“People usually think I’m going to be uglier,” Mary Karr tells me, laughing—an answer I don’t expect. My question? A fairly conventional one that gets asked of memoirists all the time, I imagine, about what readers are surprised to discover about Karr when they meet her off the page. Leave it to Karr to turn this into a moment of irreverence. “I mean, I’m no Adonis, believe me,” Karr continues, “but someone once said they thought I’d look like a ‘bedraggled slattern.’ ” She draws in a breath—the phone call version of a shrug—and says, voice mischievous, “Well, bedraggled, maybe…”
Interviewing Karr, I feel a bit at a loss. After all, what do you ask somebody who has made so much of herself so clear? Throughout three memoirs—The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit—she has told her story, from her troubled Texas upbringing to her struggles in adulthood with alcohol. Her new book, The Art of Memoir, is ostensibly a craft book, a guide to writing the popular genre and a catalogue of great examples thereof, but it proves no less difficult to question than her other works: whenever I found myself thinking, Yes, but what does Karr think about x, y, or z, she would answer in the next paragraph. So what do you ask the person who has already told you everything?
Of course, to a degree, this is a performance on the page, for the reader. “The secret of a good memoir is voice,” she tells me—something she spends a great deal of time unpacking in The Art of Memoir. “The right voice creates a certain kind of relationship [with the reader].” For Karr, she finds that readers often feel intimate with her immediately, and “the upside of that is I get to avoid small talk about stuff like how the Yankees are doing, which is fine because I hate small talk. People tell me astonishing things when they meet me because they think I can handle it.”
To unpack issues of voice and other aspects of craft in The Art of Memoir, Karr focuses on the work of other memoirists: the brothers Wolff, Nabokov, Frey (you can probably guess how that goes), Frank Conroy, Maxine Hong Kingston, etc. In one particularly interesting chapter, she moves, sentence by sentence, word by word, through an excerpt from Michael Herr’s Dispatches, showing how he constructs his voice—an exercise taken directly from her classroom at Syracuse University, where she has taught graduate creative writing workshops and seminars for many years.
In The Art of Memoir, Karr also turns her eye to her own work, which she apologizes for on the very first page: “If I didn’t have to pay out the wazoo to quote from better books than my own, I’d have way more Nabokov in here.” On that same page, she refers to looking back at her own work as “a deflating process,” and I ask her what she means. “If I have a red pen, there’s no page I wouldn’t rewrite,” she says. “My old books are actually kind of repellent. Not that they’re bad; it’s just, that way madness lies.”
But Karr isn’t using her past work as examples of excellence; instead, she references them in an effort to explain what went on in her mind when she wrote them. Sometimes, she uses this to answer common questions (where do you write, where do you get your ideas, etc.); elsewhere—and more interestingly—she lists the liberties she has taken in her nominally “true” books, which comes across as a sort of confessional (“because I’m Catholic,” she writes, “I feel guilty about it”).
As a result of these various modes, The Art of Memoir feels sprawling. The chapter titles themselves suggest as much, ranging from workman-like instruction (“How to Choose a Detail”) to philosophical inquiry (“The Truth Contract Twixt Writer and Reader”), from introspection (“Major Reversals in Cherry and Lit”) to adulation (“The Visionary Maxine Hong Kingston”). “I just didn’t want it to be boring,” she tells me. “I don’t want to waste anybody’s time. I want people to get a bang for their buck.” As a result, she sometimes provides quizzes and checklists, and she sometimes addresses the reader directly: “If you’re doing it [writing memoir] for therapy, go hire somebody to talk to. Your psychic health should matter more than your literary production.”
This last notion—something having to do with the “tortured genius” who works out his or her problems through art—Karr, refreshingly, deflates. She admits that there’s “darkness” in her, but she always models a lifestyle that puts mental and physical health before writing. When I mention this to her, she responds bluntly: “You can’t do it if you’re dead.” I ask about her students: does she find young writers still subscribing to the notion that, to be a great artist, one has to be a rambunctious personality, drinking and drugging and generally misbehaving? “If your nature is to be an alcoholic,” she says, “you’re going to subscribe to a narrative in which that’s a required thing.” On the other hand, the relatively mild Syracuse faculty—lacking “a lot of people who drink and do drugs”—models for young writers a different kind of lifestyle. (“I think [it helps] to some extent that we’re not out boozing or trying to boink students,” Karr says.)
All of this leads to a simple summary of Karr’s role as teacher in relation to her students: “My job is to love them.” She tells me that, years ago, she had professors who modeled for her that “you have to know what’s inside a person before you can help them to develop as an artist.” She recounts for me an argument that arose once in a workshop she taught—students going at it over a piece of writing in that savage way students with something to prove often do. One student involved said, as though an excuse, “We don’t have to love each other.” Karr’s response? “No, but it’d be better if we did.”
Throughout all her years teaching, she has seen her students make the same mistake over and over again: “They all make it. They all fight to defend it. They all try to represent themselves [in writing] as other or opposite.” She mentions her colleague, George Saunders, who spent years writing gritty, Raymond Carver-esque stories before embracing the erudite wildness he’s now famous for. All writers, initially, want to be somebody or something else. “I liken it to people who are ashamed of their bodies,” Karr says, “and having sex with the lights out. I mean, you don’t think [your partner] can tell what you look like?” In her writing, Karr used to represent herself as something other than her true self too (she talks about this a lot in Lit), and it remains the biggest enemy in her own work: “the desire to be someone other than who I am—someone funnier, faster, cooler—when actually, what I have to say is fairly simple.”
The Art of Memoir is both simple and not simple. On one hand, it’s a craft book. Simple enough, yes? But for Karr, craft is tied deeply to her personal experience, and so the book becomes something far more complicated and ambitious. And in recounting the lessons she has learned in the classroom, this “craft book”feels like a continuation of her memoirs. One covered her childhood, another her teenage years, and another her development as a writer. But The Art of Memoir covers what might be the most important period in Karr’s life—the memoir of a life spent teaching.Benjamin Rybeck is the author of The Sadness, a forthcoming novel from Unnamed Press. He is the marketing director at Brazos Bookstore in Houston.