Mary Karr

The Art of Memoir

  • This summary of The Art of Memoir includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

The Art of Memoir Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.

The Art of Memoir is a 2015 non-fiction book by Mary Karr in which she examines memoir writing in terms of craft and technique. Karr utilizes a personal tone, often referring to her own memoir writing when discussing various points.

Karr begins by warning the reader that no one ‛elected me the boss of the memoir,’ and that her pronouncements on the subject should be taken with a grain of salt. She then discusses what she sees as the reasons behind the surge in both the number of memoirs being published and the sales figures they routinely gain. She notes that fiction has become increasingly intellectual and abstract, driving demand for memoirs and realism. She then notes that this book is aimed towards writers, though she imagines some non-writers might find it interesting.

Karr notes that memoir has one huge challenge: It is a form based entirely on memory, but memory is notoriously unreliable. She describes some classroom exercises she has her students engage in to prove this to them. The danger of misrepresenting someone who figures in your personal story is worrying, and all memories are negotiated in the sense that the writer must massage and edit them, no matter how well recalled.

Karr then also notes that there is an assumed contract between them and their readers regarding the truth. Readers expect a memoir to trade in the truth, but a certain amount of inaccuracy and subjectivity is allowed because it is unavoidable.

Karr offers a 10-question quiz to help aspiring memoirists determine if they really want to write a memoir. If you still wish to proceed after taking the quiz, she advises that you begin working with the knowledge that you will not actually publish what you’re writing—it will serve as a set of notes, a beginning, something she advises you leave in a folder for a long time and come back to.

Karr then discusses the importance of Voice, noting that most memoirs are very thin in terms of ‛plot’ or events, and thus rely almost exclusively on the Voice of the writer. In memoir, the Voice must be perceived as authentic and real. Part of this is a variance in tone—if your Voice is always one thing, it will wear thin. Karr discusses Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, and notes that his talent allowed him to write a book that lacks most of what we expect from stories. His Voice carried this and entrances the reader.

Karr examines the art of writing about sex, noting that the best ‛carnal writers’ don’t offer clinical robotic discussions but pulsing, lifelike episodes that invite the reader to feel what they felt. Karr discusses how to choose the details you include, giving four examples of details and discussing how one in particular sparks curiosity and leads easily to deeper details and interesting, dramatic moments.

Karr then discusses fake memoirs, including famous examples like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments. She notes that the latter made her very angry when it was revealed to be a hoax, but that when she shows samples of two memoirs on the same subject it is usually the fake one that is believed most. Karr believes that cheaters cheat themselves more than the public, because they lose their own stories.

Karr notes that in memoir you must reveal the personal and there must be a sense of vulnerability. If the reader senses you are holding back and not allowing them into your interior thoughts, they will regard your memoir with increasing skepticism. She notes that many writers have a very skewed personal image, and often are incapable of seeing themselves as others see them—a crucial skill for memoir. Karr discusses the work of Maxine Hong Kingston as incredibly influential on the genre.

Karr then delves into how to deal with loved ones and intimates when they come into your memoir, especially when there is a difference of interpretation. She offers eleven rules for dealing with others when working on a memoir. She discusses how to impart pure facts and data, suggesting that the writer must present this information to the reader in the spirit of the memoir’s Voice and style. Karr offers up several examples of what she terms ‛fake Voices’ in her own early writing, explaining why each was ultimately an artificial attempt to be someone other than herself. She then discusses the format and organization of a memoir, suggesting you imagine you are telling the story to someone over lunch. She argues against using exaggeration and hyperbole for effect, as it will distance your reader, and she cautions that the writer must be on the lookout for blind spots, and always interrogate their own impressions and assumptions.

Karr discusses Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, noting that she was incredibly brave to write a memoir about an incestuous affair with her father but suffered terribly at the hands of the press. Karr offers up some techniques to getting past writer’s block, including writing reviews, memorizing poems, or writing letters to characters. She then warns that writers will need to expect and be prepared for extensive revisions and rewrites. She then delves into the various reasons that memoirs fail. Then she offers advice for getting started once you have the idea for your project.

Karr discusses the work of Michael Herr, whose technique involves capturing true moments and stitching them together to form something between fact and fiction. She then breaks down how he accomplishes this technique.

Karr writes about the positive aspects of revision, arguing that this disliked aspect of the writer’s craft is actually kind of a superpower.