Mary Karr on truth: “the least of my problems as a memoirist, as a writer, is getting my facts right”
Author Mary Karr showed up Friday in Grapevine, Texas, in the middle of a thunderstorm to talk about telling the truth. The first keynote speaker at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, Karr addressed an after-dinner crowd of hundreds. Best known for “The Liars’ Club,” “Cherry” and “Lit,” she is also a Pushcart Prize-winning poet and essayist. Karr’s remarks focused on the place of memoir in nonfiction writing and the elusive hunt for the kind of truth that consists of more than getting the facts right. Here are excerpts from her talk:
I actually pray about what to write, so if you think my success is unlikely, maybe you ought to pray. No, I’m kidding. Pray to me about what to write, and for the right amount of money, I’ll tell you.
I do actually pray … I pray, “Let me write one true sentence,” which is what Hemingway used to say. It’s the application of your ass to the chair and then you just try to write one true sentence. What is a true sentence? We’re talking about what lies between what is actual lived experience.
The experience on the page is not for you, the writer. This is a mistake people make about memoirs – that if you have had a bad enough ass-whipping, you should make a lot of money. Now, I think we should all make a lot of money, but that’s a topic for another evening.
But in therapy, say, you pay them. In memoir, hopefully, they pay you. That suggests that you are supposed to give them something: an experience – that distilled experience. You’re supposed to create a world where things that perhaps sound strange on Jerry Springer actually begin to sound feasible or possible.
You read the “Black Hawk Down” book, for instance. You suddenly almost believe that you understand what happened in Somalia. There’s an immediacy to that kind of writing, and to any good writing, I think.
It’s sort of suggested that memoirists have extremely venal motives. I don’t write my memoirs for charity; I really do write to generate income. I’m not Oprah, would that I were. But some people suspect us. I think of the William Gass line: “To have written a memoir is already to have made yourself a monster.” Clearly a guy whose novels didn’t sell.
And Gass makes a good point. We’ve all read these memoirs — we’ve got the James Frey example, right? He assumes that we’re going to betray confidences, we’re out to settle scores, we’re going to display our wounds in the marketplace, we’re going to try to evoke pity.
I was always horrified when I would hear myself described before I was being interviewed as this Dickensian orphan. People often say when they meet me, “You look better than I thought you should look.” Calvin Trillin, the first time I met him, said the same thing to me, “You look a lot better than I thought.”
I said, “You know, Mr. Trillin, due respect and all, nice to meet you. How bad am I — what am I supposed to look like?” He said, “Mmm. Some bedraggled slattern.” I was so tickled that I didn’t look that way.
If you want to settle a score in a memoir, you live in the state of Texas. You can buy a firearm at the Target. I mean, really, there are better ways to settle a score…
One of the ways I try to examine my own motives is to be fairly ruthless with myself when I ask about “one true sentence.” This recent book that I wrote, available for a mere pittance, took me seven years to write. It was supposed to take me three.
They gave me a lot of money for it – not enough. They become extremely interested when they’ve given you a lot of money in receiving the actual book later. In this, I find they are bad sports. But they kept asking me – you know, I remember my agent on the phone saying “I don’t get it. The stuff happened. You know what happened. It’s like five years later. You know, they’re being very patient.”
I broke, literally broke, the delete key on my keyboard in my office. My keyboard is still broken. I threw away 2,000 finished pages … not in one pile; I don’t smoke pot or anything. But it was 130 pages here, 300 pages there, 120 pages here. I think that they didn’t fully understand that it wasn’t [that] events were changing. You don’t have to change the events. Knowing the truth is not about manufacturing events. It’s choosing what to write about, one, and then examining your motives.
Specifically, I didn’t want to write about my son’s father, my ex-husband. So my first go at this book, I was about 200 hundred pages in, and I would write up to that point, and then sort of try to pole vault: “Nine years later,” and just kind of, “comma,” to try get around this thing. And the temptation then, when I first wrote about it, was to make him in a way more saintly, and me more bedraggled and slatternly. And again, this isn’t a James Frey thing where I said we were in prison and we weren’t. It’s not a Jayson Blair thing where you say you talk to people who don’t exist. It’s about motive.
I think one reason the people I’ve written about often remain very friendly – I have one here tonight – and they don’t seem to want to sue me or they’re not mad at me, is that I really try very hard not to attribute motives to other people that I cannot guarantee, unless somebody has told me, “This is my motive.” I really try often not even to speculate. So what was hardest for me in writing about my husband wasn’t the terrible moments between us, which all of you know who have had terrible moments with anybody. You usually remember the most horrible thing they said, and in some ways it’s always unfair, because it’s always out of context. It’s usually that they were richly provoked.
I could have started the memoir, “It all started when he hit me back.” But I think when people read the book, and I’m thinking of running over my husband when he moves in the garbage cans, I don’t think people assume that’s an accurate assessment of who he is. I think it’s pretty clear who the asshole is.
My friend Geoffrey Wolff – Toby Wolff’s older brother, who wrote a memoir when I was first in graduate school that I read called “The Duke of Deception,” about their con-man father, Papa Wolff – he was writing a biography of Melville at one point. And I mentioned to him in passing, “Wasn’t Melville this real asshole?” And he’s like, “No, whatever gave you that idea?”
And I remember some apocryphal story about Melville. “It was Christmas, and his daughter wanted these oranges, and he has this big bushel of oranges that he’s locked in his study, and the daughter is crying, and they have no food.” And he said, “Well, he had scurvy.” Suddenly, that one piece of information changes entirely your take on the story. It’s not as if I was saying something about Melville that was untrue. So the least of my problems as a memoirist, as a writer, is getting my facts right. I try not to write anything not true.
One of the historians I most admire, the biographers I most admire, is Robert Caro, and one of the changes in reading biography or history is that at the beginning of many histories or biographies they have these kinds of position statements. So Robert Caro starts out to write this biography of Lyndon Johnson, this guy who’s been able to push through the first civil rights act that they’ve gotten since the Civil War, and he decides that Johnson is actually one of the most despicable people he’s ever read about, heard about, thought about, in his life. There’s this beautifully written chapter very early in the book that explains what his investment in the material is, what his limitations are.
In some ways, I think that that idea of the truth being eroded started in the 19th century when people started reading the Bible as a novel not as wisdom or truth but as a novel featuring God as a kind of minor character. Jesus and the prophets had all the good roles. And early on, when the novel was being invented, this genre that’s seen as highfaluting now used to be seen as trashy the way memoir is now seen. We’re seen as those weirdo people, who are, I don’t know, writing the Lord’s Prayer on a grain of rice. There’s something wrong with you if you’ve written a memoir.
At first novels were seen as skeevy because they were just made up. The idea was that they weren’t sermons or epistles, they didn’t have moral underpinnings, they didn’t have the discipline that an epic poem required. Also in the 19th century, there began to be a blur between genres. Poets like Baudelaire were writing prose poetry, and later James Joyce was writing a very poetic kind of prose, and that’s led to the mockumentary and edutainment.
So in some ways I think – yes, I think with Richard Nixon – there’s a politician who may have lied … we began to get the idea that maybe these guys weren’t always dealing straight. So that when Robert McNamara later was manufacturing body counts, we began to mistrust government records about what was happening in the Vietnam War.
When Michael Herr writes his book “Dispatches,” which is arguably one of the great memoirs ever written, it’s not that we assume his memory – by the way, if you’ve never read “Dispatches,” you’d at least seen “Full Metal Jacket.” He wrote that, and he wrote the voiceover for “Apocalypse Now.” So when you hear in “Apocalypse Now” that weird kind of Rolling Stones music in the background with the voice of Charlie Sheen being really nutty, that’s essentially the voice of “Dispatches,” which is, in this country, the voice of the Vietnam War. It made a noise. He’s created an idiom that represents that war in this country and probably in other parts of the world.
So, it’s not that we don’t think that Herr has a corrupt memory or a corrupt imagination. But he writes a line like “We had this gook, and we were going to skin him” as something he allegedly overheard, and then he later says, “What can I say about these people? I stood as close to them as I could, because they were my guns. We covered each other. It was an exchange of services. But I also stood as far away as I could without leaving the planet.”
So the complexity of his relationship with those events, his own emotional complexity, his difficulty, has become part of the narrative. Now, obviously that’s not always necessary for a great journalist or a great historian. I think for a memoirist, it’s probably always necessary.
[For more on Karr, check out Mayborn Conference director George Getschow’s talk with her or Chris Vognar’s interview over at The Dallas Morning News. For more on last weekend's Mayborn Conference, see our post of narrative writing tips from Tom Huang's workshop at the conference, and take a peek at Larry McMurtry's 32,000-volume private library.]