The Art of Memoir

June 5, 2019 - Comment

Credited with sparking the current memoir explosion, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club spent more than a year at the top of the New York Times list. She followed with two other smash bestsellers: Cherry and Lit, which were critical hits as well. For thirty years Karr has also taught the form, winning teaching prizes at

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Credited with sparking the current memoir explosion, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club spent more than a year at the top of the New York Times list. She followed with two other smash bestsellers: Cherry and Lit, which were critical hits as well.

For thirty years Karr has also taught the form, winning teaching prizes at Syracuse.  (The writing program there produced such acclaimed authors as Cheryl Strayed, Keith Gessen, and Koren Zailckas.) In The Art of Memoir, she synthesizes her expertise as professor and therapy patient, writer and spiritual seeker, recovered alcoholic and “black belt sinner,” providing a unique window into the mechanics and art of the form that is as irreverent, insightful, and entertaining as her own work in the genre.

Anchored by excerpts from her favorite memoirs and anecdotes from fellow writers’ experience, The Art of Memoir lays bare Karr’s own process. (Plus all those inside stories about how she dealt with family and friends get told— and the dark spaces in her own skull probed in depth.) As she breaks down the key elements of great literary memoir, she breaks open our concepts of memory and identity, and illuminates the cathartic power of reflecting on the past; anybody with an inner life or complicated history, whether writer or reader, will relate.

Joining such classics as Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, The Art of Memoir is an elegant and accessible exploration of one of today’s most popular literary forms—a tour de force from an accomplished master pulling back the curtain on her craft.

An Amazon Best Book of September 2015: Thanks to celebrated works like The Liar’s Club, Lit, and Cherry, many would argue that Mary Karr put memoirs on the map. She has a thing or two to say about that in The Art of Memoir, a distillation of over 30 years of writing and teaching the form. While it certainly should be required reading for anyone wanting to become the next Cheryl Strayed (whom Karr mentored), it has much on offer for those of us who have no intentions of laying ourselves bare on the page. By examining her favorite memoirs in her signature smart, irreverent style–and with contagious affection–Karr explains why they resonate with us: Memoirs are a means to make sense of a life; they reveal the sometimes skewed ways in which we see ourselves, and how those perceptions betray our frailties, and our strengths. If you’re wondering if Karr touches on charlatan “memoirists” like infamous Oprah punching bag, James Frey, she does. But only to point out the important distinctions between the malleability of memory, and simply making stuff up. Also, why are we so gullible in believing those fictions? A warning that your reading list is going to grow the further you venture into this book—Karr’s love for memoirs like Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior just oozes off the page, and it’s hard not getting some of that on you. You’ll be better off if you just let it. –Erin Kodicek

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