Truth Hunger – A Meditation on Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir

“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.“   The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself.” Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr bookcover

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.

“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,” advises Karr.

To crush any romantic notions of what it actually takes to get IN to that past, Karr hangs an image of ex-Marine, Southern-gothic writer Harry Crews in her academic office, looking “savagely unliterary” — flexing his biceps and aiming his fist fast towards his own face.

“You have to lance a boil and suffer its stench as infection drains off,” notes Karr’s third chapter: “Why Not to Write A Memoir: Plus a Pop Quiz to Protect the Bleeding & Box Out the Rigid.”

“Unless you’re a doubter, a worrier, a nail-biter, an apologizer, a rethinker, then memoir might not be your playpen. That’s the quality I’ve found most consistent in the life-story writers I’ve met. Truth is not their enemy. It’s the banister they grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs. It’s the solution. “

Karr corners something about the overall purpose of memoir. Along with the desire to “heal schisms inside ourselves,” to successfully write memoir boils down to the charge of living an examined versus not so examined life –examination she laments that most memoirists describe as a “major-league shit-eating” contest. And, let me note that for those of you like me, who delight in Karr’s exploitative-compound-blends whipped together like an expert chef caramelizing an onion-y base–there is much to relish.

Yet, swear words aside, with every page, Karr is leading us into a literary church that aims, reaches, swoons, however imperfectly, for the truth. Which is what I wish more reviewers had focused on.

In her preface, she quotes Catholic monk and poet, Thomas Merton “the secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of the truth. …The truth utters me like a word containing a partial thought to himself. A word will never be able to comprehend the voice that utters it.” (Note: Truth is the word Carr mentions she substitutes for God.)

“With that idea in the air like rain mist,” whispers Karr. “I usually enter one of my memoir classes like some kid coming off the beach with a roaring shell to press to everyones ear.”

seashell photo

But be forewarned, to get inside that church for real, to feel that soft whoosh of unadulterated wonder, it takes a willingness to open your ears in sand-stuffed layers, of which there tend to be many calcified folds. We must always be on guard against partial thoughts at the expense of the whole-and our own natural tendency to pose and posture. Or the sentimental sludge that loops us into stories that sound damn good in our heads but are far more propaganda than the vital hum/roar of true emotion.  

As someone who details kicking back screwdrivers with her mom on the way to college–not to mention bullet holes on the kitchen wall of her childhood home – Karr directly acknowledges the importance of vetting stories with family members or friends in a manner that is both admirable and instructive. For the author of The Liar’s Club, Karr lays out firm zoning boundaries that shake off moral relativism or what she calls “all manner of bullshit on the page.

I agree with Karr that some truths are binary (I’m thinking whether someone has a medical degree or not is pretty straightforward?) but Karr is also equally clear that there are emotional truths that deserve the latitude of perspective in which “the truth is the speaker’s perspective alone.”

Reviewers, however, were skeptical about Karr’s ability to remember vivid details sprawling back to her seventh year. Could she really remember the color of her nine-year old sister’s pink pajamas folded in the local sheriff’s arms–the same blurry night Karr fought off the family doctor’s exam (for a dogbite at the teeth of the family dog Nipper) amidst a house of “highway patrolmen and firemen” and “backyard flames” depicted in the beginning pages of her bestseller, The Liar’s Club?

Fair enough, I thought. The level of detail Karr espouses, but also delivers in her own writing is perhaps impossible to imagine in any human being’s honest recollective ability. For she recalls in vivid detail, scene by scene, episodes she experienced before the age of ten.

But, I wondered at the memories that might light up our brain cells with a little practice.

When I looked back into my own reverse crystal ball, I called up a few details of an ordinary late summer/autumn night in New Jersey when I was around seven (when I asked my mom later, it turns out I was exactly seven), not at something as dramatic as police scuffling through our Colonial house, but rather the far more pedestrian stupid-kid loss of my favorite stuffed animal. Because I know as “binary fact” that blob of fur whose name was not so creatively “Kitty” and lived next to bean-bag Snoopy on my single bed was Pink.

That day, my smart mom had gently warned me I would lose Kitty if I brought her outside to play and sure enough – when I reached for her at bedtime – none of that pinkish-dirty-brown fake fur was there for me to hold against my skin. And I remember every sensation of awful. Kitty smelled like home and salt and faux fur. I remember that it was raining when I worked up the nerve to go outside alone and scan the dark for her tiny shape in my bare feet.

And to speak to Karr’s “memory can be a swamp,” even though I can to this day, decades later, recall Kitty’s smell and color, I have no recollection of whether I actually found her wet matted comfort on the sopping ground. Or whether I went back inside empty-handed.

What I DO remember is the horrible process of looking for her shape on the ground, the low-slung feeling that I’d messed up so badly and that the consequences were too much for me to hold, a chilly hand on the throat kind of feeling–for I’d been careless with what was irreplaceable, with someone, something I wanted so blindly and madly, it hurt all over.

Turns out that was the year my parents got separated–also the year that the Watergate scandal broke–a place I might marry contextual research with personal experience later?

“So a single image can split open the hard seed of the past, and soon memory pours forth from every direction, sprouting its vines and flowers up around you till the old garden’s taking shape in all its fragrant glory.”

Like Karr herself, “The Art of Memoir” is not perfect, some of her sentences become predictably self-deprecating. But, I thumbed right past them and laughed the same way we look past–and even better like the friends we choose to stick with over time; their foibles make them them. Besides, Karr spells out her faults and strengths and advises us all to do the same–in order to master our own puppet strings.

Karr’s voice is also rarely without two other qualities I admire in both writing and people–insight and guts. She’s tough enough to paw right through her own nasty splinters (abuse, sex, drugs, addiction, vanity) but, way more important to her construction of voice, Karr is also curious, tender, vulnerable and perceptive enough to nail the most painfully confounding of (typically) basement-shoved feelings at all ages of her life. Like most of her readers, I often sigh with relief when she just says it right the hell out loud.

She knows that pussy is a high-ticket item right up until and during the night you relinquish it.  Then it becomes a commodity and you along with it – with no more value added than frozen OJ or pork belly.”   (From Karr’s coming-of-age memoir, Cherry)

About her motivation for writing Cherry (published in 2000 about Karr’s sexual awakening) Karr notes in The Art of Memoir, “I wanted it to fill a hole I saw in the memoir canon. Not only did girls not write about sex in high school–other than assaults or aberrant sex—they hardly rendered in high school at all.”

About Cherry, Karr also fesses up to “roller coaster” reversals of perspective, where cracking new ground meant being open enough to burst her own bubble among other things, her conception of herself as a “brainiac” vs. high school transcripts that told a whole different story.

“But that reversal–rather than being something I’d hide–actually buffed up my material, because it exposed the schism between who I’d wanted to be and who I’d actually been. That’s the stuff of inner conflict and plot.”

The idea, as Karr writes, is to “unclench the mind’s jaws. Eventually,” she advises, “you’ll start identifying a little bit with that detached, watcher self and less with your prattling head.”

And on that “not so easy” note, The Art of Memoir is equally seasoned with the hardest truths of the literary path, the ones that are the most difficult for beginning writers to remember and/or accept–and that, I’m thinking, might be just as painfully accurate about life beyond the keyboard.

Hint: First drafts (attempts at whatever?) usually suck, getting to the juice can be and mostly is painful—and revision (after revision) is where the rubber hits the road. Because that’s where, whaazzzam, in our most devoted and cumulative moments…the ecstasy of the creative process finally strikes firecracker-dopamine down our spine and we break on through to the heart of our voice–our truest self.

“I always circle my own stories, avoiding the truth like a pooch staked to a clothesline pole, spiraling closer and closer with each revision till–with each book–my false self finally lines up eye to eye with the true one.”

I loved that Karr repeated the revise refrain through the manuscript, because, forget talent, genius, ego, love or the most seductive of creative muses (who will inevitably leave you from time to time) it’s those who stick with it in any damn thing who win the gold prize of finishing that last sentence with exhausted satisfaction.

As a writer ever perched on a sandbank looking for the best waves to ride to shore, I appreciated that The Art of Memoir was full of reverence for other writers, who at one point or other lit the gas-pilot in Karr’s own voice. Throughout the book, she relives her own literary chills and thrills with Maxine Hong Kingston (“who helped forge the genre of memoir as we know it”) Maya Angelou (“you twig to her talent for placing our bodies alive in a scene”), Mary McCarthy, Kathryn Harrison, Vladimir Nabakov, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, George Orwell, Richard Wright, Robert Graves, Harry Crews, Cheryl Strayed among many others, with an interior viewpoint that successfully “zipped [me] in her skin” a condition she asks all memoir writers to infuse in their readers. (Karr also offers an alphabetized five-page list of many more references at the end of the book.)

Throughout The Art of Memoir Karr repeatedly uses the word carnal–tracing it back to the word incarnate — rather than a word like sensual to prompt vivid physical (but also emotional) descriptions of memories, which irked some reviewers objecting to the erotic tone of the former. Karr explains it like this… “By carnal, I mean, can you apprehend it through the five senses? In writing a scene, you must help the reader employ smell and taste and touch as well as image and noise…A great glutton can evoke the salty bite of pastrami on black rye; the sex addict will excel at smooth flesh; the one with a painterly eye visual beauty, etc…”

What I like about the word carnal is that it kicks us down a notch into our physical hungers which always remind us we are human –the awakening truth-salts of “I want” to be balanced with our more distant or intellectual notions of experience.

Which brings me back to Kitty. To find myself “alive inside the past,” it was Kitty who brought me back into the linen-wood scent of my old bedroom, into the Jersey-humid feel of my sheets, into the knotted roots of the willow tree in the backyard with the footprint of an awful longing–a banister at which to grope, certainly.

Which is different from writing memoir as juicy finger pointing or effusive confessional. Instead, what moments do we return to? What does the truth of head-down-in-one’s-hands “blow it” moments–feel like up close? What’s just past that?

“What can you see, hear, touch, taste?” Karr leads us by the hand to the carnal writer’s paintbrushes… For the watcher inside, the manner in which we discover our real self in that basement–in some cobwebbed corner of mildewed tools or perhaps a crumbling circuit breaker–can finally shake off the nastiest barriers to (and distorted projections of) the truth.

Usually, we move through some “past aura of shame, I think,” nods Karr.

And if getting all the way there is not a full-blown church, it does seem no small miracle.

(Originally published on the Wild River Review website)