The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 17. Blind Spots and False Selves

We apply certain kinds of pressure to you, under which you are forced to flee to your highest ground. . . . But hopefully, under that pressure, you leave behind all of the false You’s—the imitative You, the too-clever You, the Avoiding You—and settle into that (sometimes, at first, disappointing) beast, Real You. . . . Real You is all you have, and all other paths are false. And in the best case, Real You is so happy to finally be recognized, it rewards you with Originality.

George Saunders,
MFA graduation speech, Syracuse University, 2013

In memoir the heart is the brain. It’s the Geiger counter you run over memory’s landscape looking for precious metals to light up. A psychological self-awareness and faith in the power of truth gives you courage to reveal whatever you unearth, whether you come out looking vain or conniving or hateful or not.

Any memoirist’s false selves (plural) will take turns plastering themselves across his real mouth to silence the scarier fact of who he is. Writing as directly as possible out of that single “true” core and nascent ability will naturally unify pages. Otherwise, there will be inconsistencies that read as fake.

False choices based on who you wish you were will result in places where the voice goes awry or the details chosen ring false. If Helen Keller wrote from the viewpoint of a nearsighted girl rather than a blind one or if Maya Angelou made herself an orphaned paraplegic or a light-skinned black girl who could pass in the Jim Crow South . . . well, you can see how their stories would’ve been bled of raw power.

Many of the truths a memoirist starts out believing morph into something wholly other. Again: anybody maladroit at apology or changing her mind just isn’t bent for the fluid psychological state that makes truth discoverable.

You think you know the story so well. It’s a mansion inside your head, each room just waiting to be described, but pretty much every memoirist I’ve ever talked to finds the walls of such rooms changing shape around her. There are shattering earthquakes, tectonic-plate-type shifts. Or it’s like memory is a snow globe that invariably gets shaken so as to shroud the events inside.

Geoffrey Wolff claimed he, over the years, inadvertently shaped his old man into a more dashing, gangsteresque figure than he’d been:

It had always been convenient to see my father in melodramatic terms, as extraordinarily seedy or criminal. But the things I’d dined out on weren’t emotionally accurate.

Before writing his Vietnam memoir, Tobias Wolff discovered that the letters he’d sent his mother—which he’d remembered as soft-focus, composed to shield her from fret—actually ramped up the danger he’d faced.

When Gary Shteyngart worked on his mesmerizing Little Failure, he came to realize what a dutiful son he’d in fact always been. Family lore held he was an ingrate and a bounder who cost his parents no end of misery.

Of course, revelations come to anybody who prods around in the past, memoirist or not. Ten years before my first book, I confronted my mother about why Daddy, who’d stoically tolerated her tantrums and wagging firearms at him, had stayed with her. She’d said, “He felt sorry for me.” The instant she said it, I knew it for truth, and yet it overturned a lifetime of believing she’d held all the power in their marriage. His silence hadn’t been helplessness—it hadn’t even been love. It had been pity.

Mostly we get in trouble when we start trying to unpack those sound bites I mentioned. Ideas that hold decades of interpretation can lie to us worst of all: I was toughI was beleagueredI was ugly. In Shteyngart’s Little Failure, his parents called him ugly so often, I was astonished to find plastered across the published work’s cover (having read an early manuscript) a snapshot of the slim, darkly handsome, long-lashed boy. He was solemn enough to rival the young hemophiliac czar-to-be! Hell, who wouldn’t look solemn when called ugly so often? Of course, for the purposes of memoir, it matters not whether he was perceptibly ugly, only that he felt so.

No matter how much you’re gunning for truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle. Start trying to bring yourself to the page, and fear of how you’ll come off besets even the most forthright. The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision.

We each nurture a private terror that some core aspect(s) of either our selves or our story must be hidden or disowned. With every manuscript I’ve ever edited—even grown-assed writers’—the traits a writer often fights hardest to hide may serve as undeniable facets both of self and story. You bumble onto scenes that blow up fond notions of the past, or whole shifts in attitude practically rewrite you where you stand.

In even great writers’ books, you’ll find whole chapters worth skipping because they feel like emotional detours. They’re included because the writer has some shiny aspect of the self that the chapter polishes to high sheen. Nabokov devotes the third chapter of Speak, Memory to all his family estates and heraldry and his fancy-pants ancestors, Baron von So-and-So and Count Suck-On-This. It’s stuff he’s secretly proud of, without ever admitting as much. But here’s how dull the writing gets inside that small, understandable vanity:

Two other, much more distant, estates in the region were related to Batovo: my uncle Prince Wittgenstein’s Druzhnoselie situated a few miles beyond the Siverski railway station, which was six miles northeast of our place.

He’s preening, in a way. Eventually he also casually drops how Uncle Ruka left him a couple million dollars in 1916. And he claims he has no long grouse against the Soviet dictatorship for having made off with this rightful inheritance. But he argues this disinterest in cash so hard, I have a hard time swallowing it.

The following passage is not for the general reader, but for the particular idiot who, because he lost a fortune in some crash, thinks he understands me. . . . The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.

Point being: it would feel more honest to this reader if he confessed to begrudging the lost cash—who wouldn’t? At this chapter’s end he gets back to a beautiful reverie. It’s somewhat reassuring that even a masterpiece like Speak, Memory sags a little with the weight of one chapter, where we sense that Nabokov is showing off his exotic pedigree without admitting as much. Mary McCarthy perpetrates a similar gaffe in Catholic Girlhood, devoting a chapter to her role in a school play and her mastery of Latin in a way that points up her cleverness. Students always rankle against that chapter. Ditto Hemingway, who in A Moveable Feast (1964) seems to be slyly mocking Fitzgerald when he chooses to recount a talk they allegedly had about F. Scott’s penis size.

Somebody once asked me if I minded the review that claimed I was too circumspect in describing my son’s father in Lit, so he comes off two-dimensional as any WASP in an L.L.Bean catalog. My answer? If I’d written it better, it would’ve worked for every reader. Writing about him had tormented me, and those passages did feel weaker than the rest.

Another divorce failure, I think, occurs in Elizabeth Gilbert’s much-adored Eat, Pray, Love, which otherwise displays a nice mix of circumspection and candor. She overtly blames herself for the demise of her marriage, for instance, and for not wanting to have a baby. She claims the reasons for the divorce are too private—drawing a curtain I respect across those events without seeming coy.

But right after, she mulls over at considerable length the dickering details of her husband’s settlement. Is that not too private? She first offers to sell everything, and then to split it fifty-fifty. “What if he took all the assets and I took all the blame?”

[He] was also asking for things I never even considered (a stake in the royalties of books I’d written during the marriage, a cut of possible future movie rights to my work, a share of my retirement accounts). . . . It would cost me dearly, but a fight in the courts would be infinitely more expensive and time-consuming, not to mention soul-corroding.

Now divorce writing may be the toughest thing a memoirist can do other than covering a war, nor could I render my own any better. But while she takes the time to detail all her ex’s unfair requests, she never lets us in on the source of what seems like buckets of money for a New York freelance writer. She sports an apartment, a house in the ’burbs, a retirement account. She flies a friend along on her book tour for company. Even a simple “I’d come into some money” or “Movie rights made me flush” would help. This is a minor bump in the book’s long journey, but it proves that even the most successful of us misstep from time to time, showing what we should hide and hiding what the reader needs.

We more often fail by omitting key scenes. Cheryl Strayed was almost done with Wild when she discovered two incidents that—once you’ve read her story—seem so psychologically crucial you can’t believe they’d ever been passed over.

The first involves how she and her teenage brother have to shoot their dead mother’s horse. Before Strayed’s hiking trip, her beloved mother dies a swift and agonizing death of cancer, leaving behind an ancient, broken-down nag named Lady. Strayed’s stepfather—once an amazing dad—has, after her mother has passed, gotten over it pretty fast, even moving a new girlfriend into Strayed’s childhood house. He promises to have the animal put down by a vet.

He’s away on Christmas Eve when Cheryl and her brother—she twenty, he eighteen—come back to the homestead for the last time to find the bony animal shivering in a snowfield. She spoke to me about it recently on the phone:

My heart was shredded. The closest we could come to killing my mother was killing that horse, which was like her god.

It’s a wrenching scene: “The bullet hit Lady right between the eyes, in the middle of her white star.” After, the kids leave her for coyotes to drag away.

What’s captivating to me as a writer is how the memory came to her in a flash. She was driving her kids home from school, not thinking much about the memoir, when she experienced a brief moment of desolation. You know the feeling: a sagging sadness out of nowhere just waylaid her. And that feeling conjured the image of those two kids in the cold, shooting that animal.

It’s not like she’d forgotten the event—just overlooked it. Who wants to show up in a book shooting an animal, after all—even if it’s a mercy killing? But of course she knew it belonged right off. “I’d been trying to figure out what scenes would show how totally my stepfather had bailed on us,” she said. Of course, she only needed that one.

The other memory also involves her stepfather. Toward the end of her thousands-mile-long hike, she’s staring into the fire, recalling how her stepfather had taught her to build a fire and pitch a tent.

From him, I’d learned how to open a can with a jackknife and paddle a canoe and skip a rock on the surface of a lake. . . . But I was pretty certain as I sat there that night that if it hadn’t been for Eddie, I wouldn’t have found myself on [the trail]. . . . He hadn’t loved me well in the end, but he had loved me well when it mattered.

So despite her heartbreak at his leaving, and “though it was true everything I felt for him sat like a boulder in my throat,” her load was lightened by all he’d taught her that she could use. She wound up feeling he and her mother had given her all the tools she needed to make it.

Maybe it takes a lifetime to get used to occupying your own body, writer or no. Self-deceit is the bacterium affecting every psyche to varying degrees, especially in youth. We like to view ourselves a certain way. After warning my high school sweetheart—a rock guitarist and music producer whose nickname back then was Little Hendrix—that he might make a cameo in a book about our teen years, he asked, Could I please not mention all the pot we’d smoked as kids? I looked at him, with his mass of hair and slim-fit jeans and boots, and asked him who he thought he was fooling.

In my experience, young writers may stumble early on by misunderstanding the basic nature of their talents. We want to be who we’re not. The badass wants to be a saint, the saint a slut, the slut an intellectual in pince-nez glasses.

My Syracuse colleague George Saunders murdered himself in grad school trying to sound like gritty, working-class minimalist Ray Carver. Ray was a lumbering trailer-park aficionado who favored stark realism using the fewest words, so George showed up driving a beater pickup and sporting a cowboy hat. Forget that he was actually a handsome surfer-looking guy, son of a successful businessman, prom king in his high school. Plus the nature of his talent—which produced for us fantastic talking foxes and cavemen in museum tableaux and masks that permit babies to speak—stands worlds away from Carver’s. George’s surreal situations grow more from the mode of, say, Isaac Babel or Nikolai Gogol. George trying to be Ray Carver would be like Gabriel García Márquez trying to be Hemingway. One of George’s teachers kept trying to steer him back to his humor pieces, which George found “too goofy”: “They were just stupid jokes I put in, messing around.” But eventually, as he got older, the satirical stuff started to make its way onto the page.

Writing the real self seldom seems original enough when you first happen on it. In fact, usually it growls like a beast and stinks of something rotten. Age and practice help you to rout out vanities after you’ve ruined perfectly good paper setting them down, but you can’t keep them from clotting up early drafts.

And every memoirist I know has a comparable story. I have dozens.

Even this book tricked me. You’d think—after three memoirs and thirty years of teaching—I’d have inoculated myself against posing as somebody other than this damn self I’m stuck with.

But the same deluded fear interferes at some point with pretty much every book I write.

Before starting this, my editor suggested right off keeping it simple, modeling the book on my Syracuse syllabus. But I argued that I was going to elevate the memoir form by following T. S. Eliot’s model in his essays or James Wood’s in Broken Estate or young Elif Batuman’s brilliant tome on Russian lit.

Yet those three role models couldn’t be further from who I am. They’re Ivy Leaguers, lauded intellectuals, fluent in languages and philosophy, leaking IQ points from every pore. I am a backwoods storyteller who’s made a living with street vernacular. As if.

Can you guess what my fear is? What kept me generating diddly squat on this very text for months?

That I lack the credentials to write anything with authority. Reared in the Ringworm Belt, I am a dropout. The grad program I went to folded the day after I got my MFA. And yet I planned this book as a work of aesthetics and literary history and phenomenology and neurobiology and yahditah yahditah blah blah.

And this is the self-consciousness that haunts every book! You’d think I could spy the wrong road without first traveling halfway down it. You’d think I could—after decades of tricking myself over the same fear—head off the pretentious bustling that precedes my writing anything and always winds up in the trash.

And yet writing has never been linear for me. I always circle my own stories, avoiding the truth like a pooch staked to a clothesline pole, spiraling closer and closer with each revision till—with each book—my false self finally lines up eye to eye with the true one.

I threw away over 1,200 finished pages of my last memoir and broke the delete key on my keyboard changing my mind. If I had any balls at all, I’d make a brooch out of it.