The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr, is a book that the Wall Street Journal said should be “required reading for anyone attempting to write a memoir or who lives for literature”. Mary Karr can teach you about memoir but she becomes a little intimidating with her credentials. She is an English professor at Syracuse University, a successful non fiction writer, and you can tell she really knows her stuff.
Karr is passionate about her belief in the memoir approach and important literary style. She says “There is a lingering snobbery in the literary world that wants to disqualify what is broadly called nonfiction from the category of literature”.
As expected in a book like this she covers the basics. The importance of truth and the road to exaggeration. Why memoirs fail. Her own attempts at memoir lend a lot to the dialog.
Many offer book reviews and finding something to present here that hasn’t been already well reviewed is very difficult. One thing about this book that stood out for me was chapter 23,
Michael Herr: Start in Kansas, End in Oz. Even the title of this chapter teaches an important lesson, but the chapter refers to Michael Kerr "Voice" in his on-war memoir “Dispatches” and his narration of “Apocalypse Now”. These are used to demonstrate that where you start and end is so important. We read this type of author to share the journey. We become a voyeur, eavesdropping while watching out the window. It is suggested that we are ourselves responsible for all we do but as well as all we see.
Apocalypse Now starts out in a memorable way. “There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon and some nights, I’d lie on my bed and look at it......” Mary Karr used an approach that she used in her writing classes. She picked apart the writing, one sentence at a time. She shows how, line by line, the writing builds up to the very substance the book is known for. A favorite chapter.
This will be an important book on both reading and writing in the years ahead.