Tag Archives: Mary Karr

The Truth-Teller’s Club

How long have I been examining memoirs to see what I learned?

I just went and looked up the answer. I started these at the beginning of January of this year. It feels as if I have been doing it longer, but that is still over a half-year. So I must have written at least 26 memoir review posts!

How is it that I haven’t yet written about Mary Karr’s books? I will admit that my omission has been on purpose. I find it so daunting to talk about her books. She is the memoir writer I most look up to, both for her first memoir The Liar’s Club and for the trilogy (The Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit). 

When I first started reading memoirs on purpose, I read Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. They were both stories with narrator voices that appealed to me and both about the experiences of little girls growing up in trying circumstances.

These two writers unintentionally persuaded me that I had a story to tell, as well.

Mary Karr’s book is a great one to use as a model for a coming-of-age memoir. If I were teaching a course in that type of memoir I would certainly use The Liar’s Club as a text.

To say that Karr’s story is that of a girl and her older sister growing  up with alcoholic parents would be to greatly simplify and reduce a great work of art.

Since I could spend days writing this post (and I can’t do that and you wouldn’t have time to read it anyway), let me focus on a couple of points.

The book opens with 7-year-old Mary being questioned by her family doctor in her family home. Something is terribly wrong. He’s very gently asking to examine her, but she’s formed her nightgown into a protective tent. Karr’s descriptive powers and use of figurative language create scenes for the reader to actually inhabit with the narrator/protagonist. She knows just how to suck the reader into her life in a small blue-collar town in Texas, circa 1962. She goes on to use this method, as well as flash forwards and flashbacks, to tell her story. She also centers the narrative around certain years in her life, rather than trying to cover her entire childhood. And she introduces her father’s storytelling to add texture and an enhanced viewpoint to the story.

Karr also plays with tense in this book. For example, in the middle of the book, she describes her mentally ill mother as looking on one particular day like Anthony Perkins in the movie Psycho. But she’s not content to just make the analogy. Instead, she says:

Mother’s back to me in that rocker conjured that old Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho she’d taken us to in 1960. In the end, the crazy killer was got up like his nutty old mother with a gray wig. He rocked in her personal chair. Mother turned around slow to face me like old Tony Perkins. Her face came into my head one sharp frame at a time. I finally saw in these instants that Mother’s own face had been all scribbled up with that mud-colored lipstick. She was trying to scrub herself out, I thought. Sure enough, the scribbles weren’t like those on an African mask or like a kid’s war paint. They didn’t involve the underlying face that much. They lacked form. No neat triangles or straight lines went along the planes on the face. She looked genuinely crazy sitting in her mother’s rocker with the neatly ruffled blue calico cushions in front of that blazing stove with the smell of charcoal fluid and her own face all scrawled up bloody red.

And from that moment on, Karr switches scenes and tenses at the same time, “Then we’re in the lavender bedroom I share with Lecia.”

If you don’t watch for the tense shifts you won’t notice them, but they add intensity as if a camera is zooming in and out of the subject.

If you haven’t read The Liar’s Club, what in the world are you waiting for?!

 

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Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

My Biggest Writing Problem

When I started writing my memoir, I floundered for the longest time.  I had the memories, the writing style, and just enough grammar.  But I could not figure out how to structure my story. Part of my story is the “child’s survival story” memoir like Mary Karr‘s The Liar’s Club and Tobias Wolff‘s This Boy’s Life. But another part of my story takes place in the present day and also involves family history which took place before I was born.

Cover of "The Bill from My Father"

Cover of The Bill from My Father

Then I read a memoir which showed me a new possibility. Bernard Cooper‘s The Bill from My Father.  In Cooper’s book, he sets the story in a very limited present-day, which covers his father’s aging and eventual death.  Then he goes on excursions into the past through flashbacks, which are in some cases very lengthy.

His structure is a far cry from what my first memoir instructor insisted upon–complete chronology without flashback.  And while I can understand that a story focused upon childhood or a coming-of-age story makes the most sense told chronologically, for my story it wasn’t working.

So I am trying to structure using a present-day framework which moves to the past and then comes back to the present again.  It works a lot better than telling the story chronologically.

Nevertheless, I still have problems with my structure. That’s because I have to deal with excursions into the far past.  Mine have to come near the end of my book.  Frank McCourt’s family info is provided at the beginning of the book, and to me it’s the one structural flaw in Angela’s Ashes: the stylistically different section where we meet the parents before the narrator was born.

What creates the biggest problem for you in your writing?

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Tell Like Heck: Writing Summary

Have you ever been told that you need to SHOW NOT TELL?  Did you take that advice and as you converted your piece to showing, it became longer and longer as you added details and actions?  Until it became that sweater you knitted with arms far too long.  Ok, I am the one who knitted that sweater.  The knitting had become a rhythm it was easier to maintain than to stop.  Like writing with lots of showing.

The long-winded sweater with the sleeves conveniently covered up

When I convert “telling” into “showing,” there are times when I have to ask myself if that information was really necessary to show. Then I start to wonder what showing really means. To me, it’s easier to consider scene versus summary.  They are both tangible components of writing memoir or fiction.

In creative nonfiction courses, there were times I was misled about scene and summary.  In these workshop courses, I received feedback from various instructors and other readers.  Although the official word was that a variation of scene and summary is important–that sometimes scene is needed and at other times summary makes more sense–when I tried to write even two sentences back to back of summary, I was told to write it in scene.

I could be exaggerating, but you get the idea.  Maybe you’ve had this experience yourself.  The intention is often good—the idea being that writers need to practice their scenes and become adept at those.

Nevertheless, sometimes the advice is just a reflex.  I admit that I’ve given this advice plenty of times myself, but I try to only do so when I genuinely think that at that point the piece screams for a scene.

What’s come of the advice I’ve gotten to always “show” or create scene is that while I think I have an idea of how to transform summary into scene, I am pretty clueless about writing summary.  I got almost no practice at it in course work because nobody would let me do it.

It’s helpful to me to recognize that most writing which we enjoy reading (a novel, for instance) is written using both scene and summary.  Summary can be just as effective as scene, depending on the style, the voice, and the goals of a particular piece.  Look at this passage from Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club:

The night’s major consequences for me were internal. The fact that my house was Not Right metastasized into the notion that I myself was somehow Not Right, or that my survival in the world depended on my constant vigilance against various forms of Not-Rightness. Whenever I stepped into the road at Leechfield’s one traffic light, I usually expected to get plowed down by a Red Ball truck flying out of nowhere (unlikely, given the lack of traffic). I became both a flincher and a fighter. I was quick to burst into tears in the middle of a sandlot baseball game and equally quick to whack someone in the head without much provocation. Neighborhood myth has it that I once cold-cocked a five-year-old playmate with an army trench shovel, then calmly went back to digging. Some of this explosiveness just came from a naturally bad temperament, of course. But some stems from that night, when my mind simply erased everything up until Dr. Boudreaux began inviting me to show him marks that I now know weren’t even there.

All engaging writing.  All summary.  But if Karr had shown this information in scene it would have dragged the book down unnecessarily.  It follows a crucial and well-developed scene.  I love how Karr uses a varying pattern of scene and summary, a rhythm which adds to the reader’s enjoyment.

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Writing Prompt:  Select a topic about a bad habit you have, such as biting your nails.  Write a scene which shows you at your worst as you are practicing your habit.  Then write a paragraph, like Karr’s, which summarizes how engaging in this behavior makes you feel and what it’s done to your life, using a couple of concrete examples as she does with hitting the other child with the shovel and getting hit by not just any truck, but a Red Ball truck.  Where do you want to go from there?  You have an ending to write.

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