For years, I had heard rumors questioning the veracity of Mary Karr’s powerful memoir, “The Liar’s Club,” so reading her treatise on memoir writing was reassuring. In “The Art of Memoir,” a sort of how-to/master class on the craft, Karr writes vehemently and repeatedly about the importance of telling the truth.
“It’s the busted liars who talk most volubly about the fuzzy line between nonfiction and fiction,” she writes, admitting that she has been fooled more than once by dishonest memoirs.
“Their anything-goes message has come to dominate the airwaves around memoir. … We’ve let a small cadre of schemers take over.”
Karr sees herself as “a crazed lone gunman for the truth,” but surely she is not truly alone in wanting memoir to be, as it should be, truthful.
“The Art of Memoir” is firm on the importance of veracity, but it also covers much broader ground.
This useful, wise, mouthy, blunt, profane and profound book deals with all manner of problems vexing the would-be memoirist, including writing about family (“forget about … how those crazy suckers you share DNA with are going to spaz out once you tell about what Uncle Bubba did during naptime”); avoiding self-aggrandizement (“all the good lines can’t be the memoirist’s”), and developing a thick skin (“I figured if I were going to write a memoir, I’d better get used to [criticism]. You can’t sign up to play football then whine you’ve been hit”).
Karr can be flippant (see Uncle Bubba/spaz quote), which is entertaining, but then she circles back with more useful perspective.
In the case of writing about loved ones, she suggests memoirists not consult with family members during the writing process (“negotiated memories can be like a piece of writing clawed over by an editorial board — anything at all dubious gets deleted”), but she also warns not to blindside anyone: “Before I even started ‘Liar’s Club’ I kept phoning my mother and sister … to take their pulse about the project and warn them about possible public scrutiny, should I be so lucky as to draw any.”
She also delves into the technical aspects of writing, exploring structure, voice (“every great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice”), storytelling (“nobody buys a memoir … to master the cold data of someone’s life”) and reasons to write — and not to write — a memoir.
If Karr, who teaches, is anything in person like she is in this book, her classes must be bracing and stimulating.
“The Art of Memoir” is useful, for sure, but unlike many books on the craft of writing (or on the craft of anything), it’s also a pleasure to read.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune.