During our online workshops and discussions, the subject of how much truth to reveal comes up frequently, and we consider various published memoirs as examples. What confounds many memoir writers is not only how much truth is revealed, but how to find the language to tell the tale. On of my favorite examples is Mary Karr’s Lit–the third in her memoir series that began with The Liar’s Club. I recommend all three books, not because we should imitate them or try to write like Mary, but to see how she pieced together her memories and her stories.
Shiela Bender, in our August roundtable discussion, said that “a memoir is a made thing, We are meaning-makers.” A memoir is a journey into ourselves, and the story will reveal who we are, and were, to us as we write it. My review of Mary Karr’s Lit follows, and as you can see I loved the book! As you read all books–memoir, fiction, nonfiction, read as a writer–notice how you are drawn in, how you feel when you read, how the writer weaves the magic of a story.
Lit, the memoir by Mary Karr, is a book to be inhaled and imbibed, a fitting fate for a story about falling down a bottle and the slippery climb back up to some version of sanity and grace. Read the book all at once to feel its full impact, as you encounter the older, yet not wiser, Mary, moving on from the frightened, brassy, and lost girl in Liar’s Club and Cherry.
In Lit, we pick up where Cherry left off, in her late adolescence, a crusty, naïve, and wandering girl in search of respectability when she’s not numb from alcohol or some other drug. As she journeys almost by accident into her early literary and poet life, she marries a handsome patrician East Coast man whose family is old money where she steps into the world of upper class well-to-do, swigging hope to abandon her gritty Texas shame. Her father, whom she loved and adored, disappeared into the bottle, and her mother had tried to kill her children with a butcher knife in a psychotic fit.
Mary writes her adult self with the laconic wit she’s known for, putting in parentheses the moments where even she can’t bear to write flat-footed about her own ignorance, willful meanness, and ignorant wounds she inflicts on her husband and then her son, Dev, who’s an appealing and significant force in the book. In fact, her prologue is written in the form of a letter to him.
Mary chronicles, lurches rather, into the deeper rings of hell of her alcoholism, seething with self-hatred. Even her stumbling into AA and furtive prayers are not enough to stop her determined self-destruction, leading her inevitably to the thought of suicide which scares her enough to get admitted to the “Mental Marriot,” a place where many famous poets have been locked up—Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell, among others.
Mary’s mother, finally sober after a lifetime of rollicking, psychotic drinking, is a curious yet lively character in the book. The book moves through territory that is new to us—how Mary became a published poet, her friendship with Tobias Wolff, and her eventual conversion to Catholicism. Particularly entertaining are her desperate attends to learn to pray at first through clenched teeth while kneeling in front of a toilet, alternating prayers with curses, reluctant to accept the possibility of redemption. No matter what belief system one has, Mary makes it clear that her grudging nod to Christianity is no panacea nor is it a welcome or easy path. One day at a time, it’s a path to some kind of inner peace.
One of the most moving passages is toward the end, a simple, direct conversation between Mary and her mother, where in a few sentences they meet eye to eye, apology to apology about their own humanness and their love. It is a heart-opening passage of mother and daughter facing each other in humility and truth.
Mary’s book is a guide for memoir writers in making rib-aching confessions, how to write with poetry without gliding over the pebbles of reality that sting. It’s also a bible of how to scrape out tendrils of truth out of a lifetime of lies, and find yourself somewhat whole in the end, imperfect but still standing. This book lingers with you as you contemplate your own existence, and the road from darkness into light.