REVIEW: The Art of Memoir

I heard Ms Karr interviewed on the most wonderful podcast, On Being with Krista Tippett and was so intrigued ordered it.

At first I loved the voice in this book on writing memoir. So authentic, honest, gritty and modern. But soon the book became all about that voice. In some cases, the nuggets she attempts to deliver are so much in “her voice” that it’s hard to understand what she means. This book is supposed to help someone write memoir, but there are times when the message is so opaque, it’s unclear.

That’s not to say there aren’t bits of value.

I agree on how writers need to learn how to include the “carnal” in their writing to capture readers. And yet I disagree with the use of the word “carnal.” She is talking about the senses: Visual, auditory, sensory (touch), olfactory, taste. Many a memoir midwife will tell you, the doorway into writing about the past is through the senses. Recalling the smells, tastes, touches brings a writer into the moment, which leads to other memories. But to me, the word carnal implies sex. Of course, a memoirist can dive in between the sheets, but there are so many more planes to sensual experiences. So it’s a quibble, and she very likely has her reasons.

Karr has great points and bits of advice on finding voice, integrating back story, including some excellent examples. I’m normally not keen on authors who use their own books as examples, but she is wise in how she uses them here.

A great bonus is the last section with a list of memoirs and books on writing memoir. Very useful.

I recommend this book for people who are currently working on a memoir, but not just starting one. My reason: This is sold as a synthesis of her great experience in teaching memoir and writing memoir. But it is not a step-by-step how-to. Half of it is skippable. But the nuggets are so valuable, to a writer who has dug in and going would find some great ideas to reflect on and lenses to review their work.

The writer’s madness tickle trunk

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What a great many madnesses do we writers have to plague our characters! There’s depression, anxiety, obsessions, phobias, addictions, paranoias, doubts and suspicions about ourselves and others, feelings of unreality and insignificance, feelings of grandiosity and cosmic importance.

Consider those niggling terrors; the thoughts that won’t go away, no matter how hard your character tries. As individuals we fight these things in ourselves, so why don’t your characters? As a writer these are your tools, your opportunity, to make characters of depth.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. How is your character not happy about herself? Is she too fat? Too thin? Too poor? Lacking in direction? Too normal? Too low in status?
  2. Who does she see as the perfect ‘me’ in the future? What is she doing (and not doing) to get there?
  3. How is she fighting off insanity? Is she obsessive about cleanliness, saving money, staying away from ‘dirty people’, disease, germs? Does she slip into a bottle of booze at night? Is she so economical that she has started to wash all of her clothes by hand as he showers (a.k.a. become eccentric)?

Brave and unique choices give you great opportunities to create interesting situations that readers can connect with.

What does your character value?

A good place to find your character’s madness is to look at how your character defines ‘sanity’? This is the same question as, “what does your character most value?” When you know what is valued, you can find what most terrifies. You don’t obsess about something that doesn’t matter to you, right? So if a character doesn’t care about germs but is obsessively cleaning, the reader will know something’s not quite right.

To make this as deep as possible, a number of exercises can help, including:

  1. Free-association: Start with one idea for something that makes your character crazy. Do a free writing exercise, associating their current fear backward in their life. Keep going until you find something that ‘pings’ at you.
  2. Research the foible to see how it manifests in others. Little nuggets can really inform your writing. For example, many germ-o-phobes do not touch public handrails or will punch elevator buttons with a tissue. For example, a germ-o-phobe might carry a set of special gloves for dangerous situations.

Making the most of insanity

How do you make the most of your character’s insanity? There’s a famous writing quote about plot structure that goes:

In the first act you put your character up a tree.
In the second, throw rocks at them.
In the third, you get them out of the tree.

To put your character up a tree, you place them in a situation where they have to face their madness. If they are clean freaks, you put them someplace dirty. If they are power hungry, place them in a situation where they have no power. It is by facing our weaknesses that your character will be forced to change and grow.

If the character can face the worst life can throw them, then so can the reader. Great writing persuades us that there is not terror so dark we cannot overcome it, even as the earth shakes beneath our feet.