Flash Review: The Art of Memoir

From Literary Mama’s Essential Reading, September 2016

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This summer, I had the good fortune to attend a nonfiction conference called HippoCamp, which boasted many benefits to the avowed memoirist—chief among them, the chance to hear Mary Karr speak. I’ve been dog-earing and memorizing quotes from her latest book, The Art of the Memoir, since it came out. While I’ve read my share of craft books for nonfiction writers, this particular one hits a note that I come back to, time and again.

It is a comprehensive work, exhaustive in its exploration of the genre, and is written very obviously by a voracious reader. Every example, every theory, every gripe is footnoted with a quote or reference from another excellent work (all collected in the back of the book—thanks, Mary). But beyond that, the book is written with Karr’s signature spitfire wit. She sounds, throughout each chapter, like the wise, smart, tough-as-nails aunt who takes you out to a beautiful lunch and sets your fool-ass straight with a smile. It’s a guide written with the kind of care that makes it widely accessible, and the ever-alluring I-don’t-give-a-hoot attitude that makes it uniquely Mary.

For those who have already finished the Karr library, you’ll find something else in this book that not only solidifies the author as an authority on the subject, but also as the beloved, flawed character you know and love. In this work, Karr emerges as a teacher, even a mother at times—a person who has devoted her life to ushering the rest of us into who or what we were meant to be. In all the recaps I’ve read about HippoCamp, one quote from Karr’s speech kept reappearing: ‘Don’t write how you suffered. Write how you survived.’ For my money, you just can’t get better advice. Thanks, Aunt Mary.

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