The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 6. Sacred Carnality

My holy of holies is the human body.

Anton Chekhov, May 1888

Carnality sits at the root of the show-don’t-tell edict that every writing teacher harps on all the time, because it works. By carnal, I mean, Can you apprehend it through the five senses? In writing a scene, you must help the reader employ smell and taste and touch as well as image and noise. The more carnal a writer’s nature, the better she’ll be at this, and there are subcategories according to the senses. A great glutton can evoke the salty bite of pastrami on black rye; the sex addict will excel at smooth flesh; the one with a painterly eye visual beauty, etc. Every memoir should brim over with the physical experiences that once streamed in—the smell of garlicky gumbo, your hand in an animal’s fur, the ocean’s phosphor lighting up bodies underwater all acid green. Of all memoir’s five elements, carnality is the most primary and necessary and—luckily for me as a teacher—the most easy to master.

My Texas oil-worker daddy introduced me as a kid to the raconteur’s need for physical evidence when he told me a story about selling fake moonshine to some city boys. His brother was driving off with Daddy hanging on the running board of a Model T when a pursuer driving alongside snatched Daddy’s pants off from behind.

Bull dookey, I said. You saw that in Bugs Bunny.

“You don’t believe me?” I didn’t. “I had this shirt on when it happened.”

My mouth slung itself open.

It’s sad how long I believed stories based on arbitrary physical objects that my daddy fished out from his past and plunked down into my present, like that shirt. It became totemic evidence that elevated the tall tale into reality.

Getting sophisticated about carnal writing means selecting sensual data—items, odors, sounds—to recount details based on their psychological effects on a reader. A great detail feels particular in a way that argues for its truth. A reader can take it in. The best have extra poetic meaning. In some magic way, the detail from its singular position in a room can help to evoke the rest of the whole scene, the way Conroy doing pages on the yo-yo evokes his body kinesthetically in the instant.

The great writer trolls the world for totemic objects to place on a page. In every genre, it’s key.

Playwright and short-story genius Anton Chekhov could hypodermically inject an item so iconographic, so reverberant with meaning, that its presence almost recounts a whole character. In his seminal “Lady with a Dog,” a rake at a summer holiday resort seduces a pious young wife over a period of weeks, and afterward, as she sobs in bed, he cuts a slice of watermelon. The butchered fruit isn’t a symbolic stand-in for the ruined woman, but the coolness of his appetite for it as she sobs speaks volumes. When one of the first confessional poets, Robert Lowell, wants to describe the psychological state of his mother’s tense, aristocratic home, he claims her claw-foot furniture has “an on tiptoe air,” in the process making the cool Waspy atmosphere into a kind of character.

The first memoirist to lure me into her physical universe with that kind of exactitude may have been Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Standing before her church congregation on Easter, the child Angelou forgets her lines and feels caged inside a lavender taffeta dress she’d once thought was going to transform her into one of the “sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world.” That beloved white girl-ness—so at odds with the physical fact of herself—undercut any confidence she might have had. (Which partly comprises that inner enemy I’ll talk about more soon.) As she squirms and puffs, scrambling inside to remember, the hand-me-down dress’s silk rustles around her, sounding like “crepe paper on the back of hearses,” this wonderful sonic metaphor evocative of a time and place when horse-drawn hearses were draped in that rivery fabric. Almost every one of Angelou’s phrases in that initial scene possesses a kinesthetic element, so that we inhabit the girl’s body, which she wears with shame.

Beginning with the sunshine, Angelou puts us in a place and time only she can report on:

But Easter’s early morning sun had shown the dress to be a plain ugly cut-down from a white woman’s once-was-purple throwaway. It was old-lady-long too, but it didn’t hide my skinny legs, which had been greased with Blue Seal Vaseline and powdered with Arkansas red clay. The age-faded color made my skin look dirty.

Her hyphenated adjectives—once-was-purpleage-faded, old-lady-long—capture the peculiar language of southern complaint. (You no-tits-having was an actual invective hurled around my East Texas neighborhood.) The detail of her bony legs covered with Vaseline and clay—a southern black alternative to stockings I first learned of from her—is singular to her time. No detail is Brand X or generic. It all springs, as Keats once said of metaphor, like leaves from a tree.

And Angelou’s descriptions never flag as her soft-focus fantasy ends, so she’s transformed into a too-big girl with hair “a kinky mass,” also squinty eyes—“my daddy must’ve been a Chinaman.” She’s a girl “forced to eat pigs’ tails and snouts.” Further she has broad feet and “a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil”—the tooth space even conjuring a kid’s move of fitting a pencil there.

Think of all the dreadful carnal clichés Angelou might have chosen (other than nappy, which she does use once), and you twig to her talent for placing our bodies alive in a scene.

Strangely, readers “believe” what’s rendered with physical clarity. I once had a reader say, “I knew when you put in that old can of Babbo cleanser you were telling the God’s honest truth.” A guy I played a kissing game with in junior high was stunned that thirty years later, I evoked his red shirt with a tiny sea horse embroidered on front. “You’re some kinda witch if you remember that,” he said.

Again, in instants of hyperarousal, focus narrows; sense memories from these states may sometimes stay brighter in recollection than others. Anybody juiced on adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol—not unlike Angelou being scared in front of the church—registers sense impressions more intensely than in more typical time. Going back to the aforementioned kissing game, I can still distinctly feel myself inside the curved arms of the boy I’d so long had a crush on. Almost forty years later, I can still smell his Juicy Fruit gum. I put my hands up, almost to protect myself from standing too close, and my fingertips had the sea-horse outline imprinted on them.

Of course, physical details, however convincing, actually prove zip in terms of truth. Surely I misremember all kinds of stuff. Maybe the boy I kissed was chewing Bazooka Joe or Dubble Bubble, say. But I think in this case the specific memory—even if wrong—is permissible, because readers understand the flaws of memory and allow for them.

Noncarnal people may have to stretch to become memorable describers. We all start off sketching a character lightly—hair and eyes and weight like a driver’s license—and a less thoughtful writer may fail to sully the page with that person’s physical presence again, as if such a generic memory blurt makes an eternal impression. (As a kid, I was so revved up and anxious and hyper-vigilant that I studied people as if with a magnifying glass. Stimuli others barely register can still come across very loud to me.)

A haunting sense of place should ripple off any good memoir once the cover’s closed, and you may reopen the front again as you would a gate to another land. Anybody with crisp recall can get half decent at describing stuff with practice. Hilary Mantel explains her own confidence in her memories as growing from their vivid physicality: “Though my early memories are patchy, I think they are not, or not entirely confabulation, and I believe this because of their overwhelming sensory power; they come complete, not like the groping, generalized formulations of the subjects fooled by the photograph. As I say ‘I tasted,’ I taste, and as I say ‘I heard,’ I hear; I am not talking about a Proustian moment, but a Proustian cine-film.”

As they do for Mantel, the sharpest memories often give me the spooky sense of looking out from former eyeholes at a landscape decades-since gone. The old self comes back, the former face. When that transformation happens inside me, it’s almost like I only have to set down what I see.

Compare two master writers—one in a noncarnal instant, the other in a carnal one. A passage from Robert Graves’s 1929 Good-Bye to All That—while good as prose—tells more than shows us his psychic state after World War I: “I was still mentally and nervously organized for war. Shells used to come bursting on my bed at night, even though Nancy shared it with me; strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed. . . . I could not use a telephone, I felt sick every time I travelled by train, and to see more than two new people in a single day prevented me from sleeping.”*

Don’t mistake my view of Graves: he’s an extremely carnal writer, and his scenes of trench warfare clench at a reader’s bowels. But here the sentences have the quality more of a semantic memory than an episodic one—memory told more than memory lived. There is not a single scene but several condensed into phrases. He tells you he’s sick but doesn’t occupy the sick body. The only sense memory—large but not dwelled on above—is that of shells bursting in bed. Because they are plural, the faces are less vivid to us. (Again, he saw plenty of ghosts in singular form—I’m only making a point.)

Compare this to the physical detail of Michael Herr’s own “bad flash” in Dispatches (1977), which he likens to an old acid trip.

Certain rock and roll would come in mixed with rapid fire and men screaming. Sitting over a steak in Saigon once I made nasty meat connections, rot and burning from the winter before in Hue. Worst of all, you’d see people walking around whom you’d watched die in aid stations and helicopters. The boy with the huge Adam’s apple and the wire-rimmed glasses sitting by himself at a table on the Continental terrace had seemed much more nonchalant as a dead marine two weeks before.

Herr at first nearly faints, then does a double take and notes that the dead boy is not a ghost. The flashback seems triggered by smell, with “nasty meat connections” and “rot and burning.”

Unlike Graves’s plural flashbacks of “lost friends,” Herr sees a particular ghost marine “with the huge Adam’s apple and the wire-rimmed glasses.” Herr goes on to describe his stress reaction in a way we as readers can enter: “My breath was gummed up in my throat and my face was cold and white, shake shake shake.” (That wry shake shake shake is some of the rock-and-roll-speak that fuels the voice’s engine in Dispatches and steers the reader away from pity, which he adroitly deflects with lyrics and dark humor.)

Carnal memories don’t have to be traumatic, of course. Simple ones stick because of repetition. A neurologist friend took his college-age daughter to a new chain restaurant spun off from the one they’d visited every Saturday for a pumpkin muffin when she was a toddler. At the new place, my friend foisted a piece of his pumpkin muffin on his daughter without mentioning the old connection. From first bite, her eyes filled. She was remembering. She described every detail of the old place and how they’d go to the botanical garden after. “But it can’t be right,” she said, “because this place just opened.”

You know in Robocop when Peter Weller gets molded into some kind of metal suit with computer eyes and clenchy, strongman hands? An excellent carnal writer fashions not a robot, but what feels like a breathing, tasting avatar the reader can climb inside, thus wearing the writer’s hands and standing inside her shoes. The reader gets zipped into your skin.