This week, the Cut reflects on self-reflection with a series of stories devoted to the art of memoir.
Moving in New York means at least one morning spent sitting around at home in anticipation of the Time Warner guy. This is what Mary Karr is doing on a Wednesday in late August.
Two days ago, the 60-year-old memoirist moved into a one-bedroom on the Upper East Side. Already, impressively, there are no boxes to be seen; she credits this feat of unpacking to a friend. (“I was sitting here with my thumb up my ass, and she just murdered it.”) The circumstances demanded speed. In a few days, Karr will be leaving for Syracuse, where she is a literature professor, and from there she heads off on tour to promote her new book, The Art of Memoir. The tour will eventually bring her back to town, and she does not want to stay in a hotel in New York. She wants to stay in her own apartment, with her own bed and her own Time Warner service. (She is active on social media, with a Twitter feed that quotes Heraclitus alongside strangers on the subway.) “Listen,” she says, “if I have Wi-Fi, I feel like I won a raffle.”
She landed here after a stint house-sitting in Prospect Heights for the writers Philip Gourevitch and Larissa MacFarquhar, which followed an ill-fated attempt to live in Scarsdale. Her boyfriend of nine years — a real-estate developer she met in the Hamptons, but also, she’s quick to add, “an Oberlin English major” — has a place up there, and she thought it might be nice to live with him. “So, me, Scarsdale — ” she clicks her tongue to convey not gonna happen. “It was a lot of white people,” she says. “I need to be around a lot of black people and a lot of Jews. So I had the Jew thing covered, but they didn’t have any black people.” She laughs. “Well — I’m sort of serious about that. It’s just not good for the mind.” The Upper East Side is maybe not the most heterogeneous neighborhood in New York, but there are other benefits to life in the city, like walks in Central Park with Don DeLillo. And her 29-year-old filmmaker son is here. He lives in Brooklyn, close enough that they can go to Pilates class together.
Karr has described her turn toward memoir as a practical one: In the early ’90s, she was a broke and divorced mom. The Liars’ Club, her first book of prose, took on her East Texas childhood. Her mother was a would-be painter who burned through a string of husbands; her father was a charismatic, storytelling oilman; both were heavy drinkers. Published 20 years ago, the book was a hit and has been credited with sparking the ’90s memoir boom. Karr was the first writer with whom The Paris Review conducted an “Art of Memoir” interview.
Two more successful memoirs followed, and she continued to teach and write poetry. She’s also done some songwriting and sung backup for Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill, and her outfit today suggests a successful semi-retired country singer: denim shirt, big silver cross, tall gray Chloé boots. These last she found in Dallas at Neiman Marcus. “I’d seen them and I’d coveted them and they were like $2,000,” she says. “I found them at 90 percent off. So the Lord wanted me to have ’em.” She considers her footwear in the knee-height mirror that’s leaning against one wall. “Sometimes, naked, I walk around wearing them and I think, Life’s not so bad if I have these boots!”
The other belongings unpacked include a treadmill desk pushed up against her bed; an ornate cross; a ceramic phrenology head; a bin labeled POESIE; and an evil-looking toy monkey, now broken, that she bought as a gift for her father, now dead. On the mantel are leather-upholstered letters spelling out HUBRIS. “My motto,” she explains. “I discovered it when I was a little girl. I read a book and someone was talking about it as the source of all tragedy. When I used to run track in high school, I put it on the bottom of my shoe — if I had ever gotten a tattoo, this is what it would have been.”
Then, of course, there are books — mostly memoir and poetry. There’s Not That Kind of Girl, by Lena Dunham. (“She’s created the Great American Menstrual Hut!” Karr says in praise.) There’s an assortment of Polish poets, and “one of the greatest diaries ever written,” by Witold Gombrowicz. (Its first page delights her: “MONDAY: Me. TUESDAY: Me. WEDNESDAY: Me.” Etc.) There’s the collection MFA vs NYC from the literary magazine n+1, of which she was an early supporter. “This is easily the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” she remembers telling the founders when they came around seeking donations. “And then I wrote ’em a big check. Because they’re so smart and so cute, how could you not give them money?” There’s a battered Modern Library edition of J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories that belonged to her mother. “Look at it, it’s so beleaguered,” Karr says. She first read it when she was about 9. “I remember reading that one-hand-clapping thing and thinking, What the fuck is that?”
Spirituality in various forms has become a central part of Karr’s work and of her identity as a writer. She’s described her 2009 memoir, Lit, as an account of her journey from “blackbelt sinner” to “unlikely Catholic” and says she started praying when she got sober in 1989. Her faith is both serious and cheerfully unorthodox. She once told the priest who baptized her that she wasn’t so sure she believed in the pontiff’s absolute authority; maybe someday you will, he told her. Now she tears up when she talks about that priest, who died a while back, and calls Pope Francis “the answer to my prayers.”
Karr herself has been receiving secular confessions for the last couple decades. Since The Liars’ Club came out, readers have been approaching her to unburden themselves of family secrets. It’s that unformed desire to grapple with one’s personal past that she hopes The Art of Memoir will speak to. The kind of writing she advocates is painful but potentially liberating: In her own experience, airing the messiest parts of family history freed up the rest of the family to discuss them. (Granted, the Karrs may be especially accommodating. “From the git-go, Mother said, ‘Hell, get it off your chest,’ ” she’s reported.) She advises keeping liabilities and blank spots out in the open — “this part is blurry” is one recommended construction — and has little patience for factual whimsies. You know only what you know, and if you are making things up to convince readers otherwise, you are lying. “Even in this day of the Photoshopped Facebook pic,” she writes, “that’s not so morally hard to gauge.”
Intended for a general audience, the new book is as much an inquiry into the nature of memory as it is a craft guide. And as Karr describes tugging on loose threads of sense memory to reveal detailed scenes from decades ago, it’s hard not to start rooting around in your own mental basement, and perhaps to feel at least a little disappointed by the relative shabbiness of what you recover. She writes in The Art of Memoir that part of what she loves about the genre is “its democratic (some say ghetto-ass primitive) anybody-who’s-lived-can-write-one aspect.” But, of course, most people can’t write memoirs as good as Mary Karr’s, nor conjure their pasts with her richly observed abundance. There’s a touch of the politician’s strategically modest folksiness in her insistence that she’s “a backwoods storyteller,” a dropout from “the Ringworm Belt.” It bears noting that her book also preaches the value of charm (broadly construed: How do you make people want to listen to you?) and self-awareness, two qualities indispensable if you want anyone to read you writing about yourself for 200-plus pages. Karr is good at playing herself, good at seeing herself, and a virtuoso rememberer.
Among the bounty these skills have brought her, they’ve given her surplus material. On her kitchen counter sits a big fruit bowl of disposable cameras that date back to 2006. They’ve been waiting around not getting developed for years, and at this point she’s forgotten what they contain. “Someday I will get them developed,” she says. “As you know, I remember more than I need to anyway.”
*This article appears in the September 7, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.