Posts Tagged writing

book review: The Art of Memoir

art of memoir

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. Harper.| September 2015| 256 pages | $24.99| ISBN: 9780062223067

RATING: ****/5*

If you ever wondered what it would be like to take a class on memoir writing or a class with Mary Karr, this book is for you. It’s based upon a class syllabus. I’ll admit I’ve yet to read LIT for some reason though I own a copy. I did immensely enjoy Cherry and The Liar’s Club. I also went to hear Karr speak and she’s wonderful. I imagine her being a thorough and thoughtful teacher.

The Art of Memoir reminds me of The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi, who writes about three novels as they relate to America and the immigrant (and her immigrant experience)—Huckleberry Finn by Tom Sawyer, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. The last is a favorite novel of mine. I’ve read Huckleberry Finn and have yet to read Babbitt. Karr discusses many memoirs which she teaches in class, some I’ve read, some I haven’t and many I’ve added to my to-be-read list. Karr provides an impressive required reading at the end. Some of Karr’s favorite memoirs include: Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov [“Part of his singular skill—manifested in his voice—is translating philosophical ideas into physical or carnal metaphors; in this way he is not until Babel and Batuman. He’ll somehow smoosh ideas into unforgettable images.”] and Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston [“The two prongs of her massive talent mirror the two sides of the story’s conflict—her truth-hungry, feminist, Americanized self does battle with her mother’s repressive notions of Chinese ladylikeness and humility.”

She explains what makes each memoir special, what makes each stand-out and what makes each writer successful in writing memoir. It’s not a how-to-write book. Karr makes that quite clear. She writes: “No one elected me the boss of memoir. I speak for no one but myself. Every writer worth her salt is sui generic.” It’s a survey course in memoir writing. Here’s how Karr beautifully describes the heart of memoir, one’s memory: “Memory is a pinball in a machine—it messily ricochets around between image, idea, fragments of sense, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt and snaps off. But most of the time, we keep memories packed away. I sometimes liken that moment of sudden unpacking to circus clowns pouring out of a miniature car trunk—how did so much fit into such a small space?” Karr includes an important chapter on why NOT to write a memoir—revenge, writing about those you vehemently despise and writing that will negatively affect a group of people.

In explaining the importance of voice, Karr states: “Voice isn’t just a manner of talking. It’s an operative mindset and way of perceiving that naturally stems from feeling oneself alive inside the past. That’s why self-awareness is so key. The writer who’s lived a fairly unexamined life– someone who has a hard time reconsidering a conflict from another point of view– may not excel at fashioning a voice because her defensiveness stands between her and what she has to say.” The point is: “Great memoirs sound like distinct persons and also cover a broad range of feelings,” Karr writes. Anyone who enjoys reading memoir can generally distinguish the good from the bad and it’s often based on voice. If you can get into a memoir whether it’s about drug dealing or being in prison or a hiking trip or mental illness or adopting a cat, there’s usually a distinguishing voice and emotions throughout, you’re going to keep reading. If it’s flat you’re likely to put it aside.

Karr stresses: “The best voices include a writer’s insides. Watching her mind feel around to concoct or figure out events, you never lose sight of the ego’s shape, its blind spots, dislikes, wants.” Some of the elements Karr writes about include choosing details to include, knowing how to edit, lying/ stretching the truth, finding your talent, dealing with loved ones both on and off the page and structure. This book includes tips for writers at every level. It’s much more academic than I expected. Although knowing it’s based on her Syracuse University class syllabus makes sense. However I’m ill-prepared because I have yet to read many works discussed. You might want to check the recommended reading list, read a few memoirs then read Karr’s The Art of the Memoir.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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Choice Quote: The Carrie Diaries

carrie diaries

“do you know how difficult it is to make a living doing something like that. it’s almost impossible.”
–Tom Bradshaw about Carrie pursuing a writing career


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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Junot Diaz

MIT professor and Pulitzer-prize winning author Junot Diaz kindly agreed to speak with me by phone earlier this week about his new collection of stories This is How You Lose Her. Diaz writes raw, visceral prose that bursts from the page with a gritty intensity. The stories revolve around Yunior, a young smug Dominican as he navigates love in New Jersey. My review here. He’s currently on a 30 city nationwide tour and will appear at Brookline Booksmith on September 19, Harvard Bookstore on September 26 and Concord Festival of Authors on November 3. For other area dates, see Diaz’s website.

Amy Steele: What attracts you to writing short stories?

Junot Diaz: There’s something about their fragmentation. There’s something about their awesome intensity that really just does it for me.

Amy Steele: What are the greatest challenges in writing short stories vs. writing novels?

Junot Diaz: When it comes down to it, they’re two entirely different forms. The novel is a marathon in many ways. At least what I’ve written is more of a marathon. The short stories, in my mind, require an entirely different calibration. The short story’s so much about silence and the novel’s so much about how much you put into your world.

Amy Steele: It seems that not many authors can do both short stories and novels well. And many choose to do one or the other.

Junot Diaz: I’m not sure, myself, if I’ll write anymore short stories. I think I’ve burned myself out for a while.

Amy Steele: Do you think writing short stories is a more difficult format?

Junot Diaz: I don’t know. It’s just time for me to go back to the novel. To spend more time in that longitudinal form, in that more expansive form.

Amy Steele: Did you set out to write thematically based stories for This is How You Lose Her or did it end up that way?

Junot Diaz: I started it from the beginning. A book like this does not come together by accident. You set yourself up right from the start. You try to get all the stories to work together, to get all the basic scenes in play and have the arc intact. I had the idea for the overarching story first and then I had to fit the other stories in.

Amy Steele: Why did you think it would work better as stories than as a novel?

Junot Diaz: I just think they’re totally different forms. It’s a different game. It’s like asking why kickball vs. hopscotch? In our minds we think of these forms as directly related but it’s not so clear when you’re creating them how connected they are. there was something very useful and constructive about all the silences between the stories. There is a way that a reader reads this collection that the reader is going to ask important questions. They’re going to provide a lot of answers themselves. In a novel, there’s a lot less fragmentation. A novel is less a game. A book like this is more of a game that asks a person’s help to participate in the assemblage.

Stories have a way at the end of reminding us of how short our lives our but also just how irrevocable some of the moments in our lives are. You can’t regain them. Stories have a lot of finality in them. Where novels save all of its finality until the end.

Amy Steele: When I read your stories or novels, I become immediately immersed in the culture, which I suppose is the point but I find it so impressive and not easily done. How did you develop such a contemporary structure that seems simultaneously simple and complex?

Junot Diaz: There’s a part of me that knows the interface and what lies behind it and there’s this voice, conversation, vernacular—that’s just interface. That’s what the reader connects with. If someone’s interested in narrative, in the way a story works, they look behind the mask. My approach is always to hide the complexity. To do everything possible to distract, to misdirect that this is an artifact. That it’s highly provisional, highly contingent. And there’s a part of me that’s just nerdy. I love puzzles.

Amy Steele: What do you like about Yunior?

Junot Diaz: He’s incredibly complex. I wrestled with him because he’s so difficult. He has a suite of charms. But in other ways he’s sort of brutal. There’s a sensitivity and an intelligence and a cowardice and a self-obsessiveness that works for me.

Amy Steele: How did you develop him as a character?

Junot Diaz: He’s been with me for a long time. I’ve always liked the idea of a character who would allow me to talk about the way that masculinity and the way that race and the way that culture and the way that American-ness works from the inside. He’s so smart and so honest. He’s a wonderful observer. He has kinda cool judgments. But all those credits means there’s gotta be a lot of hurt and a lot of damage.

Amy Steele: What makes a good story?

Junot Diaz: A whole combination of traits for me. What matters most is a believable human character by which we mean contradictory and conflicted.

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BOOKS: The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates

The author of Black Water, Rape: a Love Story and The Tattooed Girl ruminates on writing, including her thoughts on other writers. She discusses inspiration, failure, criticism, influences and reading. It’s an intriguing foray into the writing process from initial concept to final product.

I believe that art is the highest expression of the human spirit.

Your struggle with your buried self, or selves, yields your art’ these emotions are the fuel that drives your writing and makes possible hours, days, weeks, months and years of what will appear to others, at a distance, as “work.”

Don’t expect to be treated justly by the world. Don’t even expect to be treated mercifully.

It is a man’s world; a woman whose sensibility has been stoke by feminism will find much to annoy and offend, but perhaps there’s much to learn, and to be inspired by, if only in knowing what it’s like to be an outsider gazing in.

I’ve never thought of writing as the mere arrangement of words on the page but the attempted embodiment of a vision; a complex of emotions; raw experience.

Though most of us inhabit degrees of failure or the anticipation of it, very few persons are willing to acknowledge the fact, out of a vague but surely correct sense that it is not altogether American to do so.

Of course, writing is an art. And art springs from the depths of the human imagination and is likely to be, in the final analysis as at first glance, idiosyncratic, mysterious, and beyond easy interpretation.

The inspiration a writer takes from a predecessor is usually accidental, like the inspirations of our lives; those individuals met by chance who become integral to our destinies.

Self-criticism, like self-administered brain surgery, is perhaps not a good idea. Can the “self” see the “self” with any objectivity?

To have a reliable opinion of oneself, one must know the subject, and perhaps that isn’t possible. We know how we feel about ourselves, but only from hour to hour; our moods change, like the intensity of light outside our windows.

The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art


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Guest Post: Matthew Pearl [The Last Dickens] & Giveaway

Matthew and I emailed back and forth for some time about having him write a Guest Post or having me interview him. He remarked that he does tons of interviews [and I interview lots of people] and that he enjoyed writing the guest posts he’s done previously. I met Matthew when he spoke [read his post at Porter Square Books], he doesn’ t like to read, at the Westford Public library. Fittingly, I brought my mom and he brought his mom and his grandmother. During his talk, I wrote down something he said: “It’s odd to look over and see your words in someone else’s hands.” And that became the impetus for the post.

lastDickensPOP QUIZ

When you’re writing a manuscript you’re extremely careful about whom you’d give it to read for feedback. It’s not just for writing a novel. Think about one of your college essays—not the one that you stayed up Thursday night to hand in Friday morning, but one that you were actually pouring your heart into. Maybe you asked one of your roommates to read it. But you also probably knew you would never let your other roommate read it. You know, the one who’d say, “This is a first draft, right?”

As a published author you can’t stand in the bookstore and screen customers to see if you approve them as readers. In fact, if you were brave enough to stand around in the bookstore near the New Fiction table, you’d want everyone and their uncle to buy your book. You’d probably start bribing.

I remember the first time I saw someone with a copy of my book outside one of my author events. It was in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Crossing the street, I glanced over at a woman holding a battered paperback of The Dante Club. I said, “That’s my book!” She looked at me funny. I think she thought I meant she had a copy of The Dante Club that belonged to me. Damn that author photo for making me look less disheveled than in real life.

Once when I found myself grounded on the tarmac at Chicago O’Hare for three hours, with the passenger in the middle seat reading my book, this time I said nothing. I was trapped, watching my words flip by. What a surreal feeling. Was he catching the foreshadowing on that page? He read the page too quickly, surely. Should I give him a pop quiz and remove his reading privileges if he fails?

But that wasn’t my book I saw in Park Slope or on the plane, not mine. If I walked into Porter Square Books and picked up a copy of my latest novel, The Last Dickens, and walked out, I’d be shoplifting. There is the paradox: when I started writing, I imagined the point of publication as the moment in which you’d ascend to a new level of authority and control over your work. In fact, it is the moment when you lose control over your book, and when you have to learn to let go of what you thought belonged only to you.

 A writer friend of mine, Cynthia, once got a call from her friend who said:

 “I think I just met your friend.”

 “Who?” Cynthia asked.

 “Haven’t you said you were friends with Matthew Pearl, the author?”


 “I just met him at a poker tournament at Foxwoods.”

I’ve never been to Foxwoods casino and wouldn’t get past the first round of a poker tournament. It turned out there was a guy, who apparently looked nothing like me nor my author photo, who was saying he was Matthew Pearl. Of course, I wouldn’t forbid another writer named Matthew Pearl from existing, but this one was naming my books and saying he wrote them. (Poe, whose love for doppelgangers helped inspire my second novel, The Poe Shadow, would probably smile at this.)

Countless questions entered my head about this impostor. First of all, can’t you pretend to be someone more exciting than me? Second, did you try to get a credit card or a house in my name (as far as I can tell, he didn’t)? Third, do you want to stand around at the bookstore and bribe people for me?

–by Matthew Pearl

Matthew Pearl’s links:

official website

Facebook author page


Giveaway: one copy of The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl courtesy of Random House. U.S/Canadian residents only. Submit email in comments section. Contest Ends DECEMBER 1.

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book review: Old Friend from Far Away

Any writer has read the essential book on writing: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which provides wonderful advice and encouragement. When I saw that she would be at a reading at the Brookline Booksmith on Wednesday, March 25th, I jumped at the chance to hear her read from her new book which focuses on writing memoir:

Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir

[I had a miserable day on Tuesday and remained in a funk on Wednesday especially when I received bad and unbelievable news]

Regardless, I should attend many more book readings because as Goldberg said, “There’s nothing like hearing an author read what she wrote in her own voice.”

The book is like a workshop in that she gives you assignments to do. She suggested that we by several spiral notebooks to fill with our writing. Join a writing group –something I definitely know that I need to do/ should do– of course in my 30s I just found a book club to join and I am its youngest member!!! I know that to be a good writer one must write all the time. I feel like I do write often. I write for this blog, I write film and music review/ commentary and the like but it might be good for me to take Natalie’s advice and get a notebook and write for ten minutes each day on a subject from her book.

Writing is an athletic activity. It comes from the whole body, your knees and arms, kidneys, liver, fingers, teeth, lungs, spine- all organs and body parts leaning in with you, hovering in concentration over the page. And just like any other sport, it takes practice.
–Natalie Goldberg


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