Mary Karr, the tough talking best-selling author and poet, has a simple rule for those who would write a memoir: tell the truth.
Speaking at a forum organized by the Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture on March 20, Karr said that a memoir is not an “act of history, but of memory” and thus the truth can, and often is, subjective. Nonetheless, the writer must be honest in recounting the experience and emotion of a life lived, otherwise the story becomes a work of fiction.
Karr, whose chronicle of her East Texas childhood, The Liar’s Club (Penguin, 1995), spent a year on the New York Times best-seller list, said that readers don’t expect an annotated history of events, but neither will they accept outright fabrication, as in the case of James Frey’s now-discredited memoir, A Million Little Pieces (Doubleday, 2003).
“By the time I was writing Liar’s Club, the reader understood that I’m writing out of memory and that it’s an innately corrupt form, so that I could reconstitute dialogue and skip whole years when stuff didn’t happen,” said Karr, who engaged in a conversation about truth in memoir and poetry with Brennan O’Donnell, Ph.D., dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill. “At one point I make a 13-year leap in The Liar’s Club and my editor kept calling me saying, ‘How are you going to get across that 13-year gap?’” Karr said “I finally called her one day and said, ‘How about, Thirteen years later, comma?’ The reader understands that I’m not writing the history of Mary Karr for perpetuity, but that I’m recreating an internal, subjective experience.”
In an often humorous discussion before more than 200 people at McNally Amphitheatre, Karr read passages from The Liar’s Club and poems from her latest volume, Sinners Welcome (HarperCollins, 2006), in which she takes on the issue of her faith and Catholicism.
In the end, Karr said that the best memoirs are those that deal honestly with the inner conflicts that plague the writer and that do so in an original and interesting voice.
“I always say that in a really good memoir, the central conflict might seem with an external circumstance but it’s really with the writer,” she said. “One of the things missing in the James Frey memoir … is any sense of a deep inner life. He thought that these events that happened to him on the surface where what was interesting. I don’t think that.”
By Victor M. Inzunza