Happy New Year, one and all. This isn’t so much a post as an appreciation of the following 2009 interview between Mary Karr and The Paris Review. I’ve been reading (in some cases, re-reading) a great deal of memoir over the past few weeks, to get a better sense of the kind of structure that makes such books work, and her book Lit has been a phenomenal learning experience as well as just a powerful read. I found her interview here and excerpt a few bits below that stood out to me, including the long section that concludes the conversation. If you’ve thought about or done memoir writing, they may be of interest to you. Looking forward to sharing much more with you in 2015 ❤
On fiction versus memoir and respect for one's audience:
In fiction, you manufacture events to fit a concept or an idea. With memoir, you have the events and manufacture or hopefully deduce the concept. If you see the memoir as constructing a false self to sell to some chump audience, then you’ll never know the truth, because the truth is derived from what actually happened. Using novelistic devices, like reconstructed dialogue or telescoping time, isn’t the same as ginning up fake episodes.
A priest once asked me a very smart question, which I’ve yet to answer, or have only answered in small increments: What would you write if you weren’t afraid?
On problems in memoir writing, and strengths:
What do you think are the biggest problems with memoirs today?
They’re not reflective enough. They lack self-awareness. I always tell my students that if the reader knows something about your psychology that you do not admit, you’re in trouble. The reader will notice that you’re an asshole because instead of going to your mother’s deathbed you’re out buying really nice designer boots. If you don’t acknowledge the assholery of that choice, then there’s a rift, a disjunction between narrator and reader. And in autobiography, that intimacy is part of what readers want. They have to trust your judgment.
The memoir’s antagonist has to be some part of the self, and the self has to be different at the end of the book than it was at the beginning. Otherwise you have what I call the sound-bite memoir or the ass-whipping memoir. Year one: ass-whipping. Year two: ass-whipping. Then they slap “Mommy Dearest” on it and shove it into the bookstores. Those memoirs cover a single aspect: so-and-so’s a drunk, or a sex slave, or has been hit on the head with a brick by her mother every day of her life—and that’s it. The character of the writer is a dull steady state till he gets old enough to get car keys and leave. That’s not a literary memoir any more than a Harlequin romance is a great novel.
What was your own conflict?
My own bitterness and cynicism had to be pried away for the light to get in. The fury that I thought protected me from harm actually sealed me off from joy. Also, I sensed I’d betrayed my father and our redneck background by living at Harvard with my ex-husband and his polo-playing family. That my mother had given me a great love of art, truth, books, conversation, and beauty, and I was too angry at her to feel gratitude. I had to start living with some modicum of wonder, a state of praise rather than blame. It’s a journey from complaint to praise.
… So you better make a reader damn curious about who’s talking. If thin, shallow characters were interesting, we’d all be watching Jerry Springer. You watch Springer because you don’t identify with those people. There’s no depth of connection to their narratives—they’re grotesques.
Memoirists shouldn’t exaggerate the most gruesome aspects of their lives. Otherwise, a reader can’t enter the experience. She can only gawk from afar. You have to normalize the incredible. Primo Levi in Survival in Auschwitz writes more vividly about his own faults than the Nazis’, whose evils are common knowledge. That is what’s powerful about the book.
You have to correct for your own selfish motives. I want to look like a nice person, so I paint my ex-husband as a saint. But in truth, I wanted to hit him over the head with a mallet. Once I render that, I don’t come out seeming so nice, which is more accurate.
So when you’re writing a memoir, you can’t allow yourself to be an unreliable narrator?
You have constantly to question, Is this fair? No life is all bleak. Even in Primo Levi’s camp, there were small sources of hope: you got on the good work detail, or you got on the right soup line. That’s what’s so gorgeous about humanity. It doesn’t matter how bleak our daily lives are, we still fight for the light. I think that’s our divinity. We lean into love, even in the most hideous circumstances. We manage to hope.
But we remember the bleakness.
That’s mostly what we remember.