The Art of Memoir
by Mary Karr



Harper, 2015. ISBN 978-0-062-22306-7.
Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
Posted on 10/24/2015

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Creative Life

Mary Karr is known for her voice, her insights, and her relentless honesty. Her latest book, The Art of Memoir, combines information about the genre with tales from her own life and examples from memoirists she respects. She offers insights into her process, tools, and philosophy. She acknowledges the difficulty of delving deeply and sifting facts out of the distortions memory makes, which is a huge help to writers struggling with the "real" truth—whatever that means.

Karr gives us reasons why anyone should tell her story, along with a few reasons why one should not. She talks about truth, voice, details, and "sacred carnality." What's that? It's rooting the story in sensory specifics, picking those specifics that best move the story forward. In other words, it's showing with purpose, not telling. "Every memoir should brim over with the physical experiences that once streamed in—the smell of garlicky gumbo, your hand in an animal's fur, the ocean's phosphor lighting up bodies underwater all acid green," according to Karr.

She encourages writers to share the story with those who might object and even sit with them as they read, but she warns us not to share a story until it's the best it can be. She even talks about why memoirs fail and how to correct the problem.

Memoirs are the truth, told through the slant of the narrator's experience. If you think that you've experienced any event the same way your siblings and parents did, listen at the next family picnic or Thanksgiving dinner. Truth is often subjective. Memoir gives meaning to events, so it is about the truth as you, the author, perceive it.

Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Mary Karr gives you tools and procedures for examining the turning points in your life and appreciating the self-examination of others. Read the book, feel the empathy, and get on with your memoir. I recommend this for every writer with a story to tell. This means you!


Mary Karr has written three award-winning best sellers. The Liar's Club was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Cherry was a "notable book" in various nationally published book reviews. Lit was one of the New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of the Year and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. A Guggenheim Fellow in poetry, Karr has won Pushcart Prizes for both verse and essays. She is the Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University. Visit her website.

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