by Amy M. Miller
The tweets began as soon as she walked into the room.
@marykarrlit is keynoting next
don’t freak out.
Cool as a cucumber…
— Laura Khalil
Mary Karr. In the flesh. Right there. Feet away. And when she took her hair out of a slap-dash bun and shook out her tresses, I knew we were in for some serious — and some very not-so-serious — and even some downright crass — straight talk from the master of memoir. But that’s why we were all there. That’s why we were bubbling in our hotel conference room chairs. That’s why we collectively swooned when she entered the room and walked onto the stage. Mary Karr shoots from the hip and bitch slaps the truth across your cheek. We were ready for inspiration.
“WRITING MEMOIR IS LIKE KNOCKING YOURSELF OUT WITH YOUR OWN FIST…”
It’s like that scene from Platoon, she continued, when Charlie Sheen’s guts are spilling out of his wound and the Army Seargent screams at him, “Take the pain!”
Karr told us that she wrote The Art of Memoir because, since the age of 10, she has been the genre’s biggest fan. Reading memoir made young Karr feel connected at a time when her life was utter chaos. Her dad was drinking himself to death and her mother was bi-polar, she survived several sexual assaults as a child, and had her own bout with addiction as a young adult and new mother. When she first read Maya Angelou’s and Helen Keller’s memoirs, she felt “less lonely” and said that maybe if they “could get out of their mess, I could too.” Another epiphany Karr had after reading memoirs: “I realized after reading memoirs that other people had it much worse. Other people were lied to. And they didn’t turn to alcohol and firearms.”
Growing up amid chaos, Karr admitted, “I was doomed to memoir.” Why? Because she had to make sense of the crazy. And Karr made sense of it with her own authentic, bad-ass, profane poetics. She made sense of it in each of her three mesmerizing memoirs and she made sense of it live and on stage. All in her Mary Karr voice. This is what she asked each of us to do with our own writing, to put words together that sound like our unique voices.
“THE BEST VOICE COMES OUT OF YOUR INTERIOR.”
It’s in the details, the visuals, the tactile descriptions of our own specific worlds. Crisp “carnal” memories. Memories rooted in the murkiness of our past. How your skin felt in the swimming pool in the summer of ’86, how the room smelled after your dog was put down, how the morning light looked as it split the curtains the first day of middle school. “Dig for these memories.”
Mary Karr was overflowing in quotables. The #Hippocamp16 tweets are a testament to how many powerful statements she made. How many writer hearts she touched.
“DON’T WRITE HOW YOU SUFFERED. WRITE HOW YOU SURVIVED.”
But, you know, she doesn’t talk this way to everyone. She said so. I believe her.
“I talk this way to writers.”
BECOME A KEEN OBSERVER OF YOUR OWN LIFE!”
Yes, ma’am. I will ma’am.
And just when I thought I couldn’t feel more fortified by words, more nourished with inspiration, Mary Karr walked down off the stage and hugged a writer from the audience who broke into tears trying to explain how meaningful Karr’s books are to her. My husband called this a real Oprah moment, but I’m not that cynical. This was genuine Mary Karr. As genuine as her voice on the page. Bad-ass, big heart.
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