Writing Memoir: Peering Into Memories and Mary Karr’s Life

Today’s guest post is by the incredible Darrelyn Saloom, who is working on a memoir with boxer champion Deirdre Gogarty. Follow Darrelyn on Twitter, or read her previous guest posts. (Pictured above: Window Dressing on Royal Street in New Orleans)

When I first read Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liars’ Club, her story
ignited my nerve endings because her life mirrored mine in so many ways.
We were both born in ‘55, had crazy childhoods in the Lone Star State,
and grew up in a wildly shuffled deck of cards. But I felt more than
affinity; I admired her as teacher and artist.

She followed The
Liars’ Club
with two more memoirs, Cherry and Lit. With each book, I
recognized parts of myself. But more importantly, I learned the need for
candor in writing. To write your life’s story, you must peer into
memories and render them carefully. Only then can images be excavated
with genuine feelings that accompany an event. 

At Garden District
Book Shop
in New Orleans, I recently attended Mary Karr’s book
discussion and signing to promote the paperback release of Lit. A woman
in the audience told the PEN prizewinner she reminded her of Nabokov.
The quick-witted Mary proposed to the woman on the spot. Someone else
asked about the explosion of memoirs and their popularity. Karr
explained: 

With memoir, even a bad memoir, whoever is writing it is
very emotionally invested. There is warmth, I think, with the reader
and a sense of connection with the material that fiction writers just
aren’t ponying up with—they just aren’t. … I think memoirists are
writing about how you continue to love people who have broken your
fucking heart, how you maneuver in the world and show the inside, the
complicated psychological insides of human relationships.
 

The
warmth and connection the author described are what I crave as a reader.
If a book leaves me cold, if I can’t find a shred of sentiment, or a
character I like (or even love to hate), I lose interest and stop
reading. But it’s not easy to journey back in time, expose your inner
life, and then describe complex interactions with people.

The
difficulty, as Karr went on to say, is that we don’t live our lives with
a recorder strapped to our heads. Dialogue cannot be exact because it
comes from memory, and memoirists in the past such as Mary McCarthy were
called to task by critics when she “telescoped time, or left out
sections, or recreated dialogue.” Karr explained why McCarthy’s
novelistic devices are now more readily accepted:

We no longer have a
yardstick for what is objectively true. We don’t believe in objective
truth any more as a society. We think the mayor is going to lie to us,
the president is going to lie to us, scientists are going to forge their
statistics. … Everything we once thought was true and holy and
right and good, we now think is a little fishy. So, I think, subjective
reality now has more currency. It’s more acceptable. You accept as a
reader that I could reconstruct dialogue, and you’re comfortable with
that.

Writing memoir can be problematic because memory is subjective,
and lifting the veil can be painful at times. But when it’s done with
integrity, readers know it. As Karr said, it doesn’t matter if it’s an
“I was a teenage sex slave sound-bite memoir” or “a really great one you
will read over and over again,” readers connect to the feelings of the
writer’s recollections.   

Towards the end of the book event, after a
lot of laughs and a surprise reunion with Richard, the hairdresser in
Lit who styled Mary’s hair the day of her wedding while her mother got
stoned with another stylist in back of the salon (the book is worth
buying for that anecdote alone), a woman asked, “Do you have periods
when you don’t write or can’t write?” Karr replied:

All the time. But
if you don’t go online, you don’t answer your phone, you don’t answer
the door, you don’t get your mail, you don’t turn on the television,
there becomes very little for you to do. … While I was working on
this book at the end, I really had a flame thrower on my ass, and my
boyfriend would sometimes leave at seven in the morning and come back at
nine at night. And I would be in the same position in bed with my
laptop on my knees. I didn’t answer the door. You couldn’t deliver a
package to my apartment on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. Or schedule
any social event. … If you lock yourself in your home and don’t let
yourself turn the TV on, or the radio, you’ll eventually write. Or
you’ll blow your brains out like Hemingway did. Or you can quit. What a
relief. But I say: if you can get away with not writing, do that.

Given
the difficulty, emotions, and sacrifice of time, it would be a relief
to quit. But if you are intent on writing a memoir, or if you’re a
reader who would like a peek into Mary Karr’s life, I highly recommend
The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit. In my opinion, hers are among the
great ones, the kind of books you buy and then keep because you’ll want
to read twice.
 
(Below: Mary Karr signing Lit for Darrelyn.)

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24 thoughts on “Writing Memoir: Peering Into Memories and Mary Karr’s Life

  1. Kerri Arsenault

    Thanks again Darrelyn for your poise and generosity regarding an author and her work. If you haven’t already, check out Mary Karr’s interview in the Spring 2010 (I think?) issue of Paris Review. I think you will appreciate it. Looking forward to reading more of your writing.

  2. Charlotte Blanchard

    I love your writings, Mrs. Darrelyn. What a talent and a passion you share with so many great writers!
    You really have a way of pulling the reader into a very real place. You write with such enthusiasm and warmth. I look forward to seeing much more!

  3. Jason Hitt

    Another great read! Thank you for sharing a glimpse from another angle! I’ve always accepted the experiences of a writer without considering the "strategic time travel" that goes into it.

  4. S. Gary

    Once again, connecting the dots that separate the banal from the exceptional. I always love the way you intertwine your past with the author’s lessons, evoking images that make it easier to wrap our mind around the teaching. The pictures are perfect also. I’d love to be part of that window dressing on Royal Street in New Orleans…Hmmm

  5. Gina Mealancon

    So glad I read you’re post. Not only did I enjoy you’re work, (as usual), I also am fired up about diving into these two books. Thanks for sharing. Great picture.

  6. Cindy Bullion

    Darrelyn, I had read an excerpt of LIT in TEXAS MONTHLY mag. several months ago, and made a mental note to read it – one of these days.
    How awesome that you got to meet Mary Karr!
    When will YOUR book be available?
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge on this subject. It’s always so interesting, even for a non-writer like myself.
    Love
    C

  7. Carolyn Patin

    Hello Darrelyn,

    What a wonderful written review for Ms. Karr’s books. You have a way with words, my friend. I will have to put them on my long list of books to read. Thanks.

  8. Hilary Dartez

    Darrelyn,

    Your writing is truly like having a one on one conversation with you. You have personally brought me into the realm of being addicted to reading memoirs. After reading your post and I running to the book store to purchase Mary Karr’s book. You truly have a beautiful gift Darrelyn, keep em coming!

  9. Mary L. Tabor

    Mary Karr, well known and worthy as she is, lucked out with you as her reader and fan. You write so earnestly and with heartfelt enthusiasm that anyone reading you cannot help but buy her new book.

    To add to this conversation: David Shields’ Reality Hunger supports Karr’s view of memoir and its author’s connection to the reader. Here is a quote from his chapter on Risk: “Literary intensity is inseparable from self-indulgence and self-exposure.”

    David Shields’ book is breakthrough prose of the highest order. If you write (or if you read!) and haven’t bought Reality Hunger, do! It’s brilliant—the best work I’ve read on the writing process, on the nature of invention, on art and on the torturous permissions process that any writer who simply chooses to acknowledge and quote her influences—the writers who have been part and parcel of her thinking—that I have read in a lifetime of reading.

  10. George LaCas

    Great post, Darrelyn. I’ve struggled with the idea of writing a memoir (results: inconclusive), and I envy those who can pull it off. I particularly enjoyed the final anecdote in this piece – about a writer having to shut out the world while writing – and while I don’t go quite that far, I often have to come close, when I’m in the middle of a project. Good luck with your own memoir!

  11. Jenn

    Darrelyn,

    Thank you for the recommendations, especially since I haven’t read any of them.

    I appreciate memoirs for just the same reasons.

    I always adore your guest posts & can’t wait to read your memoir someday Darrelyn! 😉

    Thanks,
    Jenn

  12. Ro Rainwater

    Love this! I find I gravitate toward non-fiction, and keep fiction as an escape. I study, and I escape in my reading. I will read books by those I know, whether fiction or non-, however, and I ALWAYS enjoy the read.

  13. Barbara Weibel

    Hi Darrelyn:
    Been a while since I saw one of your posts, so this was a real treat. How well I know the pain and emotionally wrenching process involved with writing a memoir. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever get mine done. But I know one thing for sure – to write a good memoir an author must be willing to expose herself – to cut to the raw bone, so to speak. My biggest problem is trying to tap into the emotions of past events; to recall exactly what happened and how it made me feel. There are days when I struggle over one simple sentence for hours on end and other times when pages flow. It was certainly good to read that Mary Karr faces the same challenges. Thanks, as always, for a wonderful article.

  14. Dawn Herring

    Darrelyn,
    Thanks for the link to this post as always. Enjoyed the personal commentary and comments made by Mary Karr and your personal side of things. Will look to read the books Cherry and Lit. Loved The Liar’s Club.
    Yes, memoir is a challenge to write especially when it involves recollecting and deciphering painful memories. I always appreciate the depth one writes in when I read memoir. It has a resonation to it that stays with you.

  15. Amber J. Gardner

    Great post! You know, this really makes me want to read memoirs, and maybe even try writing one. Though it does seem like a very emotionally draining and tiring challenge (but then again, isn’t all writing?).

    I missed reading your guest posts, so this was a real treat.

  16. annie q. syed

    Dear Darrelyn,

    Thank you for sharing this reflection. I knew I should have been commenting as I read along—I was so moved the entire time! Now here I am with no words! Let me try nonetheless and see how it comes.

    Well, here is a perspective: I didn’t know of Mary Karr. But that is not a reflection of her memoirs by any means. I am an avid reader but bookstores have so much noise, the online content filled with reviews and opinions glares to the point of blindness, that often when I follow the hype to the actual content I am deeply disappointed. So but for intuition, I hardly follow the trial to any new author. Therefore, it is rare and refreshing when someone, such as yourself, SLOWLY crafts a short review. It actually makes me want to pick up the book and check it out! I think I would appreciate her wit.

    This brings me to my second point, a point of yours actually, "if a book leaves me cold, if I can’t find a shred of sentiment, or a character I like (or even love to hate), I lose interest and stop reading." Although I agree with you this is why memoirs can and are fairing better than fiction—even a bad memoir is welcome for its rawness—I have hope for….good fiction redux! 🙂

    I tweeted the other day: If people are putting one another on lists such as "real people" or "real chat" or "real tweets", I can only hope that people realize the need for "realness."

    Yet, "readers connect to the feelings of the writer’s recollections" only if the writer is willing to explore an authenticity not just in their own writing but personal thinking, feeling, etc.

    This is not to say all writing (memoirs, blog posts, and fiction) needs to make us FEEL (which I believe is the biggest misconception: connecting deeply results in some emotional outburst) nor does it mean that all writing needs to be wildly personal (why are personal blogs, excluding celebrities, that divulge personal stories not quite as popular! At least in my evaluation!) but, essentially, writing—memoir especially—needs to take responsibility. Responsibility for lack of objectivity, responsibility for igniting memories, responsibility for the possibility of ‘moving’ another any which way about a story, quite frankly, is not just the author’s.

    My apologies for continuing on like this. Yours was the first thing I read this morning with my cup of tea and it triggered a lot of different insights. I am usually not this articulate in the mornings unless it is a Sunday morning. 🙂

    Thanks,

    ~a.q.s.

  17. Marisa Birns

    Just love how you took me there to meet Mary Karr, even though I was on my bed with my laptop propped on my knees.

    Of course, look at what I’m doing – reading your great post!

    Lovely photo of you both. 🙂

  18. Kathryn Magendie

    As usual, Darrelyn, you have written an article that cleans to the bone. Love this.

    Love the photo, as well – her bare feet, your relaxed stance as you talk to her. Lovely.

    I laughed at her descriptions of writing . . . staying in the same position. My GMR will leave and come back and he’ll say, "have you even moved?" Teehee . . . I rarely get out of my little log house and when I do, I feel as if I’m frenetic …ohhh! look at all the shiny things! *laugh*

    Wonderful article as usual, Darrelyn. I read Liar’s Club years ago – someone gave it to me as a gift because, she said, "your such and so story reminds me of Karr’s" – and I am def going to order her other books after this recommendations *smiling*

  19. Linda Joy Myers

    Dear Darrelyn,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Mary Karr. I too was rocked by the book and Mary’s appearance here in California a couple months ago. In my memoir writing workshops, I suggest they read Mary Karr’s books, starting with The Liar’s Club to see how she weaves structure, poetic language, and scenes, but most of all, I feel inspired by the way she digs into "truth," how she seeks to learn about her family and how she explores herself and her own attempts to escape painful truths. Lit is scathingly self-revealing and confessional, and reminds us that authors are also human. Great photo of you and Mary–and there she is, in her bare feet!

  20. Susan Cushman

    What a great post on Karr, Darrelyn. She’s my favorite memoirist ever, and you captured some great aspects of her as a person and a writer, while sharing your own personal connection to her story. Well done. I had the pleasure of meeting Karr and hearing her read at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, this summer. Inspirational, on so many levels.(You can read my post on meeting her here: http://wwwpenandpalette-susancushman.blogspot.com/2010/07/lit-accommodating-joy.html. Thanks, Darrelyn!

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