The Art of Memoir

Mary Karr


You can count on a memoirist being passionate about the subject.                       …

I once heard Don DeLillo quip that a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them.                          …

Everybody I know who wades deep enough into memory’s waters drowns a little.   …

For the more haunted among us, only looking back at the past can permit it finally to become past.

                            from  The Art of Memoir


This is who I was.

A couple of years ago I was invited to participate in the Kelso School District’s Arts and Humanities Day, exploring writing as a form of expression with middle school students. I began by asking the group what they enjoyed writing. It was somewhat predictable: the boys were writing science fiction; the girls, poetry and fantasy. But one young fellow announced that he was writing his autobiography. I was impressed. Only thirteen, and he already understood his life to be a story worth telling.

The start of a new year seems especially appropriate as a time for self-reflection, looking back on the way we’ve come in preparation for what lies ahead. For this purpose, Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir may be useful, not just to the aspiring memoirist, as a guidebook for remembering, interpreting, and recording one’s life.

Karr, who teaches at Syracuse University, has shared her own life story in three national best sellers, The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit. In addition to offering practical How-to advice on writing memoirs, she also discusses a number of tricky issues, such as the fallibility of memory (It may not have happened like you remember) and the pliability of truth (What was true for you, may not have been true for your siblings;) she discusses the ethics of writing a story that presents other people in an unflattering light—for example, if you’re going through a divorce, you might want to hold off writing that memoir for the moment. She advises, “If you want revenge, hire a lawyer.”

Because she believes “there’s a place in hell for writers who quote themselves,” her book is rich with examples from the memoirs of others, from the fifth-century Confessions of Augustine to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, also Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory about growing up in Czarist Russia, Michael Herr’s Dispatches from the Vietnam war, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on growing up black and female, and Philip Gourevitch’s classic account of the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families. She also quotes a lot from herself.

Together, these voices capture both the diversity and the universality of the human experience. Though speaking from different centuries and different circumstances, they stem from the same impulse that was stirring in that middle school boy. From the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux to today’s Snapchat, there seems to be this human urge to record our lives, to leave a testament for others that says I was here, This is what I saw, This is what I did, This is who I was.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (January 10, 2017-February 14, 2017.) Reprinted with permission.