Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir: A Review

By Sabrina Völz

The 1990s rang in an – if not the – era of mem­oir writ­ing. Since then, mem­oir pub­li­ca­tions have surged and with them their read­er­ship as well as thartofmemoire sound of cash reg­is­ters ring­ing up sale after sale. One rea­son for their pop­u­lar­i­ty can be traced back to the post­mod­ern ques­tion­ing of the very foun­da­tion upon which non-fic­tion was based: the con­cept of an infal­li­ble truth. This devel­op­ment, com­bined with the rise of social media and the will­ing­ness of peo­ple to share their inti­mate details with every­one, has pro­vid­ed fer­tile ground for many peo­ple of all back­grounds. Yes, aca­d­e­mics as well as aver­age peo­ple with lit­tle or no pro­fes­sion­al train­ing as writ­ers do try their hand at this ever-grow­ing sub­genre of cre­ative non-fic­tion. And who can blame them? Why not write some­thing for your­self, your fam­i­ly and friends as well as pos­ter­i­ty, espe­cial­ly if his­to­ry or main­stream soci­ety has ignored, silenced, or mis­rep­re­sent­ed you? And while there are a lot of trashy, gos­sipy, or unfaith­ful mem­oirs, the pub­lic as well as crit­ics and schol­ars are start­ing to agree that mem­oir – if done with true hon­esty, voice, and a dose of cre­ativ­i­ty – can be just as pow­er­ful and mas­ter­ful as the best fic­tion writ­ing. So, to the auto­bi­og­ra­phy I would say: “Move over bacon, there is some­thing meati­er!” And its name is memoir.

Final­ly, an acces­si­ble med­i­ta­tion on mem­oir writ­ing has sur­faced and tak­en the New York Times best­seller list by storm. Mary Karr – essay­ist, Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty, and author of the sin­ful­ly pop­u­lar mem­oir, Liars’ Club – has writ­ten an enter­tain­ing, thought­ful, and tell-it-like-it-is guide and good read all under one cov­er. The Art of Mem­oir (2015) not only pro­vides sound advice to the mem­oirist-to-be, but is also filled with zingers and mem­o­rable quotes. Here are a few of my favorites that belong in every cre­ative non-fic­tion class, if not on every cof­fee table:

  • “Part­ly what mur­ders me about mem­oir […] is its demo­c­ra­t­ic (some say ghet­to-ass prim­i­tive), anybody-who’s‑lived-can-write-one aspect” (xiii).
  • “In mem­oir the heart is the brain. It’s the Geiger counter you run over memory’s land­scape look­ing for pre­cious met­als to light up. A psy­cho­log­i­cal self-aware­ness and faith in the pow­er of truth gives you courage to reveal what­ev­er you unearth, whether you come out look­ing vain or con­niv­ing or hate­ful or not” (151).
  • “I threw away over 1,200 fin­ished pages of my last mem­oir and broke the delete key on my key­board chang­ing my mind. If I had any balls at all, I’d make a brooch out of it” (160).

Con­sist­ing of twen­ty-four chap­ters, The Art of Mem­oir does not linger on any one top­ic; the width of top­ics cov­ered is amaz­ing. Espe­cial­ly note­wor­thy is her chap­ter enti­tled, “The Truth Con­tract Twixt Writer and Read­er,” which con­cludes with a very use­ful list of com­mon­ly accept­ed “lib­er­ties” for bend­ing the truth in mem­oir writ­ing, an excerpt wor­thy of my own life writ­ing seminar’s pre­cious time. It cer­tain­ly gets the dis­cus­sion going. Oth­er high­lights include: “Deal­ing with Beloveds (On and Off the Page)” as well as “Blind Spots and False Selves.” As with any book on writ­ing, not all of the chap­ters caught me bend­ing my knee in hon­or of voice, verac­i­ty, or van­tage, but – to use the ver­nac­u­lar so preva­lent in the mouth of the pro­fes­sor-mem­oirist under scruti­ny here – it is pret­ty damn good. I’m glad she had the balls to write it.


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