Having the Courage to Write with Emotional Honesty

by Memoir Mentor on September 21, 2010

I just finished reading Mary Karr’s Lit, a memoir I admire as much as The Liars Club, her earlier bestselling memoir. Her latest book chronicles her descent into alcohol addiction and then shows how good friends help her cast aside her life-long atheism to embrace a faith that turns her life around. The book is a difficult read in some places, for Karr brings readers along through her raw, darkest moments. I felt her pain, but I also felt her transforming sense of peace and joy when her faith began to heal her. Anyone struggling with addictions of any kind will find inspiration from Karr’s tale of physical, mental, and spiritual redemption.

The famed memoirist Tobias Wolff was Karr’s teacher in grad school. Lucky her. This was “before he was a big deal,” as she puts it, before This Boy’s Life put him on the literary map. When Karr was writing The Liar’s Club, she contacted her friend and mentor “Toby” for advice. He sent her the following note:

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.[1]

Wolff practiced what he preached in This Boy’s Life, though the above note suggests he struggled to shed barriers that often keep us from writing with complete candor. But he succeeded, as far and I could  tell, and it’s that unflinching honesty that makes his book so powerful—and a bestseller—and it’s also what makes Karr’s memoirs grab you in the heart and gut.

In an interview printed in the back of my copy of Lit, Karr discusses her arduous process to achieve the effect she was after, even discarding large sections of early versions of her story. Her remarks reveal that it’s not easy for anyone, even the pros:

Well, in the first draft it’s not that the events were so different. The sentences just weren’t good enough, and I’d made my husband particularly saintly and myself particularly dastardly. So the emotional cant was way off—it felt emotionally untrue to the lived experience. It lacked emotional depth and so seemed false…. The early pages about spiritual stuff sound very proselytizing. I was telling several anecdotes to prove the same thing…. You don’t want to reiterate character points ad nauseum. That’s what bad memoirs are like, you know: I got hit over the head with a brick every day of my life, sophomore year it sucked, junior year it sucked, senior year it sucked, and then I moved out.[2]

As you write your personal history, you’ll puzzle over how much of yourself to reveal. It’s your story, of course, and you have to live with the fallout over what you write. Know, though, that if you’re brave and write with emotional honesty, you’ll write with more power and authenticity than ever before. Your readers will feel it in their bones and hang with you to the very last page.

Note: For more information about Mary Karr and Lit, read her interesting Huffington Post interview, where she describes her writing process and discusses the years she spent “lit.” Interview part1 and Interview part 2.

[1] Lit, by Mary Karr, p. 248.

[2] “A Conversation with Mary Karr,” from Lit (appendix), p. 6.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jim Backman September 28, 2010 at 10:41 am

Dawn and Morrie,

I appreciated the article in the Deseret Morning News about your seminars. You will remember me from our Harvard student days together. I have a request. I am president of the Porter Rockwell Chapter (Draper, Utah) of the Sons of Utah Pioneers. I would love to have you speak to our dinner group on October 27th if you are willing and available. We meet at Jim’s Family Restaurant in Sandy (off of 106th South just east of the I-15 freeway at 6:30. Members and their wives attend and we are focusing on memorializing our ancestors through the Sons of Utah Pioneers program. See http://www.sonsofutahpioneers.org/pioneer-history/memorializations/ . Please contact me at 801-572-2776 to discuss this possibility. We could also postpone your participation until November 17th if that fits your schedule better. Best wishes,

2 Martha Sarkissian September 30, 2010 at 10:38 am

I liked the Desert Morning News article because it really conveyed in simple, clear language how to write a memoir. I like the title on your website, Emotional Truth–for of course we can’t remember all the details of events so many years ago’ but we can be emotionally true. That is what I am trying for in my writing. I read Mary Karr’s interview, and was interested she prayed about her writing. I have felt it was sort of not ethical to approach God on practical stuff. I have a friend who claims god always gives her a good parking spot through prayer–and that seems to trivialize the idea of God. But after reading Mary Karr I can see where she gained her power. So, I’ll approach writing with more reverence. Marta Sarkiaaian. (I loved her Lit.)t

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