The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 10. On Finding the Nature of Your Talent

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he cannot distinguish the truth within him or around him, and so loses respect for himself. And having no respect, he ceases to love.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

I often find students in early pages showing themselves exactly opposite from how they actually are. The talented young poet who didn’t want to bring her passionately felt love poems because they felt too “girlie” was an engagingly vulnerable and girlie individual. The superbrainiac tried posing as a working-class hero. One of the sweetest kids I ever knew wrote like a sociopathic hardass. Trying to help students diagnose their own blind spots, I often ask the following questions:

1.What do people usually like and dislike about you? You should reflect both aspects in your pages.

2.How do you want to be perceived, and in what ways have you ever been false or posed as other than who you are? (Lovers/family yelling at you when they’re mad have answered this one for you, btw.)

3.Is there any verbal signpost you can look for that suggests you’re posturing? One kid I know started bringing in references to metal bands to show how cool he was. I might start yakking about philosophy.

Any reader could answer these questions on my behalf, I think:

1.My friends usually like me because I’m tenderhearted, blunt, salty, and curious. I’m super loyal, and I laugh loud.

2.People don’t like me because I’m emotionally intense and often cross boundaries—sometimes inadvertently, other times just being puckish. My disposition tends toward dark. Small talk at parties bores me senseless, and at weddings I prefer to dance rather than chitchat. I’m a little bit of a misanthrope. I cancel lunch dates because I’m working.

3.I’d love the cool voice of an emotionally reticent intellectual. My role in my family was to feel, so I was initially scared to feel on the page. Doing so felt too bald and lunkheaded. But when I get away from felt moments or stories, I’m giving up what I’m better at.

4.When I start digressing into highfalutin diction about intellectual subjects I know nothing about.

In short: How are you trying to appear? The author of a lasting memoir manages to power past the initial defenses, digging past the false self to where the truer one waits to tell the more complicated story.