Wednesday, July 27, 2016
The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr . . . or Do I Really Hate Memoirs?
If you have read much of this blog, you know I quite often say I don't like memoirs. Indeed, I have tried to read two of Mary Karr's memoirs and been unable to get into them. So why am I devoting an entire entry--something I rarely do anymore--to her book of advice about writing memoirs? Because it caused me to think about memoirs and why I do or don't like them.
In the book, Karr intersperses chapters about writing (finding your voice, choosing details, structuring the narrative) with chapters in which she analyzes memoirs that she admires. Since I have no intention of writing a memoir, I'm not sure how useful the information is for potential memoirists, but some of it is quite useful to readers. For example, she breaks down the first two paragraphs of Michael Herr's Dispatches in a way that encourages me to be a more careful reader. Similarly, her discussion of voice motivates me to look more closely at voice as I read.
One aspect of Karr's perspective that annoyed me was that she takes a lot of shots at fiction (whether out of defensiveness or genuine belief that memoir is superior, I don't know). She says that memoir is harder to create and more truthful than fiction. She seems to see fiction as blurred memoir, saying at one point that "even" a fictional character can feel like the reader's pal. I would disagree with all of these claims, but perhaps the claim that most helps explain my oft-stated aversion for the genre is the motivation she attributes to memoirists: to "recover some lost aspect of the past so it can be integrated into current identity." Integrating the past into current identity is a worthy pursuit--particularly for therapy. But if it results in a book, that book does not necessarily deserve to be published.
Indeed, I think that memoirs written in order to find the truth of one's past are the memoirs I don't generally like, especially if they are about sad childhoods and alcoholism/drug addiction. Perhaps the first 100 such books served a purpose--helping people with similar problems/life experiences work through their own search for an integrated identity--but enough already. I find these books tiresome. I suspect Mary Karr might think I am in denial--but I had a pretty decent childhood and have dealt with any lingering issues from childhood privately. Similarly, addiction is not part of my story. I just don't find such accounts rewarding in any way. And I mostly don't read them anymore--except when an author tricks me by, for example, calling her book Fiction Ruined My Family. Now if that were really the truth of her story, I could for sure get into it, but it was just another tale of alcohol and bad decisions.
Here I must admit that a very few memoirs have had emotional resonance for me--the writer experienced something difficult that had some similarity to an event in my life and wrote about it in a way that helped me process my own feelings (quite importantly, these authors did not whine--compare Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking with Joyce Carol Oates's annoying A Widow's Story). As I think about memoirs I have liked and disliked, I find that I like memoirs in which the writer has done something interesting with his/her life that I enjoy learning about; of late, these have often been works by chefs (Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson and Grant Achatz's Life, on the Line come to mind). I also admire (though don't always totally understand) memoirs in which the writer draws parallels between his/her life and events in the larger world, essentially making the writer's life a metaphor for more global issues. Examples here would include When Women Were Birds and Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams and Nobody's Son by Luis Alberto Urrea.
So I have resolved to stop making the blanket statement that I don't like memoirs and avoid those memoirs I know I will not find meaningful, hoping that there are other folks who will find these books resonate with them. I guess I should thank Mary Karr for that.
Truth works a trip wire that permits the book to explode into being.