Writing Memoir: Peering Into Memories and Mary Karr’s Life - Writer's Digest

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

Author:
Publish date:
Image placeholder title

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.)

Image placeholder title
richard_adams_watership_down_quotes_a_rabbit_has_two_ears_a_rabbit_has_two_eyes_two_nostrils_they_ought_to_be_together_not_fighting

10 Epic Quotes From Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Here are 10 epic quotes from Watership Down, by Richard Adams. The story of a group of rabbits who escape an impending danger to find a new home, Watership Down is filled with moments of survival, faith, friendship, fear, and hope.

WD Poetic Form Challenge

WD Poetic Form Challenge: Quintilla Winner

Learn the winner and Top 10 list for the Writer’s Digest Poetic Form Challenge for the quintilla.

plot_twist_story_prompts_fight_or_flight_robert_lee_brewer

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Fight or Flight

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, it's fighting time.

Garfield

Vintage WD: 10 Rules for Suspense Fiction

John Grisham once admitted that this article from 1973 helped him write his thrillers. In it, author Brian Garfield shares his go-to advice for creating great suspense fiction.

Pennington_10:21

The Chaotically Seductive Path to Persuasive Copy

In this article, author, writing coach, and copywriter David Pennington teaches you the simple secrets of excellent copywriting.

Grinnell_Literary Techniques

Using Literary Techniques in Narrative Journalism

In this article, author Dustin Grinnell examines Jon Franklin’s award-winning article Mrs. Kelly’s Monster to help writers master the use of literary techniques in narrative journalism.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 545

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a cleaning poem.

new_agent_alert_amy_collins_talcott_notch_literary_services

New Agent Alert: Amy Collins of Talcott Notch Literary Services

New literary agent alerts (with this spotlight featuring Amy Collins of Talcott Notch Literary Services) are golden opportunities for new writers because each one is a literary agent who is likely building his or her client list.

5_tips_for_writing_scary_stories_simone_st_james_horror_novels_hauntings

5 Tips for Writing Scary Stories and Horror Novels

Bestselling and award-winning author Simone St. James shares five tips for writing scary stories and horror novels that readers will love to fear.