Tag Archive: memoir

  1. Artist of Trauma and Change: Mary Karr

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    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.

  2. OK, Sure

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    On April 5, 2011, Tina Fey’s autobiography, “Bossypants,” was released to rave reviews and stellar sales. It garnered a glowing write-up in The New York Times and stayed at or near the top of the Times’ bestseller list for five weeks. “Bossypants” was, in my opinion, worth all the hype. It was funny yet subtly powerful, personal yet unafraid to quietly make larger points.

    Ever since the success of “Bossypants,” it appears that comedians-turned-actors have been attempting to follow in Fey’s footsteps. We’ve seen memoirs by Fey’s former coworkers on Saturday Night Live — Mindy Kaling, Rachel Dratch, Sarah Silverman — as well as others, including Chelsea Handler and Nick Offerman. These books were all predictably funny, yet, to me, none of them quite matched Fey’s book. The latest of these memoirs is “Yes Please,” the much-anticipated autobiography of Amy Poehler.

    Poehler, of course, was a popular actor on Saturday Night Live and star of the hit sitcom, “Parks and Recreation.” In her own words, Poehler is Tina Fey’s “comedy wife.” So my hopes were high. Yet, like those other memoirs, “Yes Please” just doesn’t quite live up to “Bossypants.”

    And that’s fine. It would be unfair to judge every book against the best within its genre. Yet, even on its own, “Yes Please” is a hard book to describe, let alone judge. It is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny; it is sometimes sad or poignant or just plain strange. Poehler writes about how robots are going to kill everyone and the many alternative names for Leslie Knope, but she also writes about orphanages in Haiti, drunk driving and rape, and she makes an over-long apology to a disabled girl she once inadvertently insulted. She also includes several sections that I can’t quite classify, such as one about her drug use and one about her physical appearance that gets a little too real.

    “Yes Please” is interesting because it does so many things. It starts with a chapter about how much Poehler hated writing the book, and how she’d never do it again. It then describes Poehler’s childhood. She grew up “lower-middle class” in Boston, the daughter of teachers. Over the course of the book, the reader learns that Poehler developed a love of performance on school stages (funny chapter), that she had a good friend whose mother died of cancer (sad chapter), and that she started drinking alcohol at a young age (weird chapter). We follow her through the Chicago improv comedy scene (funny chapter), onto stage at the Upright Citizens Brigade (nostalgic chapter), into the cast at SNL (one funny chapter, one uncomfortable one), and finally onto the small screen with “Parks and Rec” (funny chapter, mostly).

    For many years, Poehler writes, she was poor and struggling. She was a waitress for much of her adult life, long before she propelled herself into the wider comedy universe. She spent many years without a steady paycheck or health insurance, though she befriended other struggling comedians, including a young Tina Fey. Her first appearance on SNL was the episode directly following 9/11, yet she remained on the show and became one of its true gems. She writes at length about her appearance alongside Fey as Hillary Clinton and then rapping (while nine months pregnant) as Sarah Palin. Speaking of pregnancy, she writes toward the end of the book about her sons, who bear the awesome names Archie and Abel.

    The memoir parts are there, but most of the book consists of short autobiographical vignettes or just random things, such as a poem she wrote when she was a young child, a chapter by Seth Meyers, another chunk by Poehler’s mother and countless lists.

    Perhaps this is why I prefer “Bossypants” to “Yes Please” and the other books mentioned. “Bossypants” is, first and foremost, a memoir. It tells the story of Fey’s life, basically from the beginning to the present. The jokes are secondary to the extraordinary story of one woman’s rise to prominence. So many of the books that have followed in its wake have put the jokes first and the memoir second.

    “Yes Please,” if nothing else, departs from that model. It is a hybrid, and it is an enjoyable one. I would have liked more about Poehler’s life — or, at least, a book organized in a way that allowed her life story to make more sense. Nonetheless, “Yes Please” is hilarious and touching and pretty short and totally worth the read.

  3. The Female “I”

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    In her memoir “I Love Dick,” Chris Kraus writes that young women who wish to be taken seriously do not use the first person. I do not use the first person. The first person is immediate and raw and I’ve never even liked the look of it. The uppercase “I” is too tall and the uppercase “I” demands an honesty I cannot provide.

    A woman who writes about herself is easy to dismiss and even easier to diagnose. Her talent is incidental, secondary, irrelevant. It’s just a symptom of psychosis, they say. We rarely separate the woman from her “I”, I think, and when we read her pieces we cut through form and go straight for the content. We pathologize. The woman isn’t a writer — she is a woman writing. She’s building castles and moats and armies with words. She’s crazy and she’s scared. Readers demolish her castles and wade through her moats and slaughter her armies! Prescribe a few pills, the writing might stop. No one wants another Sylvia Plath.

    In high school, I thought I would act for a living. I’m 19 now, and know that I won’t be able to — but I remember the rehearsals, the costumes and the stink of sweat. I remember the advice our director gave. She cared a lot about body language. On stage, we hovered near chairs and took faltering steps, and the ambivalence drove her mad. “It just looks so awkward!” she’d exclaim. “When you’re on stage, you’re always standing near a couch or a stool. You look like you’re playing musical chairs or something, like you’d better have a place to sit when the music goes off or the lights go out. Don’t do that. The audience gets uncomfortable. The audience wants you to either sit down or get up, but don’t stand with the backs of your knees against the seat.” I often feel as though I never learned to choose, as though the backs of my knees are still up against a seat. I can neither sit down nor walk away: I squat somewhere between fiction and nonfiction.

    And so I write in the third person mostly. I fashion ciphers with names like Anna and Clara and Sue, each one sad and plain and shy. I am a young woman who wants to be taken seriously — please do not tell me how to be.

    I spent a lot of time with my old English teacher this summer. We walked around the park and talked about Woody Allen. She wanted to discuss women in the modern age, and so I said a few cautious things about blind sex and self-hate. She blushed and stammered. She confessed that she’d only just discovered the Brazilian wax, and the idea was appalling. “Porn is the problem,” she said, and I smiled. Clara and Anna and Sue would have smiled, too.

    We also talked about a story I’d only just finished, a short piece about a girl named Bess. Bess has trouble with the male gaze. Bess thinks about the men who’ve “wanted to undress her.” Bess might be me. I let my teacher edit until the story was tight and spare. But my teacher is good friends with my mother, who heard I was writing again and said: “Jane, I love your work. Could you send me the story?” I sent her the story, and the next day we drank coffee and I left California. We never spoke of it again.

    That Sunday, the Sunday before classes began, my sister came up to visit. She took the MetroNorth from Grand Central, and we got pizza and beer and talked about her plans and her new apartment. Mom had called Kat a few days ago. She wanted to talk about me. “I don’t think Jane’s having fulfilling, consensual relations with guys, pumpkin. I read that thing she wrote and just felt so sad, you know? I wanted to tell her right then and there that she doesn’t have to go down on anyone. D’you think she’ll figure it out?”

    Even though the story contained no trace of that tricky, female “I,” my mother read each “Bess” as if it were Jane. Perhaps mothers will always find clues to our secret lives in curious places. Perhaps she’ll continue to collect fragments, cobbling together an intricate, imperfect idea of my life from emails and essays.

    But I am a young woman who wants to be taken seriously. And in “I Love Dick,” Chris Kraus writes with an “I.” She rolls around in her feelings like a pig in a mud bath. But the feelings aren’t messy or dirty when you’re as discerning as Kraus, Kraus who reappropriates the language of lit crit to examine and legitimize her own fixation. (She’s fallen in love with Dick Hebdige, a popular sociologist.) Kraus subverts a feminine trope with masculine rhetoric. But still I fear that my own “I” is trite. I am not Chris Kraus. I write with small words in small rooms, and I am only brave enough in the briefest of moments.