The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Maureen MurdockMemoir WritingLeave a Comment

Art of Memoir book cover

I have been reading Mary Karr’s excellent book, The Art of Memoir, and sharing it with my memoir group. I think is the best book on writing memoir out there. Karr knows what she’s talking about because she has written three memoirs, including Liar’s Club, Cherry and Lit, and she is often credited with popularizing the genre. I was teaching memoir writing in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program in 1995 when Karr’s first book was published and all of a sudden everyone wanted to write memoir! Because of Karr’s Liar’s Club and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, the memoir genre became the most popular form of non-fiction writing.

“Like a lot of memoirists, I had a tormented past and really started into this business, I think, to scratch at and rout out the truth of my less-than-perfect childhood,” Karr explains.” I’m just somebody who scratches and picks and worries the bone of things over and over and over.”

Karr says that each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice and her voice is specific to growing up in Texas. In The Art of Memoir, she writes:

“Each voice is cleverly fashioned to highlight a writer’s individual talent or way of viewing the world. It may take a writer hundreds of rough trial pages for a way of speaking to start to emerge unique to himself and his experience, but when she does, both carnal and interior experiences come back with clarity and the work gains an electrical charge. For the reader, the voice has to exist from the first sentence. The voice should permit a range of emotional tones—too wiseass, and it denies pathos; too pathetic, and it’s shrill. The writer doesn’t choose these styles so much as she’s born to them, based on who she is and how she experienced the past.” (36)

Think about this when writing your memoir. How does your voice reflect where you grew up, your family, your values, and your way of perceiving the world? Your voice depends upon self-awareness and that’s why self-awareness is so key in writing memoir.

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