The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Preface. Welcome to My Chew Toy

Don’t follow me, I’m lost,
the master said to the follower
who had a cocked pen and a yellow pad.

Stephen Dunn, “Visiting the Master”

This preface is a squeaky rubber chew toy I have pawed and gnawed at for years. Problem being, memoir as a genre has entered its heyday, with a massive surge in readership the past twenty years or so. But for centuries before now, it was an outsider’s art—the province of weirdos and saints, prime ministers and film stars. As a grad student thirty years back, I heard it likened to inscribing the Lord’s Prayer on a grain of rice. So I still feel some lingering obligation to defend it.

Partly what murders me about memoir—what I adore—is its democratic (some say ghetto-ass primitive), anybody-who’s-lived-can-write-one aspect. You can count on a memoirist being passionate about the subject. Plus its structure remains dopily episodic. Novels have intricate plots, verse has musical forms, history and biography enjoy the sheen of objective truth. In memoir, one event follows another. Birth leads to puberty leads to sex. The books are held together by happenstance, theme, and (most powerfully) the sheer, convincing poetry of a single person trying to make sense of the past.

Changes in the novel have helped to jack up memoir’s audience. As fiction grew more fabulist or dystopic or hyperintellectual under the sway of Joyce and Woolf and García Márquez and Pynchon acolytes, readers thirsty for reality began imbibing memoir.

Between 2005 and 2010, Philip Gourevitch closely observed the skyrocketing of nonfiction as literature at the editorial helm of that towering literary mag the Paris Review. (Gourevitch’s classic on the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, is also a masterpiece.) Here’s an excerpt of his speech as he stepped down, likening rebukes against memoir as a lesser form to the critics who once mocked photography for lacking the originality of painting:

The past fifty years has seen an explosion of exciting new work in memoir, reportage, and the literature of fact in all forms and lengths and styles. And yet, I am afraid, there is a kind of lingering snobbery in the literary world that wants to disqualify what is broadly called nonfiction from the category of “literature”—to suggest that somehow, it lacks in artistry, or imagination or invention by comparison to fiction. . . . But the nonfiction I published was every bit as good as fiction.

Youngsters may not recall the lengthy assaults against memoir from critics like William Gass* and Jonathan Yardley and James Wolcott. Their ultimately impotent campaigns put me in mind of how early novels were mocked for being mere “fancies,” lacking the moral rigor of philosophy and sermons and the formal rigor of poetry.

So after fifty-plus years of reading every memoir I could track down and thirty teaching the best ones (plus getting paid to bang out three), I spent last year trying to cobble up what a physicist would call a Unified Field Theory or Theory of Everything about the form. I imagined a better me would have done this already. (A better me, says the nattering voice in my head, wouldn’t eat Oreos by the sleeve.) This better me has an alphabetized bookshelf and a mind parceled out into PowerPoint slides. She has a big fat overarching system.

In search of such a system, I found myself last winter shoving a wobbly-wheeled cart at Staples. Hours later, I lunged all snow-spackled into the house like a Labrador dragging home kill in her teeth. I got presentation easels (three), aluminum-framed slabs of corkboard (four), flip chart (one), and boo-coup color-coordinated index cards and sticky notes.

But by summer, the living room—now dubbed The War Room—resembled nothing so much as the headquarters of a serial killer task force, with cards tacked up and schematics and arrows and notes by color on the windowpanes. Index cards said stuff like: “Tell about Michael Herr and skinned man!” One quoted old Saint Augustine (probably a sex addict and arguably the father of memoir circa the fifth century—no, it’s not Oprah): “Give me chastity, Lord, but not yet.” I spent months watching the black cursor flicker, or with my nose in various books I wish I’d written. And I resisted the urge to slink off to hide under the bed like a dog with a bad haircut.

As with everything I’ve ever written, I start out paralyzed by fear of failure. The tarantula ego—starving to be shored up by praise—tries to scare me away from saying simply whatever small, true thing is standing in line for me to say.

Ts’ok. That’s why the Lord in infinite wisdom gave us delete keys.

Recently, a friend I teach with talked me down off the ledge about this project by reminding me that I’ve spent decades talking with joy to students about memoir. What I really bring to the classroom is having cherished the form as long and as hard as anybody. In 1965 I wrote, “When I grow up, I will write ½ poetry and ½ autobiography.” And as a strange child reading the sagas of Helen Keller and Maya Angelou, I just felt less lonely. In some animistic way, I believed they were talking (as my toddler son once said of the infuriatingly saccharine Mr. Rogers) “only to me.”

A first-person coming-of-age story, putatively true, never failed to give the child me hope that I could someday grow up and get out of the mess I was in—which was reading hours per day in a state of socially sanctioned disassociation to try and fence myself off from the chaos of my less-than-ideal household. If Angelou, born black in pre–civil rights Arkansas, and poor blind/deaf Keller each made it outta their own private hells to become that most exalted of creatures—a writer—maybe I could too. Every memoirist had lived to tell the tale, and that survival usually geezed me with hope as if with a hypodermic. A comparable-sounding novel just couldn’t infuse me the same way.

However often fiction has served as a fig leaf for lived, remembered experience, the form doesn’t promise veracity of event. As I turn a novel’s pages, a first-person narrator may seduce me, but the fact that it’s all made up and not actually outlived oddly keeps me from drawing courage outside the book’s dream. The deep, mysterious sense of identification with a memoirist who’s confessed her past just doesn’t translate to a novelist I love, however deliciously written the work.

I’m embarrassed to confess this, because it sounds so naive—“identifying” with someone I’ve never met, a peddler of pages who profits from my buying her act. I sound like the guy at a strip club who thinks the dancers really fancy him.

I once heard Don DeLillo quip that a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them. In this, memoir purports to grow more organically from lived experience. When I asked a class of undergrads what they liked about memoir, I heard them echo the no-doubt-naive sentiment that they drew hope from the mere fact of a writer living past a bad juncture to report on it. “It’s a miracle he even survived!” was written on many papers. The telling has some magic power for them, as it does for me. “Tell it,” the soldiers in Vietnam begged Michael Herr, and in Dispatches, he told it.

This confidence of mine in most memoirs’ veracity is viewed as gullible, I know. Of course, there’s artifice to the relationship between any writer and her reader. Memoir done right is an art, a made thing. It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page. Most morally ominous: from the second you choose one event over another, you’re shaping the past’s meaning. Plus, memoir uses novelistic devices like cobbling together dialogue you failed to record at the time. To concoct a distinctive voice, you often have to do a poet’s lapidary work. And the good ones reward study. You’re making an experience for a reader, a show that conjures your past—inside and out—with enough lucidity that a reader gets way more than just the brief flash of titillation. You owe a long journey, and most of all, you owe all the truth you can wheedle out of yourself. So while it is a shaped experience, the best ones come from the soul of a human unit oddly compelled to root out the past’s truth for his own deeply felt reasons.

In fact, every memoirist I know seems doomed to explore the past in an often-agonized death march down the pages. If you met them all at a cocktail party, they’d strike you as frank and upfront, more curious about the past than defensive about their own versions.

Think of that family meal we’ve all had when each person’s colliding version of an event ricochets off every other. You weren’t even born when that happened. At such a meal, I may defend my own account like a wolf her turf, but lying awake later, I’ll often feel the creeping suspicion I’m wrong.

Unless you’re a doubter and a worrier, a nail-biter, an apologizer, a rethinker, then memoir may not be your playpen. 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.

Wow, there it is, my long-lost theory, stolen obviously from the Delphic oracle with her pesky, near-impossible demand to “know thyself.” A curious mind probing for truth may well set your scribbling ass free. A fierce urge to try reexperiencing your own mind and body and throbbing heart alive inside the most vivid stories from your past is step one. (No doubt if you weren’t haunted by those stories, you wouldn’t waste your time trying to write it.) Then you just have to tell it, right? The second-hardest part. I’ve inserted the words “the truth” to replace the word “God” in the quote below from monk Thomas Merton’s memoir Seven-Storey Mountain:

The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of the truth. . . . The truth utters me like a word containing a partial thought to himself. A word will never be able to comprehend the voice that utters it.

With that idea in the air like rain mist, I usually enter one of my memoir classes like some kid coming off the beach with a roaring shell to press to everybody’s ear. My big message is: Listen up. I’m a passionate, messy teacher. I give a rat’s ass, and my sole job is to help students fall in love with what I already worship, which means, I show you stuff I’ve read that I can’t live without—Black Boy (aka American Hunger), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, A Childhood: The Biography of a PlaceDispatchesThe Woman WarriorStop-TimeThe KissDown and Out in Paris and LondonHomage to Catalonia, The Color of Water, Good-Bye to All That, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read ThemMemories of a Catholic GirlhoodWildThe Duke of DeceptionThis Boy’s Life, and Speak, Memory—then I’ll lay out any wisdom about the form I’ve either gleaned from them or figured out on my own watch. For the prospective memoirist, I pepper in short lists and lessons.

That’s what you’ll get here—me running back and forth between books I’ve taught and my own dispatches from the muddy trenches, where I wrote three books that basically beat my Texas ass.

There’s a photo of writer Harry Crews on my office door students often ask about because it looks so savagely unliterary. On an English Department hall lined with posters of prim Dickinson in white eyelet lace or that trying-to-be-sinister fop Baudelaire in black velvet, Crews strikes a muscleman pose. Wearing a jean jacket with the sleeves ripped out, he curls up his arm so the bicep’s big as a ham hock. His face is pockmarked, grizzled, with a more-than-once smashed nose. Academia embraces virtually nothing blue collar, and Crews’s image is a small assertion of my humble roots amid the stubbornly white-collar milieu of white tower academia (obvious emphasis on the white, which also predominates). Crews’s meaty fist aims at his own chin as if he’s about to knock himself out with an uppercut. Which I guess he was, as he kept on drinking Rebel whiskey way past when it did him any good. (Once after a binge, he found inside his elbow the still-bloody tattoo he had no recollection of getting—a hinge where his arm bent, as if he were machine, not flesh.)

In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right. Sure, there’s the pleasure of doing work guaranteed to engage you emotionally—who’s indifferent to their own history? The form always has profound psychological consequence on its author. It can’t not. What project can match it for that? Plus you get to hang out with folks no longer on this side of the grass. Places and times you may have for decades ached after wind up erecting themselves around you as you work.

But nobody I know who’s written a great one described it as anything less than a major-league shit-eating contest. Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there’s suffering involved. When I’m trying to edit or coach somebody through one, I usually wind up feeling like the mean sergeant played by Tom Berenger in Platoon. He’s leaning over a screaming soldier whose guts are extruding, and in a husky whisper, Berenger says through gritted teeth, “Take the pain,” till the guy shuts up and mechanically starts stuffing his guts back in.

No matter how self-aware you are, memoir wrenches at your insides precisely because it makes you battle with your very self—your neat analyses and tidy excuses. One not-really-a-joke saying in my family is, “The trouble started when you hit me back.” Your small pieties and impenetrable, mostly unconscious poses invariably trip you up.

In terms of cathartic affect, memoir is like therapy, the difference being that in therapy, you pay them. The therapist is the mommy, and you’re the baby. In memoir, you’re the mommy, and the reader’s the baby. And—hopefully—they pay you. (“No man but a blockhead ever wrote for any cause but money,” Samuel Johnson said.)

So forget about holes in your memory or lawsuits or how those crazy suckers you share DNA with are going to spaz out once you tell about what Uncle Bubba did during naptime. (I’ll talk later about how you can deal with all those worries.) You can do “research,” i.e. postponing writing, till Jesus dons a nightie. But your memoir’s real enemy is blinking back at you from the shaving glass when you floss at night—your ignorant ego and its myriad masks.

Crews’s grossly overlooked A Childhood: The Biography of a Place magically pointed out to me my own lah-dee-dah poses. It’s underrated—virtually unknown—except among the aficionados of the form. I used to worry it wasn’t as good as I thought (particularly when Crews’s fiction never wowed me) until I decided any aversion to it was a form of abject classism, which insists on marginalizing any working-class scribbler.

At the time I came across A Childhood, I was an academically uncredentialed former redneck Texan trying to pass myself off as a poet in hyperliterary Cambridge. Crews had lost time trying to hide his own cracker past, and then he’d written about that milieu in a book that would serve as my lodestar. How good it is, I can no longer gauge. But it helped to guide me out from my biggest psychological hidey-holes. Reading Crews, I found the courage to tell the stories I’d been amassing my whole life. I include so much of him here to underscore how mysterious a single influence can be if he shares a novice’s foibles. Were I a tattoo-getting individual, I’d owe him some fleshly real estate.

I’d owe a lot of other people, too. I’d wind up like the state fair’s illustrated woman, emblazoned with the inked-in faces of the best memoirists. Probably without Crews, I’d have eventually gotten around to my first book. But reading him, which I started doing circa 1980, gave me a shortcut—that sharp awareness of all the false selves I’d concocted for the page that kept me from speaking the truth with the stoppering power of duct tape over my mouth.

At least one purpose of this book is to lay out some lucky gliding spaces for a wannabe memoirist, to help her discover The Story, the one only she can tell; then to help said person craft a voice exactly suited to telling that tale in the truest, most beautiful way. By true, I mean without trying to pawn off fabricated events. By beautiful, I mean for the reader.

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.

However many intellectual pleasures a book may offer up, it’s usually your emotional connection to the memoir’s narrator that hooks you in. And how does she do that? 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. Seeing someone naked thrills us a little.

Maybe I can help prospective writers feel better about disrobing. My lessons and tips for anyone seeking to write a memoir are sprinkled in like pepper—“Why Not to Write a Memoir” or “Carnality” or “How to Choose a Detail.” They’re small and pithy enough that the general reader can pole-vault over those technical blips for students. In a late chapter on Michael Herr, there’s an initial section for the general reader, and section two is a line-by-line analysis that a nonwriter might find tedious.

But the book’s mostly shaped for the general reader, and while I hope it can help such a human hone an affection for memoir as a form, I really hope to prompt some reflection about the reader’s own divided selves and ever-morphing past.

For everybody has a past, and every past spawns fierce and fiery emotions about what it means. Nobody can be autonomous in making choices today unless she grasps how she’s being internally yanked around by stuff that came before. So this book’s mainly for that person with an inner life big as Lake Superior and a passion for the watery element of memory. Maybe this book will give you scuba fins and a face mask and more oxygen for your travels.