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Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Art of Memoir

Mary Karr has always been one of my favorite memoirists, so a few years back I excitedly picked up The Art of Memoir at Book Expo. It took me a while, per usual, to pick it up, but I read it and then re-read it with aplomb. Wowza. 

Everyone thinks they can write a memoir, and sure they can. That doesn't mean everyone can write a compelling memoir. Mary Karr, one of the great memoirists at present, lays out, chapter by chapter, what makes a great memoir. She teaches this course in an MFA program and has opened up and expanded on her syllabus to let us humble lay people in on her secrets. She references great memoirs that she uses in her own teaching and provides an extensive reading list at the end of the book. I have already picked up two of her recommendations. 

It's probably no surprise that I ate this book up with my bear hands. I scoured it with a pen in hand, underlining the words of wisdom the Karr put forth about writing. The thing that I found so astounding about her work was that it was compatible with being human, not just with writing. Sure, I attempt to write things occasionally, but I'm no novelist. This book was just as much about being a person in the world with a story to tell as it was about putting that story in paper.

Karr devotes an entire chapter to dealing with those you love in your work. She has a list of 11 rules, one of which is to never assume that you know what others are thinking or feeling -- stick to the facts, ma'am. The other rule that stuck out to me was to avoid labeling people; simply describing their behavior should suffice. That stuck with me, as it felt like a stark reminder not just for memoir writing, but for life. Another chapter talks about story reversals, and in it she discusses the thing that makes a memoir, well, memorable: it's telling the tale about the things that we might forever hide, be it out of shame or embarrassment. It's these very things that are the meat of the story, and it's what makes our stories indelible. Heroes exist everywhere; real humans are what grab us.

There are other points she makes throughout this book that are so fascinating to me that I am opting to keep them to myself. If I told you all of her nuggets, then what would make you want to go read the book for yourself? It's an amazing piece of scholarship, and I will turn to it again and again.

Yeah. This one is worth owning. 

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