Review of Mary Karr’s Art of Memoir

by Emily Howell

American poet, essayist and best-selling memoirist, Mary Karr, released a new book this September, The Art of Memoir. In it, she combines her expertise as both a professor and a writer and provides the reader with a look into the art of writing memoir. Each chapter begins with anecdotes from fellow writers’ experience and the book is packed with excerpts from memoirs that in Karr’s opinion are doing it right. Karr strips down her own process and discusses the key aspects of a memoir: memory, identity, and reflection. The Art of Memoir is written in a way that those seeking to write memoir or read it, can relate to. There’s nothing boring or preachy here, just Mary Karr’s wit, humor, and honesty teaching us a little more about what she does.

In some ways Karr is in constant contradiction with herself. She emphasizes truth ardently, practically to a point of over compensation and then goes on to tell students that their details need not necessarily be true as long as they have an authentic air (she even goes as far as faking a fist fight with a colleague and has them recount the details to prove that all of them differ vastly). In addition I found the book to be murky and scatterbrained at times, spending large amounts of time going off on interesting, yet unhelpful, tangents. In spite of its pitfalls there were many commendable aspects of the book as well.

Karr’s more concise chapters on the technical aspects of memoir writing are much more helpful and clear. She discusses structure, voice, storytelling, how to choose details, and how to deal with the subjects you choose to write about. Often, she uses listing to sum up her ‘rules’ or ‘opinions’ about how these technicalities should be handled. She also uses well-selected excerpts from notable memoirs, calling upon authors aside from herself to prove her points (don’t get me wrong…she still refers to her own work a self-indulgent amount).

The book is sprinkled with little gems of advice and Karr shares all of her secrets. It’s a gold mine for those of us who are suckers for beautifully crafted, quotable sentences and is a must read for aspiring memoirists. Karr writes in a fast paced, interesting and way that keeps the reader hooked. It’s almost like a memoir about how Karr writes memoirs. This is advice worth reading and you’ll enjoy doing so. And if by the end, you are still determined wreak the emotional havoc that is writing a memoir, she leaves you with an inspirational anecdote about G.H. Hardy, author of the memoir A Mathematician’s Apology. Even though Hardy is brutal in the critique of his own shortcomings as a mathematician his memoir is the most widely read by a mathematician. So, his mark was left (even if it wasn’t how he expected) and Karr leaves us with these parting words: “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.”

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