In some of my last blogs, we’ve looked at the Memoir and evolving perspectives on what they should contain and who is most likely to benefit from them. Well, yet again I’ve found an interesting article that brings me closer to understanding the Memoir as an art form that addresses people’s present as well as past. In the September 17th issue of The New York Times, Janet Maslin reviews poet/novelist/memoirist Mary Karr’s latest book titled The Art of Memoir. While there is much to make a writer and reader think about in terms of “latest” books, “how to” books, and influences on a writer’s choices of subject in this article, ultimately, here, I want to discuss process and inspiration.
One of the first things that jumped out at me as a tutor and professor of composition is that Karr draws from the syllabus she uses at Syracuse University for this book’s ideas and structure. That is much like I am doing with my blog. I am letting these small sections and themes to become the basis of a larger work. It’s kind of my syllabus. She is drawing from experience in terms of success and failure in application. I am offering insight and philosophy based on my own successes and disappointments or failures. She’s observed aspiring memoirists in action in her classroom and can draw not only from her own works, then, but the results of other “would-be” writers. I work to include both aspiring writers as well as those who have found their voice and their way.
So? Perhaps your own scattered notes and ideas are actually not languishing ideas without focus, but building blocks to assemble into a guide for others or a foundation for a larger work you had not considered writing.
But let’s get back to Memoir in general and Karr in particular. In the article she calls herself a ‘passionate, messy teacher.’ It’s the passion in her work that draws people to her as a guide as well as an author. I like the idea of “messy” because many would-be writers think of the drafting or even teaching process as something only heavily organized or type-A people can do well. Or maybe the artist/author has an an assistant to make it all go smoothly. But getting messy is what it’s all about—especially with truth. But the mess must be organized into parts that translate well to the reader who has no ability to “see” or “remember” the past as you can. Embrace the mess and sweep and arrange it into a coherent narrative. That means edit and rewrite as needed for as long as needed but don’t throw out the edgy or uncomfortable things. These make you human and honest.
I’ve talked about imitation and emulation as a tool as you find your own voice. Karr addresses this as well. But then once you’ve studied the likes of Nabokov, McCourt, Maya Angelou, and others, including Karr, do you see a rhythm or truth in their work that affects you or do you have a voice that does not align with frameworks of resentment, affection, glamorizing, philosophizing, humor, or tattling that may dominate some writers’ themes. Karr looked carefully at her own life and her own voice was what made her work, fiction and nonfiction, engaging. She says to be ‘aware of [your] sensory impressions.’ I teach my students to engage in affecting the reader with vivid imagery even in nonfiction. The senses are what connect us all and if you don’t address what a stranger may be able to comprehend in the use of these, you are not truly able to connect to him.
As the article so well states: “Readers will love you for your imperfections.” So get messy, take chances, and, perhaps, read Karr’s book. What’s to lose?