My Mary Karr “The Art of Memoir” Favorites

What’s the test of beauty? Rereading. A memoir you return to usually feels so intimate – believable, real – that you’re lured back time and again. You miss its geography and atmosphere. Its characters are like old pals you pine after.

By true, I mean without trying to pawn off fabricated events. By beautiful, I mean for the reader.

A good writer can conjure a landscape and its peoples to live inside you, and the best writers make you feel they’ve disclosed their soft underbellies.

I’ve said it’s hard. Here’s how hard: everybody I know who wades deep enough into memory’s waters drowns a little.

A haunting sense of place should ripple off any good memoir once the cover’s closed, and you may reopen the front again as you would a gate to another land.

An excellent carnal writer fashions not a robot, but what feels like a breathing, tasting avatar the reader can climb inside, thus wearing the writer’s hands and standing inside her shoes. The reader gets zipped into your skin.

It’s ironic that the very redneckese I’d spent some time trying to rise above wound up branding my work like hot iron on a steer’s ass.

One can’t mount a stripper pole wearing a metal diving suit. What I needed to write kept simmering up while I wrote everything but that.

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.

Maybe it takes a lifetime to get used to occupying your own body, writer or no. Self-deceit is the bacterium affecting every psyche to varying degrees, especially in youth.

Now you may not know what you’d write if you weren’t afraid. I seldom do…But if you’re passionate to find out, then you’re ready. God help you.

You have to start out slowly, by laying transitions – like leaving breadcrumbs for the reader…A serious student of memoir can pick apart or analyze any master this way to start dismantling the underlying architecture of an otherwise seamless piece of prose.

But I still feel awe for us…for the great courage all of us show in trying to wring some truth from the godawful mess of a single life. To bring oneself to others makes the whole planet less lonely. The nobility of everybody trying boggles the mind.

None of us can ever know the value of our lives, or how our separate and silent scribbling may add to the amenity of the world, if only by how radically it changes us, one and by one.

That’s the quality I’ve found most consistently in those life-story writers I’ve met. Truth is not their enemy. It’s the bannister they grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs. It’s the solution.


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