Top of the Food Chain: The Art of Memoir

Book Review: The Art of Memoir 
Mary Karr
Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2015 Hardcover, 256 pages with appendix

In her opening words, Mary Karr waves a yellow flag to signal this is not just another how-to book.

“No one elected me the boss of memoir. I speak for no one but myself. Every writer worth her salt is sui generis [unique]. Memoirists’ methods—with regard to handling
actual events, memory, research, dealing with family and other subjects, legal whatnot, voice, etc.—differ from mine as widely as their lives do.”

It’s true she was not elected. She earned her place at the top of the food chain of memoirists. She brings to this book the irreverence and humor her fans expect and the authority of three best-selling memoirs, four books of poetry, thirty years as a university professor teaching memoir and literature, mentor of acclaimed and unknown authors, and “fifty-plus years of reading every memoir I could track down.” That last probably is why she chose The Art of Memoir as the title. Art is what people say it is, from Cadillac automobiles lined up hood-first in the ground (Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas) to the Mona Lisa.

Karr says the memoir genre is in its heyday after centuries as “an outsider’s art—the province of weirdos and saints, prime ministers and film stars.” Her take on the genre is to share from-the-trenches experiences and reactions that shaped her writing and teaching; she lets the reader decide whether they apply to the reader’s purposes. The book’s dust cover compares that approach to Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

On remembering
“My unscientific, decades-long study proves even the best minds warp and blur what they see.”

“There are traumatic memories that rise up unbidden and dwarf you where you stand. But there are also memories you dig for.”

“Forget how inventing stuff breaks a contract with the reader, it fences the memoirist off from the deeper truths that only surface in draft five or ten or twenty.”

“ . . . the wellsprings where a writer’s biggest ‘lies’ bubble up [is] interpretation.”

On structure
“In terms of basic  book shape, I’ve used the same approach in all three of mine: I start with a flash forward that shows what’s at stake emotionally for me over the course of a book, then tell the story in straightforward, linear time.”

“In any good memoir, the writer tries to meet the reader where she is by offering information in the way it’s felt—to reflect the writer’s inner values and cares.”

On why memoirs fail
“Most memoirs fail because of voice. It’s not distinct enough to sound alive and compelling.”

“Another way a crap memoir fails is if the narrator fails to change over time.”

“On the most basic level, bad sentences make bad books. I revise and revise and revise. Any editor of mine will tell you how crappy my early drafts are.”

On revising
“. . .after a lifetime of hounding authors for advice, I’ve heard three truths from every mouth: Writing is painful; . . . good work only comes through revision; . . . the best revisers often have reading habits that stretch back before the current age . . . “

“Reading through history cultivates in a writer a standard of quality higher than the marketplace.”

“In the long run, the revision process feels better if you approach it with curiosity.”

Learn “how to cut out the dull parts.”

Mary Karr’s memoirs are The Liars’ Club (1995), Cherry(2005), and Lit (2009). She is a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry and Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University. More at


I welcome your review of memoirs, biographies, and how-to books on writing those. Posted reviews also will be listed at Book Reviews with bylines. Submission guidelines.

1 comment:

  1. Wayne, thanks for this review. I've read many who haven't gotten through The Art of Memoir, and others who loved it. I haven't read it yet, but intend to as I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Mary Karr's experience as a writer and teacher.