The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)
Chapter 14. Personal Run-Ins with Fake Voices
“The difference between mad people and sane people,” Brave Orchid explained to the children, “is that sane people have variety when they talk story. Mad people have only one story that they talk over and over.”
Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
As I’ve detailed elsewhere, it took me fifteen years of scribbling—first in poetry, then in fiction—to dredge up nerve to tell my childhood story in a voice that fit my face. Before then, I hid from readers on pages that sugarcoated any emotional truths about us all, part of an overall effort to sanitize our past and remold myself into somebody smarter, faster, funnier than harsh reality had afforded me to become.
Literature, when I was growing up, had been the stuff of cool, diffident, hypereducated white guys. And I was solidly blue-collar, crown princess of the crap job—crayfish trucker, waitress, T-shirt factory seamstress—a dropout with an itinerant past. In my zip code of origin, I’d hazard that I was the library’s most devoted New Yorker customer. John Cheever’s tales of East Coast swells who drank their Scotch neat won me. They had swimming pools, they used summer as a verb, and I wanted to sound like them despite the fact that the only books I identified much with were by writers of color like Maya Angelou. Reading Angelou’s first in 1971, it wasn’t just You can write about this? but You can write about us? Even though her family was black and mine white, I hewed more to her worldview than to the four-in-hand tie knotters riding the club car or going to the Yale game in Cheever’s and Salinger’s and Fitzgerald’s books.
During my short college stint, every time I picked up a pen, this grinding, unnamed fear overcame me—later identified as fear that my real self would spill out. One can’t mount a stripper pole wearing a metal diving suit. What I needed to write kept simmering up while I wrote down everything but that. In fact, I kept ginning out reasons that writing reality was impossible. I cranked up therapy and drank like a fish.
By twenty-two I was soaking myself in the French poets who’d enthralled T. S. Eliot. At my age, he’d been writing Prufrock and studying philosophy at the Sorbonne, which unlike Eliot, I pronounced “the Sore Bone.” Also unlike him, I read these guys in translation. From biographies of Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire, I tried to fashion an outlaw poet mask. I wore black clothes and scarlet lipstick and borrowed Mother’s old beret.
I scribbled languid, vague poems about Paris—a place I’d barely been—and a man I’d left there but barely remembered. And those young poems of mine were sequined and embroidered with classical references to writers I’d hardly read—the Cynic Diogenes, whose motto, “Live like a dog,” fitted (I thought) my faux-punk Patti Smith facade.
What did I write about? Wanting to get laid, not getting laid, getting laid badly. Wanting a guy to leave, wanting a guy not to leave. Then he leaves. In a persona poem, an old gambler makes stiff statements about the nature of chance à la Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Throw of the Dice.” (Daddy had often gone out to shoot craps when we’d needed money for school clothes.)
Try to find a poet whose talent differed from mine more than Eliot—tight as a rolled umbrella, somebody once called him—or insurance executive Wallace Stevens or prim Miss Dickinson. It’d be hard. They’re poets known for experimental bents and hermetic symbolic systems that can forge intense psychological spaces in a reader’s head. Their voices also tend toward the reticent. In a similar vein was New York School wizard John Ashbery, a glib, easeful, prolific god whose cool stream of consciousness I worshiped. My critical thesis on him topped a hundred pages—this on a poet who admits he’s indecipherable and cares not one whit if the reader gets him. This whole herd of poets—all but Dickinson classically educated—operates on elision and emotional reserve.
By contrast, I was a feral American half aborigine, drinking and pogoing around rock clubs while hotly suffering my disintegrating, hard-drinking, well-armed family.
During this time, my idea of fessing up was to obscure any actual memory and siphon all feeling off till there was naught but sawdust on the page. “Tell the truth but tell it slant,” Dickinson had said, not “Drape gauze all over it so it can’t be seen.” There’s a difference between mystery and obscurity, poet Donald Justice once said. About real mystery—Hilary Mantel’s run-ins with ghosts, say—a writer can say every dang thing she knows without lessening the enigma’s power; obscurity is just hiding out of cowardice what fundamentally needs unveiling.
Here’s an execrable excerpt from my 1978 poem “Civilization and Its Discontents”—a pretentious reference to Freud’s masterpiece. It was my way of writing about Mother’s breakdown, during which she’d set fire to our toys and menaced us with butcher knife raised.
In 1959 some doctors sedated
a Texas housewife, fastened electrodes to her
temples and flipped on the current. Her hair,
singed, curled loosely around her eyes
which are pale green and dumb in the photo
of her release. This
is where the story ends for the housewife
who had once danced flamenco in a bowling alley.
It’s hard to say how much of her
daughter burned away. She evaporated
into puberty and gin and became
a victim of rumor.
I won’t bother to say what all is wrong with this—the snotty, devil-may-care tone, which would better fit a jokester fool like Letterman; or the crap line breaks—violent enjambments and uneven syllabic pattern chosen for no reason. There’s no data about who the woman is or why you should care. Plus it’s in no way true. Mother never danced flamenco in a bowling alley. Nobody ever did or would—a fine example of my limited fictional imagination. Puberty and gin mean nothing—they’re a gesture. About what? Who knows? How postpubescent and hard-drinking and world-weary I was?
Mother did way more interesting stuff. When she adjudged the small-town supermarket’s Parmesan unworthy, she upended the whole cheese display. She wagged a shotgun at the ice cream truck when its bells woke her from a nap. She owned a couture suit from Paris and gave me Sartre’s Nausea to read when I was in sixth grade.
But I was somehow stifled from speaking directly about the far-more-interesting facts, much less the events that ran through my nightmares and kept me dragging to a shrink’s office.
If I wrote vaguely enough, I risked nothing. No one could understand what was going on. I once heard a quote by Marvin Bell on his early work: “I knew I was an experimental poet. My poems didn’t make sense.”
In a private workshop with Etheridge Knight—an ex-con from Mississippi and elsewhere, ashy of knee and with hands rusty enough to strike a match on—he scolded me about the pretentious pages I turned in. Way before poetry slams, he used to take us into bars or onto crowded buses to read out loud. Facing a listing drunk or a footsore commuter, you figure out pretty quick how irrelevant much of your drivel is.
During this time, my much-loved old man was killing himself with drink. And the one poem Etheridge kinda liked of mine was about a suicidal dog. (The first line was “Don’t do it, Dog.”) That jokey riff was as close as I could come to the deep mourning that corroded my insides like battery acid as I drove Etheridge crazy with my evasions, spiraling around the home-based subjects haunting me.
In a poem called “Invisible Man,” I actually faked both being black and knowing about scientific notions of entropy. In another called “The Double Helix,” I quacked on about genetics, a subject that I only knew existed through the similarly titled memoir by Francis Crick and James D. Watson.
Then I had a lightning stroke of luck. I blindly bumbled into one of the planet’s best conversations about memoir. Age twenty-three, loose as a hard-slammed Ping-Pong ball, I found myself rolling into a graduate program in poetry—the only one that would take me sans college diploma, and then only on probation till I proved I wasn’t as dumb as I looked (which I probably couldn’t have been).
I remember the room and the gray metal chair from which I first heard Geoffrey Wolff read about his con-man father. It was August in Vermont, and hot. Somebody turned off the gale-force floor fan as he stepped to the light wood podium so we could hear him better.
With his Hemingway beard and polo shirt, Geoffrey looked like he’d be equally at home propping up a martini glass in some smoky jazz dive or on a Cuban swordfish boat. His wife was an elegant woman whose opinions people cared about. A Princeton grad who wrote for Esquire and the Washington Post, Geoffrey had all the credentials you’d need, but he wore them lightly. He was handsome and hearty, but he brooked no shit and seemed worried about nothing more than getting words down in the right order. At parties he dispensed pricey cognac, told riveting stories, and talked about jazz.
The summer of 1978, the stuffy room he was reading in held fewer than a hundred exhausted, mostly young writers and their not-yet-forty-year-old professors.
But the minute he started to read, a fine current sizzled through the air. People who’d been slumped in their chairs—mentors and tormentors mostly exhausted from a day spent poring over our medium-shitty pages—straightened up. We leaned forward. The occasional fly buzz became audible.
Geoffrey had a strong voice, but he read from the book haltingly. It hurt him to read, you could tell. He plowed on, though, stopping sometimes to drink water, and nobody shifted. Hell, I hardly blinked. He was showing me a form of courage I knew I didn’t have. He was like some action-movie hero gunning down the enemy I’d faced my whole life—family lies—with such panache I couldn’t feature not enlisting. It was a heroic performance. And I wanted nothing so much as to have the balls to do the same with my own story. The audience exploded clapping after.
And what an audience. There was the herd of poets I’d been busily padding around behind like a puppy. (Name-drop alert: Louise Glück, Heather McHugh, Robert Hass, Ellen Bryant Voigt—even Charles Simic´ visited.) They all wrote psychologically sharp stuff drawn in varying degrees of transparency from their own life events. On the prose side was Ray Carver, whose first paperback I’d lugged around Europe the year before, as well as Richard Ford and Marilynne Robinson.
Geoffrey’s brother Toby was there. He hadn’t yet written This Boy’s Life, but alongside him sat Frank Conroy, whose Stop-Time was a cult classic excerpted in the New Yorker, where it showed up as fiction. With those teachers at hand, it’s small wonder that chums Mark Doty and Jerry Stahl would join me in writing memoir.
After grad school, I vanished into a job in the telecommunications business, writing at night and publishing as I could, but my poems strayed as far from my natural abilities as I could steer them.
On my thirtieth birthday, I flew back from a San Francisco business trip on the red-eye to Boston—a flight briefly aborted by a bomb scare. This afforded me some bar time. I spent every bit of change I could rifle from my cheap briefcase before I sloshed aboard, then pounded the champagne they doled out clear back to Boston. It was a dark time in my family—when wasn’t it? I couldn’t forget the specter of my shriveling daddy in a Texas nursing home. He’d be dead within the year, and part of me knew it.
The red-eye flew east toward the arcing sun. And all night, across the spiral notebook, my hand hardly stopped moving. A great, mournful cry poured out, page after page. I gripped the pen so hard my thumb hurt when I got off at dawn.
Once home, I emptied my briefcase, slapping the notebook on the kitchen counter. Then I set off for the mind-numbing task of faking a business career. Had I been scrawling all night on loose paper, I’d have tossed what I’d written in the trash. That’s how wretched I figured it was.
Later, my husband bent over the pages. A reserved guy, he had a keen look. “I was wondering when you’d get around to writing this,” he said.
The thought of him eying those raw, unfiltered pages embarrassed me. Few opinions mattered more than his—he was brilliant, ruthless, and didn’t truck in flattery. And he liked what I’d set down. He was one of the many fine writers—including all my teachers—telling me the pages came alive when I wrote in first person. It somehow felt small or weak or whiny to me.
Still, at his urging and reurging, I took the pages and started to cannibalize them for lines and language and tone. Out came a few elegies and other poems both lyric and narrative, along with some hunks of prose that would wind up in Liars’ Club.
Here’s one excerpt about my old man. It’s better than anything I’d done before. But it still sounded so emotionally bald that I only sent it out to a magazine at my husband’s urging.
I tell the only truth I know:
that I am helpless and sorry you’re dying,
that this planet will weigh no less when you
are ash. . . .
and if, as Buddha says, life and death are illusory
I will be fooled and suffer your absence,
and somewhere you’ll always be
rising from your oxygen tent, a modern Lazarus,
or snapping open a Lone Star beer,
or simply, too tired to talk, scraping mud
from your black work boots onto the porch.
The great Latin rhetoricians advised orators that funeral speeches should be unadorned, free of flowery similes without a lot of embroidery, but at the time these words—which don’t seem so awful now—seemed shamefully simple, hardly the stuff of capital-L Literature.
Plus I had more posturing to do. The next line has Wittgenstein in it—dragged in, as Etheridge might have said, kicking and screaming.
And if, as Wittgenstein thinks, problems are grammatical,
I confess I find no syntax to pull
nails from a coffin . . .
Good Lord, I now think. The subject matter was bubbling up in me to be written, but I was yammering about Wittgenstein.
It strikes me now as twee to call “Father” the man who’d never been anything but Daddy. Too Sylvia Plath to call him Daddy, I figured.
In Cambridge in those years, fiction seemed the grand form women aspired to. Almost all the women I admired—Toni Morrison, Mona Simpson, Alice Walker, Sue Miller, Susan Minot, Alice Munro, Tillie Olsen, Joyce Carol Oates, Marilynne Robinson, Amy Tan—were working in fiction. And so I started a novel. What the hell did I know about fiction? Only that it permitted masquerade.
So what all did I change from reality?
First, I made myself an only child. That’d teach my country-club sister to throw me out of her mansion! Second, instead of my sloppy, paint-splattering drunk mother, the mom’s a ballerina—sylph-like, disciplined, bun-headed. Third, the narrator (aka me) is precocious as hell. She’s beautiful and noble and wise. She does calculus at twelve and volunteers at the local nursing home. She never bites anybody! Finally, I made sure that we as a family actually functioned like normal.
When a stroke fells the novel’s daddy, the mother and daughter stay at the hospital overnight, sleeping on chairs. On the actual night, we’d left him for Mother’s surprise birthday party, where we got drunk on margaritas and I later ran over his cat (not fatally). In fiction, we talk out insurance worries, instead of Mother threatening to shoot herself if I couldn’t straighten out her reimbursements. The novel’s mom actually consoles the grieving daughter; my mother was more akin to a lackadaisical reptile owner, flicking the terrarium to see if I was still alive.
And here’s the tone and voice.
On my sixteenth birthday, my mother presented me a pair of nineteenth-century opera glasses from France—gold-plated binoculars small enough to fit in a pearl-beaded evening bag. This gift might lead you to think that we occupied a different sort of world than we did, that we regularly attended some opera house, that we climbed in and out of a lot of taxicabs as doormen held umbrellas over us.
Even while the novel’s first paragraph refutes the opera glasses, claiming they aren’t who we are, they start the dang book. And as Freud says, there are no negatives in the unconscious. Even the diction—presented instead of gave—is a stilted stand-in for the vernacular I’d wind up with.
But the glasses had a source in lived events. Daddy had once given me his old army binoculars. Instead of those, this novel’s mother somehow delivers an effete, gold-plated doodah that opposes not just Daddy’s field glasses but the whole backwater Texas milieu I was actually born to. And not insignificantly, the glasses come from my way-disinterested mother, not my thought-I-hung-the-moon daddy. Holy wish fulfillment, Sigmund.
Meanwhile, I painted my character just as prettily, as in this paragraph, where I do my clichéd double-vision thing of looking through the glasses at the following idyllic scene.
A cardinal in a chinaberry tree picked at a green berry that looked as big as an apple. A dragonfly lit on a white cape jasmine flower, its wings whirring and shimmering. Chameleons dozed like miniature dinosaurs on tree twigs.
I managed to find something pretty to blot out the rough, industrial landscape I grew up in, which was famously ugly, run through by snakes and alligators and mosquito hordes. How did I restrain myself from putting in the little Irish guy with a green derby from the Lucky Charms commercial? In truth, the only time I was involved in nature at all was toting a shotgun to murder an animal.
What’s wrong with this as writing? I interact with no one. There’s no action, no story. I don’t seem to want anything other than to pose adorably with a lorgnette from the Lincoln administration.
But isn’t this using my strength? Poets are good at describing stuff, right? Shouldn’t I do that as much as possible? Yes, but unless the description helps the story along or reveals something psychological, it’s froufrou, embroidery, decor.
In 1991, after five years, I delivered the novel to my hard-drinking, hell-for-leather writer’s group, which was famous for making people cry. I still have longhand notes from Sven Birkerts and Robert Polito (was Lewis Hyde there?). They patiently say: “Try this as memoir.” “Your essays are good, maybe do this as nonfiction.” “TRIM!!”
Looking back, every arrow aimed at a throbbing neon sign that read *memoir*. As Elizabeth Hardwick told Robert Lowell before he invented confessional poetry, “Why not just say what happened.”
The voice I’d eventually figure for that first memoir drew from a lifetime of reading, which my mother had fostered. An artist and history maven, she kept a wobbly tower of books by her bed. She was smart and witty—master of the one-liner—but not much of a storyteller.
The talk of my barroom aficionado daddy ran rich with figurative language. If a woman had an ample backside, he might say, “She had a butt like two bulldogs fighting in a bag,” which—believe it or not—was a positive attribute.
Instead of milking this current running naturally through my head, I’d tried in my novel to sound like some fluffy, ruffly Little Bo Peep.
Daddy’s manner of speaking would unlock the book for me. Daddy, the in-house exile in our household of book-reading females, would solve my biggest literary problem. He was a legendary storyteller in the bars and gambling joints across our county. For an anthro class in college, I’d even recorded some of his tales. But his manner of talk was so singular, I didn’t need to listen to the tapes. The stories hummed through my fibers.
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. Without borrowing from Daddy’s voice—without the grit and grime of where I’d grown up—I’d been playing with one hand tied back.
When there was a thunderstorm, Daddy might say, “It’s raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock,” which, for all purposes, is a line of poetry. The crisp image jolts a little. It yanks you out of the quotidian. It operates just beyond the bounds of propriety, as poems should. Plus, the minute you laugh at it, you become loosely complicit in the speaker’s offensive speech. This binds you to the narrator. You’ve bought in. (The same kind of buy-in happens in any superfantastic premise—think George Saunders’s story “Fox 8,” where the minute you accept the premise that a fox is writing, you’ve sort of been psychically hijacked by the narrator. He owns your belief system.) That single line also evokes an entirely new world in which cows piss on flat rocks and folks stand around to marvel at it.
Metaphors helped to flesh out experiences and texture the language as my father talked. The wind came through boxcar cracks during the Depression “like a straight razor.”
He had a talent for physical detail and a bemused attention to the human comedy. Until drink ate him up, he was a keen observer, with a knack for zeroing in on a luminous image. At a random stoplight, he’d laugh like hell just seeing a big fat guy on a moped with its tires squashed down. He liked marbled meat and unfiltered Camels; he ate onions raw. He argued from external evidence—a fully imagined place—and the slapstick and violence of his tales drew you in mostly through the vivid portrayals a carnal person has a knack for.
But most of all, Daddy loved his characters. There were buffoons, sure, but affection shone through every tale. Unlike a lot of other barroom show-offs I’ve listened to, he had to be coaxed into talking, and his stories never seemed designed to punk anybody. He frequently made fun of his own lunkheaded antics, as when his brothers convinced him at a fair to get in the boxing ring with a kangaroo, who quite literally kicked his ass. I hoped his attitude of fond humility would underpin my own vision.
However much I borrowed from Daddy’s language and attitude, I knew any voice authentic to my youth would have to accommodate the hours I spent pinched and wondering in my head. My inner life sometimes felt bigger than my exterior—it’s just how I’m wired, I guess. So my voice couldn’t just mimic his. I had all manner of stuff to talk about that he’d roll his eyes at. Literary references and therapy were just two. But to package those in idiom was to keep the voice consistent, and to admit my posturing as I went:
I was in my twenties . . . and liked to call myself a poet and had affected a habit of reading classical texts (in translation, of course—I was a lazy student). . . . [I’d] spend days dressed in black in the scalding heat of my mother’s front porch reading Homer (or Ovid or Virgil) and waiting for somebody to ask me what I was reading. No one ever did. People asked me what I was drinking, how much I weighed, where I was living, and if I’d married yet, but no one gave me a chance to deliver my lecture on Great Literature.
The aforementioned bullshit opera glasses I’d started with in fiction finally became what they’d been to start with in fact: army-issue field binoculars, written in below, in a voice much more alive in time and place and with shame and malice and an anecdote and a sense of place:
I stepped through the back screen and held [the field glasses] up to my eyes. Through our fence slats, I could make out Mickey Heinz sitting on his fat knees next door, running his dump truck through the dirt. I could never see Mickey without a wince. I’d once gotten him to smoke Nestle’s Quik we’d rolled up in toilet paper. . . . He’d blistered [his tongue] so bad he’d run to show his mother, not considering how she and all his people belonged to one of those no-smoking, no-dancing churches. Mrs. Heinz whapped his butt bad with a hairbrush. We listened to the whole thing squatting right underneath the Heinz bathroom window—the whap-whap of that plastic brush on Mickey’s blubbery little ass, him howling like a banshee. . . . I was longing for Daddy’s truck to lunge into the garage.
This scene—rendered truly as I could make it—comes in the language of the kid I was at the time. It has some character data inside it: that I handled my own bad feelings by picking on Mickey Heinz, but felt somewhat bad about it, at least. Plus I am situated among other kids, who pose dramatic possibilities for me later. The scene includes some inner life, an anecdote, and finally Daddy shows up at its end.
I spent nine hard, exasperating, concentrated months on the first chapter of Liars’ Club alone, which was essentially time developing that voice—a watchmaker’s minuscule efforts, noodling with syntax and diction. Were I to add on the time I spent trying to recount that book’s events in poetry and a novel, I could argue that concocting that mode of speech actually occupied some thirteen years (seventeen, if you count the requisite years in therapy getting the nerve up). What was I doing during those nine months? Mostly I just shoved words around the page. I’d get up at four or five when my son was asleep, then work. I’d try telling something one way, then another. If a paragraph seemed half decent, I’d cut it out and tape it to the wall.
The voice had to be consistent to sound true. Tone could vary, but diction and syntax had to match up. A reader had to believe the same person was speaking throughout—this is an apparatus, of course. Listen to anybody all the time, and the mode of speech shifts around. Mostly assembling the voice was intuitive, but I did find some minor rules for my narrator to stick with, even if “naturally” I’d speak a whole lot of other ways.
Like, I consciously ended sentences on prepositions. “There was a lifeguard whose bathing suit we spent half the summer looking up the leg hole of.” This is idiomatic and oral. It scorns formal grammar. You can’t have one sentence that way, then warp the syntax around in the next paragraph to sound “correct.” To wit:
It was the same yellow door we’d gone through is a different critter speaking than one who says It was the yellow door through which we had gone.
The diction had to be consistent too. So I kept calling my Mother Mother—not Mama, sometimes, then Mommy, then Mom, whether “that’s how it really happened” or not. Changing what I called her would signal some psychological shift, which I’d have to stop and explain. I just picked Mother and stuck with it.
It’s a cliché to talk about finding a voice, but it does feel arrived at, fixed and immutable as the angel hidden in Michelangelo’s stone. About nine months into working on the first chapter for a proposal (I’d been told I needed a hundred pages and an outline), I started knowing where the words went. Plus an obvious order rose up—mostly chronological, with one flash forward at the outset.
It didn’t happen in one instant. But over a period of a few days I went through a profound psychological shift. The images in my head suddenly had words representing them on the page. And accompanying the words was a state of consciousness. It almost felt like I’d walked into some inner room where my lived experiences could pass through and come out as language.
If the voice worked as a living contract with the reader, it also strangely bound me to candor. To make stuff up would somehow have broken the spell the voice cast over me. Even fake names slid some glass down between me and the past. I had to do the whole book with real names and descriptions and do global find/replace afterward. Odd, that.
Whatever the source of the voice—self-hypnosis, psychological peace, the ghost of Papa Hem saying Write one true sentence, or the Lord God on high—its arrival changed the whole game. I honestly don’t know if a shift in mind predated the voice or vice versa. But suddenly I felt the wagon I’d been pulling like a trudging ox was a vehicle with an engine, moving down the road. Pages started piling up. And two and a half years later I had a full draft of what went into print—so close they set type by it.