Mary Karr is the first person that made me feel like I could someday actually write a memoir. Me, Annalia, from middle-of-nowhere, Wisconsin—not Annalia, the two-time Olympic Gold gymnast or Annalia, inventor of the truly silent ceiling fan. For the past three or four years, Karr has been my older Southern sister, teaching me how to be tough by being that much tougher.
All this is in my head when I’m reading through Karr’s new not-quite craft book, THE ART OF MEMOIR, and trying to think of questions to ask her when I have my allotted thirty minutes of her time, three days before this article is due. I want to try to think of something “good,” but mostly what I come up with is things I know I don’t want to ask, questions that I’ve seen Karr’s fellow memoirist Nick Flynn answer a thousand fucking times: Is it hard to write about yourself? How much of it is actually true, though? Is that really how you feel? Why are you so deep?
So I keep reading, searching the text for clues. Then, there it is, a gift: Karr calling herself a misanthrope.
Perhaps Karr has said that about herself before, but THE ART OF MEMOIR is the first place I’ve seen it, and also the most conspicuous context for it to appear. Because the task for every memoirist—past, present, and future—is to wrestle with forgiveness, both for herself and the co-stars in her life. In fact, according to her new book, Karr’s friends have described the memoir process as “a major-league shit-eating contest [that]…wrenches at your insides precisely because it makes you battle with your very self—your neat analyses and tidy excuses.”
This is what I want to know: if the woman who wrote LIT—the one that got down on her knees in a bathroom stall and prayed to get sober and stop “feeling like such an asshole”—actually couldn’t care less about me, or anyone besides her kin. In my enthusiasm, my question—are you really a misanthrope?—seems more like an accusation than what it really is: confusion.
Fortunately for me, Karr seems more curious than offended. She asks me for my definition of the word then checks Google to confirm. Alas, misanthrope is what it always was, a person that hates humanity. Karr says what she actually meant is that she’s a hermit—but it’s hard to tell since the next words out of her mouth are, “Without a spiritual practice, I think I’m somebody that could kill everybody on the subway.” As I blink and type, she says, “Like all writers, I need a lot of quiet and a lot of solitude.”
I ask her more about New York, if being in that mass gets overwhelming, and she says that NYC actually “increases my humanity. You can’t go through the city double barreled and have a good result.” Sure, there are “some days New York wins.” On those days, “you get splashed by a bus and you can’t get a cab and your subway car doesn’t work and somebody jostles you, and you just get beaten up by it,” though Karr also tells me that most days are not like that. “Most days, it works like a little humming machine.”
When we turn to THE ART OF MEMOIR, I ask her if there was anything about this particular moment in time that prompted her to write a book like this one, one that instructs as much as it shares. In true Karr fashion, she tells it to me uncensored: “Basically, when somebody offers me money, I will write a book. I’m a real whore that way.”
However, Karr is not unqualified. She’s been teaching creative nonfiction for thirty years and during my lifetime has been considered the mother of the modern-day memoir. Her debut memoir, THE LIARS’ CLUB, “spent more than a year at the top of the New York Times list.” THE ART OF MEMOIR, though, is not about her own ego. In the preface, she writes, “As a grad student thirty years back, I heard [writing a memoir] likened to inscribing the Lord’s Prayer on a grain of rice. So I still feel some lingering obligation to defend it.” She tells me that she hopes the book will make someone not only “a better reader of memoir but also a better reader of their own memories and their own lives.” If possible, she’d like to help change the conception that writing a memoir is a “trashy activity compared to the exalted [act] of writing a novel.”
As an author who is active on Twitter, I ask Karr about social media and memory. “People keep trying to make a parallel between memoir and social media,” she says, “[but] I think they’re the opposite.” To her mind, if social media is reductive, books are deeper, expansive. “Moments yawn open and expand and yield up a kind of whole variety of experience based on your inner life, based on how you feel inside,” she tells me. “So it’s not like apples and oranges, it’s like candy and steak.” Social media is “bubbles on the surface.”
Though most everyone still thinks of Karr as a Texas girl, she says she doesn’t come back so much these days. Her accent, too, isn’t nearly as thick as I always imagined it to be—“Everybody always expects me to sound like I’m on hee-haw or something,” she says. She reminds me that she left the Lone Star State when she was a teenager.
“I’m one of those people that I could live in the country or on the ocean, but I pretty much love New York,” she says. “I’m one of those people that fits in there a little bit. I mean, so far as I fit in anywhere, I fit in New York.” Why? Because even for someone like Karr, “people don’t pay that close of attention. You get to look at a lot of people.” That “endless array of people” allows her to have a wide range of friends, from social workers and blue-collars to “some rich people.”
“I know a couple of writers,” she says, “but I don’t mostly hang out in a writerly scene.” Except George Saunders—she mentions him fondly throughout our conversation. “My friend George Saunders,” she calls him, as if it were some person I don’t know, a John Smith that lives across the street from her, who I will never meet. She tells me Saunders quit doing social media, which makes her contemplate doing the same. “He might be right,” she says. “I can sort of imagine quitting doing it.”
Then again, she says, “It’s sort of interesting, seeing what flows through your head.”