BOOK NOTES: The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr (Harper Perennial, 2015)

Author photo by Axel Dupeux for The Wall Street Journal


Eager to incorporate some 'pro tips' into my own fumbling foray into non-fiction writing, I bought Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir on a whim when it popped up in an Internet search.

But although the book is based on Karr's teaching syllabus from Syracuse University in New York, where she holds the position of Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of English Literature, The Art of Memoir is less a textbook or how-to manual for novice writers than it is a sort of practice-based exploration of a genre that has exploded in recent years.

Touted as ‘a unique window into the mechanics and art of the form that is as irreverent, insightful, and entertaining as her own work in the genre’, Karr's treatise really does what it says on the tin: it peels back the skin on a selection of much-loved memoirs to expose the learnt technique and more intuitive artistry that renders them at once authentic and deeply literary.

Much of the text centres on the power of voice — which Karr manages to embody even more successfully than she describes or defines it. Once I got past my initial confusion (I was expecting something a little less erudite and more self-helpy or instructional), I was hooked by the quality of Karr's writerly voice. A poet, memoirist, and essay writer from America's deep south, Karr writes as she speaks — with warmth, candour, clarity, and an inimitable precision patterned on the Texan drawl of her youth. Content aside, the prose on its own is delightful to read, stuffed full of sharp recollections, striking imagery, and unusual metaphor.

The book addresses some obvious and necessary questions around craft, particularly truthfulness in life writing, the unreliability of memory, and the foundational principle of 'showing, not telling', especially to avoid making value judgments or brandishing diagnoses. The facts of the story should always be conveyed through 'carnal' recollections (Karr uses carnality as a catch-all term for vivid sensory detail and empirical observation.) But it's also about the vagaries of the writing life — the challenges, risks, and deep psychic pain associated with eviscerating lived experience, interrogating your perceptions of the past, and striving simultaneously for accuracy and elegance: 'A story told poorly is a life made small by words,' she remarks.

I folded down the corners on many pages and took copious notes as I read, but some of my favourite material appeared right at the very end, where Karr walks readers through the process of 'dismantling the architecture of an otherwise seamless piece of prose' (a strategy I also prescribe ad nauseam to my writing students). Through 'reading and thinking', she explains, dedicated writers '[raise] their taste beyond their skill levels'. The antidote to our inevitable self-doubt is to just keep going, to push past the phase of acute self-consciousness into a space of simple awareness. Karr is a compelling advocate for a doggedly iterative editorial process. Revision is the secret to your troubles, she insists: 'Actually, every writer needs two selves — the generative self and the editor self.'

This was the advice I needed to hear, not by any means original but so thoughtfully argued that I couldn't help but feel fortified.

Even if you have little interest in reading and/or writing memoir specifically, The Art of Memoir sets a high bar for thinking and writing about genre and process, and it makes for absorbing bedtime reading, including some insights into the American literary scene (Karr's contemporaries and former students include eminent authors such as David Foster Wallace — who famously stalked her — George Saunders, and Cheryl Strayed).

I'm sure I will be revisiting its creased and crumpled pages for years to come.

(Other books about writing I'd recommend without hesitation are Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead, and Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One.)