Skip to content

The Art of Memoir

2016 September 6

art of memoir cover

The first words out of Mary Karr’s mouth are “True story,” before she tells a punchy anecdote about a long ago Boston reading, where three people showed up, “and I’d slept with two of ’em.” It’s all too perfect. The iconic memoirist is wearing a sleeveless turtleneck and huge, triangular earrings that I can see from my seat all the way in the back of the basement of her reading at Brookline Booksmith.

I’ve heard her speak before, on a panel about nonfiction at an AWP conference years ago, but she’s been one of my heroes since I read The Liar’s Club in my first nonfiction writing class, in grad school. It was a formative class, and a formative book. I’d read nonfiction before, of course, but this was the first memoir I can remember that made me think, I want to do that, too.

Karr’s Texas drawl commands the room. She commends us for being “self-selecting weirdos” who’ve elected to sit in a basement of a bookstore on a late summer night. “You could be at a titty bar or a liquor store, and you chose to be here.” It’s one of the few instances in my life that I could hear the word “titty” and not be completely disgusted.

Instead of reading from the book she’s there to promote, The Art of Memoir, she takes questions from the audience. It makes sense, given it’s a craft book, and the audience is full of wanna-be writers like me. She talks about the “subjective truth” of memory, what it’s like to write about your family when they’re still very much alive, and how to find your voice. She likens the writing process to breathing into a corpse’s mouth, waiting for it to sit up. She says all the best memoirs are structured around an “inner enemy”–that thing about yourself you need to change but don’t want to change, because it’s a part of you. She says she’d “rather dig a sewer to Rwanda than go back to eighth grade.”

At the end of the reading, I buy her book and wait in line for her to sign it. Even up close, she looks beautiful and young. I never know what to say to writers and there are still people waiting behind me, so I tell her I like her earrings. “Eight dollars, in Greece,” she tells me, as she scrawls an XO in the front of the book by her signature, then thanks me for coming out.

In talking about writing her third memoir, Lit, she told the Paris Review, “It circles me like a gnat. I circle it like a dog staked to a pole. Years it’s gone on that way.” Not to compare my writing to Mary Karr’s, but that’s how writing feels to me, too. And I’ve felt that way about writing on Looks & Books for a long time now. I keep wanting to come back here. I have pages and pages of post ideas and links, lists of blog maintenance to perform, “things that are making me happy” lists, but it’s too hard.

Maybe I’ve set myself up for failure with all of these ideas–I feel like I can’t show my face around here because I haven’t kept up with the Bookshelf series or the Things That Made Me Happy series or the Fashion Book posts or Coveralls or all those ideas I was once so excited about. Maybe if I let go of those expectations, those to-do lists, and just let myself write here, whatever I wanted, whenever the mood strikes–maybe then I would write more frequently. I’ve already lost most of my audience by not consistently posting, so I guess it doesn’t really matter what I write here anymore anyway.

On top of the feelings of guilt for not writing more consistently, for not doing blog publicity or making the most of it when I had the chance, all those years ago, there’s just so much history here. Too many memories. I started this blog right around the time I first started dating Joe. He designed the blog. He hosted it on his server space. In fact, he still does, and if I’m being completely honest, there’s a part of me that’s afraid that every time I come here that one day I will sign in and everything will be gone. So…if anyone has tips on how to deal with that, I’m listening!

Anyway. I read an article today about a psychological study linking significant health benefits to writing through trauma–twenty minutes, three times a day. And I firmly believe that writing helps–I honestly believe it’s changed my life for the better. But it’s also really hard and feels so futile so much of the time.

4 Responses Post a comment
  1. Caroline Meehan permalink
    September 6, 2016

    Hi Jill! I’m coming out of the woodwork to encourage you to keep this thing going (either here or elsewhere- sorry, wish I had real advice for you on how to wriggle your way off your existing server). I can’t tell you how much I love reading your writing; you really have the most beautiful, thoughtful (in a very measured, introspective way) voice. Forget about all of the things you said you’d do and just do what you feel like doing. Life’s too short to impose rigid standards on yourself and then beat yourself up for not meeting them. Keep up the wonderful writing!

  2. Melissa permalink
    September 7, 2016

    Just wanted you to know that you will never lose this particular reader. I love coming to this site and reading any of the writing you post. I know you will say I am biased, but I think you are immensely talented and I hope you find some way to keep posting, even if it is periodic.

  3. Kelli permalink
    September 7, 2016

    I really loved this post and can identify on many levels. It’s one of my favorite ones you have written. (And I still check your blog – so you certainly haven’t lost me as a reader!!)

  4. Kylian permalink
    September 11, 2016

    Write whatever you want whenever you want. I’ll keep checking.

Leave a Reply

Note: You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS