Writing The Truth: How to Start Writing Your Memoir | Mary Karr | Skillshare

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Writing The Truth: How to Start Writing Your Memoir

teacher avatar Mary Karr, Memoirist & Poet

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
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Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Jumpstarting Your Memory


    • 3.

      Creating a Commonplace Book


    • 4.

      Developing Your Voice


    • 5.

      Writing With Carnality


    • 6.

      Writing With Interiority


    • 7.

      Truth of Memory


    • 8.

      Final Thoughts


    • 9.

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About This Class

“We're all in this together trying to make sense of what it is to be a human being. And it's a hard and kind of beautiful and noble thing for you to try to do.”

Join legendary memoirist Mary Karr (The Liar's Club, Cherry) as she describes the processes she relies on to write beautiful, visceral scenes that feel real to the reader, and introduces you to the ways she has prepared to write her upcoming memoir Just You Wait. 

Through a series of memory-focused writing exercises, Mary guides you through the tangled process of writing memoir and makes it clear, distinct, and actionable. Along the way, she shares her wisdom and perspective on life, writing as a craft and the distinct privilege and pain of being a person.

Don't miss Mary's lessons on:

  • Writing with the five senses to engross and immerse a reader
  • Developing your personal and unique voice
  • Using interiority to connect with your reader and become real to them
  • Getting at the truth of your memory

Using clear and actionable instruction paired with practical (and beautiful) examples across generations of memoirists, Mary makes the mystifying and sometimes painful process of writing about yourself feel not only possible, but right within your reach. 

Meet Your Teacher

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Mary Karr

Memoirist & Poet


Take Mary's new class on the art of memoir now!

Join best-selling memoirist Mary Karr as she shares her personal process for writing with humor, grace and an unforgettable voice—and empowers you to do the same.

In every lesson, Mary breaks down excerpts from her own memoirs and those of her favorite writers word-by-word. You'll dive deep into Mary's approach to writing, including an exclusive look at the notebooks she's currently using to plan her next memoir, the commonplace book she uses to keep track of writing she loves, and bookshelves stacked with her favorite memoirs from years of avid reading.

Whether you're a writer looking to tell the story of your life, a journaler looking to approach your practice with more intention, or just a ... See full profile

Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction: I think I became a writer because I was a just Sad Sack weirdo, and I could stay at home in my pajamas, but also because I fell in love with literature, and words, and poetry, especially when I was a little girl. I'm Mary Karr, and nobody elected me the boss of memoir. Nonetheless, I have written three memoirs and a book about memoir. If you think about it, memoir is anti-Spider-Man. Memoir is anti-spectacle. It's about the life lived in the scene. It's about psychological struggle. Today's class is about writing memoir, and getting started, telling your story, things that might pull you and keep you from doing it, ways to overcome those things, some exercises and some habits you can get into they're going to help your memory, some habits you can get into that are going to help your writing. People write out of great feeling, they're not cool when they're rendering their personal and psychological struggles, and struggles with people they love or trying to be loved. I think it's one voice crying out in the wilderness trying to connect with a like-minded human. So I'm so glad you're here. I'm so glad you're bringing your language or experience, your heart into this process, and let's get with it. I'm looking for my pen here. 2. Jumpstarting Your Memory: I wish I could just reach through the camera into your living room and find the switch in your body, I can flip all your memory and all your experience, and all your language, and how you talk, and the very nature of your specific talent, where those things all coalesce and it all starts coming out, because it never works that way. When people come up to me and say how do you write a memoir, I always say, "You don't want to do this, this is too hard." You think you want to do this, but you don't want to do this. It's way too hard. You think you know the story, but you never know the story. We remember in certain soundbites and those soundbites are just ideas, they don't really translate on the page. I was the sad child. I always say that everything I ever wrote started with I am very sad, the end by Mary Car. That's how everything begins. Then you just make that more specific. Now, I'm working on my fourth memoir which is called, Just You Wait. It's about being a woman of a certain age and reinventing myself starting when I turned 60 and moved back into the city. Every way I have of working on those other three books, suddenly just didn't work. I was just really drowning. You imagine that I know how to do this, nobody knows how to write anything. The last book never writes the next one. That every book has to be it's own little machine. So I ran into my friend Donna [inaudible] and she told me, I just put everything down in notebooks. I said, "What do you mean everything? She said, "All the information, all the language. Anything I can come up with." The idea really tickled me that I could just go to Office Depot and buy a bunch of three-ring binders and start writing labels on stuff and sticking them in there. I thought it was like back to school. So with no idea really what this notebook process was going to yield if anything, I thought well, it will get me moving. It will get me into motion. When you play pool and you play nine ball eventually maybe you'll sink something. But it just gave me a place to put stuff. Also, at this age my memory is not so good. I don't even know what city I'm in hardly half the time. I certainly don't know where my car is parked. The first notebook I did was something called the Little Generals. That is general things that are going to be in the book or going to inform the book. That includes in my case a book proposal because I actually wrote a proposal. Then I had a bunch of notes from my editors and so all their notes are in here. I also have a lot of categories of stuff that I'm going to write about. I'm writing about prayer, I'm writing about baking, I'm writing about going to dance classes, I'm writing about men I'm sleeping with, I'm writing about Jesus, I'm writing about my students, I'm writing about my son, I'm writing about not drinking. So I just have categories of stuff and people involved in those things. I also have timelines for certain years. This is 2014, where I was, who my students were and you can see these are very sloppy. I suddenly remembered in 2006 I was sick for for eight months. I went to the Dominican Republic in 2010. I was in Vietnam. None of this stuff will probably be in the book but I just made a timeline to give myself something to do to start putting just downloading and dumping that information. Then I have a lot of ideas about what should be in the book. So none of this stuff, these aphorisms are sayings or old sayings. None of this will ever actually wind up on pages that somebody pays for and looks at. But there are things about memory or there things about being an older woman or things about ending a relationship or things about prayer and meditation. So these are ideas around the book. That just themes or things I'm thinking about. This notebook is called what I call the little general. It's like a bunch of general information that isn't really going to maybe actually wind up in the book. We have a lot of ideas about what it's going to be in the book and then we think who's going to be in the book. Who am I going to be writing about. So in my case, I have this big notebook that's like my who notebook. So it's everybody who may or may not. Everybody who played a big role in my life during the period of time I'm writing about. I put them in here and I made little categories for them. So I have girlfriends of mine, I have spiritual directors, my friend George Saunders, a lot of my students, people I dated. Then I have in some ways the three most major people who influenced me or were important to me at this time, starting with my son Dave. There was an old priest who died, who I spent a lot of time with, a guy named Father Joe. Then Jesus. There's a lot of stuff. There's a lot of Jesus parts. In the past year, after two years of trying to write this book, I was so frustrated. As you know, we remember in these tidy soundbites and you have an idea, I was a great student but there's no real evidence that you are a great student. So you have a lot of lies that you tell yourself about who you are. When you start writing you are looking for scenes and specific moments in time. After the who part comes to what part. What kinds of things was I going through, was I writing about. Some of these are specific scenes on New Year's Eve, Times Square. I looked like I was living the life I always wanted to live, but I was at a party that didn't love me. My son was missing. I didn't know where he was. He was supposed to have let me know where he was going to be and he had vanished and I had no one and it was going straight to voicemail. I went up walking home from this very fancy party in an evening gown on New Year's Eve. So just to reiterate, I don't know that any of this stuff will be in the book. But this is the period of time I think I'm writing about. So I'm just doing an information dump and making notes so that I just start to remember, so this is the what. Finally, this is the when. This is Kronos. This is time. This is movement through time and what happened at different events. So I printed out all my calendars, all the calendars as far back as I could go. But then I also went through those calendars and made those timelines. I printed out my American Express bills for this period of time. So I could see what town I was in and what I was buying and I could begin to piece together who probably spend a couple of weeks looking at my American Express bills. A friend of mine committed suicide. I made best friends with Philip Roth and he died. Only I could make friends with an 85 year-old man with congestive heart failure and be shocked when he die. But then my son got married. But I also did these various prayer and meditation retreats. So working with different priests and different meditation teachers, a Buddhist nun, but all of these timelines. Some of these people have individual timelines. I also have notebooks. I have prayer and meditation notebooks. I have journals. So these are different gears. This is some of the same information organized by year. Then stuff like course list. I'm writing about 2005, who was I teaching then because I'm normally very close to my students. So who were they and what was that like. Finally, you eventually will generate pages and they go into a book called pages. So these are mostly pretty finished pages as you can see, there are not so many of them. That's okay, you might not have a lot. I've been working on this book for two years. I don't have so many pages. But I am moving, and that's what you have to tell yourself. If you ever shot pool when you play nine ball, you just want the ball in motion. You get the ball in motion, eventually you will sync something. So that's the way you have to look at it. You can't see it as a failure. All these things that you're doing or these pages you write that you throw away, are pages that are standing in line to be written until you get to the thing you really have to say. So not everybody needs to do these notebooks. I'm not saying this is what you need to do. I have been in memoirs for however many years. I've never done this. This was borne of desperation. I was just so frustrated. This gave me a place to get moving and it gave me a confidence that I was doing something. You just want to get moving. So you're not just paralyzed with fear staring into your computer or your notebook. 3. Creating a Commonplace Book: There is something that I think every memoirs should do. In fact I think every writer should do it, and that is to keep a commonplace book. A commonplace boto ok is just a place for you copy down in long hand, no you can't type it into the computer, it's not the same thing. You want to move your hand like a little kid printed longhand whatever into a book, so that everything you admire and it's like you're eating it, it's like a Eucharist almost you take it into your body, and it's almost like your actually writing it. I also recommend my poets memorize things, not everybody needs to do that. But you'll find as you write these things out longhand that you see better how they're working. You can see how one sentence leads to the next, and you slow down and begin to read at the pay someone was writing. So you enter that writer's body and become that writer for a minute, and it's like walking into a cathedral and you look up and you go wow! Look at how how great this is. So the poet Stanley Kuntz, told me to do this when I was in graduate school. Here's a page from my first commonplace book which was this is a letter from the poet Wallace Stevens to his father. These I wrote down in 1979, so that's how long I've been doing this, I keep these books. People ought to like poetry the way a childlike snow and they would have poets wrote it. So here's my current commonplace book from April. I'm reading the poet Wanda Coleman, who's a new discovery for me. She wrote a book called American Sonnets, and my friend Terrance Hayes also wrote a book called American Sonnets. So I'm writing out both Terrence's Sonnets and Wanda's Sonnets sensing how they are different. But I also have Joan Didion, The White Album which is one of the great works of nonfiction. We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the 16th floor is a victim of accidie or the naked woman as an exhibitionist or it would be 'interesting' to know which. I just wrote the first few pages of Didion here. So anybody can do this and it's a way to always be in school, always be a little kid, looking up and wonder at what it is you're lucky enough to be able to try to do. 4. Developing Your Voice: A memoir lives and dies 100 percent based on voice. A voice is like kind of conjures who the human being is, who's speaking. It makes their living ghost manifest before you, it's like a holograph of the person that makes you feel like you know who's talking. It's like the big bandwidth cable that delivers all the information to you. So a voice has to sound like you, it can't sound like somebody else. It has to be very distinctive, it has to permit a range of emotional feelings and tones. So when you look up what voice is in a book about writing, they'll say that this is what it is. Diction which is just the word you pick, syntax which is how the sentences go together, tone, tone is I would say emotional tone. Tone is just your emotional attitude towards your subject, like how you feel about whatever it is you're talking about, you're happy, you're sad, you're curious, you're bored, you're irritated, whatever it is. So this does us no good, that's just like worthless. Every memoir said Matt who I think is a really great memoirs to Michael Herr, Maya Angelo, Frank Conroy, Maxine Hong Kingston. All people I've met, it's literally like they sound exactly like they write, it's like you rip off the mask and the features are exactly molded to the shape of the mask. It's like who they are, their voice is who they are. I always meet people and they say, "You sound like you right." I'm like that's what I'm shooting for, to be my genuine self on the page. Really I think voice comes out of finding inside yourself a kind of tractor beam of truth. Because let's face it, you start to write and you start tap dancing, you're sailing, I always say I'd get out my pointer when I start making an argument about something like a school mom which nobody wants to hear that. For example, the person I think who in some ways kickstarted our love for modern memoir, there are a handful of writers who became huge best sellers, who were not hugely famous people before. I credit Richard Wright's, Black Boy, it's the first huge bestseller by an African-American other than Frederick Douglass who was already a famous person. Richard Wright was a writer but he was not anybody popular people knew of. Wright has a very matter of fact almost journalistic voice. I'm looking for my pen here. But he also has a very poetic voice, he has a way of stopping time and going into these lyrical moments. Here's an example. He's describing the way the world looks when you're a child and you have a high serotonin level, you're not depressed and grumping around like all the rest of us grown ups are and you have a lot of energy. He's been writing and little kids speak and now he's reflecting. Each event spoke with a cryptic tongue and the moments of living slowly revealed their coded meanings. There was the wonder I felt when I first saw a brace of mountain-like spotted black and white horses clopping down a dusty road through clouds of powdered clay. I mean, that's just a great sentence. There was the delight I caught in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun to the bright horizon. Again, a very distinctive voice that slows down time and helps you enter that childhood wonder. So in Hilary Mantel's Giving Up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel is writing about having a ghost in her house. She's also writing about having this struggle with endometriosis and giving up the idea of ever having a child based on this illness that she has. I know it is my step father's ghost coming down or to put it in a way acceptable to most people, I know it is my step father's ghost. She knows this is very early in the book, she knows you're not going to believe in ghost. So she goes to where the reader is and says, I know, I mean, there's something in me that knows. So she accommodates your doubt about what she's writing about and in doing that, she brings you into her worldview by letting both things co-exist at one time. The other thing that a voice does especially in the first page or if you're thinking about beginnings, is you have to set up very early on some kind of conflict, some kind of difficulty, some kind of emotional struggle. Maxine Hong Kingston does it in her very first line. "You must not tell anyone," my mother said. The minute it begins with you must not tell anyone, you're invited into a secret, an intimate secret. Someone else's speaking, Maxine isn't speaking, her mother's speaking, you must not tell anyone my mother said what I am about to tell you. In China, your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born. Of course, why did the girl kill herself? Because she had a baby out of wedlock. So immediately this book starts with a transgression and with a fight between the mother's secret and the daughters urge to tell with the mother's China and the American urge to drag it all out into the open. When I started trying to write about my child which I first did in poetry in my 20s, I was writing trying to sound like TS Eliot who was, they called him Titus enrolled umbrella and I'm as you can see sloppy all over the place, Southeast Texas, I speak redneck, I know how to skin a squirrel, I am not that guy. So that's who I was impersonating, that's who I was trying to be. So I think most of us when we start writing encounter ourselves trying to concoct for the reader the self we wish we were, and there are all these fake voices that come first. In my third memoir, one way I found my way into the book was by writing an open letter to my son who was then I think just in high school. I began, "Anyway I tell this story is a lie, so I ask you to disconnect the device in your head that repeats at intervals how ancient as an addled I am. It's true that, at 50 to your 20, my brain is dimmer. Your engine of recall is way superior, as you've often pointed out. How many times have you stopped me throwing sofa cushions ever my shoulder in search of my glasses by telling me they're tipped atop my own knobby head. The cake we had on that birthday had 12 candles on it, not 10; and it wasn't London, but Venice where I'd blindly bought and boiled and served to our guest a pasta I mistakenly believed was formed into the boot of Italy." By the way, that pasta that I thought was the boot of Italy was actually a penis and testicles which is why the guys in Italy when I bought it thought it was so funny, I bought it for my son's 12th birthday when we were overseas. So I thought I was buying the boot of Italy and you should see like the look on everybody's face when I serve this pasta, I was like totally horrified. So why did I begin this way? Because you see me in a conflict with my son and my son is saying, "You don't remember anything, you get everything wrong." So I'm also addressing the readers doubt that I remember right and I show the reader how I have to correct myself, and then I don't always remember everything right and I show you at worried away with my son. One exercise you can do if you're struggling to find a voice, is to write a letter about an event where you really embarrassed yourself or you did something you really weren't proud of. Maybe you write it to the person you did it to, maybe write it to your high school principal, maybe write it to your mother, maybe you try several drafts of this letter to different people. What you find is depending on who you're writing to, you adjust your voice, you adjust the tone, you're nice if you're writing to your boss, and maybe you're not so nice if you're mad at your sister. So doing these exercises in letter writing gives you a chance to try on different tones, try on different feelings, try on different kinds of styles you have, and it just gets your pen moving across the page in generating voices. 5. Writing With Carnality: For me, carnality is the secret to finding your way into the real memories. I've been talking a lot about the sound bites that we remember and we remember in these sort of ideas. But everybody in their life has been blown back by a physical memory. At some point, you walk into a room and you get a whiff of your dad's curry somewhere, and suddenly you're back in your childhood home and everything is alive to you. For me, it's like a garlicy Gumbo or something like that from East Texas. But everybody everybody has memories that come to them and are just knocked him over, and how big and how specific they are. You almost can't believe everything you can remember. Those memories are like money for you. If you're working on a memoir. So carnality is becoming increasingly aware. So what is it? It's can you perceive it with your five senses? Can you see it, smell it, touch it, taste it, feel it? The kinesthetic memory is also very important. It's something people often don't think about. Smell is the most emotional memory, the oldest sense, the sense that has a lot of feeling often attached to it. But being in the body of your former self, occupying yourself in a way is something that brings you closer to those memories that you're going to really be able to write from and about in great detail. So for me, an example of it, again, when I was working on Lit, and I was really struggling, I remember how this chapter began. It began, mother drove me to college, and we got drunk every night at a Holiday Inn drinking Screwdrivers. So that's boring, isn't it? I mean, mother drove me to college. I mean, anybody could write that sentence. So I had this image not of being in the car, but of remembering the car from outside itself. Mother's yellow station wagons slid like a monopoly icon along the gray road that cut between fields of Iowa corn, which was chlorophyll green and punctuated in the distance by gargantuan silver silos and gleaming, unrested tractors glazed cinnamon red. That's scene from outside. But as I started writing the scene inside the car, I remembered a couple things. I remembered that we had stopped in Arkansas and bought a bushel of peaches that we kept eating. So that the odor of those peaches and the feel of them. We hadn't even wash them or eating them right out of the bushel. My mother is also drinking vodka. So of course, because one does when one drives along. So the smell of that vodka. There was a thing that happened to me as I started writing the scene. I remembered this yellow station wagon she had didn't have air conditioning. At that time, you could buy a strap under your dashboard, air conditioner that made a lot of noises, it's really crummy. But also, water would build up inside it. So when my mother turned to the right, I had on these sandals, the water would slide out of the air conditioner and splash on my feet. It was one of those moments I get chills when I write it. Because all of a sudden, I was in that car, and I remember the book I was reading was Gabrielle Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude. My mother's said, "Read that aloud to me". Part of what I loved about my mother was, even though she was armed and tried to kill me with a butcher knife was, she was a great reader, she was enormously curious, and we bonded together over literature. In some ways, I probably became a writer to impress her or to win her. Very hard to get attention. So those are examples of carnal memories. Memories that just bring you back into the scene in a way that as soon as you start writing out of those physical memories, something happens, and suddenly, you're alive in the body you had back then. Carnality is also a great way to get information in. If you say it's 1974, that's just data. You get that thing in a newspaper. But if you say, "I was sitting in front of the swooping fan, and President Nixon was standing on the White House lawn with a helicopter behind him resigning." Suddenly, the whole scene comes alive, and the reader knows what year it is without you having to tell them. So you're looking for ways to get information in but you're also looking for those memories. The other thing about carnality is it convinces people. People actually believe I'm telling the truth because I describe a shelf in 1964 that had Bab-O cleanser on it. I mean, I could be lying and have just remembered Bab-O cleanser. But strangely, writing that is very physical, reads like evidence. It reads more cinematically, more like something the reader is seeing instead of you telling them about the experience. A really carnal writer is like an avatar for you. You feel what she felt, and smell what she smelled, and you more fully enter into an experience based on these sensed memories. If the physical world is alive to the reader, you are alive to the reader. Your experience is alive to the reader. So it's something you can cultivate and learn how to do. One exercise I can give you that will help you start to cultivate carnality in your own writing is to get really still, and close your eyes, and set a timer, give yourself at least 10 minutes. Try to close your eyes, and take yourself back to a place where you were a little kid. Some place you have lot of holidays, where you ate the same food all the time. I don't know if it's your mother's house, or grandparents, or neighbors, or whoever it is. Try to inhabit that old body you had. Where were you in the room? I've said before that smell is very powerful and has a lot of emotion attached to it. So I would try to start with smell. What can you smell in that house? What can you hear? What is the weather like? Who's talking? Are there voices in another room? What might they be saying? Can you taste anything? For me, a little Flintstones jelly glass. With that, I used to drink grape juice out of in the morning. It was like a thing, an actual object that when I held it I was like back in that place. Finally, you're sitting there and let yourself, what's the weather like? Who's coming? Who just left? Ask yourself what's going on. Ask yourself what you want. A lot of the story comes from you want something. What are you going to do to get it? Your sister has coloring book you want. Your cousin has a little bike with a Vroom motor on it, you want to ride around the block. What is it that you're after? What is it that you want? See if you can occupy that place. Then, after you've done that meditation, write down everything you can remember about it. It's an example of how if you can get your mind into that former self, that world that you lived in can actually bloom up around you and really give you a lot of material that you didn't even know was there. 6. Writing With Interiority: If carnality is the secret to making a memoir good, interiority is the secret to making it. great. So a lot of people never think about this stuff, about the interior stuff. So what is interiority? It's the kingdom that the camera can never catch. I always say if I lived my whole life with a camera strapped to my head and that camera recorded exactly what was happening historically, it still wouldn't know how I felt. So I think a lot of the great memoirist are people with big inner lives, with big psychological conflicts, psychological complexity. So the interior, what your thinking, feeling, what you are longing for, what you're passionate about, what you're scared of, psychological conflict, movement through time when you're taking the reader from a child's voice into an adult voice to reflect on that childhood. That is all something that you're writing about how you feel, you're not showing them something. I think the great memoirs are organized around an inner enemy, an aspect of yourself that you're fighting against. So a lot of people don't think this. They think this is a memoir about the big butt whipping I took, and so I got to put them where I got a butt whipping, next day I got a butt whipping, day 3 is another butt whipping, butt whipping. No. That's what you call a misery memoir and most people, they're not that interested in reading that. I mean obviously, there are great books about difficulty but if you read Survival at Auschwitz by Primo Levy or you read Night by Elie Wiesel, those books aren't all about Nazi horrors. A lot of them are about the moral quandaries, the suffering that Elie Wiesel went through because his father essentially starved himself to death so that his son could stay alive in the concentration camp. So it's not all about the exterior. A lot of it is about the life lived in the scene and your inner conflict. A person should be different at the end of the memoir than they are at the beginning. So Nabokov, who's a great example as great and example as he is a carnality. He's an equally great example of interiority. "How small the cosmos, a kangaroo's pouch would hold it. How paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection and its expression in words. I may be inordinately fond of my earliest impressions, but then I have reason to be grateful for them. They lead the way to a veritable Eden of visual and tactile sensations." So he's telling you that his mind is important, that it's not all exterior drama, and he's explaining to you the reader how to read him. That's something that you as a memoirist ought to be able to do. You won't know who the inner enemy is when you start writing your book by the way, this is something you're going to find and come back and fix when you're revising. It's something you're going find in the course of your writing. So if you don't know who your inner enemy is like don't worry. It's something you just write out the story. You just start putting your stories down and then eventually you rewrite, and you shape, and you revise around this inner enemy. So one example of this for me is Harry Crews, Childhood Biography of a Place. So the Harry Crews book begins, "My first memory is of a time, 10 years before I was born, and takes place where I've never been and involves my daddy, whom I never knew." It's an interesting sentence to start with because he's telling you right away that he didn't know his father and in some ways this entire book of his is organized around, "How am I going to be a man when I didn't know my father." The book starts with all this apocrypha, these ideas about his father, these stories that he heard because he grew up in a storytelling culture. So that's one example of how this idea of an inner enemy can be manifest right on the very first page. He starts with this memory and you see that he's going to scratch after who his father is, and scratch after the truth, and how little information he has. I stole exactly from the Harry Crews to start Liars Club. He starts out my first memory. My sharpest memories just a dead steal. "My sharpest memory is of the single instance surrounded by dark. I was seven and our family doctor knelt before me where I sat on a mattress on the bare floor. He wore a yellow golf shirt and buttons so that sprouts of hair showed in a V-shape on his chest. I'd never seen him in anything but a white starch shirt and a gray tie, and the change unnerved me. He was pulling at the hand of my favorite night gown and he's saying, "Show me the marks come on. I won't hurt you." So and I say there weren't any marks because there weren't but he thought that something very terrible had happened to me. He thought my mother had called him and said that she had killed us but you don't know that until later in the story. So I don't put that information in the beginning. I just start with that difficulty because I knew if the reader actually saw my mother in such a dark position doing such a violent thing to these children, the reader would hate her, and they wouldn't be able to feel empathy for her the way I wanted the reader to. But you can see that it starts with that conflict about, "I'm in this chaotic household what's going to befall me? " So again, one thing you're doing with your interiority is moving in and out of time. In Cherry as I said, I had so many different selves. I was writing in and out of time and I began actually writing to myself. "No road offers more mystery than that first one you mount from the town you were born to the first time you mount it." I'm writing to myself as a teenager. "The first time you mount it of your own volition, on a trip funded by her own coffee tin of wrinkled up dollars, bills you've saved and scrounge for, worked the all-night switchboard for, missed The Rolling Stones for, sold fragrant pot with smashed flowers going brown inside twist tie plastic baggies for. In fact to disembark from your origins, you've done everything you can think to scrounge money save selling your spanking young pussy." So as you can see that's the voice of an adult looking back at a child self, it's not actually the voice of the child. But here's an example of how the child's voice makes manifest when I'm 12. "Violent ducky has a hamster and a miniature turtle who lives in a shallow plastic bowl under a palm tree with snap-on fronds and an albino rabbit names Snuffles with pink ears from Easter. It's the hamster I'm thinking about here. One night he gnaws out of his poorly latched cage and scampered across the glowing iron surface of the gas heater blistering the bottoms of his tiny peak feet. The same feet whose weensy, lizard-like nails Violet had wanted to lacquer Sashay Pink." So anyway, you can see that's that more carnal voice, the voice of a little kid. The other one is more thoughtful and more philosophical. One exercise that you can do to work on your interior voice is to take that carnality exercise that I had you write. That for you are sitting in the kitchen or smelling the things and have your adult self begin writing and address that child. So speak as yourself now and move the reader into and out of time. Move the reader into that place, make the seconds long, have some reflection, and ponder about that kid and question yourself about who you were at that time. But also to practice moving from one voice into another voice, from one period of time into another period of time. 7. Truth of Memory: There's a lot of overripe course hockey going around in the memoir business about how difficult it is to come up with the truth. That is fact. It's hard to know what happened after any event. One of the things I often open a memoir class with is staging a fight between myself and another professor, and then asking my students who are young, they're kids, and they're really smart, and some of them are incredibly observant. I ask them each to write down what happened. Invariably, each student superimposes his or her prejudices about who I am, who the other person is onto their narrative. So George Saunders, my colleague, is known to be like this really nice guy, and I'm like loud Satan, whatever trashy, whatever they think. So even though in the script we write, I'm always backing up and George is charging forward and being overbearing and yelling at me. A lot of times people will describe me in military terms, she stood her ground like a bulldog or he couldn't back her up too far. A woman who had been stalked assumed that George was a stalker, and a woman who had sickle cell anemia assumed that I had some physical ailment, that I was sick in some way. Everybody pictures what they believe happened. So we remember through a filter of who we are, and we don't so much take in the world as we beam it from our eyeballs. One of the more interesting things that I've seen happen in that exercise is, there are usually one or two students in a class of 20 say, who will remember exactly what was said. He had on a denim shirt, he had on khaki pants, not a khaki shirt and denim pants, they'll remember everything perfect way, and yet the interpretation will be somehow twisted. So this one kid, he was a kid who was a musician I remember, just had an incredibly good ear. I remember his saying, he remembered everything perfectly, and he said, "Oh no, she didn't do anything wrong." He was a 100 percent wrong. But I wonder what she had done to make him act that way. So I think that tells us, and if you're a member of a family, you've told a story in your family and everybody in your family says, "That never happened and you weren't even born when that happened. That happened to me, it didn't happen to you, and and everything blurry and everybody imagines things. So there is a line between memory and imagination that's porous and we misremember. That's not what I'm talking about. We're not talking about the truth of history, that the Battle of Hastings took place on this date in this place. We're talking about the truth of memory, which is scratched after, and wondered about, and earned for, and worried over. So you're not setting these things down as stone cold fact. However, with all of that said about the fuzziness of memory, if you set out to lie and manufacture stuff that didn't happen, you're lying. This isn't hard, this is not a fuzzy line. There's no who would such a fuzzy line like what happened. Interpretation is fuzzy, we get things wrong all the time. One reason I think having a specific voice is so important, is that you're not writing like a journalist, you're not writing like a historian, you're writing like a person who's often feeling her way into what the truth is. So the reader never loses sight of the fact that this is like Mary's opinion and this might not necessarily be cast in stone. At one point in the liars club I say, if my sister were writing this book, I would only be like crying, wetting my pants or biting somebody. So I really didn't like my mother's mother because she made my mother cry, but my sister loved my grandmother who I just really didn't like. But I don't think anybody reads the book and thinks, "Oh, Mary's really got the scoop on the grandmother." I think a lot of people think Mary just didn't like her grandmother, they had a disaffinity for each other. I mentioned if Lisa were writing this, she would say, "My grandmother was a great old Gao." So I feel obligated to mention that in passing. I don't feel obligated however to fully represent her point of view and to argue it. To say, this is what she thinks. So in that sense, you're saying the truth of your memory. So in every one of my books to some extent there's been a huge reversal in how I look at things. In Cherry for instance, I was writing about being an adolescent girl. I guess because I was sexually assault, I was raped when I was a little girl, I guess I thought when you can't really, you never really had any innocence to lose, you never could lose your innocence. But once I started writing about that time period, I realized regardless of what trauma I had gone through, I never lost my innocence. That, that really was never taken from me. So I meant the title as being ironic, but in fact, I think I discovered in the course of writing the book, an innocence that I had let myself believe I even really had. I found similar reversal inlet when I started trying to write about my baby daddy. I really represented him in this saintly way. I was like this drunken monster, like the bad mom in the after-school special. When I look for evidence of that, it is true that I mean when you're drinking, you're not such a good mom, that is absolutely true. But there was something fake about it. Then I rewrote it, and I rewrote all the times that he really irritated me. So I was righteous and he was the one who made the marriage fall apart. Then at a certain point, I realized I hadn't written about our really falling in love. So I started re-remembering meeting him, and how he looked to me, and floating on these inner tubes down this river in Vermont reciting poetry to each other. I re-remembered falling in love with him. It was so agonizingly painful. I realized and this is often put it as, you remember through who you are now. So I remembered my marriage through the filter of our divorce, but there was a lot of love there, and there was a lot of passion and tenderness, and we started learning how to write together, and we kept commonplace books together, and we recite poetry to each other. You realize that everybody thinks you're being brave when you're writing about some violent horrible thing. Here's what's brave. What's brave is writing about having your heartbroken, and going back to those moments of tenderness, of real aching tenderness for another person, knowing you're going to live past that moment and really disappoint each other. That's what's hard to write about, that's what takes a lot of guts. Another example would be to try to write something very dramatic that happened to you. I wouldn't say your trauma because I don't want anybody writing about a rape from the rapist point of view, you just don't need to go there. I don't want you to write about your mother's murder from the murderers point of view, we're not going to do that. But just a dramatic moment in your life, and try to write it from the other person's point of view. Ex-boyfriend, sister, grandparent, neighbor whatever, but some big dramatic scene in your book. Hence interrogate what would they have said happened. Again, I don't suggest that you represent their point of view in your memoir. I don't think you have to represent it in full length, but does it change at all? Anything about how you see what happened. Also interrogate your ideas. If you have an idea and you don't have a lot of memories attached to it, you might have made this idea up. In which case, the ideas we make up and then change in the course of writing the book, are really relevant to tell a reader. That's really, that's like a nugget of gold to give a reader, if in terms of showing your psychological state and the drama that's going on in your heart 8. Final Thoughts: So over seven years, I threw away 1200 pages and I actually broke the delete key of my computer. People don't believe that I broke the delete, that it was like a metaphor. Here is the actual delete key that I broke off my computer and I always say if I had any balls at all, I would make a brooch out of it so that everybody would know. So if you're frustrated and you're struggling, what you have to understand is that is normal, and that all those pages that your writing that you feel like they're no-good, probably aren't that good. Don't be afraid just you don't have to throw him out. Just get a box for them. Just set them to the side and keep rewriting and revising. So again, I know that I haven't given you the magic trick curb button that you can switch, but I hope I've given you a bunch of step to do. Just to go and try doing this stuff to try to get after it. But I just want to leave you with a couple of things. One is, it is hard and scary. One of the things I've suggested to people who are writing about really traumatic stuff is to try writing the traumatic scene, the one you're going to build up to, try writing that first. I say that because maybe you don't need to write this. I was lucky in that before I actually was able to write my first memoir, I had 20 years of therapy and a lot of conversation with my family and with different people, and none of the things I was writing about were really top secret or anything like that. So I just want you to take care of yourselves. I used to find when I was working on the stuff, that it was so exhausting. It doesn't have to be anything dramatic but just to really take care of yourself when you're working on this stuff, because it is emotionally very hard and very dramatic. If you're frustrated, that's normal. A lot of people feel like when they've written something, if it's marked up, if you go to your workshop or you show it to your friend or whatever, and they are teacher professor editor and they mark it up, it's something bad has happened, that you have made mistakes, mistakes were made. Try not to be scared that way. That's like an old thing that we all have in our heads from being in the third grade and not passing the test or whatever, getting all the red marks. Don't think of it that way. Try to approach it with curiosity. The other thing is, artists and painters and people like that, they can ruin a canvas. They can just ruin something. You can always go back. So don't be afraid to revise. Don't be scared. You're not going to ruin it. You're just going to try it a different way and see if the other way is better. The other thing I want to say is, just by looking at your life and reading and writing, you're a member of the city of ideas. You are a citizen in this world that every artist and every thinker for millennia. That's who you're in the room with you. We're all in this together trying to make sense of what it is to be a human being. It's a hard and kind of beautiful and noble thing for you to try to do. So be nice to yourself and you'll eventually get to the to the bottom of your truths. I really believe that. 9. Explore More Classes on Skillshare: [MUSIC]