Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir

by Cara Sexton

As a writer and editor of creative nonfiction, there's almost nothing I love more than a great memoir. Having read The Liars' Club and knowing that Mary Karr happened to be a Goddard College alum, I was excited to see The Art of Memoir hit the shelves. The book is, in a sense, a memoir about memoir, and Karr pulls it off brilliantly. She manages to dig into precisely what it is about the genre that most fascinates and delights me: the mining for meaning. I imagine I am not alone in this, given the genre's recent rise in popularity.

But it truly is the art in it that Mary hones in on. Different, I think, from the technicalities of craft, what Mary captures best is the unique magic of memoir, distinct from biography or journalism. "Memoir done right is an art," she writes, "a made thing. It's not just raw reportage flung splat on the page. Most morally ominous: from the second you choose one event over another, you're shaping the past's meaning." 

But for all the inspiration she has for budding memoir artists, she certainly does not neglect the particularities of the craft. To read The Art of Memoir is to have been given a rich course in how great memoir gets accomplished. I am struck by the truth with which she begins chapter 9 (splendidly titled "Interiority and Inner Enemy—Private Agonies Read Deeper Than External Whammies") with the following instruction: 

Carnality may determine whether a memoir's any good, but interiority—that kingdom the camera never captures—makes a book rereadable. By rereadable, translate: great. Your connection to most authors usually rests in how you may identify with them. Mainly, the better memoirist organizes a life story around that aforementioned inner enemy—a psychic struggle against herself that works like a thread or plot engine. 

The Art of Memoir will itself make it into my "to reread" pile. Since I'd read it as part of my studies, I actually plan to start it over again right away that I can savor it more slowly this time. I know there are gems I missed the first time through, and as I prepare to work more on my own memoir writing, I want to do so buoyed by the inspiration that Karr has gifted to her readers. 

This, alongside Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic, are books I've read recently that have gotten me personally fired up again as a writer to pour out what burns within, even when some of the work that faces me includes dark, difficult things to relive. But as Karr writes, "[M]ost memoirists know the past can be a swamp. Nonetheless, most are trying to find footing on more solid ground. Some memories—often the best and worst—burn inside us for lifetimes, florid, unforgettable, demanding to be set down."