Mary Karr, a poet, essayist and memoirist, came to the Divinity School last week to speak at a colloquium hosted by the Institute of Sacred Music about “Art Born of Trauma.” It was a natural choice — Karr often writes about religion and her traumatic childhood in eastern Texas; her memoir, “Liar’s Club,” which addresses the latter, was a New York Times best seller for over a year and was named one of the best books of 1995. Her best-known essay, “Against Decoration,” criticizes modern poetry for its attention to form for the sake of form. For Karr, writing is supposed to be about feelings and moving the reader. Karr has also taken an interest in religion. She has described her spiritual history as a journey “from black-belt sinner to lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic.” Karr currently teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at Syracuse University. WKND sat down with her to talk about God, art, and why and how we write.
Q: Why did the Yale Divinity School reach out to you? You’re an author!
A: I have written about God. I was an atheist my whole life and converted in my thirties. I’m Catholic. Everyone’s surprised I wound up Catholic. I think it’s deep. When my son was little, he asked me to go to church and I said why and he said the only thing he could have said: to see if God’s there. So we did this thing I called God-a-rama: we just went to any church or temple where somebody we knew had a practice. I would sit in the back and grade papers, and then I just got lured in. I think it’s the simple faith of the people, of liberation theology, of working for the poor. All religions are charitable, but I just happened to find myself in the company of this wad of Catholics. They got me.
Q: You’ve written that “poetry is the same as prayer” — can you explain this idea?
A: In both places you’re reaching out from despair, in hope of finding something sacred. I can’t remember who said it first, but I always think art of any kind should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. I think religion should do the same thing. I think I put my hope and despair in poetry, whether I was reading it or writing it. I do both: I write and read poetry, and I pray as well.
Q: What’s the work you’re most proud of?
A: I’m not particularly proud of anything. I’m just not. I mean, I don’t really think an artist can have an opinion about his or her work. I do the best I can do, and whether it succeeds or not is about my detaching from it.
Q: Do you enjoy creating it?
A: No, I don’t.
Q: Why do you do it?
A: It’s just something I’m supposed to do — I don’t know how else to explain it. I’ve been writing since I was five. The best days, you can’t feel your ass in the chair: you lose self-consciousness. It is absorbing to me. It takes all of my intelligence and what little I can muster. I can’t think of any great writer who says they enjoy writing. When I was younger I enjoyed writing, but I think as you get older you don’t enjoy it anymore.
Q: Can you imagine not writing?
A: No. I’ve been doing it for 55 years.
Q: Do you have advice for people who want to be writers?
A: Read. Read, and read, and rewrite. If you can avoid writing, I would suggest you do. I don’t think it’s that healthy of a lifestyle. You’re by yourself all the time, and in your head all the time. It makes you narcissistic and self-conscious and self-involved. I always say my mind is a bad neighborhood, you know — you shouldn’t go there alone. I would recommend doing something else, if you don’t have to do it. But most of us don’t have a choice. I was talking to Louise Glück, and I said if I had a choice between being a writer and being happy I would choose being happy. She laughed and said, “Don’t worry, you don’t have a choice.” We’re not moral titans; we’re not Oprah. I think God wanted me to be a writer. I think a lot of young people have an idea of being a writer that’s really different from the reality of being a writer.
Q: How did you get to where you are?
A: I grew up very poor. Most writers are from upper middle-class families. But I was 40 years old before I could make a living. People who were way dumber than I was were making a lot of money … They try to teach heroin addicts not to disassociate; if you’re a writer, you’re in a constant state of disassociation. If you look at most writers, if you read a lot of writers’ biographies, they’re not nice people. Most writers, we do heroin, we sleep with your daughters. It doesn’t have to be that way — we’re God’s creatures, we’re just odd creatures. I take my husband, who’s a businessman, to a dinner party with other writers and no one even asks him what he does.
Q: Why do you write memoir?
A: For money.
Q: Would you rather be writing something else?
A: I would rather write poetry. If I didn’t have a kid who needed to go to college, I wouldn’t have written a memoir. I was a single mom living in Syracuse, I didn’t have a car, I had to take a bus for an hour and a half to pick him up after school. It’s a good reason to write for money. The poetry and the essays and stuff: that’s labors of love. Nobody cares if I write those except me. They’d probably give me a million dollars to write another memoir, but I’d rather eat a bug.
Q: Who is one of your favorite poets?
A: Christian Wiman, who invited me, is one of my favorite poets. His poetry is really felt — it’s not someone just showing off, it’s genuinely about a struggle. He has a terminal disease, and he writes a lot about God.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m writing a script for a TV show based on my memoir. The script is due — what’s today, Wednesday? The script is due Friday.
Q: Have you started?
A: Oh yeah. I’m almost done.