When I first read Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liars’ Club, her story ignited my nerve endings because her life mirrored mine in so many ways. We were both born in ‘55, had crazy childhoods in the Lone Star State, and grew up in a wildly shuffled deck of cards. But I felt more than affinity; I admired her as teacher and artist.
She followed The Liars’ Club with two more memoirs, Cherry and Lit. With each book, I recognized parts of myself. But more importantly, I learned the need for candor in writing. To write your life’s story, you must peer into memories and render them carefully. Only then can images be excavated with genuine feelings that accompany an event.
At Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans, I recently attended Mary Karr’s book discussion and signing to promote the paperback release of Lit. A woman in the audience told the PEN prizewinner she reminded her of Nabokov. The quick-witted Mary proposed to the woman on the spot. Someone else asked about the explosion of memoirs and their popularity. Karr explained:
With memoir, even a bad memoir, whoever is writing it is very emotionally invested. There is warmth, I think, with the reader and a sense of connection with the material that fiction writers just aren’t ponying up with—they just aren’t. … I think memoirists are writing about how you continue to love people who have broken your fucking heart, how you maneuver in the world and show the inside, the complicated psychological insides of human relationships.
The warmth and connection the author described are what I crave as a reader. If a book leaves me cold, if I can’t find a shred of sentiment, or a character I like (or even love to hate), I lose interest and stop reading. But it’s not easy to journey back in time, expose your inner life, and then describe complex interactions with people.
The difficulty, as Karr went on to say, is that we don’t live our lives with a recorder strapped to our heads. Dialogue cannot be exact because it comes from memory, and memoirists in the past such as Mary McCarthy were called to task by critics when she “telescoped time, or left out sections, or recreated dialogue.” Karr explained why McCarthy’s novelistic devices are now more readily accepted:
We no longer have a yardstick for what is objectively true. We don’t believe in objective truth any more as a society. We think the mayor is going to lie to us, the president is going to lie to us, scientists are going to forge their statistics. … Everything we once thought was true and holy and right and good, we now think is a little fishy. So, I think, subjective reality now has more currency. It’s more acceptable. You accept as a reader that I could reconstruct dialogue, and you’re comfortable with that.
Writing memoir can be problematic because memory is subjective, and lifting the veil can be painful at times. But when it’s done with integrity, readers know it. As Karr said, it doesn’t matter if it’s an “I was a teenage sex slave sound-bite memoir” or “a really great one you will read over and over again,” readers connect to the feelings of the writer’s recollections.
Towards the end of the book event, after a lot of laughs and a surprise reunion with Richard, the hairdresser in Lit who styled Mary’s hair the day of her wedding while her mother got stoned with another stylist in back of the salon (the book is worth buying for that anecdote alone), a woman asked, “Do you have periods when you don’t write or can’t write?” Karr replied:
All the time. But if you don’t go online, you don’t answer your phone, you don’t answer the door, you don’t get your mail, you don’t turn on the television, there becomes very little for you to do. … While I was working on this book at the end, I really had a flame thrower on my ass, and my boyfriend would sometimes leave at seven in the morning and come back at nine at night. And I would be in the same position in bed with my laptop on my knees. I didn’t answer the door. You couldn’t deliver a package to my apartment on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. Or schedule any social event. … If you lock yourself in your home and don’t let yourself turn the TV on, or the radio, you’ll eventually write. Or you’ll blow your brains out like Hemingway did. Or you can quit. What a relief. But I say: if you can get away with not writing, do that.
Given the difficulty, emotions, and sacrifice of time, it would be a relief to quit. But if you are intent on writing a memoir, or if you’re a reader who would like a peek into Mary Karr’s life, I highly recommend The Liars’ Club,Cherry, and Lit. In my opinion, hers are among the great ones, the kind of books you buy and then keep because you’ll want to read twice.