“At the nadir of my confidence as a writer, I despaired of ever finishing Lit. I considered selling my apartment to give the advance money back. Then a Jesuit pal asked me, quite simply, What would you write if you weren’t afraid? I honestly didn’t know at first. But I knew finding the answer would unlock the writing for me.”
When I heard Mary Karr tell this story at a writing festival in 2008 it marked a turning point for me. I left the session where she said this, went straight out to sit under a tree on the Calvin College campus, and wrote that question on a page of my journal – What would you write if your weren’t afraid? I’m not ashamed to say that it was God’s voice that I was transcribing on those pages for the next two hours. It’s still the most important question I’ve ever been asked.
Now Mary Karr has put the question to paper herself in 2015’s The Art of Memoir to help other writers hoping to find a more honest, authentic voice. Critics have accused Karr of just slapping together notes from her MFA classes at Syracuse to produce this book, but I found it to be a very useful deep dive into the craft of writing and the process of coming to know oneself. Plus, she’s one of the funniest writers I know, so the ride was great.
Karr was one of the progenitors of the modern memoir trend with her 1995 book, The Liar’s Club. She followed that one up with two more memoirs — Cherry and Lit. Each of them is rich with detail and heart, chronicling her journey from a hard-scrabble childhood in an East Texas oil town with an artistic but unbalanced mother and a somewhat distant father to her unlikely emergence from alcoholism to Roman Catholicism. Every one was a gem.
Those books made memoir-writing look easy, almost too easy. But this book reveals the really difficult work that produced them. Karr pushes for a voice that is unconcerned for appearances and willing to go into the midst of tragedy. “Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened,” she says, “there’s suffering involved.”
Karr also helped me understand why some memoirs just don’t work. “A memoirist must cop to it all, which means routing out the natural ways you try to masquerade as somebody else—nicer, smarter, faster, funnier. All the good lines can’t be the memoirist’s.” Take note, Bill Clinton! “For the vast majority of writers, we’re better off with simpler vocabulary—the shorter, often monosyllabic ” OK. That one’s for me.
Karr has convinced me that there are treasures to be mined in our stories, (not that I needed much convincing). “I sometimes liken that moment of sudden unpacking [of a memory] to circus clowns pouring out of a miniature car trunk,” she says, “how did so much fit into such a small space?” Lately, I’ve been using a memoir exercise as a means to feel my way into other writing. It’s a time-consuming, emotionally-exhausting exercise. But rich.
I highly recommend this one. It’s practical, deep, and very easy to read. And I’m thanking Mary once again for opening the door to more.