The Art of Memoir Summary
by Mary Karr

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The Art of Memoir Summary

The Art of Memoir is a book by Mary Karr that discusses the craft, form, and composition of memoirs.

  • As novels have become more esoteric, memoirs have gained popularity. Karr attributes this to readers’ interest in accessible books based more firmly in “reality.”
  • Memoirs, Karr asserts, depend on a “Truth Contract” between writer and reader. Though memoirs’ reliance on memory makes them as fallible as memory itself is, a memoirist must strive to tell the truth within these limitations.
  • “Carnality,” or the writer’s attention to the sensual, particular experiences of life, is crucial in Karr’s conception of a well-crafted memoir.

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In The Art of Memoir (2015), Mary Karr braids three intertwining narratives: an account of her own experience as a memoirist, a scholarly examination of the memoir as a literary form, and a practical guide for readers looking to embark on a memoir of their own.

Karr begins the work by offering some context for the memoir in its current form, particularly noting its increased popularity over the past twenty years. This, she speculates in the preface, can be interpreted as a reaction to fiction’s increasing esotericism:

As fiction grew more fabulist or dystopic or hyperintellectual under the sway of Joyce and Woolf and García Márquez and Pynchon acolytes, readers thirsty for reality began imbibing memoir.

Central to the appeal and success of the memoir genre, Karr insists, is this promise of reality. She refers to this as the “Truth Contract” between the writer and their audience—that is, the notion that every memoirist has made an implicit deal with their reader, and further, that both should understand the terms of that unspoken agreement from the outset.

Those who write memoirs, Karr continues, have to wrest the best possible version of the truth from an unreliable history. This process—wracked with nitpicking, research, self-confrontation, doubt, and uncertainty—is not an easy one. For this reason, Karr posits that most of the successful memoirists she knows tend to adhere to a specific type. In the preface, she notes,

Unless you’re a doubter and a worrier, a nail-biter, an apologizer, a rethinker, then memoir may not be your playpen. That’s the quality I’ve found most consistently in those life-story writers I’ve met. Truth is not their enemy. It’s the bannister they grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs. It’s the solution.

Searching for truth, Karr warns, is not an easy process. To write an honest memoir—the only kind worth writing, she reminds her audience repeatedly—a writer needs to confront the ugly with as much attention and detail as the beautiful. This, she continues, can be deeply uncomfortable, and it is not something to undertake lightly. In a chapter titled “Why Not to Write a Memoir,” she even presents a list of ten reasons not to try. The list is presented with humor, but the reasons highlight the numerous difficulties inherent to the experience.

For those undeterred, Karr eventually begins instruction in earnest. As important as the Truth Contract, she tells her audience, is the writer’s voice. “Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice,” she notes in chapter 4. To establish an authentic literary voice, too, requires confronting good and bad in equal measure:

Whatever people like about you in the world will manifest itself on the page. What drives them crazy will keep you humble. You’ll need both sides of yourself—the beautiful and the beastly—to hold a reader’s attention. (Chapter 4)

To further immerse the reader into the text, Karr encourages the incorporation of sensory details into the narrative. She calls this the text’s “carnality”—its sensual data, which the writer can leverage to create an experience that feels multidimensional to their reader. “A great detail feels particular in a way that argues for its truth,” she notes in chapter 5. Embracing a carnal...

(The entire section is 898 words.)