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The Art of Memoir

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Credited with sparking the current memoir explosion, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club spent more than a year at the top of the New York Times list. She followed with two other smash bestsellers: Cherry and Lit, which were critical hits as well.

For thirty years Karr has also taught the form, winning graduate teaching prizes for her highly selective seminar at Syracuse, where she mentored such future hit authors as Cheryl Strayed, Keith Gessen, and Koren Zailckas. In The Art of Memoir, she synthesizes her expertise as professor and therapy patient, writer and spiritual seeker, recovered alcoholic and “black belt sinner,” providing a unique window into the mechanics and art of the form that is as irreverent, insightful, and entertaining as her own work in the genre.

Anchored by excerpts from her favorite memoirs and anecdotes from fellow writers’ experience, The Art of Memoir lays bare Karr’s own process. (Plus all those inside stories about how she dealt with family and friends get told— and the dark spaces in her own skull probed in depth.) As she breaks down the key elements of great literary memoir, she breaks open our concepts of memory and identity, and illuminates the cathartic power of reflecting on the past; anybody with an inner life or complicated history, whether writer or reader, will relate.

Joining such classics as Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, The Art of Memoir is an elegant and accessible exploration of one of today’s most popular literary forms—a tour de force from an accomplished master pulling back the curtain on her craft.

225 pages, Hardcover

First published September 15, 2015

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About the author

Mary Karr

27 books1,842 followers
Mary Karr is an American poet, essayist and memoirist. She rose to fame in 1995 with the publication of her bestselling memoir The Liars' Club. She is the Peck Professor of English Literature at Syracuse University.

Karr was born January 16, 1955, in Groves, a small town in East Texas located in the Port Arthur region, known for its oil refineries and chemical plants, to J. P. and Charlie Marie (Moore) Karr. In her memoirs, Karr calls the town "Leechfield." Karr's father worked in an oil refinery while her mother was an amateur artist and business owner.

The Liars' Club, published in 1995, was a New York Times bestseller for over a year, and was named one of the year's best books. It delves vividly and often humorously into her deeply troubled childhood, most of which was spent in a gritty, industrial section of Southeast Texas in the 1960s. She was encouraged to write her personal history by her friend, author Tobias Wolff, but has said she only took up the project when her marriage fell apart.

She followed the book with another memoir, Cherry (2000), about her late adolescence and early womanhood. A third memoir, Lit, which she says details "my journey from blackbelt sinner and lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic," came out in November 2009.

Karr thinks of herself first and foremost as a poet. She was a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry in 2005 and has won Pushcart prizes for both her poetry and her essays. Karr has published four volumes of poetry: Abacus (Wesleyan University Press, CT, 1987, in its New Poets series), The Devil's Tour (New Directions NY, 1993, an original TPB), Viper Rum (New Directions NY, 1998, an original TPB), and her new volume Sinners Welcome (HarperCollins, NY 2006). Her poems have appeared in major literary magazines such as Poetry, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly.

She is a controversial figure in the American poetry "establishment," thanks to her Pushcart-award winning essay, "Against Decoration," which was originally published in the quarterly review Parnassus (1991) and later reprinted in Viper Rum. In this essay Karr took a stand in favor of content over poetic style. She argued emotions need to be directly expressed, and clarity should be a watch-word: characters are too obscure, the presented physical world is often "foggy" (that is imprecise), references are "showy" (both non-germane and overused), metaphors over-shadow expected meaning, and techniques of language (polysyllables, archaic words, intricate syntax, "yards of adjectives") only "slow a reader"'s understanding. Karr directly criticized well-known, well-connected, and award-winning poets such as James Merrill, Amy Clampitt, Vijay Seshadri, and Rosanna Warren (daughter of Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Penn Warren). Karr favors controlled elegance to create transcendent poetic meaning out of not-quite-ordinary moments, presenting James Merrill's Charles on Fire as a successful example.

While some ornamentations Karr rails against are due to shifting taste, she believes much is due to the revolt against formalism which substituted sheer ornamentation for the discipline of meter. Karr notes Randall Jarrell said much the same thing, albeit more decorously, nearly fifty years ago. Her essay is meant to provide the technical detail to Jarrell's argument. As a result of this essay Karr earned a reputation for being both courageous and combative, a matured version of the BB-gun toting little hellion limned in The Liars' Club.

Another essay, "Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer", was originally published in Poetry (2005). Karr tells of moving from agnostic alcoholic to baptized Catholic of the decidedly "cafeteria" kind, yet one who prays twice daily with loud fervor from her "foxhole". In this essay Karr argues that poetry and prayer arise from the same sources within us.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,040 reviews
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,551 reviews2,535 followers
November 3, 2016
(4.5) I haven’t read Mary Karr’s memoirs, but I certainly will after reading her masterful survey of memoirs old and new. During her Texas upbringing full of alcoholism and abuse, “a first-person coming-of-age story, putatively true, never failed to give the child me hope that I could someday grow up and get out of the mess I was in ... Every memoirist had lived to tell the tale.” Over the last decade memoirs have rapidly become one of my favorite genres. I read them for a cathartic effect similar to what Karr describes, but also out of sheer curiosity: how have other people found purpose in and made sense of their daily lives? No matter the outward differences between us, I can sense a deep parity between myself and almost any autobiographical writer.

I would recommend this book to anyone who reads and/or secretly wants to write memoirs; for the latter group, there is a wealth of practical advice here, on topics such as choosing the right carnal details (not sexual – or not only sexual – but physicality generally), correcting your facts and misconceptions, figuring out a structure, and settling on your voice. Along the way Karr discusses a number of favorite memoirs in detail, sometimes even line by line: Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy, A Childhood by Harry Crews, Maya Angelou’s books, Speak, Memory by Nabokov, and so on. Plus there’s an appendix of recommended reading that looks like an incredible resource and will surely bloat my TBR even further.

This is a very readable and quotable book: Karr has been teaching memoirs at Syracuse University for years now, so she’s thought deeply about what makes them work (or not), and sets her theories out clearly for readers at any level of familiarity. Here’s one quote, from the very end of the book, in which she gives us an idea of how important memoirs can be:
I still feel awe for us ... for the great courage all of us show in trying to wring some truth from the godawful mess of a single life. To bring oneself to others makes the whole planet less lonely. The nobility of everybody trying boggles the mind. ... None of us can ever know the value of our lives, or how our separate and silent scribbling may add to the amenity of the world, if only by how radically it changes us, one and by one.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,426 reviews8,331 followers
November 22, 2015
As someone who aspires to write a memoir of his own one day, I found The Art of Memoir both engaging and encouraging. Writing a memoir requires more than just journaling memories onto a page. The practice forces you to punch yourself in the gut multiple times as you uncover the ugliest and most personal truths about yourself. Mary Karr offers several sage pieces of advice on how to do just that, ranging from the importance of remaining truthful to the skill of always addressing your target audience. She uses a gamut of memoirs, including her own, to use as case studies for her arguments.

On a deeper level, I enjoyed Karr's emphasis on voice. Therapy and memoir-writing differ in that the latter pushes you to scrutinize yourself with unrelenting, often-painful precision, all so you can cultivate a style to call your own - the compassion can come later. Memoir may appear simple because it originates from the self. But the amount and intensity of self-exploration required to pen a solid memoir highlights the genre's complexity: you must search yourself, over and over again, for the truth. Then you must meld it into its most honest, readable form. One quote from Karr's book that captures this process:

"Carnality may determine whether a memoir's any good, but interiority - that kingdom the camera never captures - makes a book rereadable. By rereadable, translate: great. Your connection to most authors usually rests in how you identify with them. Mainly, the better memoirist organizes a life story around that aforementioned inner enemy - a psychic struggle against herself that works like a thread or plot engine."

Overall, a wonderful book I would recommend to anyone who likes reading memoirs or may want to write one of their own some day. Though some parts dragged a bit, Karr does an excellent job of dispensing advice while honoring her own unique voice.
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books903 followers
July 15, 2021
It's always hard to judge a book read in fits and starts. When you're busier than usual, you pick up your book-of-the-moment at odd times. And even if you end every day like I do -- reading in bed -- the busyness of your life often leads to an early date with Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep. Thus, another start ends, only now in a sleeping fit.

I rallied at the end of Mary Karr's book, however, taking the last 100 pp. by storm. It helped. My 3 stars began to lean four-ish. It's a short book, for one thing, and seemingly wears three hats. At times it wants to be a "how-to" book on writing, written by a professor (Karr) who teaches memoir writing at a university (Syracuse). At times it wants to be literary criticism, going off on certain memoirs and their merits. It even ends with a long (and I do mean long) list of "must-read" memoirs. (Homework, anyone?)

And finally, at times it is straight-up biography or memoir of memoir-writer Mary Karr. Here's me writing Liar's Club. And me waving as I write Cherry. Here I am again, this time Lit up. With it comes background information of the writer at work and at war (or peace) with the subjects of her memoir: Mom, Daddy, Sis, Hubby, lover, tinker, tailor, soldier, spy.

One thing Karr makes clear is the power of voice. If you can't establish voice in your writing, stick to your day job. Despite the identity crisis in this book's somewhat scattered approach (at times it feels like the syllabus of her course itself... "OK, class, where the hell was I when we last met? Whatever. Today I've decided to talk about..."), Karr's voice comes across in spades. One annoyance, however, is her decision to call sensory details "carnal." Maybe it's me. Maybe it's an old movie that I never saw but heard plenty about in my youth (Carnal Knowledge), but "carnal" seems all wrong in the list of requirements for good writers ("Class, you must think carnally!").

Oh, well. My problem, maybe. If you're writing a memoir or considering it, worth a look. If you're a Karr fan, why not? But me, I was left ambivalent.

P.S. Of all the memoirs she discussed at great or not-great-enough length, the most intriguing to me were Frank Conroy's Stop Time and Michael "Now a Buddhist" Herr's Dispatches. I plan to check both out at some point, thanks to Mary's quotes.
Profile Image for Julie Ehlers.
1,112 reviews1,384 followers
February 10, 2016
One of my favorite anecdotes Mary Karr tells in this book:
In a private workshop with Etheridge Knight--an ex-con from Mississippi and elsewhere, ashy of knee and with hands rusty enough to strike a match on--he scolded me about the pretentious pages I turned in. Way before poetry slams, he used to take us into bars or onto crowded buses to read out loud. Facing a listing drunk or a footsore commuter, you figure out pretty quick how irrelevant much of your drivel is.
I love this quote not just because I love picturing writing students reading aloud on buses, but also because it sums up Mary Karr so well. Etheridge Knight must have succeeded in draining all the pretentiousness out of her, because for all her obvious, copious talent, she comes across as very real, honest, and unfussy in The Art of Memoir.

The things I appreciated about this book were many. I loved her focus on emotion and on being brutally honest with yourself in your writing--questioning your own interpretation of events and being willing to build your questioning into the story you're telling (really the only way to write a successful memoir, no?). Karr further encourages truthfulness by reminding the aspiring memoir writer that "what happened to you is enough"--in other words, there's simply no need to embellish, James Frey-style. In fact, if you do, you not only risk losing the reader's trust, you also miss the opportunity to explore and do justice to what actually did happen to you.

Another valuable bit of advice I'd never heard expressed quite this way before: Present information in the way you received it. If your father was an alcoholic, chances are no one came up to you and announced this in plain English. You received this information gradually and in various ways that all added up. The challenge is to convey this to the reader in similar fashion--difficult, maybe, but it's easy to see how this leads to a better piece of writing in just about every circumstance.

Mary Karr teaches memoir writing at Syracuse, and The Art of Memoir is clearly that class(es) winnowed into book form. As such, there are a few chapters that discuss specific memoirs Karr clearly finds superior and that are probably on her syllabus. The first of these chapters was about Nabokov's Speak, Memory. I've never read Speak, Memory, and I'll admit that this chapter didn't make me want to, so I worried I'd find similar chapters deadly. Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case--the chapter discussing Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior was fascinating, and I couldn't turn the pages fast enough when she started talking about Michael Herr's Dispatches--a book I'd never heard of before but now want to read as soon as possible. Karr quotes from the book at length and unpacks exactly how and why it works so well, an invaluable explication for any sort of writer.

The front flap of my ARC compares this book to Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, but I don't really agree with this comparison. I think Bird by Bird can be of value to just about anyone, even people who don't write at all or even read very much. Mary Karr's book, on the other hand, is really just for writers and for people who love good writing and want to know how it's done. But this isn't a limitation--it's the very thing that makes The Art of Memoir such a fantastic read.

I won this ARC in a First Reads giveaway here on Goodreads.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,230 reviews451 followers
September 6, 2015
I read this book not because I anticipate writing a memoir of my own, but because I love the form and was interested in how it's done. Some of the best books I've ever read have been memoirs, so it was fascinating to get a behind the scenes look at what a memoirist goes through to get the truth in the pages of a book. Mary Karr does this beautifully, but she does teach a much in demand graduate seminar at Syracuse University, besides having written three about her own life, so she knows what she's talking about.

I have to admit up front that I read her first book "Liar's Club" many years ago and didn't like it, because I felt it was a bit whiny and she was too sensitive about things that wouldn't have phased me at all as a child, but maybe I was hyper critical because dysfunctional family stuff makes me go "Oh for God 's sake get over it and get on with your life!"

Anyway, I did enjoy this book, largely because she mentions and critiques a lot of other memoirs, some of which I've read, and others to add to my list. So, recommended to anyone who enjoys reading well-written memoirs.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,040 followers
August 30, 2015
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The book comes out September 15.

The queen of memoir, who also teaches classes in memoir writing, has published a book about writing memoir. It couldn't get better. I love how Mary Karr writes despite not yet finishing one of her memoirs. She is quite self-referential in this text, which even she seems uncertain about. Many of the references will only make sense if you have read the books she is referencing, so I leave this book feeling as if I need to go read the seven pages of suggested reading before I can really weigh in on the benefit of this one.

I loved her discussions of truth, of trust, of voice. I think anyone considering publishing any form of their own story is likely to benefit from the advice in this slim volume.

These quotes may not be in final copy:

"No matter how self-aware you are, memoir wrenches at your insides precisely because it makes you battle your very self - your neat analyses and tiny excuses.... So forget about holes in your memory or lawsuits or how those crazy suckers you share your DNA with are going to spaz out once you tell about what Uncle Bubba did during nighttime... You can do 'research,' i.e. postponing writing, till Jesus dons a nightie. But your memoir's real enemy is blinking back at you from the shaving glass when you floss at night - your ignorant ego and its myriad masks."

"The best revisers often have reading habits that stretch back before the current age, which lends them a sense of history and raises their standards for quality."
Profile Image for Amanda Patterson.
896 reviews267 followers
December 11, 2016
This is one of the strangest books I've read and I am finding it almost impossible to write a review. Maybe it's because I was expecting something different. I was expecting a book that would help writers who wanted to write a memoir. This book does not do that.

'The Art of Memoir' is more of a memoir about writing a book on how to write a memoir. Yes, it is as disjointed as this description sounds. Apparently Mary Karr is a 'messy' teacher and I can understand why after reading this. Bits of advice are fractured with examples of memoirs and then confused with more about the author's obsessive quest for the truth.

I think a book on the art of memoir should offer more practical advice. This is a how-to book written in a literary style. The two genres do not mix.
Profile Image for Rebecca Renner.
Author 4 books612 followers
November 10, 2016
This is one of the best books on writing I've ever read. I strongly recommend it for any writers, not just writers of memoir.
Profile Image for britt_brooke.
1,264 reviews94 followers
September 7, 2017
"I can honestly say not one page I've ever published appears anywhere close to how it came out in first draft. A poem might take sixty versions. I am not much of a writer, but I am a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser."

Fantastic on audio! Here, MaryKarr discusses the memoir process — MUCH more complex than I ever dreamed. She sights several authors' works plus bits her own. My TBR is now several memoirs deeper and I'm elated. A must read for fans of the genre.
Profile Image for Gretchen Rubin.
Author 43 books83.9k followers
March 31, 2021
A fascinating look at the memoir by a masterful writer.
Profile Image for Emily Bowers.
4 reviews
October 5, 2015
As a fan of Lit (I battled with Cherry and didn't finish it), I was eager for Karr's thoughts on the genre which, as she reminded us a number of times in this book, she's been teaching for 30 years. Her list of reasons for why people shouldn't write a memoir reminded me of someone who has had success in their field and wants to cling to it, or perhaps has been curbed for too long by academia's rule-bound tendencies. Her obsession with truth in memoir was contradictory at times and her advice to send everyone who is in your book a draft of it left me chilled. All credit to Karr for the popularizing the genre, but this book reminds me that most everything I want to learn about memoir comes from reading great writing in the genre (I have mixed feelings about her references on this matter), rather than reading writing advice books.
Profile Image for Paige.
24 reviews29 followers
August 14, 2015
(I received this as an ARC)

This book is advertised as a book about the art of memoir writing. But it's about so much more; the art of beautiful words, the art of truth, and the art of living an examined life. While I initially thought this book would be an interesting read, but ultimately not relevant to me as a fiction writer, I came away with lots of insights that I believe will help any writer of any genre hone their craft, as well as inspire readers with the wonder of a really well-told story.

I'll say up front, Mary Karr is wildly talented; I've never read a book on writing with such a blatant voice. While I haven't read any of Karr's (3!) critically acclaimed memoirs, I immediately went out and bought Lit and Liar's Club.

Really wonderful read.
Profile Image for Heidi.
150 reviews6 followers
October 31, 2015
An enormously helpful book, in sputters and spurts, for aspiring memoirists. It is written in the ribald tone I remember enjoying so much in Mary Karr’s memoir, Liars’ Club.

Some sections weren’t so helpful, and others a little dry. Pages go by without any penciled underlining. Also, I found the way Karr uses the word “carnal” to be jarring, and would consciously substitute “sensuous” every time I encountered it. Indeed I feel a little like a hypocrite giving four stars to this book when there have been other books that have provoked a mixed reaction, but to which I assigned just two stars, or three.

Ultimately it’s how you feel when you turn the last page. I finished the book elated by the lessons and tips Karr shares, and the way she exposes the machinery within the memoirs she reveres. She addresses truth telling, family faultfinding, memoir as quest, memoirist as protagonist who must change over time, the ever-morphing nature of the past, the necessity of having both a beautiful and beastly voice, the deeper psychological truths revealed in revisions, the perfect detail that argues for its truth, and insights into how families tick.

Happy this book sits within reach in my library.
Profile Image for Robert Case.
Author 5 books49 followers
September 14, 2017
I spent a long time listening to the audio version of this book. It was time well spent. The author's passion for memoir and for writing as art, resonates throughout. The early chapters delve into how the writer uncovers their story, and then finds their voice. Her discourse on perspective leads into a fascinating discussion of "Truth" and what a layered onion it becomes. She hammers home a lesson well learned in her childhood home: that truth is always subjective. There is always a context, which can later evolve into the scenes for the future memoir. She develops a memorable tag line that I thoroughly enjoyed: "A good lie, well told and often repeated, is better than the truth."

This book is a well organized piece of work and the author, a skillful teacher. She gets to her points, makes them well, and then moves on. For this writer, it's hugely instructive and just as motivational. She includes explorations of the works of other memoir writers, the ones she considers great. There is clarity and compassion in her explanations. And, it certainly has tweaked my interest in reading more of them, maybe even writing my own.
Profile Image for Leo Robertson.
Author 35 books432 followers
December 22, 2015
Wonderful compact overview of the memoir format, useful to non-fiction/fiction writers and appreciators of literature alike :) I feel like my ability to understand big swathes of literature has levelled up, and this book also expands on Stephen King's "Read a lot, write a lot" maxim. While giving more pointers than read a lot, write a lot, Karr also confirms our suspicions: developing a voice takes time, effort, and ultimately your own rules or lack thereof- but you'd better know her rules before you think about breaking them!
Profile Image for K.M. Weiland.
Author 29 books2,275 followers
August 10, 2018
Another reviewer said she wanted to underline ever word. I felt the same—except I was listening on audio, so I promptly bought a copy, so I could do just that. Even if you’re a novelist and not a memoirist, as I am, this is a brilliant book, full of spot-on advice and one of the best and most applicable challenges to story integrity I’ve ever heard.
Profile Image for Jaime.
229 reviews39 followers
July 14, 2015
One of the best books I have ever read on writing memoir. I think this should be required in every CNF MFA program. I learned more from this book than I did in many of my classes. And Karr is a master at explaining it.
Profile Image for Beth Browne.
176 reviews8 followers
October 10, 2015
I wasn't sure about this book, or about Mary Karr, until I was well into this one. I don't know if it's me or her writing style or her dialect, but I find her writing hard to follow at times. Twice in the preface I thought there might be a page missing when the thread of thought just didn't carry to the next page.

But, dear reader, please read on. Ms. Karr has some really amazing points to make, and you don't want to miss them. I have read a bunch of books on memoir recently and I have to say that this one definitely makes the list of must-reads. A friend of mine said she'd heard there was "nothing new" here. I beg to differ.

Particularly as a woman memoirist(okay, wannabe)I found this book vital in dredging up our cultural taboos and holding them up to the light for scrutiny. Interesting what a man can get away with that a woman cannot. You know what I mean.

There are chapters on Nabokov (wonderful!), Maxine Hong Kingston and Kathryn Harrison (god bless her). In between are pithy tidbits for anyone who enjoys reading or contemplates (gasp!) writing memoir. It's a fascinating subject and a fascinating book. I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Camelia Rose.
637 reviews83 followers
November 26, 2019
A very informative book on memoir writing and appreciation, useful if you want to write one, enjoyable for general readers too.

I like the chapter where Mary Karr describes one of her teaching methods. Without letting the students know, she stages a "conflict" with a coworker in the classroom then asks the students to describe what they remember. It is surprising how different people's accounts are. Except a few excellent memoirists, majority of students can only recall partially the event. Not only is the difference in the level of details and the sequence of events, but also in the often contradicting interpretations.

She makes the excellent argument on the line between a true memoir and a fabrication.

A lot of great advices on writing.

The author analyzes her own memoirs and several others. I couldn't care less about Nabokov. I probably will skip tough books such as The Kiss, but I will read The Woman Warrior.


“Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there is suffering involved."

“In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right.”

“You think you know the story so well. It’s a mansion inside your head, each room just waiting to be described, but pretty much every memoirist I’ve ever talked to finds the walls of such rooms changing shape around her. There are shattering earthquakes, tectonic-plate-type shifts. Or it’s like memory is a snow globe that invariably gets shaken so as to shroud the events inside.”

“I see the awakening of consciousness as a series of spaced flashes, with the intervals between them gradually diminishing until bright blocks of perception are formed, affording memory a slippery hold.”

“After a lifetime of hounding authors for advice, I've heard three truths from every mouth: (1) Writing is painful -- it's 'fun' only for novices, the very young, and hacks; (2) other than a few instances of luck, good work only comes through revision; (3) the best revisers often have reading habits that stretch back before the current age, which lends them a sense of history and raises their standards for quality.”

Profile Image for Richard Gilbert.
Author 1 book31 followers
October 4, 2015
Here Karr reiterates her everlasting obsession: honesty in personal prose. She’s been criticized in the past for protesting a bit much about memoirists not fabricating. Her practice is of sharing pages with those mentioned. The revelation in The Art of Memoir is how she unites this basic concern with the thrilling imperative to find an authentic perspective/voice/persona. As she puts it:

"Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice. . . . The goal of a voice is to speak not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity."

She skims over many writers' obsession, structure, feeling it’s your perspective that determines in the first place the story you structure:

"Usually the big story seems simple: They were assholes. I was a saint. If you look at it ruthlessly, you may find the story was more like: I richly provoked them, and they became assholes; or, They were mostly assholes, but could be a lot of fun to be with; or, They were so sick and sad, they couldn’t help being assholes, the poor bastards; or, We took turns being assholes."

Karr observes that the you writing the story can forget without even realizing it who the past you actually was. How she loved, feared, felt at dusk. Karr feels that inner conflict is memoir’s real driving force:

"The split self or inner conflict must manifest on the first pages and form the book’s thrust or through line—some journey toward the self’s overhaul by book’s end. However random or episodic a book seems, a blazing psychic struggle holds it together . . ."

Ah, the mysterious nature of self, memory, and remembered self. Upon these memoir (and much of adult life) rests. Starting with finding your truth-finding-and-telling present self, maybe the macro-struggle to achieve authenticity—a fair truth—is why we honor personal writing, if we do. In Karr's portrait, this subset of literature is, in its beauty and risk, a scale model of the larger struggle to be awake and human.
Profile Image for Robert Vaughan.
Author 9 books124 followers
March 6, 2016
Really impressive information shared in this book about the memoir, and told from a veteran writer also from many diverse angles. Contains an impressive data list of memoir authors at the back, and dives into several examples in her revealing chapters. At times it felt too "school-ish," even though I know this was the point of the book. It really spoke more to me in the second half of her book, especially Karr's perceptions in her chapter "Michael Herr: Start in Kansas, End in Oz" about his Dispatches (1977). The Art of Memoir is a rare, yet insightful book, especially helpful for any writer who might consider plunging into his/her own unique life. Or for anyone who enjoys reading biography and memoir.
Profile Image for Angela.
27 reviews
August 5, 2016
This is probably the best book on writing I’ve ever read. Mary Karr combines immensely satisfying criticism (including brilliant analyses on Vladamir Nabokov, Maya Angelou, and Michael Herr) with guidelines for memoir writing, focusing on themes of truth, carnality, and cultivating a voice, all delivered with her own mastery of language and charming Texas twang. I connected with her no-nonsense outlook on writing, and her ability to talk the reader through scribbling down the hard stuff with humor and authority. Through Karr, I found inspiration to resurrect my own tattered pages of memoir and start typing again. This is a keeper.
Profile Image for Lynn.
1,437 reviews40 followers
September 2, 2015
Today's nonfiction post is on The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. It is 256 pages long and is published by HarperCollins. The cover is white with the title in red and black. The intended reader is someone who wants to learn more about writing memoirs and writing in general. There is descriptions of sex, violence, and lots of language in this book. There Be Spoilers Ahead.

From the jacket- Credited with sparking the current memoir explosion, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club spent more than a year at the top of the New York Times list. She followed with two other smash bestsellers: Cherry and Lit, which were critical hits as well.For thirty years Karr has also taught the form, winning graduate teaching prizes for her highly selective seminar at Syracuse, where she mentored such future hit authors as Cheryl Strayed, Keith Gessen, and Koren Zailckas. In The Art of Memoir, she synthesizes her expertise as professor and therapy patient, writer and spiritual seeker, recovered alcoholic and “black belt sinner,” providing a unique window into the mechanics and art of the form that is as irreverent, insightful, and entertaining as her own work in the genre.Anchored by excerpts from her favorite memoirs and anecdotes from fellow writers’ experience, The Art of Memoir lays bare Karr’s own process. (Plus all those inside stories about how she dealt with family and friends get told— and the dark spaces in her own skull probed in depth.) As she breaks down the key elements of great literary memoir, she breaks open our concepts of memory and identity, and illuminates the cathartic power of reflecting on the past; anybody with an inner life or complicated history, whether writer or reader, will relate.Joining such classics as Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, The Art of Memoir is an elegant and accessible exploration of one of today’s most popular literary forms—a tour de force from an accomplished master pulling back the curtain on her craft.

Review- When Karr is writing about writing I really liked this book but when she moves to everything else in this book it gets really boring. I do understand wanting to examine the works of other writers and what they do right. But that is about 75% of the book and it gets really boring. Karr does give some good writing exercises but those are few and far between. It was hard to not skim large parts of this book. I did enjoy when Karr was talking about the struggles with what to write, how accurate her memory is, and dealing with the real people that she is writing about.

I give this book a Two out of Five stars. I was given this book by HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Michael.
836 reviews613 followers
December 21, 2016
I have been getting into non-fiction lately and especially memoirs. I love reading bookish memoirs, exploring someone’s reading journey or a challenge they completed. I think I have an interesting reading journey and I would love to write it down on paper. I picked up The Art of Memoir to get some ideas and motivate me into writing it down, even if it may never become a memoir. I like the idea of experimenting with the memoir form, developing my writing skills; who knows I might put my reading journey up on my blog as a series.

Mary Karr is a memoirist that has three memoirs in print, The Liars’ Club, Lit and Cherry. All three have been meet with huge acclaim, though I have not read them yet. Karr is an English literature professor Syracuse University often teaching a subject on memoirs. The Art of Memoir draws from her own experience as well as some of her favourite memoirs, including Wild by Cheryl Strayed, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, The Possessed by Elif Batuman and Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov.

I found that this book had plenty of interesting things to think about when writing a memoir and it really got me excited on the whole endeavour. I really want to check out Mary Karr’s own memoirs and I am thankful that she put this book together. It does not offer a step by step guide but instead offers different examples on how to approach writing. I like how she kept enforcing the idea of sticking to your strengths and building from there. What works for Vladimir Nabokov will probably not work for me, even if I adore and want to emulate his writing style.

I do not know what will become of my writing, I now think of myself as a non-fiction writer (blogging). Since embracing this writing path, I have felt more inspired. I just need to experiment with different styles and see what works for me. Obviously blogging and reviewing is great but I want to see where I can go with my writing if I push myself more.

This review originally appeared on my blog; http://www.knowledgelost.org/book-rev...
Profile Image for Michelle.
589 reviews159 followers
October 19, 2015
Whether one has written or published a book, or an aspiring memoirist, there is something for everyone in Mary Karr's "The Art of Memoir". With three award winning bestselling memoir's previously published: "The Liar's Club" (1995) Cherry (2000) Lit (2009) also other works of poetry and fiction Karr is considered a master of this craft and genre, and is a distinguished professor of literature at Syracuse University.

When the memoir genre entered the literary scene centuries ago, it had always been popular, even if memoir were the stage for the odd unconventional people often judged harshly by society. There are now many styles of memoir from the celebrity, political, religious, to the inspirational, the scandalous, the woe is me/misery memoir, and so many more. Karr observes: "Memoir if done right, is an art." However, if a writer has a tendency to be apologetic, a (nail biting) worrier, a re-thinker, memoir not be a good fit. Carolyn See collapsed with viral meningitis after writing "Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America" (1996), Jerry Stahl relapsed while writing "Permanent Midnight" (2005) a candid account of his addiction to heroin. It is challenging to pursue a genuine truthful non-fictional account that makes the genre so appealing. Karr discusses the sensational case of James Frey "A Million Little Pieces" (2005) and how "embellishment" of facts are another way of covering up the truth.

Karr reviews so many popular bestselling memoirs, reading her informative descriptions and comparing viewpoints about the books was always fun and interesting. There are seemingly endless amounts of writing advise: online blogs, low cost "how to" e-books, many of the writing tips Karr highlights may or may not help depending on skill level. Not all readers (myself included) have an interest in writing a memoir, especially when there are so many great books such as this one already published. An extensive reference and reading list included. Many thanks to the Seattle Public Library.

Profile Image for Julie lit pour les autres.
542 reviews61 followers
April 6, 2018
Coup de coeur pour ce petit livre généreux en sagesse et en humour. Moi qui suis en voie de faire mes premiers pas en storytelling, ce livre tombe juste à point.

Mary Karr s'intéresse à l'autobiographie / témoignage (le fameux memoir) depuis longtemps. Poète, essayiste et professeure réputée, elle adore le genre. Elle en mange et elle l'enseigne depuis plus de 20 ans. Karr en a elle-même écrit quelques-uns qui font partie d'une courte liste de classiques américains contemporains. (Rien que ça.)

En s'appuyant sur certaines autobiographies qui comptent parmi ses préférées, elle démontre avec beaucoup de justesse ce qui élève ces témoignages au rang de l'art, ce qui en fait des réussites. De façon constante, lorsqu'elle aborde la voix, la subjectivité, le rythme, la révélation de soi, Karr encourage l'apprenti.e à toucher du bout des doigts ce qui se cache en pleine lumière:

[...] How am I afraid of appearing? Go beyond looking bad or good. Is there posturing or self-consciousness you could cut or correct or confess and make use of? (p.34)

Disons quelqu'une qui vit avec la peur d'être ennuyante à mourir. Ça se peut qu'elle utilise l'humour dans son écriture pour éviter de révéler cette peur. (Non, je ne parle pas de moi. Je parle pour une amie.)

J'ai des pages et des pages de notes sur les petites pépites de vérité de Karr. Ce qui m'a plu par-dessus tout, c'est sa voix à elle : authentique, unique, riche en autodérision et en anecdotes littéraires et personnelles. Une belle découverte pour toute personne qui s'intéresse au processus d'écriture ou à la mise en scène de ses propres histoires.

One reason I send manuscripts out to friends and family in advance is I often barely believe myself for I grew up suspicious of my own perceptions. (p.22) <3 <3
697 reviews2 followers
March 15, 2016
First, let me say that this will not be what I would call a review. Rather, I will comment on this book which I finished today.

Several years ago, my book club read Mary Karr's memoir "lit." I didn't especially like the book, but many of my friends did. So I promised myself that I would read her earlier memoirs when they became available as digital downloads.

So far, that hasn't happened. However, when I saw this offering, I decided that it would be well worth reading. The craft of writing fascinates me. Memoirs hold a particular interest because, while I doubt I will ever get anything published, that is probably the only genre in which I'd have the ghost of a chance. So it was with great anticipation that I started reading.

All I can say is that reading this book was one of the strangest experiences I've ever had. The topics Karr discusses are ones which definitely interest me and what she has to say is quite thought provoking. She uses language well and there's no doubt that she knows how to captivate many of her readers.

I, however, was in no way captivated. I spent most of the book trying to figure out why. My tentative conclusion is that, while I can identify Karr's strengths as a writer, I simply don't like her. She gets on my last nerve and I'm not quite sure just why. My feelings are so strong that they caused me to get next to nothing out of this book.

If you are shaking your head in disgust at this useless review, I understand why. I committed to posting reviews of everything I read and so this is the unfortunate result.
Profile Image for Vonetta.
406 reviews14 followers
June 16, 2016
My life has been nowhere near as interesting as Mary Karr's, for better or worse, but I still yearn to tell my story. That being said, I can't think of a better person (who has written a book about memoir) to learn the craft from. She really is that slightly-off-balanced aunt that everyone has: the one you don't see near often enough, but each time you do, it's such a damned delight, you hate to see her leave again. I love love love love her voice; it's just so real. I am so excited to write my story after reading this, but I should confess that now I feel pressured to make it good. Oy.
Profile Image for Jan Priddy.
716 reviews136 followers
October 6, 2015
I loved The Liar's Club but vaguely recall thinking I didn't like the sound of Cherry so I never read it. Now I will have to go back and read the rest of her memoirs.

This book is solid. It is specific without being formulaic and personal without focussing overmuch on Karr's own work. She is concerned about that and I think she is right to be concerned. Her determination to look at how a variety of memoirists (including herself) accomplished their stories and her insistence on backing away from her own life and into the memoirs of other writers is one of her strengths. She is revealing of her own process without suggesting that anyone else follow her lead in pursuit of their own story. She even offers suggestions about structure, but she begins by warning people off. This is not therapy or pleasure. Memoir will cause suffering by forcing the writer to look closely at him- or herself and truth isn't always on the side we expect. Memoir is not for the faint of heart.

The brief chapter defending Maxine Hong Kingston alone would have been worth the read for me. I recall the shrieking attacks on Woman Warrior by another, less successful male writer, and I believed at the time that they were prompted by about equal parts envy and sexism. Karr expresses something simliar: "I must defend Hong Kingston's right to represent her own Chinese girlhood any way she damn pleases, without checking with the male thought police first" (110).

There are probably better how-to books, but I wonder if they would allow the potential writer the individuality that Karr does. She writes at length about truth and returns several times to discuss voice and finding the voice that speaks to the writer's experience. She discusses organization and style. But throughout she seems to be urging the potential writer to find her or his own story.

I still have my doubts about Nabokov and a couple of other memoirists she reviews at length, but was intrigued by her observations. I learned something—a lot of things actually. I expect to be rereading this book and probably checking out memoirs she particularly recommends in the future. She has a wonderful long list in the back, some memoirs starred, and I was gratified by the books on this list and particularly the books that I have read and loved such as Richard Wright's American Hunger (Black Boy).
Profile Image for A.L..
Author 5 books3 followers
February 18, 2016
It goes without saying that this book is required reading for today's memoir authors. Mary Karr is a major figure in the modern memoir scene with loads of wisdom and wit to share.

The book is excellently written and as compelling as a straight-up memoir. Karr includes a mix of practical advice and thoughtful discussions to mull over. Most of us will never be a student in one of her classes at Syracuse University. This book is the next best thing.
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