On Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir
Toward the end of her 2015 guide to the art of memoir, The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr recommends penning a response to every book one reads. To paraphrase her, this practice focuses one’s critical lens, simultaneously developing one’s ability to identify the elements of craft one admires and one’s skill at writing about these things. Of all Karr’s recommendations, it was this piece of advice that I received with the least resistance. I was already doing this, after all. Sharpening my focus. Drawing incrementally closer to my literary North. It was everything else Karr required of me—carnality of detail, the authorial distance of retrospect—that I lacked, and which I’ll be doing my best to develop in the years ahead.
It’s a fantastic book, to be clear. For any writer, not just for those looking to tell their story with as much truth and power as they are able to muster. In a snappy, sarcastic, conversational two hundred pages, Karr lays out the tenets of the genre in which she’s three times earned a spot at the top of the best-seller list. A compelling memoir needs to be visceral, with enough specific physical details to convince a reader of the truth of an experience. But it must also be voicy, with a vibrancy and singularity of interior life that sets it apart. A good memoir must make clear its stakes from the outset. At the same time, the writer of said good memoir must trust that their memory is enough. There are few sins worse than exaggeration, particularly when the entire premise of the enterprise is the truthful telling of a life.
I was put on to The Art of Memoir by Mike Birbiglia, one of my favorite comedians, who recommends Karr’s book to anyone looking to write stand-up, particularly of the long-form variety of which he’s a master. It was therefore no surprise to me (although still a small disappointment) that so much of what Karr stipulates as necessary to the aspiring memoirist are traits I lack. My memory of specific scenes, snippets of dialogue, carnal physical detail: it’s shoddy. Leaky, leaking. Permeable, at best. As someone who’s instinctually gravitated toward fiction since I could craft a subordinate clause, I find I work best in imagined spaces, where I can uncork the unrelenting stream of my interior monologue and (try to) narrate a sequence of events that says what I need it so badly to say. My life is a pitiable, paltry thing compared to the lives I might imagine. For as long as I can remember, I’ve hidden from it. It’s a thing whose details are terribly common, as much as I’d like to pretend otherwise. Better to leave it unbreached, rather than poorly and vaguely told. Too many white dudes have shared their neuroses with the world. It’s long been time for others to take the stage.
At least for now. Since beginning this book three days ago, since finishing it today, I already find myself paying more attention to the scenes that make up my days, fitting them into the puzzle of a childhood half-remembered. Everyone has a story that’s theirs. Even a sad white dude from East Bumblefuck, New Jersey. It’s harder to find this story for some than for others, and harder still to find a reason to see the telling of a memoir through to the finish. Despite Karr’s gentle erudition—and in some ways, because of it—I doubt I’ll ever undertake, let alone succeed in, telling my story. To my surprise, though, I can see myself trying to tell my story one day. Not to be published. Not for notice. Just to better know myself. Which is the task of all writing, really. Which is the task of this.