The Art of Memoir

The Art of Memoir

by Mary Karr


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Credited with sparking the current memoir explosion, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club spent more than a year at the top of the New York Times list. She followed with two other smash bestsellers: Cherry and Lit, which were critical hits as well.

For thirty years Karr has also taught the form, winning teaching prizes at Syracuse.  (The writing program there produced such acclaimed authors as Cheryl Strayed, Keith Gessen, and Koren Zailckas.) In The Art of Memoir, she synthesizes her expertise as professor and therapy patient, writer and spiritual seeker, recovered alcoholic and “black belt sinner,” providing a unique window into the mechanics and art of the form that is as irreverent, insightful, and entertaining as her own work in the genre.

Anchored by excerpts from her favorite memoirs and anecdotes from fellow writers’ experience, The Art of Memoir lays bare Karr’s own process. (Plus all those inside stories about how she dealt with family and friends get told— and the dark spaces in her own skull probed in depth.) As she breaks down the key elements of great literary memoir, she breaks open our concepts of memory and identity, and illuminates the cathartic power of reflecting on the past; anybody with an inner life or complicated history, whether writer or reader, will relate.

Joining such classics as Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, The Art of Memoir is an elegant and accessible exploration of one of today’s most popular literary forms—a tour de force from an accomplished master pulling back the curtain on her craft.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062223074
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/06/2016
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 45,914
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Mary Karr is the author of three award-winning, bestselling memoirs: The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit, as well as The Art of Memoir, also a New York Times bestseller. She received Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships for poetry and is the Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University.

Table of Contents

Caveat Emptor xi

Preface: Welcome to My Chew Toy xiii

1 The Past's Vigor 1

2 The Truth Contract Twixt Writer and Reader 9

3 Why Not to Write a Memoir: Plus a Pop Quiz to Protect the Bleeding & Box Out the Rigid 27

4 A Voice Conjures the Human Who Utters It 35

5 Don't Try This at Home: The Seductive, Narcissistic Count 55

6 Sacred Carnality 71

7 How to Choose a Detail 79

8 Hucksters, the Deluded, and Big Fat Liars 81

9 Interiority and Inner Enemy-Private Agonies Read Deeper Than External Whammies 91

10 On Finding the Nature of Your Talent 101

11 The Visionary Maxine Hong Kingston 103

12 Dealing with Beloveds (On and Off the Page) 111

13 On Information, Facts, and Data 123

14 Personal Run-ins with Fake Voices 129

15 On Book Structure and the Order of Information 147

16 The Road to Hell Is Paved with Exaggeration 149

17 Blind Spots and False Selves 151

18 Truth Hunger: The Public and Private Burning of Kathryn Harrison 163

19 Old-School Technologies for the Stalled Novice 171

20 Major Reversals in Cherry and Lit 173

21 Why Memoirs Fail 181

22 An Incomplete Checklist to Stave Off Dread 189

23 Michael Herr: Start in Kansas, End in Oz 193

24 Against Vanity: In Praise of Revision 211

Acknowledgments 219

Appendix Required Reading-Mostly Memoirs and Some Hybrids 221

Permissions 227

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The Art of Memoir 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
TreeBranch More than 1 year ago
This book is a conference in a book. One of the best books on the genre. Ranks right at the top. If you are a writer, you should have this book in your library. I dare you to buy it. You won't be disappointed.
Lori1112 More than 1 year ago
I have been an avid reader of Mary Karr's work for almost twenty years so I was very excited when this book was published. I have to say she has spoiled me for beautiful memoirs. She is a master of the craft and this book is like a present she has wrapped up and given to her readers – and to all readers who love memoir. The Art of Memoir is also a treasure trove of invaluable information for any writer, but as a reader, I felt like I'd just crashed the private party of every memoirists' secret place. AOM made me feel privy to insider secrets and my appreciation of the genre went even deeper. She delves into some of her favorite memorists' efforts and explains what she thought worked and what didn’t work and why. She speaks to writers and tells them to keep their focus on their readers and to try to craft beautiful, carnal pictures/events so that readers might want to re-read their memoir (to Karr, therein lies the beauty of great memoir: re-reading). I appreciate any author who takes care to deliver to his/her readers a beautiful reading experience and clearly, Karr does. Karr even puts her own writing under the microscope and examines her life/life’s work full throttle and you get a front row seat to see how her writer-mind ferrets out her own truth and how she arrives at said truth with such beauty on the page (revise, revise, revise!). She speaks about her own fear of failure when she is writing, which gives readers a glimpse into the writing process we readers think just magically appears on the page. If you are already a reader of Karr’s works, know that AOM is like getting a "Behind the Scenes" at the end of your favorite movie. For me, she answered twenty plus years’ worth of questions I had about her three memoirs and it was, truly, magical. If you’ve ever wished you could attend one of her classes at Syracuse, you now have it in your hands! If this is your first Karr read, you have some catching up to do. Lucky you! (She also writes spectacular poetry!)
TulaneGirl More than 1 year ago
It was good for what it was, I just wasn't expecting it. And surely, I shouldn't penalize the book for that, but it was disappointing. This isn't a memoir. It's exactly what it says it is - its a master class on writing a memoir. But even if I went into this expecting a "how to" manual, I still would have detracted a star because although Ms. Karr clearly states time and again that she's not judging other authors, she really does. Thing is, I appreciated her candor on her criticism of other authors and thought it really detracted from her opinion when she kept prefacing that she wasn't trying to judge/criticize them. In any event, I do think this book is essential reading for anyone who is interested in memoir writing.