Memoir is a genre that I rarely read. I enjoy browsing through that section in the bookstore, but most of the titles seem like either humble-bragging or exploitative messes. Or, even worse, they’re preachy, “I’ve been saved” tales of turning a life around. If reading allows us to experience other lives, memoir and autobiography allow us to experience other real lives. The problem is that those narratives are based on the faulty human memory. In fiction, truth exists because real actions can be extrapolated to made up events. Whereas in memoir, the remembered events are always filtered through frail human emotion and a tendency towards nostalgia. Exaggeration is an easy way to ramp up tension and, yet, is as dishonest as lying outright. Memoir is full of a different set of traps than fiction, but when done correctly, it is as exhilarating as any other art form.
I am about a third of the way through Lit by Mary Karr. It chronicles her “descent into the inferno of alcoholism and madness–and to her astonishing resurrection.1 This is Ms. Karr’s third memoir, but the first that I’ve read by her. I’m unsure why I picked it up at first, but I read the intro, which is a letter in two parts to her son. It was beautiful and sad and human. It was a letter that I would have loved to get from my mother. Karr, it turns out, is a poet, and it comes through in the writing. As Lev Grossman said, Ms. Karr “…seems to have been born with the inability to write a dishonest sentence — or a boring one.”2 I think this best describes the book as far as I am into it. It is the writing craft that makes the content rise above mere confessional.
In other memoirs that I’ve read and shall remain unnamed, the spectacle was supposed to be the draw. But this often fails simply because the author often relies on the readers own reactions. A good writer should draw out the emotion as well as the reaction. The reader of a memoir is a voyeur, but we want the whole package – intellectual, emotional, everything. Instead of just recording an event, we need to be immersed in it. Books provide this immersion in a way that no other medium currently can.3 This is why readers are more forgiving of failure in fiction than in memoir. Fiction creates a wholly imaginary experience whereas memoir is seeking to recreate. Is this a fair distinction? No, it isn’t, but, sadly, that’s life. In Lit, the spectacle is entertaining, true, but it is clearly not the point. In fact, I’m not sure what the point is yet, but I do not feel like a gawker witnessing a drunk’s worst moments. The memoir is documenting all the small and large moments that build to the spectacle; so, instead of seeing a drunk’s life fall apart, the reader sees Mary struggling at life.
Memoir also fails when it tries to lessonize4 its story. “I had a shitty childhood; I drank/had too much sex/started a band; I went to rehab/found god/started a band; life is great!” is not a story that seems believable because we all know that life is too complicated for such easy lessons. Very rarely do we look back on our life and see it as a series of teachable moments. We see it is as experience, pain or joy, loss or achievement, set back or progress, and this rings true because it is universal. The memoirs I love, like Lit, have no A-ha! moments. Truly, they feel like someone who is just guessing at life, which also rings true. Memoir is a tool in which we can organize our life to see lessons that we learned, but it’s also a way to show lessons that we missed. I’m just as interested in how missed opportunities complicate life. What I mean is that the moments when someone could have been kind but chose pettiness instead. When the man has a chance to tell the woman he loves that he does indeed love her but is too afraid of rejection. “If you lie to your husband – even about something so banal as how much you drink – each lie is a brick in a wall going up between you, and when he tells you he loves you, it’s deflected away.”5 This quote from Lit shows how missed opportunity furthers the human drama, and while it’s a lesson learned, it’s not necessarily a change that can or could be made. Did she know at the time that she was building a wall? Maybe, but does it really matter? Will this stop any other woman from lying to her husband? Maybe but not likely, and does that matter? No because the reader feels the sadness in that, knows how human and common that action is, and understands that it will happen again. The lesson doesn’t connect us with Ms. Karr; the emotion does. That connection is what I look for in a memoir.
1. Quote from the Goodreads page.
2. Review: Lit by Mary Karr
3. Come on technology. Produce 3D immersive experiences faster.
4. Why not make up a word?
5. Quote from Lit by Mary Karr