Bookshelf Review: The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

The Art of Memoir

Recently, I finished reading “The Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr. This book was gifted to me last July, so it has taken me a while to finish it. Not that it is poorly written, but there was a lot in it to digest.

Being new to the world of writing myself, and having aspirations to write one, if not more than one, personal memoirs, I wanted to give this book the proper attention it deserved and interact with the material while I was processing the information.

Mary Karr is an author of three award-winning best-selling memoirs. Additionally, she is the Jesse Truesdell peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University. So, she is definitely qualified to write a book on the art of memoirs. But, don’t think that she is the stereotypical “intellectual” type. Rather, she is blunt, sometimes crude, honest, and transparent. All of which, I believe aid to her success as a memoirist.

Overall, this book provides an insider’s look into the development, framework, and personal toll of writing a memoir. She focuses on several of the key aspects of writing memoirs.

The first one she tackles is truth and how it relates to personal storytelling. Mary dives into the struggle of memoirists to accurately tell the past events, while understanding the bias everyone unknowingly possesses as they filter events through their own memories.

Next, Mary transitions to the importance of every writer, memoirists in particular, to develop their voice. Her well-made point is to be honest and be yourself. Readers usually resent memoirists trying to be someone they aren’t, or embellish stories they are telling. And, surprisingly, those things are often easy to spot. In her words, “We can accept anything from a memoirist but deceit, which is – almost always – a shallow person’s lack of self-knowledge.”

Mary then transitions to what she terms “Sacred Carnality.” As seductive as this sounds, what she is referring to is the author’s’ ability to awaken the senses of the reader, thereby drawing them into the story as if they were right there. “Of all memoir’s five elements, carnality is the most primary and necessary.” This is the cunning ability of a writer to weave in descriptions that awaken and tingle the senses of the readers. “Getting sophisticated about carnal writing means selecting sensual data – items, odors, sounds – to recount details based on their psychological effects on a reader.” As much as the writer’s voice evokes as sense of honesty, carnality draws the reader into the story itself.

Next, Mary dwells on the personal side of writing, particularly in regards to memoirs. To her point, not every writer is cut out to write memoirs. Most memoirists will relive past, often painful, events in order to recreate settings and tell the story. To many, this is a form of self counseling as the writer is forced to confront hidden feelings and emotions in order to accurately retell events and draw the reader into the story. A good memoir will be transparent in this aspect as the reader will often sense the inner struggle of the writer to tell their story.

A common question regarding memoirs is how to handle relatives, friends, and acquaintances while involving them in the writer’s story. This is definitely a sensitive situation. The others may remember certain events differently than the memoirist. Or, they may not want certain events discussed at all. Mary eloquently discusses the options of including the feedback of others prior to publication. She also discusses the option of not including their input, or ignoring it entirely. Ultimately each author must decide this for himself.

Mary goes on to discuss various reasons that memoirs fail. Often times this is due to perceived insincerity, lack of details, or poor structure. Ultimately, however, Mary emphasizes that “most memoirs fail because of voice.” This goes back to previous sections, where a writer’s personal voice and honesty are emphasized, repeatedly.

Finally, Mary discusses the necessity of revision. Anyone who has written anything, particularly for publication, knows the importance of the painstaking task of revision. Writing memoir is not exempt from this rule.

The Good

Mary Karr wrote an excellent guide to the “Art of Memoir.” As stated, she covered the basics and some useful tips to crafting a personal memoir.

The Bad

Throughout the book, Mary references, and cites, many other memoirs to illustrate her points. While I believe this to be useful in moderation, I feel this was perhaps overused in this book. I found a lot of it to be distracting from the heart of what Mary was focusing on.

My Final Take

I would recommend this book to anyone considering writing a memoir. While I found many of the examples distracting, the substance in this book is worth it. Additionally, I quite enjoy the sarcastic nature of Mary Karr’s voice.

If you have read this book, or are going to read this book, please let me know what you think.

Until we meet again.


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