Mary Karr’s Truth

In September I had the great honor of interviewing Mary Karr, whose claim to fame is this little feat of having penned three best-selling memoirs(!). Karr’s new book isThe Art of Memoir, and reading it is like having a front row seat to one of her exclusive graduate seminars, which you’ll never get into in real life because they’re so darn competitive.

To start, I highly recommend this book to any student of memoir, anyone who’s trying to write a memoir, and anyone who’s ever written a memoir. But this post is not about my interview or why The Art of Memoir is a great book, but about her chapter on truth, and Mary’s take on truth.

“The Truth Contract Twixt Writer and Reader” is the title of Chapter 2, and Mary is a clear champion of truth. But she also alludes to a scale of truth. She specifically speaks to the liberties she’s taken in writing her memoirs, from recreating dialogue to blurring details to telescoping time. These are all elements of good craft in the genre, and the kinds of things memoirists must learn how to do if they want to tell a good story, but Mary assumes in the writing of this chapter a certain level of nimble thinking that perhaps she’s used to because of the caliber of people she hangs out with at Syracuse University. The problem is that the average human thinks in very black-or-white terms, and while Mary is clearly railing against liars in this chapter, she is also very explicitly giving writers permission not to sweat the small stuff.

In preparation for my own interview with her, I watched another interview in which Mary talked about her writing process and her search for the truth as “pulling at taffy.” I loved this image, and I immediately started incorporating the concept into my own teaching. The taffy itself remains the substance it is, but you can shape it and mold it and make it submit to your will. Mary is asserting that truth’s essence must remain pure and intact, like taffy, and that it continue to be taffy, and not be taken by someone who messes with it, does some trick of the hand, and then comes back with roast beef and tries to pass it off as taffy. It’s that simple.

But again, I’m going to suggest that because she deigns to enter into the gray zone — where good memoir is written, by the way — a lot of nuance might be lost on the average reader. And, I would argue, even on intelligent readers. The New York Times review of The Art of Memoir dinged Mary for her take on “truth,” writing:

She rails against “big fat liars” like James Frey (“A Million Little Pieces,” which he claimed was only 5 percent dishonest, according to a page count) and Greg Mortenson (“Three Cups of Tea”). But she also tells students that they can fudge details, as long as the detail helps give an important memory an air of authenticity.

In my interview with Mary I asked her about this and her response was swift and to the point: “My guess is that she [NYT reviewer Janet Maslin] didn’t read the book.”

The weekend after our interview, Mary came out with a Los Angeles Times piecethat was at least partly rebuttal, in which she wrote:

Janet Maslin claims that I urge memoirists to “fudge details.” For evidence, she cites the line “Surely I misremember all kinds of stuff.” I note that the boy I kissed who was chewing Juicy Fruit in memory was perhaps partial to another brand in fact. Forget that he signed off on the Juicy Fruit. I’m saying we could both be wrong.

But I don’t fault Maslin. She’s just parroting the standard wisdom that memoirists are avowed fabulists. The best ones are wrestling with memory as we all do, trying to make sense of our messy, complicated lives.

If I were reading between the lines here, and in Chapter 2 of The Art of Memoir, I’d guess that Mary has spent a lot of years feeling compelled to defend her own “truth.” She’s examined truth in ways that few other writers have. After all, she’s subjected herself to three memoirs — more than the average writer of memoir to be sure. And she works with students. I know from experience that memoir students are obsessed with the truth. They worry and hand-wring and freak out in all kinds of ways. You learn as a teacher to talk those people down, to try to give them tools to just keep writing. You didn’t grow up wearing a tape recorder strapped to your hip. A memoir is your interpretation of events. It’s the emotional truth that matters. Keep writing.

Mary is advocating that writers not be chained to exactitudes. But in giving this kind of permission, she is opening the door to a small battleground where absolutists are going to have a field day with her. For black-and-white thinkers there is truth or not truth. There is nothing in between. If black-and-white thinkers ruled the world of memoir, stories would be boring, lawsuits would be commonplace, and memoir would be even more a form of torture than Mary professes it already is.

Aspiring memoirists of nimble mind will find that Mary’s points might just set them free. For those who wrestle with her ideas, unable to grasp the difference between pulling at taffy and creating scenes from whole cloth, The Art of Memoir may instead burn a whole in their brains.

Watch my interview with Mary Karr:

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