very dark, exhausting places. While crafting The Liars’ Club, Karr would suddenly fall asleep in the middle of the afternoon, as if she had driven all night.

“I would sob,” she says. “I just really, really suffered from it. And I learned after a while you’ve got to have 20 minutes before your kid comes home where you sit in a bathtub and cry with a washcloth over your face, and that’s OK. That’s the right answer.”

So seek out a therapist. Talk to people, get your stories out. And give yourself some tenderness.

“You need to treat yourself to some kindness,” she says. “Eat some leafy greens and put your face in a pillow for a minute.”

In the black of the past, when we’re confronting things that horrify us, things we’re ashamed of, it can be hard to see a way out of the darkness. But it’s only by bringing these shadows into the light that a memoirist finally finds transcendence.

Don’t worry about what readers will think. Karr says they’re a more gracious bunch than you’d imagine.

“The reader will forgive you anything except lying,” Karr says.

Or, as Karr writes in The Art of Memoir: “With characters this good, why make shit up?”

Nicki Porter is an associate editor for The Writer.

 

Click here to read the opening of Lit and Mary Karr’s dissection of the first line.

 

ArtMemoir_HC_cExcerpt from chapter one of The Art of Memoir

THE PAST’S VIGOR

We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.
Louise Glück, “Nostos”

At unexpected points in life, everyone gets waylaid by the colossal force of recollection. One minute you’re a grown-ass woman, then a whiff of cumin conjures your dad’s curry, and a whole door to the past blows open, ushering in uncanny detail. There are traumatic memories that rise up unbidden and dwarf you where you stand. But there are also memories you dig for: you start with a clear fix on a tiny instant, and pick at every knot until a thin thread comes undone that you can follow back through the mind’s labyrinth to other places. We’ve all interrogated ourselves—It couldn’t have been Christmas because we had shorts on in the snapshot. Such memories start by being figured out, but the useful ones eventually gain enough traction to haul you through the past.

Memory is a pinball in a machine—it messily ricochets around between image, idea, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt and snaps off. But most of the time, we keep memories packed away. I sometimes liken that moment of sudden unpacking to circus clowns pouring out of a miniature car trunk—how did so much fit into such a small space?

You show up at your high school reunion shocked to find a middle-aged populace rather than the teens you passed in the hallways decades back. Then somebody mentions she sat behind you in Miss Pickett’s seventh-grade English class, and somehow her prepubescent face blooms awake in you. Then you remember where your locker was that year, and that speech class came after English, and since speech was last period you walked home across the football field’s fresh-mown grass, watching the boy you had a crush on in practice gear.

So a single image can split open the hard seed of the past, and soon memory pours forth from every direction, sprouting its vines and flowers up around you till the old garden’s taken shape in all its fragrant glory. Almost unbelievable how much can rush forward to fill an absolute blankness.

On the first day of a memoir class, I often try to douse my students’ flaming certainty about the unassailability of their memories. Usually I fake a fight with a colleague—prof or student—while a videographer whirs in back. Then the class is asked to record right after the event what happened.

For the caliber of grad students I face down, the exercise should be a slam-dunk. A year or so back almost eight hundred applied for six slots in poetry and six in fiction. They’re all broke out in smarts, but in some oddball ways. Sure there are Ivy Leaguers, but in poetry we once turned down a Harvard grad for a gay ex-marine. In fiction, a Yale summa cum laude lost a seat to a former Barnum & Bailey clown.

Picture a seminar room with tables in a horseshoe and some twenty grad students, mostly in black, each propping up a Styrofoam cup of lukewarm liquid. I explain the videographer in back by saying a class transcript may help with a book on memoir I’m writing.

Following a script, I apologize for leaving my phone on but claim I have an administrative problem to work out halfway through our three-hour class. At planned intervals, my coconspirator, Chris sometimes, calls, putatively to ask—harangue?—me about swapping classrooms. The students hear me be jovial and accommodating, though I hustle him off the phone, saying let’s talk at the break.

An hour before he’s due, Chris steams in. A tall, fiftyish poet with a shaved head, he’s tight-lipped his mouth into a line and is claiming that this is his seminar room. We need to clear out. Now.

We’re playing against type. He’s known as low-key and easygoing, and I as—how to say it?—noisy? Southern? He raises his voice. I suggest we step outside. He steps forward, I step back. He’s tall, I’m short. I try to defuse the situation. He says for once I should do what everybody else does and cooperate. He tells me to go fuck myself—or do I only remember it that way? Then he heaves a sheaf of papers into the air and stalks out. The students are agog. On the tape, they cut their eyes away from us to connect with each other.

Paralyzed silence. Am I okay? the codependent kid asks, Bambi-eyed. I explain the ruse, and the group’s burst of laughter is a collective awkwardness. One joker claims he’s suing for trauma, since he flashed back to his parents fighting.

You’d guess that these bright, mostly young, fairly sensitive witnesses would nail the event down to the color of Chris’s socks. And yet around the room, with each student reading from spiral notebook or legal pad the mistakes pop up like dandelion greens.

There are memory aces, of course. Maybe one, rarely two—of twenty to twenty-five per seminar—come with wizardly photographic recall. They get the facts spot on. They nail quotes verbatim and don’t mess up physical details, or even intervals of time. (Getting time wrong is a common memory screw up, even for the young.) How often did he call? The wizards are dead certain it was three times, with ten-to-twelve-minute gaps in between. And Chris’s pants were khaki, his shirt denim, not vice versa; he wore not loafers but black Nikes double-knotted with two holes unthreaded. Marvels, these observers.

Reviewing student blunders in these classes, I correct details on the board, fix dialogue and interpretative errors. By the end, we’ve chalked up an agreed-on version. During this time, I sometimes implant new facts—I give my adversary a leather bracelet he doesn’t wear, and even have him fiddle with it nervously.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Mary Karr © 2015, HarperCollins.

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