Mary Karr’s Advice to Aspiring Writers

The author of The Liar's Club speaks to us about the art of memoir.

Mary Karr’s Advice to Aspiring Writers

Photo: Deborah Feingold

Mary Karr burst onto the literary scene in 1995 with The Liar’s Club. An explosive memoir detailing her rough Texas upbringing, it spent over a year on the New York Times best-seller list and was awarded the PEN Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction.

Since then she has published two other memoirs, Cherry (2001), on her sexual awakening and early adulthood, and Lit (2009), on her struggle with alcoholism and subsequent divorce. Add to those several collections of poetry and, now, a sort of literary guide.

Karr’s latest book, The Art of Memoir, is a guide to writing the genre, and it’s based on the seminar she teaches at Syracuse University. Though it seems Karr was destined for authorship, she wasn’t always a writer. Before her writing success, she was pursuing “the mind-numbing task of faking a business career.”

Which is exactly why we wanted to talk to her. We caught up with her to ask about how she got into writing, how she found her voice, and her best advice to aspiring writers.


The Art of MemoirYou write about memoir having a bad reputation—what changed that and made memoir “literary”?

It was a trend that started in the middle of the last century with the death of objective truth. People stopped believing in facts and institutions, and we figured out how much lying had been going on. The idea of subjective truth gained a new authority. Also, with the novel becoming hyper intellectual, people still wanted to read about families, love affairs, soldiers, and turned to memoir to get those stories.

What made you realize you needed to write a memoir rather than a novel?

I just failed so miserably at writing fiction. I would’ve preferred to write a novel, but I just didn’t have any talent for it. Instead, I used the novel to manufacture deceit! I think you’re either better at one or the other, it’s incredibly rare that a writer has talent for both.

You mention that voice is essential in memoir writing. How can aspiring memoirists find theirs?

It doesn’t hurt to do a long stint in therapy if you’ve had a troubled past. All the things about yourself that you try to obscure, let those things land on the page. You will eventually find a manner of speaking that is unique to you. Also, try, try again. When I was working on Lit, I broke the delete key I was doing so much revision.

Whose memoir changed your life?

There are so many! Maya Angelou, reading her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in the 11th grade, it was astonishing to read a literary book about blue-collar people. That knocked me out. I remember thinking “I didn’t know you could write about us.”

Tell me more about the quote, “Write about people you hate with great love.” 

The novelist Hubert Selby said that. I think if you’re writing out of revenge you ought to buy a gun. I write out of love. I don’t trust myself writing about people I don’t love.

Do you think it takes distance from traumatic events to write well about them?

I think writing about a divorce when you’re going through it is always a bad idea. We’ve all sat with our friends and listened to them talk. You get like a dog with a bone. I don’t trust myself to write about something when I’m in that state. In my spiritual practice, you’re supposed to see the world as God sees it, and it’s not a bad a way to live.

In one chapter, you write that many memoirists realize something inherently true about themselves as they write that they never knew before. What did you realize about yourself after you had written The Liar’s Club?

Oh, I’m horrified anytime I write about anything. You deceive yourself. It’s not that you make things up, but you focus on things that argue something. For instance, when I wrote about my marriage, I could only see it as a divorced person. In meditation, I remembered a moment when my ex-husband and I were floating down a river in inner-tubes; we were so in love. I was immediately in tears. I had cut myself off from that, and I wasn’t really telling the reader what had happened. That’s really common—you have to go back to how you felt then, rather than now.

Writers like Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti blur the line between fiction and memoir. In light of your suggestion that writers pursue truth at all costs, what are your thoughts on auto-fiction?

Novelists have always done this; there’s nothing new about this. The interesting thing about Knausgaard—I loved that first book (My Struggle: Book 1)—if a woman had written so painstakingly about her child-rearing, I wonder if intellectuals would still celebrate it. I think she’d be crucified.

How has teaching changed you as a writer?

I’ve been teaching for 30 years! It’s crazy. There’s nothing like really smart students to challenge your opinions and how you think about your work. The best literary conversation I have is with my amazing students. They push me to think harder. I change my mind about a million times a day based on conversations I’ve had with my students.

Do you believe that good writing can be taught?

I don’t think I have much talent; I’m just stubborn. If I didn’t think it could be taught, I wouldn’t teach. My colleague George Saunders says we are trying to help each student find their talent. Young writers often misrepresent themselves. You try to get them to see who they are, rather than who they think they should be.

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