reviewing Mary Karr's THE ART OF MEMOIR in the Chicago Tribune

Thursday, September 10, 2015



Two years ago, the students in my memoir class at Penn were encouraged to read Mary Karr's The Liars' Club—one of those rare chronologically-told life stories that transcends autobiography to become real-live-brimming-with-wisdom memoir. You can't get much more vivid than Karr does with that Club. (I'm also a fan of Lit; both books are featured in Handling the Truth.) And oh, what discussions her words and stories prompt.

The Chicago Tribune invited me to review Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir. The book, which is full of unexpected riffs on an ambling range of topics, will be particularly helpful to those who may be interested in how Karr made, then contemplated, her three life stories. She reports on the writing process, the vetting process, the after glow, and her right to change her mind in subsequent books on the story she lived.

My Tribune review begins like this, below,

When we write about the writing of memoir, we are stuck, up front, with the lexicographer's dilemma: How do we define the word? Is memoir, for example, an autobiographical poem? Is it essay, "new journalism," fiction that feels true, ghost stories, an A-to-Z recounting of me? Is it narcissism, and if it is narcissism, what finally redeems it? Memoir can take many forms. But what, in essence, is it?

In her new book, "The Art of Memoir," Mary Karr — beloved memoirist and Peck professor of literature at Syracuse University — finds herself foiled in her quest for a "Unified Field Theory" for the category. The "first-person coming-of-age story, putatively true" gave the child Karr hope, she writes. Don DeLillo's thought that "a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them" reinforces, for Karr, that "memoir purports to grow more organically from lived experience." A lifetime of reading and writing memoir has persuaded Karr that it is "an art, a made thing." Memoir, for Karr, is many things. Above all else, she suggests, it is a democratic telling open to anyone who has lived.
and can now be found in full here.

3 comments:

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

"her right to change her mind in subsequent books on the story she lived."

This is a key point, I think. I'm not sure it's discussed much, but as we grow older, our memories change, our view of people and situations changes, the things we learned from a given event change. The way we tell certain stories about ourselves changes. And so a memoirist's account of what happened and what it means can change, too.

Florinda Pendley Vasquez said...

I have a galley of this on my desk to read as soon as I can get to it, but I've been eagerly waiting to find out what you thought of it--and now that I know, I'm even more anxious to read it!

Victoria Marie Lees said...

I agree with Jennifer here, Beth. Our memories do change as we grow older. This, I think, is a good thing sometimes.

Thanks for sharing your review of Karr's memoir-writing book. Interpreting ones memories is the whole point in memoir, as you say in your review. This is pivotal to any memoir story. It is also my sticking point in writing my memoir about attending college as a mother of five, to share more with my reader than how to study and succeed in college when raising a family.

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