The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 3. Why Not to Write a Memoir: Plus a Pop Quiz to Protect the Bleeding & Box Out the Rigid

If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.

Zora Neale Hurston

Asking me how to write a memoir is a little like saying, “I really want to have sex, where do I start?” What one person fantasizes about would ruin the romance for another. It depends on how you’re constructed inside and out, hormone levels, psychology. Or it’s like saying, “I want a makeover, how should I look?” A Goth girl’s not inclined to lime-green Fair Isle sweaters, and a preppy scorns black lipstick.

I’ve said it’s hard. Here’s how hard: everybody I know who wades deep enough into memory’s waters drowns a little. Between chapters of Stop-Time, Frank Conroy stayed drunk for weeks. Two hours after Carolyn See finished her first draft of Dreaming, she collapsed with viral meningitis, which gave her double vision: “It was my brain’s way of saying, ‘You’ve been looking where you shouldn’t be looking.’” Martin Amis reported a suffocating enervation while working on Experience. Writing fiction, however taxing, usually left him some buoyancy at day’s end; his memoir about his father drained him. Jerry Stahl relapsed while writing about his heroin addiction in Permanent Midnight.

I used to crumble to the floor of my study afternoons, like a long-distance trucker. I’d have to claw my way out of sleep. When I once asked my shrink if I was repressing some memory, he said, “Nah, you’re just really tired.” I also remember turning the last page of a manuscript with my editor and feeling fever crawl up my face—103 degrees. I had pneumonia, which I’d never had before.

Here are some excellent reasons not to do this, and following that a pop quiz to gauge your readiness:

1.If you’re psychologically hectored by the nattering voice of some scold about how wrong this is, maybe wait till you find some balance. You can care what people think, so long as you’re not brutally squeezed by it.

2.If you have a bad memory, give it up. Many people ask me how to recall the past, and I say if they don’t, they’re lucky—get a real job.

3.If the events you’re writing about are less than seven or eight years past, you might find it harder than you think. Distance frees us of our former ego’s vanities and lets us see deeper into events.

4.Also if you’re young, you might wanna wait. Most of us are still soft as clay before thirty-five. (I know, Dave Eggers was about twelve when he wrote his wildly successful Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but he’s an exception.)

5.If you’re doing it for therapy, go hire somebody to talk to. Your psychic health should matter more than your literary production.

6.If you want revenge, hire a lawyer. Or find a way to have fun with it. I have a friend who got a nasty review, then received the reviewer’s book in the mail for a possible review from him. His reply? “I took it on the back porch and put a bullet through its head.” He shot the book and mailed it back to the publisher. Buy darts and a dartboard. Literature’s for something else: the reader.

7.Don’t write about people you hate (though Hubert Selby claims you can do it with great love). Ditto: don’t write about a divorce you’re going through.

8.If your writing affects a group of people—a class or race—be sure you’re ready for any fallout. Maxine Hong Kingston got slightly fried by the Chinese community; McCourt took grief from the Irish.

9.If you’re a right-fighter, somebody who never apologizes or changes her mind, you don’t have the fluid nature to twig to the deep river of truth when the spirit draws your forked stick.

10.Related to the above: if you can’t rewrite, give it up. You need to be able to rethink and correct the easy interpretation.

If you still want to proceed, you want to be sure you can handle all you might feel. Pass this quiz, and I knight your shoulders in blessing with my own fine-line, razor-point pen.

Let’s say something pseudo-awful has befallen you—a safe bet for any human unit thinking about a memoir. And you imagine you’ll write the very worst scene “down the road,” after you’ve gotten your feet wet. You’ll work up to it. Let’s face it: you dread this scene as the rich dread tax time, as demons dread Jesus. It’s a haunter.

You’re going to write it now.

Don’t get me wrong: your goal is not to finish these pages. The opposite. This draft will land in a folder you keep. I want you to suffer through sitting in a room for some hours with your worst memories. But you’ll start with a centering exercise in an attempt to get underneath your normal ego and into some deeper place, more receptive to the truth. Meditation as a technique to loosen creative powers fills boatloads of books. There are millions of techniques: counting your breaths one to ten, following your breath, a mantra, visualization, studying a passage of sacred writing.

In getting tough-guy undergrads to meditate, I found the story of Zen basketball master Phil Jackson’s Sacred Hoops useful. Students who’d otherwise refuse to close their eyes and get woo-woo in class went along behind Jackson’s example.

Phil writes about playing as a young man from a warrior’s ego—all rage for dominance. But in the NBA, as he reaches the far edge of his natural physical talent, he chooses to cultivate a mental edge. Through Zen meditation, Jackson starts to notice how much noise is in his head during a game, including anger (“That #$%^& Chamberlain. Next time he’s dead meat.”) and self-blame (“Phil, a sixth-grader could’ve made that shot!”).

The litany was endless. However the simple act of becoming mindful in the frenzied parade of thoughts, paradoxically, began to quiet my mind down. . . . Yogi Berra once said about baseball: “How can you think and hit at the same time?” The same is true with basketball, except everything’s happening much faster.

The same is true of writing. To tap in to your deepest talent, you need to seek out a calm, restful state of mind where your head isn’t defending your delicate ego and your heart can bloom open a little. For me, my mind is constantly checking where I am in line—comparing myself to others, or even to a former self, racing, fretting, conniving to get ahead. But underneath that is another self that quietly notices all that. A friend called to say she was going crazy once, and I said, “Who’s noticing that?” You want to get next to that quiet, noticer self as a starting place.

Just apply your ass to the chair (as someone wise once said, a writer’s only requirement) and for fifteen or twenty minutes, practice getting your attention out of your head, down to some wider expanse in your chest or solar plexus—a place less self-conscious or skittery or scared. The idea is to unclench your mind’s claws. So don’t judge how your thoughts might jet around at first. Eventually you’ll start identifying a little bit with that detached, watcher self and less with your prattling head.

You’re seeking enough quiet to let the Real You into your mind. Inspiration—the drawing into the body of some truth-giving spirit ready to walk observantly through the doors of the past. Then, with eyes still closed, approach the memory you’re scared to set down. Start by composing the scene in carnal terms—by which I mean using sensory impressions, not sexual ones. Smell is the oldest sense—even one-celled animals without spinal cords can smell—and it cues emotional memory like nothing else. If you can conjure the aroma of where you are—fresh-cut grass or lemon furniture oil, say—you’re halfway there.

What can you see, hear, touch, taste? What do you have on? Is the cloth rough or smooth? If you’re on the beach, there’s a salt spray, and you need a sweater. In the trench, sweat snails down your spine. What taste is in your mouth?

I always liken the state I’m in before I write to waking too early to rise and looking for a wormhole to corkscrew down into that more honest place. You want a clear sense memory, a treasured (or despised) object. And most of all, you want your old body. Your cold hand wrapped around a jelly glass of grape juice. That toy monkey with the switch on its back that banged cymbals and—when smacked on its head—hissed at you. You need a point of physical and psychic connection, a memory you’d swear by to start with. Then allow the memory to play itself. It won’t be video footage, of course, only jump cuts, snippets, an idea here and there, an image.

Now open your eyes. If you’re doing this right, the whole thing should’ve been arrestingly vivid, maybe even a little awful. Many students open their eyes with tears welling up.

Sit a minute and let all this wash past. You should feel like you’ve been somewhere. If you’re really lucky, you found a way to occupy your former self, looking out of that face at your much younger hands. Congrats. That’s impressive. Most of us get a few snippets and glimpses.

Now, here’s the pop quiz part: can you be in that place without falling apart? If you’re sobbing with shoulders shaking and big tusks of snot coming out of your face, the answer may be no. Call a pal, book a massage, go for a walk. You’re not ready to occupy this space for years on end. Yet.

If you couldn’t see much or you felt nothing, you may not be ready, either. Or if you can only feel one thing, self-righteous rage—unless it’s a book about a larger atrocity (i.e., you’re a Sudanese “lost boy”)—this may not be your forte.

Those of you who felt a living emotional connection to the past that struck you as real, those who’ve been somewhere, who brim with feeling and may even be crying, but are not devastated—come on in.

Now try writing some pages to serve as later notes. Because you’re not yet sure of voice or anything else, you’re free from the need to squash in all manner of background information, explaining what year it is, etc. That stuff will just get you back in your head and drive you nuts. You’re free to write as if all that stuff is in the reader’s head already. It will be, by the time you get to this part of the book.

You might ask, though, who are you writing for? Lots of people say, “I write for myself.” I am way less cool. I tend to imagine a writer pal I look up to, maybe a former teacher; or my son; or even my dead priest. That helps me think clearly about what order information goes in. Again, if you were telling a therapist or a friend at lunch, you’d know right away what data went where.

If you do have a reader in mind, maybe set down the scene in letter form, mustering as much carnal detail as you can feel. At the same time you’re going to try to describe your insides—either now as you watch this or then as you were in it, it doesn’t matter which point of view. And if you go back and forth to your adult self, show how that feels, to slip from present tense into a memory.

And here are some questions that might nudge you along. What were you trying to get, and how? Which ways worked? Which didn’t? If it’s a particularly awful memory for your character, you have to be sure not to make it more awful than it was. Many of us disassociate or check out during awful times, so maybe you want to convey that to the reader. The memoirist’s job is not to add explosive whammies on every page, but to help the average person come in. Otherwise, the reader will gawk at you like somebody on Springer, or she’ll pity you—in both cases, you lose some authority. The book becomes too much about your feeling and not enough about the reader’s.

Finally, put it aside. Put it out of your head at least a week. You want it to set up like jello. And when you pick it back up, ask yourself, What haven’t I said? How might someone else involved have seen it differently?

And most of all, how am I afraid of appearing? Go beyond looking bad or good. Is there posturing or self-consciousness you could cut or correct or confess and make use of?

At the nadir of my confidence as a writer, I despaired of ever finishing Lit. I considered selling my apartment to give the advance money back. Then a Jesuit pal asked me, quite simply, What would you write if you weren’t afraid? I honestly didn’t know at first. But I knew finding the answer would unlock the writing for me.

Now you may not know what you’d write if you weren’t afraid. I seldom do. It’s a moment-to-moment struggle. But if you’re passionate to find out, then you’re ready. God help you.