The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 21. Why Memoirs Fail

My last memory is the Headmaster’s parting shot: “Well, good-bye, Graves, and remember that your best friend is the waste-paper basket.” This has proved good advice. . . . few writers seem to send their work through as many drafts as I do.

Robert Graves, Good-Bye to All That

Most memoirs fail because of voice. It’s not distinct enough to sound alive and compelling. Or there are staunch limits to emotional tone, so it emits a single register. Being too cool or too shrill can ruin the read. The sentences are boring and predictable, or it’s so inconsistent you don’t know who’s speaking or what place they come from. You don’t believe or trust the voice. You’re not curious about the inner or outer lives of the writer. The author’s dead in the water.

We live in the age of the image, and it’s too easy to learn carnal writing for a memoirist to sketch a foggy physical world sans evocative sensory detail. A lot of instruction manuals beam in on the physical, simply because you can master it. But few textbooks take up how the inner life manifests itself in a memoir’s pages. In the more spectacular visual media like action films, say, the inner life fails to get much airplay—at most a scene in a shrink’s office or a snippet of voiceover here and there. But memoir can compete against the pyrotechnics of visual imagery in film and TV only by excelling where those media fail: writing a deeper moment from inside it.

You’re looking for that inner enemy that’ll help you to structure the book. I always have inklings of it, but tend to find it by writing interior frets and confessions and yearnings as I recall them. Maybe it’s only manifest after a first draft. Once I’ve found it, I’ll revise with it as the spine—how the self evolves to reconcile its inner conflicts over time. Your attendant setbacks and jackpots should lead up to a transformed self at the end.

Another way a crap memoir fails is if the narrator fails to change over time. Characters who don’t transform or who lack depth become predictable. If the bad characters were consistently bad in real life, it would make all our heartbreaks almost palatable. We could just steer clear of the always-hateful human. But the hateful are kind sometimes, or sorry—or they sound so sincerely sorry it’s hard not to get lured in again and again. Those of us who grew up with seductive narcissists in the family know that they capture you not with their bullying but by somehow making you pity them in private. So you imagine you’re the sole confidante of this individual’s inner misery. She needs your fealty, and you give it repeatedly despite brutal evidence that doing so puts you in danger.

Shallow reportage usually stems from a lack of psychological self-knowledge. The narrator is always tough or stoical or self-sacrificing, or always ready with the quick quip or smartass posture. Worst of all, such characters are hackneyed as hell, predictable when life often fails to be and art must never be.

Most stale of all is the butt-whipping memoir, which abounds these days: “I took a butt-whipping, I got up and took another. Poor me, here came yet another.” The great Holocaust memoirs portray not just great suffering but great hope and wisdom and forms of psychological endurance and curiosity. They seem written to help us understand something complex, not to prove a single point in dreary repetition. A book that concerns itself only with one thing—I Was a Teenage Sex Slave, say—might have some prurient interest, but unless that thing is super dramatic (a war or a concentration camp) or varied in its portrayal, you won’t find yourself rereading it.

Unless there’s a political motive (as for Robert Graves or Richard Wright), a bitter book grows tired, a vengeful one unreadable. You know the writer’s morphing every event to make a point.

Or a memoir fails from a pacing problem—it goes fast over dramatic events and slows to a snail’s pace to dispense banal information or go on a tangent.

You can be too smotheringly close to an event, so it’s overpowering to the reader. Or you keep your distance, so just when something key is about to be revealed, it becomes glib or jokey.

I remember a piece in which a closeted gay writer was about to get laid for the first time after pages of shame and fear. He goes to the disco, gets picked up, makes out at the bar, then—finally—brings the guy home. At the denouement, the author pole-vaults entirely out of the scene to launch into a long disquisition on his PhD dissertation, which ended the whole piece. Certainly you can pull the shade on a physical scene for discretion’s sake. You don’t have to detail a sex act as porn does. But the psychic swerve—not describing how the act affected the speaker—denied the reader what the writer had been promising for pages.

On the most basic level, bad sentences make bad books. Poet Robert Hass taught me you can rewrite a poem by making every single line better. I revise and revise and revise. Any editor of mine will tell you how crappy my early drafts are. Revisions are about clarifying and evoking feelings in the reader in the same way they were once evoked in me. Or how I see them now.

In Lit, my rough draft of one chapter started thus:

Mother drove me to college in our yellow station wagon, and every night we stayed at a Holiday Inn, where we got drunk on screwdrivers.

This is information. Getting drunk with your mother suggests an emotional problem, but there’s no inherent drama or conflict. Other than the yellow car, there’s no carnality. The screwdrivers suggest trouble but don’t really capture the emotional tenor of the drive. Mostly, there is no scene—just reportage of data. That’s all I started with.

So how did I get from Draft 1’s dried-up little sound bite to something lusher? Memory—a physical memory of that time, a carnal fact. The car hadn’t come with air conditioning, so Mother installed a cheap one, which hung from the dash. It collected distillation, so when she made a sharp right turn, icy water—faintly redolent of chemical coolant—would slosh out onto my bare feet. Getting doused by that splash of freezing condensation was like a physical baptism miraculously dousing me in that single, living instant. It’s as if memory’s eye suddenly flipped open.

Like many such scenes, it comes to me in florid present tense. I look down and see the giant bamboo-bottom flip-flops I’d bought in California, with their black velvet straps, getting drenched with cold water. And I am in that car again. I can see the derby hat Mother wore—a pimp hat, she called it. She’d bought me one, too, in Houston. And she wears a copper bracelet that turns her wrist green because somebody told her it helps with arthritis in her hand. And another sense memory comes: I smell peaches, which we bought by the bushel in Arkansas. Also vodka from the screwdrivers Mother drank all the way down.

I rest inside those sense memories, and a phrase comes to me—peaches galore. Mother says we have peaches galore, and I say, Wasn’t that some burlesque dancer’s name? And Mother says, That was Pussy Galore. Her saying the word pussy is almost as wince-inducing as watching the savagery with which she devours a peach. And I remember feeling cooped up with her—a luxury in some ways, since her attention was hard to come by. But I also recall longing to run away. Those conflicting desires held the emotional fuel in that chapter.

And the memories start flying at me like bats swooping out of the past—my reading aloud to her an early English version of One Hundred Years of Solitude. That novel makes it in, and the phrase about Pussy Galore; the derby hats do a cameo. But the copper bracelet and the air conditioner vanish. And that beautiful Iowa corn, the sheer order and wealth of it—those rich farms with large white houses—that’s the kind of American scene I longed to enter. It opposes my squalid hometown and Mother’s own Dust Bowl childhood.

The cornfield is an apt symbol for what I aspired to, at the time. Folks from normal childhoods might fear the tidy repetition of the rows. To me, they looked like an order that lent comfort. So I used the image to begin the chapter.

Mother’s yellow station wagon slid like a Monopoly icon along the gray road that cut between fields of Iowa corn, which was chlorophyll green and punctuated in the distance by gargantuan silver silos and gleaming, unrusted tractors glazed cinnamon red. Mother told me how the wealth of these farmers differed from the West Texas dirt farmers of her Dust Bowl youth, who doled out mortgaged seed from croaker sacks.

But because I was seventeen and had bitten my cuticles raw facing the prospect of fitting in at the private college we’d reach that night—which had accepted me through some mixture of pity and oversight—and because I was split-headed with the hangover Mother and I had incurred the night before sucking down screwdrivers in the unaptly named Holiday Inn in Kansas City, I told Mother something like, Enough already about your shitty youth. You’ve told me about eight million times since we pulled out of the garage.

It has a carnal description—the car like a Monopoly icon—from a point of view I could only have in imagination. Other carnal facts: the girl me has both a hangover and bitten cuticles. In addition to data from the earlier draft that this mother-daughter team get drunk together at night, it gives background info that the first paragraph lacks:

–Mother’s Dust Bowl youth

–The author’s age

–Where she’s from

–That she’s a worrier

–That the college she’s heading to is one above her station

–The blight of her shitty high school record

So there exists a boatload of interior information that helps to create emotional conflicts:

–The mother’s low-rent background adds to the daughter’s angst about going to a fancier college than normal in that family.

–The daughter telling the mother she’s sick of hearing about said mother’s shitty youth shows the somewhat normal conflict between mother and daughter, though for a daughter to call her mother’s youth “shitty” was way outside the mores of that time. The idiom suggests a lack of boundary between the two that gestures to the book’s central conflict.

In addition, I explain several things about my notion of truth:

–The Monopoly icon image says I am using imagined scenes from my adult point of view.

–Saying “I told Mother something like” proves I’m reconcocting talk, not working from a diary or objective script.

Most of all, the scene holds core emotional truths that will eventually shape the whole book. The teen me wanted to be like Mother—artistic, boho. We wind up reading a great novel together. But wanting to become Mother doomed me to become a drunk, an emotional car wreck, and not much of a nurturer. I mean, she got potted nightly with seventeen-year-old me as if we were sorority sisters. Teen me also longed to escape my suckhole hometown, which Mother likewise resented and blamed me for keeping her stranded in—so to add to my angst, I felt guilty leaving her behind. The revision tries to infuse the scene with some undercurrent of the psychic torrents trapped in that car’s small space—two squirrels in a coffee can, Daddy might have said.