‘In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right,” Mary Karr writes in the introduction to “The Art of Memoir.”
Ms. Karr is very good at punching herself: All three of her memoirs have been best sellers.
A self-described “black-belt sinner” and recovering alcoholic, Ms. Karr grew up in an oil-refinery town “duller than a rubber knife” in East Texas. For the past 30 years she has taught a graduate seminar on memoir at Syracuse University. Reading “The Art of Memoir” is like being admitted into her classroom and listening to her smart, wisecracking voice as she reveals the secrets of her own writing, breaks down the key elements of great literary memoirs and dispenses valuable practical advice. The book should be required reading for anyone attempting to write a memoir, but anyone who loves literature will enjoy it too.
Ms. Karr’s most important piece of advice: “Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice.” The author says that after many tries what unlocked her voice in “The Liar’s Club” (1995), her first memoir and the story of her gothic childhood, was her father’s manner of speaking. “When there was a thunderstorm, Daddy might say, ‘It’s raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock,’ which, for all purposes, is a line of poetry.” Her next book, “Cherry” (2000), took readers on her adolescent journey through a blur of drugs; “Lit” (2009) is about her experiences with motherhood, alcoholism, divorce and becoming a Catholic.
THE ART OF MEMOIR
By Mary Karr
Harper, 229 pages, $24.99
What makes Ms. Karr’s own memoirs work so well is that they read like novels. The people in them, including the author, are characters. Here she advises: “Don’t use jargon to describe people. It’s both disrespectful and bad writing. I never called my parents alcoholics; I showed myself pouring vodka down the sink.” She provides examples from some of the best memoir writers, among them Vladimir Nabokov (“Speak, Memory”), Frank Conroy (“Stop-Time”), Frank McCourt (“Angela’s Ashes”), George Orwell (“Homage to Catalonia”), Maya Angelou (“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”), Tobias Wolff (“This Boy’s Life”), Michael Herr(“Dispatches”) and Maxine Hong Kingston (“The Woman Warrior”). Nabokov’s book, she argues, is the gold standard. “He can light on a physical object and—by filtering it through his perceptual machine—transform it into a relic that shoots off poetic associations like sparks.”
This sort of writing Ms. Karr calls “carnality”: bringing a scene alive with sensuous details. “Every memoir should brim over with the physical experiences that once streamed in—the smell of garlicky gumbo, your hand on an animal’s fur, the ocean’s phosphor lighting up bodies underwater all acid green.” She recalls Chekhov’s short story “The Lady With the Dog,” where a rake, after seducing a pious young wife, cuts himself a slice of watermelon while she weeps in bed. “The butchered fruit isn’t a symbolic stand-in for the ruined woman, but the coolness of his appetite for it as she sobs speaks volumes.”
Memoir writing has its minefields, especially when it comes to dealing with people who are still alive. Unpleasant recollections unleashed before all and sundry are one of the reasons that the memoir has been considered “the black sheep of the literary family,” as Daniel Mendelsohn once wrote in the New Yorker. Frank McCourt, as Ms. Karr recalls, was excoriated in Ireland for some of his stories in “Angela’s Ashes” (1996). (The author’s mother denied sleeping with her own cousin.) Much more controversial was the “The Kiss” (1997), a memoir written by the author’s friend Kathryn Harrisonabout her incestuous affair with her estranged father after meeting him at age 20. Ms. Karr devotes a full chapter to her defense of the book, saying that Ms. Harrison was “inwardly scalded into writing one of the bravest memoirs in recent memory, only to be blistered by the press for it.”
Ms. Karr raises a gnarly question that is unavoidable for any writer or reader of memoir: To what extent can memory be trusted? Witnesses of the same event can have totally different recollections. But, she contends, as a memoir writer you are “seeking the truth of memory—your memory and character—not of unbiased history.”
Finding that truth, as Ms. Harrison and Ms. Karr know so well, can be painful. “You have to lance a boil and suffer its stench as infection drains off.” But “for the more haunted among us, only looking back at the past can permit it finally to become past.”