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The Art of Memoir

Cover of The Art of Memoir

The Art of Memoir

by Mary Karr
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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.

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.

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About the Author-
  • Mary Karr is the author of three award-winning, bestselling memoirs: The Liars' Club, Cherry, and Lit, as well as The Art of Memoir, also a New York Times bestseller. She received Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships for poetry and is the Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from July 6, 2015
    Karr (The Liars’ Club), the author of three lauded memoirs, teaches a selective memoir writing graduate class at Syracuse University, and offers her wisdom in this instructive guide to the genre. Not only does Karr write exquisitely herself (and without pretense, often with raw authenticity—“One can’t mount a stripper pole wearing a metal diving suit”), she clearly adores memoirs; the appendix of nearly 200 suggested (“required”) memoirs is a delightful and useful bonus. The text is a must-read for memoirists, but will also appeal to memoir lovers and all who are curious about how books evolve. For writers in particular, Karr covers such essential topics as the quest for truth (probing its elusive nature), finding one’s own “true” voice or “you-ness,” (“Most memoirs fail because of voice,” she asserts), the crucial process of revision, evoking the five senses, and how to deal with family and others who play major parts in the memoir (she sends her polished manuscripts out in advance for inspection and lets friends pick their own pseudonyms). As if auditing her class, readers learn from her commentary on the memoirs of Vladimir Nabokov, Michael Herr, Frank McCourt, Hilary Mantel, and others. Karr lends her characteristic trueness and “you-ness” to the subject of writing memoirs, wisely (and quite often humorously) guiding readers in their understanding and experience of the art.

  • Library Journal

    July 1, 2015

    Drawing on her knowledge as a memoirist and writing instructor, Karr (The Liars' Club; Lit) presents an enlightening review of the memoir as a medium for communicating "carnal," lived experiences. Fresh and heartfelt, Karr's analysis of the form illustrates its variety and depth, the significance of voice, and the perception of "truth." Examining her own work, and that of some of the most influential memoirists to date, Karr delivers a thorough look at the writing process and the challenges inherent in telling one's story and accepting the subjective nature of memory. Drawing on the work of writers as varied as Harry Crews, Vladimir Nabokov, and Hilary Mantel, the author delves into the range of narrative styles found in memoir, while inspiring the next generation of writers. VERDICT As a writing guide, this book is a success. Never is Karr dull or didactic (not a single lesson or method is touted as "the one"); rather, the author instructs and inspires through example and a love for the art of memoir. The detailed list of suggested readings also makes for an excellent challenge for readers and writers alike. [See Prepub Alert, 3/16/15.]--Gricel Dominguez, Florida International Univ. Lib.

    Copyright 2015 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Washington Post "Full of Karr's usual wit, compassion and, perhaps most reassuringly, self-doubt. Her fans should be delighted—and they can't go wrong reading the books she discusses, including her own."
  • Wall Street Journal "Should be required reading for anyone attempting to write a memoir, but anyone who loves literature will enjoy it too."
  • San Francisco Chronicle "Could have been called 'The Art of Living.'"
  • George Saunders "Karr is a national treasure—that rare genius who's also a brilliant teacher. This joyful celebration of memoir packs transcendent insights with trademark hilarity. Anyone yearning to write will be inspired, and anyone passionate to live an examined life will fall in love with language and literature all over again. "
  • Vogue "From a contemporary luminary of the form, Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir examines our enduring drive to make memory speak and to 'wring some truth from this godawful mess of a single life.'"
  • Elle "The Art of Memoir is passionate and irreverent-and reminds us why we love a good memoir."
  • Cheryl Strayed "Mary Karr has written another astonishingly perceptive, wildly entertaining, and profoundly honest book-funny, fascinating, necessary. The Art of Memoir will be the definitive book on reading and writing memoir for years to come."
  • Vanity Fair "Mary Karr strikes a vein in The Art of Memoir."
  • New Yorker "Karr is such fun to read-who else would combine the name Nabokov and the phrase "out the wazoo" on her very first page?"
  • Chicago Tribune "Engaging."
  • O: The Oprah Magazine "A veritable blueprint for the genre.... Lovers of the form and aspiring scribblers alike will relish this comprehensive appreciation of and guide to 'writing the real self.'"
  • Entertainment Weekly, “Must List” "Terrific and deliciously readable guide."
  • Boston Globe "With a trio of notable memoirs ("The Liars' Club," "Cherry," and "Lit"), Mary Karr is exquisitely qualified to write this book, a kind of compendium of advice, warning, and deep insight into what makes a personal history stick in a reader's mind."
  • Slate "Karr really is an artist. The Art of Memoir attests to how hard she works at getting her words just right and how deeply she understands the way great writing works."
  • Philadelphia Inquirer "Whip-smart."
  • More "As useful for those of us who want to be better friends and lovers as it is for those of us who want to pen our life story."
  • Minneapolis Star Tribune "A master class on memoir, from a memoirist who pulls no punches."
  • Houston Chronicle "Lots of practical advice, a great reading list, examples you can bite into."
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch "Karr's own voice is consistent and authentic, as vivid, down-home, smart, profane and self-deprecating as it is in her own memoirs."
  • Austin American-Statesman "A celebration of the creative life."
  • Library Journal, starred review "Enlightening....Fresh and heartfelt....Instructs and inspires through example and a love for the art of memoir."
  • Publishers Weekly, starred review "Karr write[s] exquisitely...and without pretense, often with raw authenticity....a must-read."
  • Shelf Awareness "Snappy and witty, humorous just when it needs to be, yet plainspoken in the best way."
  • Kirkus "Karr's sassy Texas wit and her down-to-earth observations about both the memoir form and how to approach it combine to make for lively and inspiring reading. A generous and singularly insightful examination of memoir."
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