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How To Write Your Life Story

What I learned from Mary Karr’s “The Art of Memoir.”


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Jennifer Sapio

3 years ago | 5 min read

When I find myself in conversation with any literary-type about my current writing project, anyone worth their salt inevitably asks if I’ve read The Liar’s Club? Do I know Mary Karr’s work? Texas women writing memoirs, amiright?

I had purchased Karr’s memoir and added it to my collection of half-read, or just-started or just-for-show tomes years ago. Truth is, CliffsNotes were my jam back then. I used to cram for my English tests at the Barnes and Noble at the Arboretum in North Austin.

The one by Amy’s ice cream where employees in tie-dyed shirts and hair throw mounds of frozen sugar and cream twirling in the air, or across the room to a co-conspirator who would catch the load in a homemade waffle cone. The strip mall also had life-like cow statues in the yard, shined to smoothness like a lucky touch stone by the butts and hands and knobby knees of time.

Some vague landscape exists in my literary memory, details I gleaned from the first few pages of Karr’s first memoir that terrified me enough — like a grown-up neighbor in a Freddy Krueger mask who peers in through your bedroom window — to put down the book though the images were already indelible in my hippocampus.

Karr perfectly describes the fake sleeping pose one assumes when the attention of being cared for, even while inert with eyes closed, is too good to interrupt. The rollercoaster of uncertainty in dysfunctional families. The pride of survival. I wouldn’t go back there and spend anytime looking around in her pages, or in my memory, for another twenty years or so.

Reading her work years later, I identify less with the portrait of the little girl, rendered so gorgeously in scenes from the past, and more with the memoirist, endeavoring to create a story from contingent moments strung out in the vast wilderness of a life. Tie strings to the trees where the path forks, or else you might lose your way.

As Mary Karr, a good Texas broad, would inevitably know: rattle snakes lurk in the fallen leaves, or under a loose flat rock just so.

In The Art of the Memoir, readers get a chance to sip sweet tea in the author’s kitchen, gossiping about her sister (who is rich, like mine, and who she seems to envy, like I do) and about silly things our students have done over the years (like trying on “imposter voices” in their writing, or “accidentally” kicking a hole in the classroom wall).

It feels like she lets us in on her secrets, many of which seem to come from a deep and hard-fought self-awareness. In a society that continues to stigmatize mental health journeys, Mary Karr powerfully argues for therapy as an essential part of the process when writing about family trauma.

That kind of hocus pocus isn’t always taken to so kindly around these parts, nor in academia, where Karr and I live now. The brutal honesty and “courage” required to take a long hard look at one’s life, she says, took nearly two decades for her to muster. I would have to agree.

Now, as I slam the screen-porch door shut and head out to finish my first draft of my first book, I’ll take with me a few tips like hand-me-downs, or like jelly she’d stored up, knowing I was coming. Someone will always come, if you’re lucky.

7 Tips I Learned from Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir:

  1. Find your voice, which is MFA-speak for what Shakespeareans call “To thine own self be true.” If you’re from the South, talk like it. Don’t fuckin git too far from yer roots, my dad says. Or too big for yer britches.
  2. Often inner conflicts, rather than big plot “whammies,” drive the story. Sure, it’s interesting if you got arrested or laid or sober or whatever, but the specific, poignant and subtle details of each sorrow and shame is what gets a book out of the to-be-read pile. How you wanted not to crush your dad like your mom had done by leaving. And how he drove you away like he did her. Write that.
  3. Employ the craft tools of the trade. Fill your pages with “carnal” sensory language, images, metaphors, symbols, dialogue, scene-work and drama. Reading profusely helps. Karr expertly explores a top-40 list of contemporary memoirists from Angelou to Strayed, mining their gems for display: Angelou’s taffeta dress, Strayed’s step-father, unforgettable.
  4. Get meta. Reflect on your memory within the text. Be explicit about the ambiguities in the story. Don’t hide from parts that come to you in vague flashes, just say so. Record where viewpoints differ from yours or where your memory fails.
  5. Find the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Karr admits to following a template to structure her memoirs. She begins with a flash forward, then proceeds in chronological order. That’s how Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle goes. And Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. Of course, there are 1,001 variations on the theme, ranging from Augustine’s Confessions to Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts. In any case, you’ll want to negotiate a contract with the reader from the beginning, and deliver on it.
  6. Revise and revise and revise. Commit to writing your first draft, which may alone carry you through a steaming hot summer in Central Texas, or five. And then shift your ambition into overdrive. Don’t quit at the rest station. Improve every line. Question “blindspots” and “false selves” and any inkling of “revenge” in your text.
  7. Readers will snuff out dishonesty and self-aggrandizement. Hang out all of your own dirty laundry, and make it so your audience can’t look away. Show off all of your humanness. If you’re successful, you’ll join the priesthood of writers so steeped in the human condition that their words transubstantiate abuse and neglect and sorrow into love and compassion. It’s a “noble” endeavor, Karr writes.

The arc of The Art of Memoir, like Mary Karr’s other books, bends toward “redemption.” Aspiring memoirists will feel encouraged to keep up the hard work after reading Karr’s distilled wisdom, strong as moonshine and as intoxicating. Personal and family “healing” may be collateral to this type of sustained artistic activity, too. Karr suggests a certain liberation from secrets that is possible to achieve and in a final gesture, she includes all memoirists in the great cultural work of human meaning-making dating back to the cave artists. That’s some sacred shit, man.

So, if you feel called, if you’ve got that whisper of the spirit in your ear to write your story down, then do it. Keep at it. I’m just another broad from Texas, but what Mary Karr says rings true for me too. Truth is, the secret to writing your life story is up to you.

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Jennifer Sapio


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