Five Tips From Mary Karr and Me About Writing Memoir

Last week Mary Karr presented her new book The Art of Memoir to an audience in Berkeley, California. Brooke Warner, my co-teaching colleague, interviewed Mary in the intimate hall of the Hillside Club, a historical building with a wooden floor and small stage.
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Last week Mary Karr presented her new book The Art of Memoir to an audience in Berkeley, California. Brooke Warner, my co-teaching colleague, interviewed Mary in the intimate hall of the Hillside Club, a historical building with a wooden floor and small stage. The audience was full of eager memoirists leaning into every word. Mary is smaller than her personality, about five feet, two inches, but wearing her boots and sporting her Texas hat and her usual jokey persona, she's entertaining, easily evoking belly laughs. But she can be quite serious about the "job" of writing memoir, digging deep to find the truths that memoir demands.

She talked a lot about truth, how we need to question ourselves, do research, be careful about making things too pretty or ourselves too perfect. The old issues about "fake" memoirs came up as they always do when people talk about truth in memoir. James Frey and Gregg Mortensen and a few other memoirists broke the rules of memoir, which is to write the truth, your truth, the best way you can, but, as Mary said, "They didn't just forget, it wasn't their memory that was faulty. They deliberately set out to write things that were NOT true." Memoirists and those who still judge memoir as a tricky, faulty art forget that important detail. Memoirists in my experience then to worry too much about getting everything perfect, just so. Even if you as a writer believe you've left nothing to chance -- you did your research, you interviewed and documented -- there will still be someone who says, "That's not how it happened." Your practiced answer to this statement might be: "I wrote how it happened to me in my memoir. I wrote my own memory and the meaning I made of it. Maybe you have another story to write."

Karr also said that memoir is a primitive form, available to all of us. It's not highfalutin or fancied-up stories, just the real grit of living from real people. She advised us all to dig deep, to accept that writing the truth means to suffer a bit in the exploration of who we are, what happened, and how it changed us. And the lessons we share with the world about our own journeys can help others to view their own lives through a different lens.

Quotes from Mary Karr:

"You make a self through the stories you tell."

"You have an adult voice and a child voice. Let the child voice lead you and then bring in the adult voice to comment and reflect."

"If you want to sell books, write better than other people."

"You are writing your remembered self, which is different from who you are now. You have to step into the skin of the person you were then, and see through her eyes."

The Q&A portion of the evening was like being in a memoir class with her as the audience talked about their struggles. It took one woman fifteen years to write her memoir, to which Mary replied, "God bless you -- I hope you sell a million copies."

She urged everyone to trust in their own version of truth, to dig in and work hard to find those significant moments that are the essence of our lives and our stories.

How to Find Moments of Meaning

I came away feeling validated about my own long journeys to write my first memoir, Don't Call Me Mother and the new memoir that I'm now fighting -- I mean writing. Wrestling words to the page challenges us, as does searching for the moments, the memories, and the meaning of our story so we can communicate them to the reader.

  • First, we have to explore ourselves to find out what we think and feel about what happened in our lives and how these moments changed us.
  • Make a list of these moments that stand out, "moments of meaning" I call them. List ten or twenty of these significant moments -- you can't write about everything in a memoir.
  • Trust that the memories that keep coming back to you are important. Grab the phrases and words and images that haunt you -- and write!

Discovering Your Themes

These moments that shaped your life will coalesce as you write about them. You'll find the themes that are important to you -- for instance, the theme of love or loss or family tragedies. Addiction, healing, or your family history. There are many themes that we humans entertain over and over again. What's yours?

How to Keep Going

It's a long journey to get to "The End," so you need to find ways to get over the bumps and go around curves.

  • Give yourself permission to write past your doubts and the inner critic voices in your head. Everyone has inner critics. Get to know your own.
  • Write down what those voices say, and answer them back. Get mouthy back to those voices. That takes the power out of them.
  • Don't let worries about your family and friends' response to you memoir get you down at this early stage -- or any stage. Create a private space where you can write YOUR story, not theirs.
  • Don't share your pages with anyone but your mentor or writing group for a long time.

Tips that Help You Go from Writer to Author

Everyone asks me, "Do I have to write every day to be a 'real writer'?" No. But you do need to encounter yourself on the page regularly.

  • How to get started writing: write stories from your list of meaningful moments for ten minutes at a time. You'd be surprised at how much you can write in ten minutes!
  • Ten minutes one day, twenty another, and perhaps another writing session a few days later -- and you'll have a few hundred words. The words and pages keep piling up.
  • Keep a journal that allows you to just write. Include writing by hand if you can in your writing life. The writing comes from your body in a different way than the keyboard.
  • Writing leads to more writing. Just get started. Close your eyes and see the scenes you want to write, and then let your fingers take over. Let the writing flow, don't try to force each word.
  • Let the writing not make sense, allow yourself to write chaos. Over time the story will find itself. Just get out of the way of what wants to come through you.

To learn more about memoir writing sign up for the newsletters at National Association of Memoir Writers and the course I teach with Brooke Warner, Write Your Memoir in Six Months. We're offering the Magic of Memoir Conference October 17-18, and there are just a few spots left. The important thing is to keep writing, to tune into and trust your story.

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