The Art of Memoir

Mary Karr is known for her series of memoirs about her difficult childhood. In this new book about how to write a memoir, she quotes from some of the best works in the genre including McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, and Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by a former student of hers, Cheryl Strayed.

What exactly is a memoir? The name is very descriptive. It’s a work based on memory. But it’s not the same as an autobiography for it concentrates on a specific period of life and is centered by a theme. For instance, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit chronicles a teenager’s adoption into a strict fundamentalist family, her adopted mom’s mistreatment of her, and her eventual rebellion from this way of life. It’s a memoir about a young woman discovering her true self.

Karr has plenty of what she considers the prime ingredient for a memoir—voice. She defines voice as “not just a manner of talking, It’s an operative mindset and way of perceiving…” You could describe Karr’s voice as sassy, informal, sometimes even, badass.

One of the wonderful things about this writing guide is that she provides lots of examples of memoirs that work and feature writers who share the personal moments that made them who they are today. That provide as Karr says, “the true, truer, truest story.”

She describes teaching her new grad students about the vicissitudes of memory by acting out a fake scene with a colleague. He phones her several times during class, and everyone can tell they were having an extended argument. This man suddenly appears in the classroom and they have a heated discussion in front of the students. Afterward, Karr has the students describe what happened, what was said, etc.  With 12 students in the class, there are 12 conflicting stories of what just happened.

Karr’s point: memory is in many ways subjective, yet she still insists that you discover your own truths, your own past.

Other than voice, her other main suggestion is to fill your pages with carnality. By this she doesn’t mean anything sexual, but more the world of the senses: smell, touch, taste, sight, hearing, kinesthesia. These will (pardon the pun) flesh out your narrative and make what you are describing real to the reader, and memorable.

Karr brings 30 years of teaching the form and many years of creating her own to this guide. She is passionate about writing memoirs and a great teacher. Even if you don’t plan to write your own, this book makes a fine companion to reading them. Karr even includes a list of the ones she considers top-notch. It’s not a short list, but would make a great project for these coming long winter nights.

For anyone interested in learning more about the form, we will have a workshop on them--co-sponsored by the Writer’s Guild at Bloomington--this Sunday at 2 p.m. in Room 2B.