thoughts on an interview with Mary Karr

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.


Maybe Ah’m is uh fool, Lawd, lak dey say

I have to get this off my chest:

I hate reading dialogue written in dialect.* It makes me crazy.

I mean, I get it. I really do. I realize dialect as a valuable literary technique for character development, setting immersion, cultural awareness, etc. I realize that the the very thing that makes me want to throw the book across the room–the way I have to plod through each sentence of spoken word, actually reading each.individual.word and then rereading phrases to put it together–is the point. But it still makes me want to rip my hair out. And it means that I’m only 30 pages into a book I’ve been reading for over a week. I think this might call for an audio book.

*I need to be clear here: my issue is not with people speaking in any given dialect; it’s seeing those dialects represented by written word.

reading now: Drinking the Seagull

I added Sarah Marshall’s Drinking the Seagull to my “to read” list several months ago (it was published in early August, so, yeah, I’m a little behind on my reading list—as always) after seeing it recommended on The Browser (they’re tagline is “Writing Worth Reading,” and they always live up to it).

I was a little creeped out by the title, and rightly so as the subject of the essay , one Poon Lim who survived 133 days on a life raft on the open ocean, does in fact, literally drink the seagull. Specifically, its blood. So, there’s that.

It’s a short piece, but thoughtful and personal. I love the honesty, how Sarah Marshall is so forthright and just the right amount of self-deprecating when she describes her sloppy, crazed grad school life. She bares her eccentricities unabashedly, with a disarming honesty that makes her seem instantly familiar and relatable.

The comparison of Sarah’s haphazard life to that of Poon Lim’s, a life marked by ingenuity, resourcefulness and an iron-hard strength of mind, body, and spirit, is interesting. She aims to understand why she finds Poon Lim so fascinating, but, instead of trying to draw a link between his story and her own, she shows how they are so markedly different. And how that is the point. He had to struggle and fight for life in the most dire of circumstances. We, too, she says, must struggle and fight for life, for real life, for everything we love and want.

If we want time, we must scrape it away from the bone of the day and use it as wisely and as expeditiously as we can.”

We shouldn’t think that because we live life solidly on the ground and are not castaways lost at sea, bludgeoning sharks to death, we can approach our days with casual indifference. We deserve opportunity to be great, but not greatness itself. We have to be willing to drink the seagull.

reading now: Tell It Slant

I’ve been struggling to write more since I left grad school over 2 years ago. It often feels like a constant, drudging attempt, always nagging at the back of my mind but never really becoming much because of a lot of fear and a lack of discipline. I think about half the battle is getting over the fear that you’ll have nothing to write about. To address that, I picked up Tell It Slant from the library about two months ago. I’ve read to many “creative nonfiction guide books” to really think I’d learn anything new from this book, but I wanted something that would tell me what to write about so I had one less reason to cop out when I sat down. And that’s what I got.Tell It Slant

The structure of this book makes logical sense. Three parts break down writing into topic, structure, and skills, and chapters center on the specifics of those parts. Seems sensible enough. I the problem I’ve had is that, as I’ve worked through the first few chapters (on memory, family, and place, respectively), I’ve felt trapped by the topic. The prompts are pretty rigid, telling you not only what topic to concentrate on but also what to think about and what to aim towards. I can see how this would be useful to someone just getting comfortable with creative writing, and with creative nonfiction in particular. But I felt so bored with everything I was writing from those prompts. Nothing felt natural or inspired. Like I was writing themes in grade school on topics assigned by the teacher.

I don’t want to be too harsh. The actual chapters themselves are well-written and it’s definitely a good, instructive book. I can even see me going back to it later on, when I’m feeling more grounded in my own writing and can approach it as more of a book of ideas and inspiration and less as a guide. Really, I’d recommend it to anyone who was in that situation or a less experienced writer who was looking to learn more about creative nonfiction. I’m just kind of in an in-between place right now, so it’s not for me.

reading now: The Pale King

I started The Pale King by David Foster Wallace on August 1 as part of the 21st Century Literature group I belong to on Goodreads*. I was both excited at the prospect and terribly intimidated. If you’re not familiar with Wallace, this first line from his obit (he committed suicide in 2008) in the New York Times should give you a good idea of what I’m up against:

David Foster Wallace, whose prodigiously observant, exuberantly plotted, grammatically and etymologically challenging, philosophically probing and culturally hyper-contemporary novels, stories and essays made him an heir to modern virtuosos like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, an experimental contemporary of William T. Vollmann, Mark Leyner and Nicholson Baker and a clear influence on younger tour-de-force stylists like Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer, died on Friday at his home in Claremont, Calif.

So, yeah, excited and intimidated.

The reading is slow-going. Partly because I’ve got other projects taking up my time, partly because it’s just not a book to rush through. Most chapters are deep and complex, scattered with images to consider and observations to explore. At times, it’s immensely sad, other times it’s geekishly amusing, but it is never tedious. Which is pretty amazing for a book whose plot focuses on the IRS.

And the writing will knock your socks right off.

“The mother at thirty with face commencing to display the faint seams of the plan for the second face life had in store for her and which she feared would be her own mother’s and University City’s confined time sat with knees bunched up rocking and scratched at herself essaying to ruin the face’s plan.”

When it comes to creative writing, I think it’s far too easy to fall into over-writing, to turn a phrase so clever that the reader is struck more by the musicality than the meaning. Wallace comes so close to that edge but I’ve yet to feel like he even toes it. I look forward to picking up this book every day.

What are you reading now?

*Are you on Goodreads? If so, we should totally be friends.