Since I’m still stranded on memoir island (like Tom Hanks’ “Castaway” character’s Island only with less volleyballs and more crumpled up candy wrappers) my monthly book recommendation is of a memoir. Last month I wrote about Mary Karr’s “The Art of Memoir” amongst other memoir-writing guidelines. This month I am writing about Karr’s first memoir that put her on the map: “The Liars’ Club.” Since publishing “The Liars’ Club” (1995), Karr has written and published two more memoirs: “Cherry” (2001) and “Lit” (2009). Each memoir covers a timeframe in Karr’s life with “The Liars’ Club” covering her childhood. I enjoyed reading a memoir that is definitely different from what I am writing. I couldn’t write about my childhood with such precise and colorful detail. That is just one of the many things I admire about Karr and “The Liars’ Club.”
As I mentioned earlier, I made the decision not to read memoirs about brain injury while I’m writing my memoir. Since my memoir is about my own brain injury and coma and the recovery from that trauma, I didn’t want to color my own brain injury experience with someone else’s. Perhaps crazy. It kind of sounds like the television and film actors who say they refuse to watch themselves onscreen. (As a non-actor I don’t entirely get that because by not seeing your work you’re not supporting your co-workers… in my opinion.) I first found out about Mary Karr when I was reading Stephen King’s memoir “On Writing.” He mentioned how his memoir would be different from hers because she has a very exacting memory of her childhood and King doesn’t (neither do I). Being the curious cat that I am (I still want to write that children’s book: “The Curious Cat Found Out About That”) I looked up who Mary Karr is and what she’s written. That’s when I was excited to find out she had written a book about writing memoirs.
I wasn’t planning on reading “The Liars’ Club” yet. I kept going back to it when I was reading “The Art of Memoir” and finally I decided to put down “The Art of Memoir” and pick up “The Liars’ Club.” I’ll go back to “The Art of Memoir” soon. I think I will probably end up reading “Cherry” and “Lit” too. My Dad didn’t quite understand at first why a person would write multiple memoirs (he was not an English major like me). Then I started to explain that a memoir can be about anything. It can be about a certain time period, an event, a trauma, a disease, etc. Even though I’ve only read the first of her three memoirs, my understanding is Karr chose to break hers up by times in her life. After only reading a small portion of “The Liars’ Club” I understood why I wanted to read more and more and more. Not only has Karr lived an interesting life with fascinating people in it (her dad met with other men in an informal men’s group and he would often tell stories from his life that seemed a little exaggerated = The Liars’ Club) but she writes the experience so well. It was inspiring to read. There were times when reading something she wrote would inspire me to jot a note in my own memoir for a story of mine I wanted to include.
And that brings me to the kind of writer Karr is. She’s very definitely what I’m calling a “teacher writer.” (She is actually a professor at Syracuse University and gave a great commencement speech in 2015 there). In that I mean she teaches through her writing. I learned how to write a memoir by reading hers. Now, I’m not saying that I can duplicate her artistry (or success, she’s won multiple awards and “The Liars’ Club” was a New York Times Bestseller for over a year) after reading her first memoir but I like to think I learned things from her. Like how to unlock stories from your past and tell them truthfully. I’ve been reading sections of my memoir I’m writing to my parents and asking them: “Is that right?” or “Did that happen like that?” In part because part of the time I’m writing about I was literally unconscious (in a coma). The other reason is I have a lot to say and I don’t want to muddy up my message by getting the details wrong.
I read the transcript of this “Fresh Air” on NPR interview with Karr and got inspired further to write my story and to write it as accurately as I can. On that note, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND reading “The Liars’ Club” and checking out other works by the extremely talented Mary Karr.