“Above all, don’t lie to yourself.” Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr’s how-to on memoir writing, should have come with a warning label.
As soon as I got a whiff of Karr’s no-nonsense loosely-organized, at times stream of consciousness, smack-down on memoir that the Washington Post called a “hodgepodge of a book,” I wanted to read it in one sitting.
When I finished, I circled right back to all of my underlined phrases, reread where I scribbled in the margins, all of which made me want to turn off my phone, hide in my office and write. Inspired by her pages, one of my tough-love self-prompts in the shape of an orange-sticky note read: “What would you write if you weren’t afraid,” which a Jesuit priest once asked Karr.
From there, new paragraphs looped in my mind while I was trying to get to sleep– sitting in traffic–helping my daughter with her homework–cooking breakfast. All becoming scattered piles of notes right next to my morning oatmeal and in growing stacks of paper on my office floor.
Despite mixed reviews, including two rather bracing New York Times reviews (Gregory Cowles and Janet Maslin) the latter of which warned away general-interest readers (And I will concede. This is a book most of all for hungry writers), The Art of Memoir fully delivered the attention-carrying quality that Karr herself calculates at 100% for any writer —a full bodied, crafted (“high-voltage”) voice.
“A great voice renders the dullest event remarkable,” notes Karr. Yes, and something else too–a truly great voice strums chords of the most highly desirable variety in me–the kind that wakes my ass up. And naturally makes me want to clear my throat, get up and sing, too.
In Carr’s case, a salty-tough, but warmly-timbered voice humbled with mea culpa that owns the complicated human being inside. So, the rest of us can nod our heads as we flip pages, quietly admit our own screw ups and inconsistencies, or wonder at our lack of experience in other places, and trail behind her cobble-stoned, toe-stubbed path to expanded perception.
And, that is the potent rocket-fuel that first brought me to my knees in the church I call writing.