Mary Karr has tips on 'The Art of Memoir'

Story highlights

  • Mary Karr's "Art of Memoir" offers a guide to the form
  • Karr is the author of "The Liar's Club" and "Lit"
  • Her bottom-line advice for aspiring memoirists: Tell the truth

(CNN)Mary Karr wants to set the record straight.

A review of her new book, "The Art of Memoir," suggested that it was based on the syllabus for a course she teaches at Syracuse University. That's not the case: "I came up with what I think is a more organic structure," Karr says matter-of-factly.
Besides, she adds, she's been teaching memoir for more than 30 years -- and writing it almost as long.
    In fact, setting the record straight is second nature to Karr, the author of a trilogy of memoirs: "The Liar's Club," "Cherry" and "Lit," which trace her life from the rough East Texas oil patch to battles with alcohol and men. ("Lit" includes passages about her tempestuous relationship with novelist David Foster Wallace.)
    "The Art of Memoir" is part instruction manual, part writerly musing, part message of encouragement to memoirist hopefuls everywhere.
    "What I bring to the party is, I'm a big fan," she says.
    So are millions of others. In the past two decades, the publishing industry has seen an explosion of memoirs, a trend some credit to "The Liar's Club," which came out in 1995. Some have made stars of their otherwise unknown authors: Frank McCourt, for example, was a teacher in the New York City school system for four decades before "Angela's Ashes" made him an overnight success, at age 56, in 1996.
    These days, we're positively sodden with the stuff. For the week of October 4, at least half of the 16 books on The New York Times' hardcover nonfiction bestseller list are memoirs or autobiographical works, including Chrissie Hynde's "Reckless," Mindy Kaling's "Why Not Me?" and Suzy Favor Hamilton's "Fast Girl." (Also on the list, at No. 3: "The Art of Memoir.")
    But Karr has little use for the celebrity quickie or political tell-all. "I make a distinction between a memoir written about your breast implants and a memoir written hopefully as a piece of literature to survive forever," she says.

    Tips from a master

    In that spirit, she has some words of advice:
    Tell the truth.
    Mary Karr
    It sounds easy, but it may be the hardest task of writing a memoir. Are your memories accurate to the best of your knowledge? Are you eliding painful details to spare yourself or a loved one -- or slanting them to put characters in the worst possible light?
    Karr says she's not requiring writers to turn detective or journalist, double- and triple-checking every point with sources -- though some memoirists, such as David Carr ("The Night of the Gun") and Sean Wilsey ("Oh the Glory of It All"), have used this process anyway.
    Besides, memory is faulty, and storytelling is elastic. Life is sometimes an endless game of "Rashomon."
    But be up-front. Most people know when they're lying -- to themselves, if not others.
    "I'm not the memoir police. Anybody can do whatever the hell they want," Karr says. "I just think you owe it to the reader to tell them."
    Know thyself.
    In the midst of the memoir explosion, the novel has often taken a back seat.
    Still, just because you can write a memoir doesn't mean you have to, Karr says. There is no shame in channeling your story into fiction.
    "For some people, psychologically, they feel freer to tell the actual truth in fiction," she says. Discomfort may make the choice obvious, she adds: "I don't think you get to pick."
    In her case, memoir was more appropriate. "The Liar's Club" was originally written as a novel with the Karr stand-in as "beautiful, noble and wise, as in fact I'm not," she says with a laugh. "I would much have preferred being a high-falutin' novelist. It wasn't my nature."
    Express your voice.
    The sophisticated Vladimir Nabokov, born to a wealthy family in Russia, and the terse Harry Crews, who was born poor in rural Georgia, would seem to have little in common. But both were a master of voice: Nabokov with his graceful, intellectual curlicues, Crews with words like blunt instruments.
    Either way, write who you are -- and don't waver.
    "Each great memoir lives or dies based 100% on voice," Karr writes in "The Art of Memoir." "For the reader, the voice has to exist from the first sentence."
    Be vulnerable.
    "It's the person who wonders who makes the best memoirist," says Karr. "The person who isn't a good memoirist is the person who's very confident."
    That makes uncertainty and humility attractive qualities, she adds.
    "The main enemy has to be some aspect of yourself," she says. Even the great Holocaust memoirs of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel ponder their own loss of humanity as much as they do the tortures of the Nazis, she says.
    Tell the truth.
    Did we mention this one? Well, it's worth mentioning again, because there have been any number of "memoirists" who passed their fiction off as fact.
    For Karr, these writers have a special place in hell. Her chapter on them is called "Hucksters, the Deluded, and Big Fat Liars."
    In "The Art of Memoir," she recalls being taken in by one of them -- fake Holocaust survivor Binjamin Wilkomirski -- and lights into James Frey ("A Million Little Pieces") and Greg Mortenson ("Three Cups of Tea").
    Frey "besmirched the form," she says now, describing him as "kind of a little rooster. You're aware that he's trying to come off as a badass."
    He seems like he didn't have much self-awareness, she says -- the kind of person, to Karr, who shouldn't be writing a memoir to start with.
    "I always felt sorry for that guy," she adds. "I felt like he didn't do honor to his own suffering."

    Getting drunk, falling ill

    Karr makes no bones that writing a memoir -- writing anything well, for that matter -- is hard work. In "The Art of Memoir," she describes authors getting drunk, falling seriously ill and overcome with emotion at the very prospect of setting word to paper. For her part, Karr says, she threw away 1,200 pages of "Lit" and broke her "delete" key doing endless revisions.
    "If I had any balls at all," she writes, "I'd make a brooch out of it."
    But if it's not a job for the faint-hearted, neither is it only for the most educated -- or egotistical -- among us. Even the word "memoir," elegant and exotic, should not be a barrier, she says.
    Asked the difference between autobiography and memoir, Karr chuckles.
    "Memoir is a French word, so it sounds fancier," she says.