Mary Karr and the Sticky Problem of Writing the Truth

There is a very simple and very persistent and very frustrating question that all writers at all times find themselves confronting: What’s the truth? If the world is all that is the case, then just what is the truth of that case. It is, at first glance, a very simple question that you only discover is impossible to answer after you actually try to answer it. What’s the truth?

The Three Frustrating Truths

There are, I’ll declare, three kinds of truth: the objective, the experiential, and the emotional. Stated another way, there are: the facts as they are, the facts as I see them, and the facts as I feel them. All writing is going to be a weird amalgamation of the three, and it’s a good thing because that’s what gives us the ability to read book after book that are variations on a few themes and still excite, delight, and educate us. Locked in our bodies as we are, we’ll always be able to write, if we write from ourselves, a unique perspective, and we’ll have feelings to share, as we can’t help but feel, and lurking deep below the surface (if we’re very good at our job) we might get ourselves a little closer to or (if we’re great) even touch those ever-elusive facts of the case.

The Problem With Memoir

I can tell you my solution to the problem: I write fiction. When push comes to shove I can throw up my hands and say, “It’s a story; I made it all up,” which is its own kind of lie, but I have yet to run afoul of Oprah when I’ve used it. The question becomes how best to juggle those three pesky truths, and it’s a particularly sticky problem when you’re trying to write a memoir. Just ask James Frey or Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin. They didn’t do anything explicitly wrong (or did they?). I would argue that they only tried to get us to feel their emotional truths a little too much. I think Mary Karr would agree. Although, unlike the aforementioned men, she makes no bones about what she’s writing. The first sentence of her memoir, Lit, is this:

Any way I tell this story is a lie, so I ask you to disconnect the device in your head that repeats at intervals how ancient and addled I am.

It’s an interesting rhetorical stance. Its bluntness is a challenge, and it paradoxically builds up her credit with regard to her various truths, at least with this reader. By dropping the pretense of ever writing a book that is purely objective truth, she frees herself from having to. She can stick to what she knows—her experience and her feelings—and that’ll be enough. The bluntness turns out to be integral to her narrative voice, and something that she’s cultivated over the years (her previous memoir is called The Liars’ Club). It’s disarming enough to earn a bit of trust. Because anyone who’s willing to admit that they’re full of shit is someone you can trust … wait—

It’s certainly a fine line she has to dance, along with any other author, but it’s an interesting waltz that’s she got. As befits a Texan, she charges the problem and hits it head-on and is, in the process, able to bare a bit of herself. She is fearless, something I’ve been thinking quite a bit about lately, after reading a serendipitous post, entitled Writing with fear, continued, over at Hannibal and Me, by my friend (I’ll call him my friend), Andreas Kluth.

Karr’s introduction is written in the form of an open letter to her son with two sides, like an LP (or any good story). Side A is “Now,” recounting her big motivation for writing the book in the first place: to dispel whatever guilt her son might feel over her alcoholism, the same guilt she felt over her own mother’s alcoholism and that she has carried with her her entire life. Side B, “Then,” takes us straight into the pit of that alcoholism, as Karr sits on the back porch, isolating herself from her husband and newborn son, a tumbler of whiskey in her hand, trying to sit straight up in a chair because if she leans even a smidge in any way she could topple right over.

Are we any closer to the truth? Yes and no. It’s an incomplete truth and disappointing to some. To me, that makes it human, and some might say that’s the best truth of all. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it any easier to write.

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4 thoughts on “Mary Karr and the Sticky Problem of Writing the Truth

  1. Somewhere, Philip Roth said that a writer is always trying to make himself out (to the reader) to be a better person than he actually is or a worse person than he actually he is. He was talking about fiction, but he points out a problem for memoir. I’m attracted to the ones who make themselves out to be worse than they are (the others are so boring), and I think they get a little closer to the truth, but it’s still a kind of hiding.

    I haven’t read Mary Karr. “Human” is high praise.

    • Ha, it’s true. The wretches are always more interesting. But I think also I’m much quicker to … not sneer, but roll my eyes at someone who I suspect is building themselves up, you know? Like: Yes, please, tell me something else that you accomplished. Like they’re trying to sell themselves to me. Heh, I sure hope I’m not the only person who feels like that. Mary Karr definitely errs on the side of wretched, which is kind of amazing when you consider what she’s been through. She’s been through some shit. And we’re surrounded on all sides by such a psychology of victimhood. If you want an excuse for anything that’s wrong with your life, you don’t have to look too far. But she’s able to cut through all that. I think her bluntness is really key. Events happen, without excuses. And when they happen, you can see how they would happen like that. She’s delightfully human about everything. Which is, frankly, a relief for me, because my girlfriend loves her. There’s nothing as awkward as being lukewarm about a significant other’s hero….

    • Hmmm … I definitely think that the border between novels and memoirs is much more a smear than a line. But I think there is a point at which you can say, “I am memoir,” v. “I am novel.” Maybe not in technique, but … there’s an interview with Joel Coen during which he’s asked about Fargo being based on a true story. Now, the Coen brothers will say different things in different interviews regarding where their stories come from, and they love contradicting themselves when it comes to defining their inspirations. But in this particular interview, he admitted that people come to movies that are “based on true events” with a different mindset than they do straight fiction.

      It reminds me of numerous moments in my college writing workshops when teachers or fellow students would tell a writer that a story or event just wasn’t working. They didn’t “believe” it. And then the writer would say, with not a little bit of exasperation, “But it really happened!” Which will get you exactly nowhere with an editor. The writer may have that experiential truth but the reader has to feel the emotional truth or what good is it? I think people are more willing, ironically, to suspend their disbelief a little further when something is ostensibly true. Though perhaps the backlash is all the sharper when it comes out that a particular story isn’t as true (in one way or another) as some would like it to be.

      You could probably convince me that novels and memoirs are serving the same function, but I think it would be just as valid to say that all novels are memoirs in disguise. Probably more so, since I’d argue that the driving force behind fiction, literature, is the conveyance of emotional truths, and the emotional truths that end up meaning the most to us are the ones that have the greatest impact on our own lives. Novelists might make up events, but the feelings come from somewhere real.

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