Monday, September 14, 2015

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Mary Karr, who has taught classes featuring memoirs for thirty years, and written three award-winning bestselling memoirs herself, now turns her hand to instruction. Although the publishers originally suggested they just publish her syllabus, Karr turned her hand to an instructional, informational book, The Art of Memoir.

Karr says memoir is "The sheer, convincing poetry of a single person trying to make sense of the past." The author of a memoir presents their truth to the world, a truth that might be different to a sibling or parent, or someone who lived through the same experience. And, she discusses that truth, discussing the "accuracy and inaccuracy of memory." Any memoir is the author's own version of events.

The Art of Memoir uses memoirs as examples of the form. Karr discusses memoirs she teaches: Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory, Geoffrey Wolff's The Duke of Deception and his brother, Tobias' The Boy's Life. She discusses her own writing, and uses other writers as examples as well. There is also an extensive list of memoirs in the Required Reading portion.

Karr's latest book is a lesson in writing memoirs, with suggestions and examples of the best and worst writing. And, it's an impossible book to review. How do you review a how-to book? The answer is to suggest that Karr, who has read memoirs for fifty years, and taught the subject for thirty years, is an expert. She's also an expert who reminds wannabe writers to find their own voice, even if that means throwing out the rules. And, with all of her expertise, she says she remains in awe of everyone who has the courage to try to write "some truth from the godawful mess of a single life". As do I.

Mary Karr's website is

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. HarperCollins. 2015. ISBN 9780062223067 (hardcover), 256p.

FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.


Clea Simon said...

Haven't read this and I suspect that my memoir-writing days are behind me (my first two books had a lot of memoir in them). But I'm curious: was it interesting or enlightening to a non-memoir writer? Did it give you any insight into the process? Thanks, Lesa!

Lesa said...

Some, Clea. I bogged down at times. I wasn't particularly interested in Nabakov. I did find Karr's own story interesting. And, it was interesting to see what she picked out from memoirs, and pointed out as to what to utilize or eliminate. Since I'm always interested in the writing process, although I don't write, I did find it enlightening.