Mary Karr’s Mastery on Display in “The Art of Memoir”

Everyone has a story to tell. For some among us, the hope of connecting our own personal story to the larger human narrative drives us to write and share what happened. But even if you, instead, just prefer to read others’ true-life stories, Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir proves to be a thoughtful investigation into the popular literary form.

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Based on thirty years of her own research into and teaching of memoir, and written in Karr’s signature gritty, funny east Texas voice, The Art of Memoir works as both an instruction guide for the willing writer and an exploration into the best memoirs for the hungry reader.

Karr begins the book with, “No one elected me the boss of memoir.” While technically true, she still must be credited in large part with the explosion of the genre’s popularity.

Published twenty years ago, her first memoir, The Liars’ Club, was a revelation. Without a hint of pity or sentimentality, she shared the harrowing tales of her dysfunctional and, at times, violent upbringing in an east Texas oil town, her artistic, alcoholic mother and tough-guy father springing alive from the pages. With love and lots of laughs amidst the pain, it was an honest look at a not-perfect childhood from someone who survived it. She followed that up with Cherry, about her rebellious teen years, and in 2009, with Lit, about her own struggles with alcoholism and eventual conversion to Catholicism. When it comes to memoir, Karr knows what she’s talking about.

She explores all the facets of writing memoir that a budding author should master: developing a voice, choosing details, describing those details effectively to create a living, breathing world in the mind of the reader, and perhaps most vitally, how to handle questions of truth and memory.

Every memoir is by nature subjective and not an objective history of the facts, but that can certainly be tricky territory when it comes to writing about your own past or your family’s past. She touches, too, on the way memory itself works. It’s not a faithful recording of every part of an experience. It’s shaped by the emotions of the event and can be influenced by what others remember and share about what happened. Her advice is to write about the most vivid memories and never, ever make stuff up.

She includes commentary, as well, on many of her own favorite memoirs, and a reading list at the end. Whether you’re a hopeful memoirist or someone who enjoys reading them (or both), there’s much to love and learn from here.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2016/01/109574/)

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