This post was originally published on the blog of BookPeople, the best bookstore in Texas.
Over the last few years, I have been to a number of events at BookPeople, where I come to grow in my journey as a reader and a writer. Now, as I bookseller, I am thrilled to be even more a part of this community, and a part of the discussions brought to us by acclaimed authors.
I was delighted last week to see Mary Karr, who came to talk about her latest book, The Art of Memoir.
It was a packed floor of about 300 people, many of whom have a deep affection for her bestselling and critically acclaimed memoirs (such as The Liars Club, Cherry, and Lit). I also found many writers in the audience, who, like me, aspire to write a memoir one day.
I imagine it was the next best thing to taking Karr’s coveted seminar course on memoir writing at Syracuse University. She clearly cares about fostering other writers. She also hopes that through her latest work, her fans will become better readers of literature.
The talk offered valuable lessons about the craft of writing memoir, but also laughter, and practical advice about self-care and the value she finds in daily prayer and meditation.
I was touched by the authenticity of the evening. We heard from Karr about her chaotic family life as a child, about the first boy that she kissed, and stories from sessions with her therapist.
These topics became the subjects of her memoirs: over the years, she’s written about discovering her womanhood, her recovery from alcoholism, and the salvation she found in Catholicism.
What draws Karr to the memoir form is the possibility for self-invention. After all, we become ourselves by telling our stories, she said. For Karr, stories have been a way to bond with people as she’s gone through life.
I told Karr her talk was especially valuable to me because of where I am in my own journey: I recently found that helping others tell their stories was a step in freeing my own writing voice (my first book is a collection of essays from people who stutter.)
Voice is critical to the memoir form, according to Karr. It took her 20 years to develop the voice that she would use in her first memoir, The Liar’s Club. She expects that readers and writers all have “things that have happened in this life that we are trying to make sense of.”
“I think the most privileged person in this room or any room suffers from the torments of the damned,” Karr said. “There is no way to be alive and not have your heart broken.”
A strength of memoir is that it allows for self-improvement.
“The most heartbreaking things for me have not been the bad things that have been done to me, but the bad things I’ve done to other people,” she said. “Those are the things that haunt us, right?”
And these are the things that keep her writing.
I was intrigued by Karr’s response when an audience member asked her if she will ever try her hand at fiction.
It’s not her nature, she said. She believes whatever gifts God has given her, they gravitate toward the nonfiction form. And, she pointed out, very few of the great nonfiction writers she admires are also great fiction writers.
Memoir gets a bad wrap, often overlooked as “the province of weirdos and film stars,” she said. But there are great memoirs by many of her heroes–writers such as Maya Angelou and Elie Wiesel–that endure as literature; these are the kind of books she hopes to see more of as a result of her new book.
A woman stood up during the question-and-answer portion and said she grew up in the same southeast Texas town as Karr. Karr confirmed the stories that were told about her. She missed 81 days of school in the sixth-grade; she was usually at home reading. At other times, reading was “socially sanctioned dissociation” from what was going on in her surroundings.
Another audience member asked Karr if a formal education is necessary to achieve the success she has.
“I don’t have one,” Karr reminded the audience. “I never finished college. I’m uncredentialed.”
She then added, “I think you need a heart.”
I read this because Cheryl Strayed recommended Mary Karr on her Dear Sugar podcast -- and when I read all the descriptions of Karr's book, this one appealed to me most because it deals with Catholic spirituality.
The Catholic spirituality part is interesting, although it is not as much of the book as I expected it to be -- comes very near the end. The rest is a memoir of Mary's journey to sobriety. And although memoirs should be able to stand alone, I kept feeling as if I was missing something but not having read her earlier, best-selling memoir(s). I couldn't really find the source of her angst, even though clearly she had had a difficult childhood, which seems to have included sexual assault and alcoholism. But unfortunately, this was one of those books that just made me feel frustrated with the narrator, and when I feel this way about a memoir, I come away feeling like I'm pretty much a horrible, judgmental person.
The most interesting parts of this for me were her relationship with her husband, his family, and their son. In particular, the class differences between her husband and herself -- her husband came from a very wealthy family but eschewed all that to be a poet, so the two of them lived just above poverty level for most of their relationship. Unfortunately, she is intentionally vague about most of this, particularly the way their relationship dissolved -- perhaps to protect their privacy, or perhaps because she truly doesn't remember much of it, as she claims.
Although Karr is a graceful writer, there are stumbling blocks where something that might have worked in her primary medium of poetry doesn't work so well in prose. In particular, I got hung up by her frequent use of a backwards sentence construction along the lines of, "Black, it was," which may have perhaps been okay on the page, but in the audiobook version, just sounded like random Yoda-speak.
And this is, unfortunately, one of those cases where I feel like it behooves me to warn potential readers away from the audiobook version. Karr reads it herself, and her voice is pretty monotonous, which makes the whole memoir feel more cynical or depressing than it has to be.
Have I ever mentioned that I hate miserable childhood memoirs? Well. I do. O customer-who-recommended this to me, never again will I read a book on your word. New York Times, you may be on the outs as well. Because the only thing worse than a miserable childhood memoir is a substance abuse memoir (see: NYT pick-of-the-year Lit) and there is nothing so intrinsically glorious about Karr's style to make wallowing in her sad past worth my time or effort.