I may be one of a few people who are more familiar with Mary Karr’s poetry than her memoirs. Her oft-autobiographical poems confront religion, doubt, the possibility of human connection, and the frailties of the self in a mix of classically poetic and direct, Texas-flavored diction. Her language is always precise; her eye, unwavering; her approach, steadfastly unsentimental. In this respect, her poems are not so different from her prose, and, indeed, it seems unfair to place her books in different categories when what makes Karr a superb memoirist—her spare and imagistic prose coupled with a painfully self-aware and frank speaker—is what also distinguishes her as a poet.
Her latest book, The Art of Memoir, based on her selective seminar at Syracuse University, is part how-to, part memoir-on-writing-memoirs, and part impassioned defense of the memoir as a genre worthy of the highest accolades. Which is to say: the book covers an incredible range of ground—from the nitty gritty of syntax, diction, tone, and voice to Karr’s personal journey as a writer and the questions of truth that have plagued the form. As a teacher, I found moments to share with my class; as a reader, I was drawn into the stories about Karr’s struggle to find your voice; and as a writer, I jotted down new ideas and editing tips as I read. I was charmed throughout.
When we spoke Monday morning, Karr, in San Francisco promoting her book, was somewhat preoccupied with what she called “the Burning Man situation”: her room at a “really hip hotel,” as she informed me, “was literally foggy with pot smoke when I checked in” and she was in the process of switching rooms (“Hold on, I’m just grabbing my toothbrush–can I call you back in five minutes?”). The distraction didn’t appear to faze her: Karr seems as if she could answer questions, fluently and in her signature idiom, while jumping out of a plane.
The Rumpus: One of my favorite things about The Art of Memoir is that it sends the reader outwards. I started keeping a list of the books you mentioned until I stumbled on the five pages of “Required Reading” at the back of the book. It seems to me, in addition to making the case that memoir belongs next to literary fiction and poetry, you’re also aiming to shape a canon of memoir. Why hasn’t the memoir been as readily embraced and enshrined in syllabi as other genres?
Mary Karr: Well, I think it is a simpler form than say a novel. It doesn’t have the tradition. It’s important to remember, though, that the first novels were reviled on moral grounds the same way memoirs are now. They were considered this trashy low rent form, because they weren’t true, they were “mere fancies,” the stuff that people made up out of their heads. For this reason books like Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year purported to be reality. It’s the same way fifty years ago nobody saw photography as art. It had to make its way through the century as an actual art form. Hopefully my book will help change that, though I still think we have a long way to go. I think Frank Conroy is a great artist and I doubt he’ll ever be enshrined, or that Richard Wright’s Black Boy, which I think is a better book than Native Son (heresy, I know!), will take its place in the canon.
I’ve always loved memoir, but it’s still seen as such a trashy genre and I wanted to speak to it as actual literature because that’s how it feels to me. Some of the books I cite are real works of art. I felt in some way obligated to defend it. Genres rise and fall in terms of trashiness: television used to be seen as this low rent form and now I watch much more TV than movies. International franchises get all the movie dollars, so television has moved in to fill that gap.
Rumpus: You mention in the book that you had several false starts with—or at least, false conceptions about—this project before writing it. Not to get too meta, but can you tell us more about that: when did you find the book’s final form? How long did it ultimately take you to write?
Karr: My editor at Harper was just brilliant. She and I came up with an outline, which initially put all the “how to” steps in an appendix. When I sent it to a colleague at Syracuse, George Saunders, he had the idea for a more organic structure with the “how to” stuff peppered in. I always like if I’m going to be bored if someone can give me a way out, so we came up with structure that allows the reader to pole-vault over the pithier how-to. I wanted trying to prevent a more general reader from getting bogged down.
Rumpus: Throughout the book you use word “carnal,” a word that conjures the erotic, to describe images and details that invoke all five senses, instead of something perhaps more neutral, and perhaps easily understandable, like “sensory.” Can you speak to that decision?
Karr: It’s interesting you fall on that word. I think it’s actually a Catholic word: Incarnate… incarne. For me, memory in its most vivid form comes less out of the mind and more out of the body. It’s the nature of my memory and the nature of my mind: I’m a super physical person.
Everybody’s had the experience when, even if you’re not writing a memoir, you tell somebody a story and the language you use calcifies that story and reduces it in a way. My memories are very kinesthetic, so I try to use that as a strength.
I’ve also learned from teaching writing for forty years that getting people to inhabit their bodies as they write is one of the most important part of the processes—not only is it part of the show don’t tell edict, it’s also very learnable. You can teach people how to be more aware of their physical sensations.
Rumpus: You spend a lot of time in the book discussing the memoirist’s fraught relationship with the truth. On the one hand you defend the notion of definite, knowable truth, observing, “it’s the busted liars who talk most volubly about the fuzzy line between nonfiction and fiction.” On the other, you acknowledge the slippery nature of memory, and write how, when remembering, you “often barely believe [your]self.” Can you talk about the tension between these ideas?
Karr: The people that have lied the most—it’s not just that they’ve lied, it’s that they talk about failures of memory and intention to deceive as though they’re the same thing, and they’re really not. [Greg] Mortenson [author of Three Cups of Tea] didn’t think he had been kidnapped by the Taliban. He didn’t misremember and think that he had been in jail when he hadn’t. Rather: he set out to deceive people. It’s not that hard not to do this, and it’s not that hard to let the reader know in some sort of general way that they’re in the realm of memory. One reason I don’t use quotation marks, one reason I talk a lot about my own mind, is to show that I’m feeling for the truth, not reporting, not pulling out a pristine file from a drawer. If you’re not showing the edges of your consciousness, you’re not psychologically self aware enough to write one.
Rumpus: What is about memoir, and even so-called “autobiographical fiction,” that makes critics and readers alike obsessed with this question of “truth”?
Karr: If I had found out that Helen Keller wasn’t blind or only nearsighted, or that Maya Angelou was light skinned and passing, their stories would “mean” differently. I know I can sound like that guy at the titty bar who thinks the women really like him—I do know these people are selling me a book, their story, that is, it’s an artificial relationship—but I get hope knowing they survived their travails and if it turns out they didn’t have any, I feel deceived. Obviously I don’t feel that way as a fiction reader. So I think memoirs do get some credit or a sense of identification for the reader that you can’t get when the events are manufactured, no matter how convincingly.
Rumpus: You spend some time in the book almost poking fun at your early career as a poet.
Karr: Well, it’s easy to poke fun at it. Anybody’s early career is low hanging fruit. I remember hearing Seamus Heaney read when we were both our version of kids and he sounded like himself. But most writers go through some period of posturing whether in fiction or poetry or memoir or journalism. We’ve all seen pretentious self-conscious writing.
Rumpus: In your opinion, is there something about the poem as a form that lends it particularly well to posturing?
Karr: No. I think it’s a much harder form. It’s much easier to fail. There’s a great line from James Joyce, “Everybody starts out being a poet and then realizes it’s too hard.” You’re trying to get to create an entire emotional experience in a piece of language the size of your hand. Who can do that? It’s just impossible.
Self-deception and pretense and lies plague every art form. We’ve all read dishonest news stories where the reporter has an agenda he doesn’t admit or dishonest novels where the novelist’s trying to pose as a different sort of person. Lies plague every art form; poetry’s just harder.
Rumpus: As a writer who draws on personal material for both my essays and my poems, I sometimes fear that I will tap out—that the self is a finite resource and I am endanger of exhausting it. Have you ever felt a similar anxiety?
Karr: Every memoir I’ve written, I’ve thought “Christ I’m never doing this again.” I think fiction writers worry that their imaginations will tap out, too. The idea that a fiction writer isn’t limited by his own character or imagination just as a nonfiction writer is anxious that he won’t have enough reality… It’s a false conception.
Still: a single human life is rife with drama and misery and suffering. Nobody gets out alive, we know that much, and nobody gets out without getting their heartbroken at least 8 million times.
Rumpus: Right, it’s almost optimistic to fear tapping out.
Karr: Exactly. I have a good friend who’s a famous musician who said to me, “Do you ever worry about losing your edge?” And I’m like, “I’ve been trying to lose my edge for years. Please let me lose my edge.”
Rumpus: Do you have any theories on why the memoir form currently seems to attract more female writers than male writers?
Karr: When I was in graduate school, only men were doing memoirs. The smart women writers I looked up to—you know, Amy Tan, Mona Simpson, Toni Morrison, Tillie Olsen—they were all working in fiction. I don’t know, I just think now they’re just playing catch up.
And reading [Karl Ove] Knausgård… I just think of what would happen to a women who detailed her childrearing practices, of what the critics would do to her. They would fry her! And this guy is lauded as some great genius. Women are still judged by a different yardstick than men are and there’s a certain amount of sexism that’s brought to evaluating our work. Maybe women have just gotten unselfconscious enough to write about themselves in the first person. Does that track?
Rumpus: Yes, definitely, I didn’t realize that mostly men had been writing memoirs until recently.
Karr: Well, it should’ve been us. But also fiction is seen as a “higher form.” It’s very trailer trashy to write about yourself. The American Academy isn’t going to call to induct me any time soon.
Rumpus: You never know.
Karr: It’s unlikely.
Rumpus: Maybe if you call your next memoir a novel…
Karr: I should’ve thought of that sooner!
Rumpus: Are you working on a book of poems?
Karr: I am, even as we speak. And nobody cares if I publish it or not, except for me.
Rumpus: How do you think your life as a poet informs your prose writing?
Karr: Nothing teaches you economy like poetry. Prose writers can’t even begin to approach the economy that poetry can. I always tell students, “This needs to be 30% shorter.” They’ll say it’s not possible, and I’ll tell them to hand me the page. When you edit a poem, a lot of what you do is condense.
I also learned how to choose the most powerful language and imagery. Image is the dominant medium of our day: it’s dominant in film and it’s dominant in poetry. Prose is imagistically and carnally richer based on that trend in American poetry.
Rumpus: Do you ever have trouble choosing a form?
Karr: Well, poems don’t favor the conveying of information. They’re about music and unity and form. Poems have these other virtues, but if you have to write something that has a lot of complicated information in it, memoir is probably the better form.
Rumpus: In your Fresh Air interview, Terry Gross said this latest book felt like “a memoir about writing memoirs.” Does that characterization feel accurate to you?
Karr: I wish it didn’t [feel that way]. But if she perceived it that way, what do I know? I don’t know how my books come off. I just write them. I do the best I can.
Author photo: Deborah Feingold