Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Art of Memoir

While I may have no intention of ever writing a memoir, I am a huge fan of the genre and have read at least two hundred of them over the past few years.  So although I believed that Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir would be helpful to would-be memoirists, I picked it up mainly just to continue my one-way conversation with one of my favorite practitioners of the craft.  And just I had hoped, Karr by devoting a substantial portion of the book to her own memories and experiences, has written much more than just another “how to write” book.

The preface of The Art of Memoir speaks directly to those considering an effort in chronicling the experiences that shaped them into the people they are today but it is filled with as many words of warning as with words of encouragement.  As she puts it:

“Unless you’re a doubter and a worrier, a nail-biter, an apologizer, a rethinker, then memoir may not be your playpen.  That’s the quality I’ve found most consistently in those life-story writers I’ve met.  Truth is not their enemy.  It’s the bannister they grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs.  It’s the solution.”

Karr has, of course, been writing and re-writing memoirs for a long time.  She has studied her favorite memoir writers (past and present) and has figuratively disassembled their best work to see what makes it tick.  For some three decades, she has taught the format and, along the way, has accumulated several thousand index cards filled with notes that she uses in the classroom.  For that reason, those looking to the book for specific writing tips and techniques will not be disappointed.  In truth, it seems that Karr may very well have had two specific audiences in mind when writing The Art of Memoir.  If so, both audiences will be satisfied.

Author Mary Karr
Parts of the book are aimed at both audiences – and, I suppose, at the third potential audience that might have one foot in each of the other two audiences.  I’m thinking specifically of chapters like the one titled “Dealing with Beloveds (On and Off the Page)” in which Karr grapples with the issue of revealing personal details that have the potential to embarrass or enrage those one loves the most.  The chapter does end with an eleven-point list of the author’s “rules for dealing with others,” but it also shares stories about her mother’s immediate acceptance and encouragement of Karr’s previous books and her sister’s more reluctantly granted positive reaction to them. 

But it is the book’s Appendix, a listing of “Required Reading,” that I expect to return to often in order to root through the two hundred or so memoirs it lists for future reading choices of my own.  In fact, because I have only read about ten percent of the books on the list, those six pages particularly excite me.  There is something for everyone in this very fine addition to Mary Karr’s body of work.


  1. Since I'm in the process of writing a memoir about a portion of my life, this sounds like a good resource. Thanks - Margy

    1. There's a lot to think about in this one, Margy. I hope it helps, even if it's only to give you encouragement and confidence.