Book Review: The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

A curious mind probing for truth may well set your scribbling ass free.

The Art of Memoir

Poet, writing instructor, and author of three memoirs, Mary Karr has been messing around with memoir all her life.

Messy – that pretty much describes her approach to writing and teaching. “I’m a passionately messy teacher,” she writes. And, no surprise, her book is a passionately messy and wildly entertaining book.

In The Art of Memoir, Karr distills what she teaches to her superstar students – those 12 who are chosen from among a thousand applicants each year for her class at Syracuse University. The book is a hodgepodge – part graduate seminar on the “greats” in the memoir canon, part how-to instruction for would-be memoirists, and part memoir-like reflections on Karr’s own writing life.

Accordingly, the chapter titles range from the wacky – “Interiority and Inner Enemy: Private Agonies Read Deeper Than External Whammies” – to the utilitarian “How to Choose a Detail.”

The best parts are memoir-like passages where Karr’s bad-ass Texan voice springs loose in similes and salty one-liners, where she sweeps aside the “how to” instruction and asks “How do you know who you are?”

From an editor’s perspective, I was most intrigued by Karr’s take on voice, truth-telling, conflict, structure, sensory detail, and revision.

On voice: “A voice conjures the human who utters it”

Mary Karr

Mary Karr

Karr explains voice better than any writer I’ve come across. She goes beyond the usual discussions of style and diction to the heart of voice – a mindset and way of perceiving, a “you-ness” that has to speak from the first sentence.

A memoir lives or dies 100 percent on voice, she says.

For Karr, voice springs from self-awareness and from a willingness to peel away false selves. Finding your voice is therefore a painful process.

Karr admits that she spent some years trying to pass herself off as a Cambridge-style poet. Finding her voice meant casting off her pretentions and owning her roots as a “redneck Texan.” Once she accepted who she was, she consciously constructed a voice to match. Although Karr’s voice sounds natural, it’s carefully crafted. It’s her voice that makes Karr’s work so funny, frank, and unforgettable.

On truth-telling: “Seeing someone naked thrills us a little”

Karr believes in the veracity of memoirists – why go through the “major shit-eating contest” of reliving past agonies just to lie about it?

Truth-telling is closely tied to voice – to getting past your ego and “lad-dee-dah poses.” A believable voice, Karr says, bears witness to how the author as a character might be distorting reality.

Karr is fully aware of the untrustworthiness of memory and the blurry line between fact and fiction. She urges memoirists to question the past and their own interpretations of it. Only by doubting themselves can memoirists get past their own delusions and arrive at a version close to the truth. Karr burst many a bubble when writing her own memoirs: The Liars’ Club (1995), Cherry (2001), and Lit (2010).

Given this commitment to honesty and authenticity, I was perturbed by Karr’s list of twelve “liberties” that she accepts as commonplace in memoir, including creating dialogue, writing scenes about events she didn’t witness, manipulating chronology, leaving things out, and changing the names of people and places. It’s okay to take these liberties, in her view, as long as the author is “upfront” about doing so.

Perhaps as a test of veracity, she recommends passing the manuscript around to the people in it before publication. None of her family and friends ever said “Don’t write that.”

On the inner enemy: “a blazing psychic struggle”

What Karr calls the “inner enemy” is the secret to “plot” in memoir. The psychological struggle against herself is what drove Karr to write (well, that, and money). The emotional stakes are high, and she inhabits the moment. The theme of the book becomes “how the self evolves to reconcile its inner conflicts over time.”

Yet her memoirs also have plenty of external drama. I think a writer would have to be wickedly self-aware to craft a memoir only on the basis of the inner enemy.

On structure: Not much to go on

Karr has surprisingly little to say about structure. In her three memoirs, she relied on the tried-and-true flash forward followed by a chronological narrative. This structure works well for a life full of drama or trauma, but not so well for the outwardly pedestrian lives that most of us lead.

She views memoir as “dopily episodic,” held together by theme, happenstance, and voice. The structure will naturally take care of itself, she believes, if the author finds her voice. Good luck with that.

Carnality: Gritty word choices hit you in the gut

Karr puts a new twist on the old saw “show, don’t tell.” Showing resides in what she calls “carnality,” by which she means physicality and sensory perception. Karr, who converted to Catholicism as an adult, likens carnal writing to Ignatian spirituality. She composes scenes through her senses – that’s how she remembers.  Paradoxically, carnality is sacred (the chapter on this topic is called “Sacred Carnality”) because it’s physical details that bring the past into being.

On revision: Other than a few instances of luck, good work only comes through revision

Karr believes that writers need both a generative talent and an editing talent. Karr has an editing talent. Her first drafts, she says, are dumb as stumps. She threw out 1200 pages of Lit – five years of work – and had a breakdown. But once she has a draft, she’ll endlessly polish the pages.

Her standards are high. She’s in conversation with “the greats,” not with the fickle marketplace.

For more on Mary Karr, check out one of her YouTube videos.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

  1. I read this book as a reader, not a writer looking for direction or words of wisdom. I’m a big Karr fan and found this book magical: a glimpse into the mind of a master writer, exposing her craft so that I may become a more discerning reader. She gave us all a gift.
    Your review was thoughtful, factual and honest – one of the best I’ve read.


    • Thank you for commenting. I loved the book, especially Karr’s reflections on her life and writing. I plan to read more memoir as a result. Karr lists about 200 memoirs in an appendix as “required reading”! Have you read her three memoirs?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh yes! I’m a big Karr fan. I’ve met with her at readings & adore her work. If you haven’t read her three memoirs, you should read them in order. She writes some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. She is a magician when it comes to writing and can stir your heart to its deepest depths. Her poetry is also beautiful! I can’t wait for you to get back to me after you have read her memoirs. She is a truly gifted writer and very sweet person.


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