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Mary Karr on Memoir


On this mid-February week, I want to share with you an excerpt from a Mary Karr exclusive – her unique take on writing memoir. Those of you who know me, know I am a Mary Karr freak so this will not surprise you.

The essay comes from BrainPickings.org by Maria Popova where many good takes on writing appear. You might want to visit BrainPickings.org and even subscribe to its many offerings. Find the link for BrainPickings here.

The essay originally comes from an anthology put together by Meredith Maran called Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do. The anthology also includes thoughts by Isabel Allende, David Baldacci, Terry McMillan, Susan Orlean, Ann Patchett, Meg Wolitzer and others. Find it here.

Another anthology from Meredith Maran is Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature. This one includes some of my favorite writers such as Meghan Daum, Anne Lamott, and James McBride. You may want to peek in and see if some of your favorites are there as well. Find it here.

Here is an excerpt from Mary Karr's take on writing memoir:

On remembering, despite the painful labor, to write with joy: I usually get very sick after I finish a book. As soon as I put it down and my body lies down and there’s not that injection of adrenaline and cortisol, I get sick. I have a medium-shitty immune system so that doesn’t help. All of that said, writing feels like a privilege. Even though it’s very uncomfortable, I constantly feel very lucky.

On defeating the demons to access the gods of clarity: When I went into a mental institution after I stopped drinking, my writing took a great leap forward — or at least people started paying a lot more for it. I was more clear and more openhearted, more self-aware, more suspicious of my own motives. I was more of a grown-up.

On the broken economics of the literary world, the myth of the rockstar-writer, and the choice of creative purpose over money: I still don’t support myself as a writer. I support myself as a college professor. I couldn’t pay my mortgage on the revenue from my books. The myth is that you make a lot of money when you publish a book. Unless you write a blockbuster, that’s pretty much untrue. Starting when I was five, I always identified as a writer. It had nothing to do with income. I always told people I was a poet if they asked what I did. That’s what I still tell them now.

On the present state of book publishing, with a reminder that it’s only as dystopian as we make it: Currently nobody really knows how to sell books. The whole system is changing, and nobody knows how to make money in this industry in any kind of reliable way. The industry has this blockbuster mentality that permits a shitty TV star to publish his shitty book and sell three million copies in hardcover, and then you never hear about it again. All the energy is focused on those blockbuster books because they have the most immediate, short-term return. People have been saying it’s the end of the novel since Hemingway. I don’t feel that dire about it. I think more people read than used to read. You have more people reading worse books, but they’re still reading books.

On the routine joy of unhinging oneself from the writing routine: For me the best time is at the end of the day, when you’ve written and forgotten. You wrote longer than you expected to. You’ve been so absorbed in it that it got late. You unhitch yourself from the plow.

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