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Memoirs are tricky business. There’s something both astoundingly brave and utterly foolish about inviting others into the deepest crevices of one’s life. Memoir may be second only to poetry as the genre that is most likely to create overly sensational or sentimental writing. But, like poetry, when memoir is done well, it is like chocolate cake—perfect in its simplicity. I enjoy reading memoirs, not because of any need I have to compare my personal history with those of their authors. In many cases, there is no comparison. You’re not going to top Augusten Burrough’s account in Running with Scissors! The appeal of memoirs (at least good ones) is the honest, laid bare nature of the story.
Perhaps it is Mary Karr’s origins as a poet that enables her to write memoir so well. Her most recent memoir, Lit , rounds out a trilogy of personal narratives that describe her tragic/comic childhood, a precarious adolescence, and a careening-toward-destruction adulthood. Karr describes a letter she once received from fellow writer Tobias Wolff ( This Boy’s Life ), who advised:
Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruit… Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed… Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else. Take no care for your dignity. Those were hard things for me to come by, and I offer them to you for what they may be worth. (248)
Karr accomplishes this in Lit , which is brutally candid about her flaws, fears, and insecurities. She also acknowledges that others would tell the story differently, particularly her husband Warren. She recognizes that her perspective is not the sum and total of the truth. In many instances, she describes the faulty nature of memory, telling how others’ memories of events are very different from her own recollections. The story is deeply personal and widely universal at the same time. Although a story about recovery, Lit is also about marriage, parenthood, forgiveness, and faith told in a beautiful, funny, and truthful voice.
Also by Mary Karr:
The Liar’s Club –The story of Karr’s chaotic childhood in an east Texas oil town.
Cherry –The follow up memoir to The Liar’s Club. Describes Karr’s life to age 17, focusing particularly on her sexual coming-of-age.
Similar reads :
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott I love Anne Lamott’s personal essays for their humorous, self-deprecating, and honest perspective. Traveling mercies describes her struggle with addiction, being a single parent, and coming to faith by a different route. Also: Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith and Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith .
Dry by Augusten Burroughs Dry is Burrough’s funny and frank description of his alcoholism and recovery. Using Starbucks as his higher power, Burroughs takes an unconventional approach to AA. Burroughs is known for his biting humor, and while Dry strikes a more serious tone, the irreverence that his fans enjoy is still very present. Also: Running with Scissors and Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father .