Hearing the Truth in Memoir Writing

(published in the Raleigh News and Observer, June 25, 2016)

After months of an overcrowded schedule, I am returning to my memoir, a book I began eight years ago in a creative nonfiction class. It’s close to completion. At least that’s what I tell myself, until I return to it and see a new thread that needs to be added, or a bit of structure that needs repair. I’m readying myself by listening to audio memoirs.

Mary Karr reads her book, “The Art of Memoir,” (HarperAudio; 7 hours, 20 minutes) uniting “50-plus years of reading every memoir I could track down and 30 years teaching the best ones (plus getting paid to bang out three).” She illustrates her points with examples by memoir greats – Frank McCourt’s “verbal wit,” Maya Angelou’s sensory descriptions, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s melding of myth and the very real. This makes for a listen that’s enjoyable to both readers and writers.

Writers might try to place Karr on a memoir pedestal. Her 1995 “Liar’s Club” opened the floodgates that led to one of literature’s most popular genres. But Karr quickly climbs down as she holds herself culpable to one of the primary standards she stresses – truth. She describes more tortured than glorious writing experiences, confessing that writing this book and all others, “I start out paralyzed by fear of failure.”

“The Art of Memoir” has solid how-to points expressed with Karr’s fresh originality. She frames, for example, 10 excellent reasons not to write a memoir as a “pop quiz to gauge your readiness.” No reader, except Karr, could have done this book justice. She merges serious advice with expletives and sarcasm and delivers her well-conceived and constructed points with fresh imagery, humility, humor and honesty.

I’ve never listened to a more honest memoir than Sue Klebold’s“A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy”(Random House; 11 hours, 31 minutes; introduction written and read by Andrew Solomon). At the core of most meaningful memoirs is a writer’s need to understand. Could anyone need this more than Klebold? On the morning of April 20, 1999, she feared for her son’s safety, and she ended the day hoping Dylan, one of the shooters at Columbine High School, would take his own life. She reads with a sincerity that lays bare the fear, shame, guilt, anger, sorrow and confusion of a near impossible journey to understand and discover how love for her child could co-exist with the horror of what he did. Sue Klebold’s mission ends with many memoirists’ fondest wish – giving hope to others. Her courageous memoir has much to offer those trying to come to grips with the aftereffects of suicide, depression and other forms of “brain illness.”

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