Book Review: The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

I should know better than to read books about writing, and yet I am irresistibly drawn to them. I have even written one called Writing as a Metaphysical Experience. However, I figured out long ago that writers are idiosyncratic, that one writer’s meat is another writer’s poison (or as I once heard it said by a notorious science fiction writer – one man’s nightmare is another man’s wet dream), and that there is as much differing advice as there are writers. I suppose one reason to keep reading books on writing is that I might find the odd snippet of advice that I haven’t come across before. Another is that although I inevitably disagree with much of what the writer says, many of the writers who write about writing are accomplished in the craft, and their books have entertainment value in the form of anecdotes and so on. Such is the case with Writing Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon, which I read recently. I disagreed with much of what he said in terms of practical tips, but I nevertheless enjoyed the book as a sort of memoir.

This is what happened as I read The Art of Memoir as well. I disagreed with much of the advice, but found plenty of anecdotes and opinions to keep me entertained. Mary Karr, unlike William Least Heat Moon, is a long-time teacher of memoir, and she has based the book on the classes she teaches at Syracuse University. That’s fine, and I can see how her classes might be interesting. Some of her practical advice that I disagree with, though, is similar to what I disagreed with in Heat Moon’s book. She feels that writers must experience great pain as they compose, and anyone who enjoys writing is a hack. I simply don’t agree. Writing is one of my most fulfilling and enjoyable activities on the planet, and I can’t understand why anyone who tries it wouldn’t fall in love with it. Additionally, she insists that first drafts are always and without exception crap. I can’t agree. Sometimes I rewrite and sometimes I don’t. Usually I rewrite, according to Heinlein’s dictum, when editors ask for it. But just as often, or even more often, my stories and novels arrive fully formed and need only minor line editing. It has happened more frequently than not that editors who buy my stories publish them without changing so much as a comma or a semicolon.

Interestingly enough, the memoirs and memoirists that Karr devotes entire chapters to and considers the best in the business, including Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov and Dispatches by Michael Herr, she considers unique and one-of-a-kind, with singular voices that belie all the rules. She presents them as examples of excellence but also as anomalies. That’s okay too, as far as I’m concerned, because any writer who has learned to speak with his or her own voice is an anomaly. Once you find your voice, you are writing like you, and no one else can ever find the same voice unless they are guilty of crass imitation. I found my voice by taking off around the world and throwing myself into life, so to speak. I learned that my voice as a writer was simply me saying whatever I needed to say in the way I chose to say it. My larger problem was not knowing what to write about until I got out there far from familiar circumstances.

In closing, let me say that if you are attempting to learn to write, you can read this book and possibly glean some gems from it. Always keep in mind, though, what George Saunders said in his conclusion to his recent book A Swim in the Pond: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life: “The closest thing to a method I have to offer is this: go forth and do what you please.”

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