Mary Karr on Navigating Memory While Writing Memoir
“A single image can split open the hard seed of the past.”
The following is an excerpt from Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and appeared in Lit Hub’s The Craft of Writing newsletter—sign up here.
At unexpected points in life, everyone gets waylaid by the colossal force of recollection. One minute you’re a grown-ass woman, then a whiff of cumin conjures your dad’s curry, and a whole door to the past blows open, ushering in uncanny detail. There are traumatic memories that rise up unbidden and dwarf you where you stand. But there are also memories you dig for: you start with a clear fix on a tiny instant, and pick at every knot until a thin thread comes undone that you can follow back through the mind’s labyrinth to other places. We’ve all interrogated ourselves—It couldn’t have been Christmas because we had shorts on in the snapshot. Such memories start by being figured out, but the useful ones eventually gain enough traction to haul you through the past.
Memory is a pinball in a machine—it messily ricochets around between image, idea, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt and snaps off. But most of the time, we keep memories packed away. I sometimes liken that moment of sudden unpacking to circus clowns pouring out of a miniature car trunk—how did so much fit into such a small space?
You show up at your high school reunion shocked to find a middle-aged populace rather than the teens you passed in the hallways decades back. Then somebody mentions she sat behind you in Miss Pickett’s seventh-grade English class, and somehow her prepubescent face blooms awake in you. Then you remember where your locker was that year, and that speech class came after English, and since speech was last period you walked home across the football field’s fresh-mown grass, watching the boy you had a crush on in practice gear.
So a single image can split open the hard seed of the past, and soon memory pours forth from every direction, sprouting its vines and flowers up around you till the old garden’s taken shape in all its fragrant glory. Almost unbelievable how much can rush forward to fill an absolute blankness.
On the first day of a memoir class, I often try to douse my students’ flaming certainty about the unassailability of their memories. Usually I fake a fight with a colleague—prof or student—while a videographer whirs in back. Then the class is asked to record right after the event what happened.Around the room, with each student reading from spiral notebook or legal pad the mistakes pop up like dandelion greens.
For the caliber of grad students I face down, the exercise should be a slam-dunk. A year or so back almost eight hundred applied for six slots in poetry and six in fiction. They’re all broke out in smarts, but in some oddball ways. Sure there are Ivy Leaguers, but in poetry we once turned down a Harvard grad for a gay ex-marine. In fiction, a Yale summa cum laude lost a seat to a former Barnum & Bailey clown.
Picture a seminar room with tables in a horseshoe and some twenty grad students, mostly in black, each propping up a Styrofoam cup of lukewarm liquid. I explain the videographer in back by saying a class transcript may help with a book on memoir I’m writing.
Following a script, I apologize for leaving my phone on but claim I have an administrative problem to work out halfway through our three-hour class. At planned intervals, my coconspirator, Chris sometimes, calls, putatively to ask—harangue?—me about swapping classrooms. The students hear me be jovial and accommodating, though I hustle him off the phone, saying let’s talk at the break.
An hour before he’s due, Chris steams in. A tall, fiftyish poet with a shaved head, he’s tight-lipped his mouth into a line and is claiming that this is his seminar room. We need to clear out. Now.
We’re playing against type. He’s known as low-key and easygoing, and I as—how to say it?—noisy? Southern? He raises his voice. I suggest we step outside. He steps forward, I step back. He’s tall, I’m short. I try to defuse the situation. He says for once I should do what everybody else does and cooperate. He tells me to go fuck myself—or do I only remember it that way? Then he heaves a sheaf of papers into the air and stalks out. The students are agog. On the tape, they cut their eyes away from us to connect with each other.
Paralyzed silence. Am I okay? the codependent kid asks, Bambi-eyed. I explain the ruse, and the group’s burst of laughter is a collective awkwardness. One joker claims he’s suing for trauma, since he flashed back to his parents fighting.
You’d guess that these bright, mostly young, fairly sensitive witnesses would nail the event down to the color of Chris’s socks. And yet around the room, with each student reading from spiral notebook or legal pad the mistakes pop up like dandelion greens.
There are memory aces, of course. Maybe one, rarely two—of twenty to twenty-five per seminar—come with wizardly photographic recall. They get the facts spot on. They nail quotes verbatim and don’t mess up physical details, or even intervals of time. (Getting time wrong is a common memory screw up, even for the young.) How often did he call? The wizards are dead certain it was three times, with ten-to-twelve-minute gaps in between. And Chris’s pants were khaki, his shirt denim, not vice versa; he wore not loafers but black Nikes double-knotted with two holes unthreaded. Marvels, these observers.
Reviewing student blunders in these classes, I correct details on the board, fix dialogue and interpretative errors. By the end, we’ve chalked up an agreed-on version. During this time, I sometimes implant new facts—I give my adversary a leather bracelet he doesn’t wear, and even have him fiddle with it nervously.
Excerpted from The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, available via Harper Perennial.