In 2009, the Paris Review published an interview with Mary Karr, the first (and as far as I can tell only) author interview in their “The Art of Memoir” series. I didn’t discover it until earlier this year, and I didn’t read it until last month. I studied an excerpt from Mary Karr’s memoir The Liars’ Club in the first creative nonfiction course I took in college, and since then, she’s been huge for me. And I’m so glad this interview didn’t disappoint (because, you know, the Paris Review so often publishes lame and/or boring interviews). It’s one of the pieces that will stay with me, full of moments that gave me pause, that I find myself turning over and over again even now, more than a month after my first read.
“It’s difficult to accept what your psyche or history dooms you to write, what Faulkner would call your postage stamp of reality. Young writers often mistakenly choose a certain vein or style based on who they want to be, unconsciously trying to blot out who they actually are. You want to escape yourself.”
My first reaction to this passage was “Is this true?” and then, “If so, how do we know when we’re finally writing as who we actually are instead of who we’re striving towards being? Here, Mary is talking about writing poetry that’s overly abstract and surreal, trying to avoid the grittiness and modesty of her life growing up, trying to sound, as she says, “edge-u-mated.” Wanting to look smart in order to escape the feeling that she wasn’t, that her poor, under-educated hometown was too ingrained in her. She wanted to show that she’d moved beyond all that. I can feel that in myself sometimes. The tug to separate myself from what’s associated with the Ford trucks and bonfires that framed my teenage years. A need for some distance between me and the mustaches and rural drawls of family gatherings. I remember reading once (possible something from here)that you have to be gracious with past versions of yourself in your writing. That it’s not fair to judge yourself from your current standpoint. I try to keep that in mind when I reflect on those years. They weren’t the prettiest, but they are part of who I am now.
So who have I been striving towards being? It seems in order to answer that question you have to better understand who you are. And I think that’s what I’m working towards right now. I think I’m trying to settle into what matters to me. I tried to be the volunteer, corporate-free, entrepreneur-minded independent for a while. And I think, during a lot of my college writing, I tried to be deep and thoughtful, presenting these pat ideas that were new to me as though they were new to everyone around me. I’ve learned I need to take it down a notch. Get more in touch with my voice, with who I am in real life and try to migrate that onto the page. Get that hometown grit in there. I feel like I’ve personally moved a far way away from that, and, just because it’s what I was raised in, doesn’t mean it’s me. It’s a part of me, but I’d say it’s more true to me to continue moving away from it–in my actual life and in my writing–than to to try to resurrect it as a current part of me. I’m not really sure what I’m saying here. I think I do understand what Mary’s saying, I’m just not sure how to superimpose the idea on myself and my own writing.
“I don’t try to reconstruct empty spots…In fiction you manufacture events to fit a concept or an idea. With memoir, you have the events and manufacture or hopefully deduce the concept. You don’t remember something? write fiction.
“It pissed me off when I saw James Frey on Larry King saying, ‘You know there’s a lot of argument about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction.’ You know what? There isn’t. If it didn’t happen, it’s fiction. If it did happen, it’s nonfiction. If you see the memoir as constructing a false self to sell to some chump audience, then you’ll never know the truth, because the truth is derived from what actually happened. Using novelistic devices, like reconstructed dialogue or telescoping time, isn’t the same as ginning up fake episodes.”
These lines screamed at me when I was reading this interview. These are ideas I’ve mulled over since I started working in creative nonfiction/memoir. Because it’s a tough line. She makes it sound pretty clear and I think, really, it probably is. Like she says, if you don’t remember the episode, you’re just fictionalizing. If you remember it but maybe can’t conjure up the specific details of what was said, but the tone, the atmosphere, the idea of that moment is there with you, then you can reconstruct it in a way that makes sense. I’m not sure what telescoping time is–I think that’s like looking back and interpreting something from your viewpoint now. Like “at the time I didn’t realize it but he was trying to tell me he loved me” type of thing. I think I’ve waffled over the rigidity of this line because some of the writers that have influenced and inspired me are not so strict about it, and I’ve been afraid to be critical of them. Okay, him. David Sedaris has meant so much to me, and it’s difficult for me to look at his writing and sense when something’s false or exaggerated, to feel its inauthenticity. It’s not really the embellishment that rubs me wrong–a good story is a good story, and if it strikes a chord then isn’t that what we’re really going for anyways? It’s just the utter lack of acknowledgement, the flippancy of so casually throwing around the weight that comes along with stories of “real life.” Does it ruin something for memoirists to acknowledge their fictionalizations? Do they lose something to say “some of the events described here are a collage of what really happened?”
I think, really, I agree with Mary. Doing things like that–embellishing characters, compounding timelines–is taking the cheap and easy and false way out. The concept comes from what really happened; that’s the truth. To contort events and memories so that they fit the concept that sparks you as interesting, that would come from the events if they had happened this way ? Well, that’s cheating. “Because the truth is derived from what actually happened.” And giving up on that, not struggling to sort through the real events, to find the real truth, that’s cheating yourself and your reader. It’s creating false lessons on truth. It’s showing you know how to spin a story, how to spoon-feed the reader. It’s not showing you know how to sort through the muck and droll of life to find something worthwhile and meaningful.
“That’s what’s so gorgeous about humanity. It doesn’t matter how bleak our daily lives are, we still fight for the light. I think that’s our divinity. We lean into love, even in the most hideous circumstances. We manage to hope.”
“But we remember the bleakness.”
“That’s mostly what we remember.”
I don’t think this is particularly profound, but I like the sound of it. It’s very Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning. But what she’s really talking about, I think, is not going too far down the drama scale in your writing. It’s easy enough, as a writer, to sink into the description of a sad story. To really dredge up the pain and sorrow of an unfortunate event. But there’s always good. There is always the hope on the other side. That’s what makes good writing, remembering that other side, creating balance, creating a complete picture, representing real life, real humanity.
P.S. If you love Mary Karr as much as I do, you should follow her on Twitter. Her posts are a good mix of wit, sarcasm, thought, and inspiration.