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.

Treading Water

The day is done. Better than yesterday; not as good as I had hoped:


Yes, I did add two extra words at the end to get over seventeen hundred. Unfortunately, I’m still 546 words short of where I should be. Not a big problem, but disappointing nonetheless. Luckily, a three-day-weekend approaches, and I am hoping to make some big gains then.

*fist to the air*

Staying strong.


Alllllllllright. So Day One of “NaNoWriMo: April Edition” was a little lackluster. I kept postponing it for various (bad) reasons until it was 7:30pm and I had zero words. So I got to it, and the getting was … tough. It’s been kind of a while since I’ve written anything of substance on Duncan, and writing (to use a cliched metaphor) is like a muscle. If you don’t work it out, it atrophies. Fast.

Long story short, I banked 1,087 words. 580 short of my daily goal. Not catastrophic, but a slow beginning. My brain is exhausted now, so I’m going to get an early start tomorrow and make us the 580 words.

I’ll let you know then.

Gearing up

Alright, so it’s clearly Wednesday, but I am posting this here anyway. Christina and I have decided to embark on the mystical voyage that is the National Novel Writing Month challenge once again. With a slight twist: April is actually Script Frenzy, during which people are supposed to write a one-hundred-page screenplay in thirty days. This can be for a movie, TV show, play, whatever. That’s what Christina’s doing. She’s writing a screenplay. I, however, still have a novel to finish, so I will be doing a standard NaNoWriMo: 50,000 words, 30 days. That’s 1,666.6666 … words a day.

I’m pretty confident, as I have yet to fail, having done it … one and a half(-ish) times. It does seem to be the best way for me to vomit a first draft onto my computer. And I can’t imagine that I have (much) more than 50,000 words to go in the novel. I say this now … who knows? But if I don’t finish I’ll be damn close.

Wish us luck!

Extremely Fucking Nigh

Alright. This is it. The last day. And I have 5,059 words to write. Totally doable (I wrote 5,036 words the day I crossed the 50,000 word finishline), but it’s going to be a long day.

Assuming you’re interested (which, I suppose, is one of the reasons for writing a blog in the first place), I’ll be updating sporadically throughout the day. So here’s hoping it’s at least exciting. The good news is I have two scenes coming up that I’ve had all night to think about, so I know more or less exactly what I want to happen. So at least I’ll hit the ground running.

My father wants to take the family out to lunch and I need to shower, so my first update will probably be in two hours or so. My goal is 1,000 words per minute—16.666 … words a minute.

Alright, enough stalling. Time to get to it!

Update: 3:40pm

Ooooook. So my dad waited until two minutes before 1pm (as we were finishing our lunch) to tell me that he had scheduled a half an hour massage for both myself and him. So how do you cay “No” to a massage? Which is my way of saying I did not. We got a massage by the same lady, which meant we were there for an hour, which meant I did not finally settle in to get down to writing until 2:30. Which means I’ve only been writing for an hour so far. It hasn’t been so bad. I have 653 words.

I’ve been writing in the living room, so as not to seem anti-social to my parents. But my father went to the store to by some cable that he wants for his new PS3 and my mother is asleep in a reclining chair … leaving me the only one aware of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on the television. Time to go to my room and get serious about this.

4,406 words to go.

Update: 4:44pm

Another hour past and you can add 720 words to the count. That brings the total to 1,373. 3,686 to go. I imagine my family will want to eat dinner in an hour or so, so I’ll update you again right before that.

Update: 5:45pm

Wooooo! One more hour: 906 more words. I’m starting to get cocky … 2,279—almost halfway there. I’m feeling a might peckish, so I’m going to take a break before finishing out the day. At this rate though, I’m hoping I’ll only need another three more good hours. Kinda makes me feel bad about all those days I was a total slacker….

Update: 7:43pm

I’m back from dinner. So it’s back to writing. My parents (naturally) chose today to rent the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which is … about the longest movie this side of The Lord of the Rings. I told them I would write and watch it at the same time. We’ll see if I can keep up the pace.

Here we go.

Update: 8:43pm

645 more words. 2,924 words total. I’ll try another hour of watching this movie, but I don’t know if this pace is going to work.

Update: 9:47pm

Well, not quite an hour has it been, but a wonderful time I have had. I’ve effectively managed to ignore the movie more or less, whose intricacies have lost long ago. It’s a confusing mess of a plot and it’s trying to be way more than it should be … at least to me. Anywho, that’s not why I’m writing. I’m writing to say I’ve had a heroic hour, managing 1,173 words, bringing my grand total for the day to 4,097. Ahhhh … 962 words left. If all goes well, I should reach 31,000 before this movie is done.


Update: 11:08pm

Here the mighty stand triumphant!

Oh yes! I stand triumphant. 5,996 words! Here, wait. Hold on a second.

6,005 words! Is that a personal best? I have no idea. I’d have to check my January records. I don’t care—I’m calling it a personal record. 6,000 words and I made my deadline with forty-nine minutes to spare! I’m glad I didn’t leave it till the end…. 🙂

Alright. It’s been a long day. Time for beddy-bye. Good night, and a Merry August to you all!