Tuesday, January 12, 2016

"The Art of Memoir": Why Our Stories Matter

"To bring oneself to others makes the whole planet less lonely.  The nobility of everybody trying boggles the mind." - Mary Karr

I've taken over a month off from my book blog.  I realized today that I miss writing, and opted to shirk the laundry piling up, the planning I need to do for my yoga classes, and the work that I need to complete for Stageoflife.com and to get back to writing.

I've read 5 books since I last posted, so there may be a deluge of book blog posts over the next 2 weeks.  Although I usually write my posts in the order I read books, I want to start with my favorite book that I read which was recommended to me by my best friend and one of our editors, "The Art of Memoir" by Mary Karr.

Oddly, I have never read any of Mary Karr's other books even though memoir is my favorite genre.  I owned "Lit" but gave it away right before we moved in Illinois. I remembered trying to start it once and not being able to get into it, so I carelessly tossed it into the "give away" box.  "The Liar's Club" was always on my list of "to reads" but I always found other memoirs to read before I purchased it.  After finishing her book "The Art of Memoir" and hearing her stories, being engaged by her voice, finding her vast knowledge of memoir writing awe inspiring, and feeling the tug to write more because of her book, I know that I need to read her memoirs to get to know her story even better.

As I often do before I post my own thoughts about a book, I check out what the "big guys" have to say about them.  "The Art of Memoir" received mixed reviews.  It made a few "best books of 2015" lists including Amazon's best book of September 2015, but it also got some reviews that called it "muddled" or "boring." In the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Gregory Cowels wrote, "It is not, alas, a very good book. Repetitive, unorganized, unsure of its audience or tone, it can’t decide whether it wants to be a how-to guide or a work of critical analysis." Yikes.  I agree with him that sometimes that book is messy, but so is life, right? Isn't that the strength of a good memoir, to make some sense out of the mess of life? Karr writes, "But I still feel awe for us - yes, for the masters who wrought lasting beauty from their hard lives, but for the rest of us, too, for the great courage all of us show in trying to wring some truth from the godawful mess of a single life." To me the mark of a good memoir is exactly that, and although I have never read a book about the art of writing memoirs, I do believe that Karr succeeds in finding truth in the process of writing about the truth of living messy lives.  

Drawing on her teaching syllabus, she weaves in and out of her own experiences of memoir writing and the craft of other well known memoir writers to explain what makes great memoirs great and what are the pitfalls of bad memoir writing.  She's not only funny, but she's also smart. Having three of her own best selling memoirs and having the prestige of a professorship at Syracuse University does not make her unapproachable.  Giving practical advice about how to deal with people that you write about in a memoir, and general rules of good writing (use sensory details - she calls them "carnal" details), Karr also includes a chapter called "Hucksters, the Deluded, and Big Fat Liars" basically saying when writers stretch the truth knowingly they suck.  It's way harder to strive to get the truth right and accurate because memories are tricky beasts.

The parts of the book that drew me in the most were Karr's own stories of writing attempts and failures as well as her victories.  She admits to not being the best writer, but being a "bull dog" of a revisionist searching for the best and most authentic details.  She discloses that she often had to write the wrong thing in order to clear the path to write the right thing.

What I loved best about this book is that it transcended writing memoirs and to me, was more about the search for our authentic selves.  When she asks questions like, "And most of all, how am I afraid of appearing? Go beyond looking bad or good. Is there posturing or self-consciousness you could duct or correct or confess and make use of?" These questions are about constructing identity, and revealing our authentic self by writing our truths in the best way that we can.  Why do people write? To tell the truth? To understand the truth? To get to the truth? Sometimes we need to write our past to make sense of what happened in order to be able to move on in the present. Sometimes we are lucky enough to connect with other people who benefit from our struggles - either the struggle of writing or the struggles that we lived to tell about in our stories.

This book isn't for everyone.  Some chapters delve heavily into to literary analysis of the memoir greats like Maxine Hong Kingston and Vladimir Nabokov.  The English teacher in me loved these chapters, but I can't see all readers enjoying them.  I, on the other hand, love people who are passionate about good writing and can see the craft of other writers as a gift.

My biggest take away after reading this book was to rekindle my writing self and to find my voice again on the page.  Sometimes I get so caught up in the minutia of life that I forget about this writer inside of me who wants to do more than just read books and post about them.  Karr helped me fall in love with writing again and see the beauty in the elusive craft of telling our stories authentically and truthfully.

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