At the Tucson Book Festival in 2018 I got to watch Mary Karr and Amy Tan in a comic tag-team match on the subject of memoir. They had a good-natured competition about which of them had the most fucked-up family (their words) and agreed that such a family had proved to be advantageous—more than that, a gold mine—for each of them in the writing of their memoirs. Mary Karr doesn’t exactly say in The Art of Memoir (2015) that you have to have a fucked-up family in order to write memoir, but it’s an almost audible subtext.
She begins by warning us that memory can fail, and tells about starting the semester in her memoir class at Syracuse by staging an event—a conflict with another teacher about the use of the room—and then asking her students to write an account of it. The misremembered details are intended to be a lesson about how memory can deceive us about events that happened ten minutes ago, let alone in a distant childhood. Her answer: do the best you can and send your manuscript to folks you’ve written about. She writes that all the memoirists she respects do this. She herself is a stickler for trying to tell the truth about the past as nearly as it can be recovered.
She suggests you test yourself to see if you should even try to write a memoir. Close your eyes, relax, try to clear your mind, and then revisit “the memory you’re scared to set down.” Try to recreate all of its sense stimuli. Let the memory play out. Then open your eyes. How do you feel? If you are an emotional wreck, she says you might not be ready. If you’re too calm, or couldn’t really recreate much, you might not be ready, either.
Voice has to be the writer herself speaking “not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity.” She inserts a chapter on the very distinctive voice of Nabokov, in Speak, Memory!--he breaks most rules, gives no dialogue, has few scenes, and is not someone with whom the reader identifies, but he invests objects with great significance, brings us back to a repetition or echo of where we started (Karr calls it twinning), and excels at what she calls carnality. She means what appeals to the five senses, and she considers it one of memoir’s desiderata. It should evoke place and name names—be particular.
She returns to the topic of truth in discussing some frauds—Wilkomirski and Frey. She does not believe that truth is relative. Karr likes particular words and phrases—“out the wazoo…scudge [meaning fool or scam]…duller than a rubber knife”…to twig [meaning to catch on]"—and she repeats them.
Memoir for her means a life story that’s ordered around a psychic struggle—to be whole, to remember the past as in Nabokov’s case, to reconcile two worlds as in Maxine Hong Kingston’s and Amy Tan’s, to find an identity as in Harry Crews’s. She uses the elephant shooting scene in Orwell to illustrate the struggle he is having with colonialism and his role in it. She tells how she checked her own memory and gauged the responses of her family by consulting them before she published her own first memoir. One of her points about describing people and their bad habits is “give information in the form you received it”; instead of labelling people, describe exactly how you discovered she was an alcoholic and he a thief.
She describes her long struggle to find her own voice, the many false starts in form (poetry) and models (Eliot, Stevens), and the feeling that she’s found it nine months into the first chapter of her first book. This passage seems to me to capture her voice.
As a kid, when I saw my mother’s mouth become a straight line and heard her speak in a Yankee accent as her posture went super straight, I knew she was tanked. The rat scrabble this set off in my head, as I tried to figure out how to stop the chaos approaching us like a runaway train, was torment.
There is no profanity, there, but then she uses profanity less than it seems. This is most of her advice: the truth, the voice, the inner conflict, the importance of revision, and the Karrnality.