Mary Karr’s The Art Of Memoir On The Value Of Authenticity In A Writer’s Work

The Art of Memoir is a wonderful resource for writers of all experiences.

Writing is that kind of craft where it pays to have a mentor. In other words, you can learn as much writing theory as you can, but people with an access to an apprenticeship under a great writer have the potential to excel much more than you. Also, because writing has gained a reputation of being a kind of a mysterious vocation, much like a branch of witchcraft, many seek THE SECRET, granting audience to anyone who professes to have the formula to become the next Hemingway. Indeed, we scour books for writing advice, implementing most methods we find in it in the hope to attain that elusive level of mastery.

The Art of Memoir is an attempt by a fairly successful author, with a couple of bestsellers, to teach us how she did it. Mary Karr embarks on this endeavour to share with us what she considers good memoir and the sacrifices that are central to the crafting of one.

Even if writing memoir isn't your thing, it still doesn't matter because Mary Karr covers some important information about writing in general; so don’t be bothered about missing out.
For this book review, I will focus on a subject she tackles very well, something beneficial for any kind of writer - voice.

On voice, Mary Karr tells us that it is one of the unique things a writer has to develop. She talks up the importance of this, saying:
"The secret to any voice grows from a writer’s finding a tractor beam of inner truth about psychological conflicts to shine the way. While an artist consciously constructs a voice, she chooses its elements because they’re natural expressions of character. So above all, a voice has to sound like the person wielding it ­ the super-­most interesting version of that person ever ­ and grow from her core self."

Mary Karr believes that going against our nature and natural tendencies doesn’t benefit our craft, rather it makes us sound phony to the reader. The author says, that a sassy person in real life will most likely be witty and incisive in writing style. While a quiet, brooding personality may have the tendency to be heavy in handling words on the page. She writes,
"Pretty much all the great memoirists I’ve met sound on the page like they do in person. If the page is a mask, you rip it off only to find that the writer’s features exactly mold to the mask’s form, with nary a gap between public and private self. These writers’ voices make you feel close to ­ almost inside ­ their owners. Who doesn’t halfway consider even a fictional narrator like Huck Finn or Scout a pal? The voice should permit a range of emotional tones ­ too wiseass, and it denies pathos; too pathetic, and it’s shrill. It sets and varies distance from both the material and the reader ­ from cool and diffident to high-strung and close. The writer doesn’t choose these styles so much as he’s born to them, based on who he is and how he experienced the past. Voice isn’t just a manner of talking. It’s an operative mindset and way of perceiving that naturally stems from feeling oneself alive inside the past. That’s why self-­awareness is so key. The writer who’s lived a fairly unexamined life ­ someone who has a hard time reconsidering a conflict from another point of view ­ may not excel at fashioning a voice because her defensiveness stands between her and what she has to say.”

Ramping up the importance of voice, the author says that even when you seem to have covered all the basis with regards to facts and grammar in whatever work you are doing, it can still fail due to lack of authenticity. She says,
"Most memoirs fail because of voice. It’s not distinct enough to sound alive and compelling. Or there are staunch limits to emotional tone, so it emits a single register. Being too cool or too shrill can ruin the read. The sentences are boring and predictable, or it’s so inconsistent you don’t know who’s speaking or what place they come from. You don’t believe or trust the voice. You’re not curious about the inner or outer lives of the writer. The author’s dead in the water. We live in the age of the image, and it’s too easy to learn carnal writing for a memoirist to sketch a foggy physical world sans evocative sensory detail. A lot of instruction manuals beam in on the carnal, simply because you can master it. But few textbooks take up how the inner life manifests itself in a memoir’s pages. In the more spectacular visual media like action films, say, the inner life fails to get much airplay—­at most a scene in a shrink’s office or a snippet of voiceover here and there. But memoir can compete against the pyrotechnics of visual imagery in film and TV only by excelling where those media fail: writing a deeper moment from inside it.”

Still on authenticity and being true to yourself, your voice, she writes, "No matter how much you’re gunning for truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-­crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle. Start trying to bring yourself to the page, and fear of how you’ll come off besets even the most forthright. The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision.”
The author rounds of the book by passing across what she has learnt so far on the craft of writing:
(1) Writing is painful, it’s­ ‘fun’ only for novices, the very young, and hacks;
(2) Other than a few instances of luck, good work only comes through revision;
(3) The best revisers often have reading habits that stretch back before the current age, which lends them a sense of history and raises their standards for quality.”

The Art of Memoir is a wonderful resource for writers of all experiences. It contains good advice on research, book structure, styles and other aspects of writing.

If you ask me where this book stands when compared with classics like Stephen King’s On Writing or Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones, I'll say "a bit lower, but not far off". The reason is because I feel the author's lack of confidence in owning some of her assertions. There are several passages where she sounds confident and assured of her words, but I could not help but notice tentativeness in a few. She cited, quoted, and referred to lots of authors on almost every topic in the book. It's like she is telling us, "These guys support what I say. That means I’m right."

Having said that, I believe that this is a well-written book that will stand the test of time. If you love writing, then this is a must-read.

The Art of Memoir is written by Mary Karr and published by Harper (September 15, 2015).
Many thanks to Harper for review copy. All images are © to their respective owners.

The Art of Memoir: Mary Karr: 9780062223067: Books

ISBN: 0062223062
ISBN-13: 9780062223067

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