What is it about Mary Karr’s writing? Her prolific self (award-winning poet, best-selling memoirist) and compelling character studies appear to infiltrate the memoir reaches of the genre. She’s on a professional writing level, elevated and honed, where I could and never would reach in my writing. Mary’s world would never rendezvous with mine. My memoir is the antithesis of her writing – she, themes of suffering, alcoholism, family dysfunction, abuse, and me, connections and home. Her put-it-all-out-there memoir seems to be a downer, and my pages are an upper. But I remain optimistic as is my memoir. Her book, The Art of Memoir, reads like a memoir within a memoir. Chapters such as, “Why Not to Write a Memoir: Plus a Pop Quiz to Protect the Bleeding & Box Out the Rigid” and helpful hints, “How to Choose a Detail” left me unclear and unsatisfied as if incomplete. I became confused. I question if I’m not getting it. What really is memoir?
My self-study of memoir started with author Bill Roorbach from his pages in Writing Life Stories, Summers with Juliet more than 10 years ago and I continued to learn from Joan Didion, Natalie Goldberg, and Vivian Gornick and many other best sellers on the topic. In a guest post article (Writer’s Digest, July 23, 2015) Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press and Linda Joy Myers, president and founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers titled their writing discussion “Reflection Vs. Takeaway.” I zeroed in on these concepts as I knew my under construction memoir required both as mandatory for the next draft. I studied the writings of Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, Devotion by Dani Shapiro and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert as model examples of this reflection and takeaway relationship.
I began my memoir spewing boat loads of pages with not much direction or calling other than to make me feel better. My timeline chronicled forth as most vivid memories floated to the top, separating from the ordinary like a survival of the fittest. I thought of the relevance splashed on to 220 pages. What WAS I trying to say? I understood intellectually what my memoir teachers said in their books but how do I apply it to my memoir, especially when life stories of Mary or Joan or Elizabeth bear no resemblance to my own.
Based on my last and final critique, theme and through-threads (lack of throughout) needed to be further developed. I had read Wild and Devotion and reread Eat, Pray, Love before I tackled another rewrite and I called upon reflections, takeaways and thematic threads. My application of all I had read over the years had sunken in. I had gotten it! Cheryl and Dani and Elizabeth were my heroes.
Mary’s writing still puzzled me, though. As New York Times bestseller and PENN/Martha Albrand Award winner, I gave her memoir Liar’s Club a read. This memoir read like no other memoir I had read. Though I appreciated her humor, put-it-all-out-there honesty, family relations, precise story telling in impeccable detail, her outright reflections and takeaways eluded me. What could I connect to and how? And then I watched “Mary Karr in conversation with Brooke Warner” (https://youtu.be/PfdQutk506A). My answer was on the back heads of the audience. Yes, the backs of their heads! Let me explain. As the camera shot stayed long when the video began, I saw women with various shades of steel, white, salt and pepper hair, including a few brunettes. These were women with wisdom and experience commensurate with their years. Their heads appeared like mine and their questions during the Q and A segment said they thought as I, too. I connected with this audience in age and mind as I watched us try to connect with Mary. In response to a questioner who asked if memoir writing shouldn’t be just about your life but about something bigger, Mary cited William Faulkner’s writing. She said he writes about his “postage stamp of reality,” meaning we all have drama, things to tell, even of the small things in our lives, to make meaning of self and memory. And there was the connection. Mary’s writing connects with the reader, and me, because it is her postage stamp.
Memoir can contain ways to connect – reflection, every step taken, tragedy endured, recovery sought, takeaways shared, self-analysis – but it comes down to be the writer’s own, her stories and her meaning behind them, the writer’s self.
The audience understood Mary because she writes to connect with other human beings, to record, to clarify. The connection to us is in the emotion for the writer to create an emotional experience. “Memoir is an act of memory,” Mary said. Memoir is about the writer’s individual reality. I understood Mary and her writing through noticing the back heads of an audience.
I know there are others like me who have been working on their memoirs for years. To those I say keep studying the writing of other memoirists and get your hands on anything instructional about the craft. Don’t pester yourself to get to the finish line but be patient and confident in your journey that you will get there.