Book Review: The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr

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The memoir genre is intriguing to me, in spite of the fact that I am, and because I am, a highly sensitive person. I say, “in spite of,” because memoir is descriptive and evocative and intense, and I am easily emotionally swayed when reading about others’ (often traumatic) experiences. Reading memoir can be painful for me, but in the end, it’s usually worth it, because it allows me to grow in compassion and understanding and perspective. And as a highly sensitive person, I am drawn to memoir because of its introspective, navel-gazing nature—its focus on internal and external detail. Memoir is about analyzing and reflecting on emotions, conversations, and experiences. I do this constantly, so memoir is, for me, comfortable territory (while often being uncomfortable).

I’ve never read any of Karr’s memoirs, although I may do so now that I’ve had the privilege of glimpsing her behind-the-scenes creative process and philosophy of memoir writing. Karr answers some questions I’ve always had about memoir (What are the standards of accuracy and honesty in memoir writing? What are the legal and ethical considerations when writing about real, still-living people?), and she also presents a lot of information that I “didn’t know I didn’t know” about reading and writing memoir. She praises and critiques short memoir selections, using them as examples of what to do and what not to do, from a variety of writers. At the end of the book, Karr includes an extensive list of recommended memoirs.

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