What Would You Write If You Weren’t Afraid? Mary Karr on the Art of Memoir

September is always a great month for books and music, and this one is no […]

David Zahl / 9.4.15

tumblr_mztduzyQsw1tqzqc8o1_500September is always a great month for books and music, and this one is no exception. Among the many releases to be excited about is Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir. In celebration, I had planned to reference her 2009 interview with The Paris Review in a weekender, but then I (re-)read it, and Bam. Simply too many sections jumped out, both one-liners and extended exchanges with Amanda Fortini, the interviewer. They talk about writing, family, memory, addiction, God – what more could you ask for? Since she was working on the new book when their conversation took place (not to mention when she spoke at Mbird), presumably some of it made it into the manuscript. We shall see. In the meantime:

  • “If you don’t say what you mean in a readable way, you actually risk nothing.”
  • “It’s difficult to accept what your psyche or history dooms you to write, what Faulkner would call your postage stamp of reality. Young writers often mistakenly choose a certain vein or style based on who they want to be, unconsciously trying to blot out who they actually are. You want to escape yourself.”
  • “Writing about spiritual stuff for a secular audience is like doing card tricks on the radio.”
  • One reason for a surge in memoir is the gradual erosion of objective notions of truth, which makes stuff like assembled dialogue seem more acceptable. We mistrust the old forms of authority—the church and politicians, even science. The subjective has power now. You read how Robert McNamara fabricated body counts in Vietnam, how Nixon lied, then suddenly Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now or Michael Herr’s psychedelic experience in Dispatches has new authority. Not because it’s not corrupt, but because it admits its corruption.”
  • “My own bitterness and cynicism had to be pried away for the light to get in. The fury that I thought protected me from harm actually sealed me off from joy.”

Two longer exchanges:


Some writers say that taking mood stabilizers or antidepressants alters your perception. That the natural artistic self is the depressed self.


Depression makes you half alive—how does that shape a better writer? People have different ideas of what natural is. Since the romantics we’ve all been big fans of the natural, as though natural equals good. Shitting in your pants is natural, wanting to boink the pizza-delivery kid is natural. Stabbing people who get in front of you at the cafeteria line—that’s probably a natural impulse. Where do you draw the line between what’s good natural and what’s bad natural?


Do you have any writing rituals, things you have to do in order to write?


51t6fSiYWjL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I pray. I ask God what to write. I know that sounds insane, but I do. I say: What do you want me to say? I have a sense that God wanted these books written. That doesn’t mean they’re meant to be bestsellers. Nor am I hearing voices. But a lot of times I’ll get stuck and I’ll just say, Help me. A nonbeliever might think of it as talking to my superego, or some better self. But I do have a sense of being guided…

The best prayers are completely silent. Otherwise, I do a lot of begging. I just beg, beg, beg, beg like a dog, for myself and those I love. And I do the cursory, “If it’s your will . . .” but God knows that I want everything when I want it. He knows I’m selfish and want a zillion bucks and big tits and to be five-ten. So I’m not fooling him with that “If it’s your will” shit. The real prayer happens when I’m really desperate, like when I was going through a period of illness last year. Amazing what power there is in surrender to suffering. Most of my life I dodged it, or tried to drink it away—“it” being any reality that discomfited me…

A bit later:


…A priest once asked me a very smart question, which I’ve yet to answer, or have only answered in small increments: What would you write if you weren’t afraid? Prayer lessens fear. It reduces self-consciousness, so I attend to the work and kind of forget myself. It’s strange, though—I know praying a steady hour a day would make me a happier human unit, but I don’t do it. Do you know why?




Me neither. It’s like, Why not floss every day? I think it’s because my big smart mind likes the idea that it’s running the show, and any conscious contact with God plugs me into my own radical powerlessness.


What do you feel when you pray?


When I feel God, it’s quiet. I can’t hear anything—it’s like balancing in air in some vast, windless space. If I’m trying to discern God’s will, I’ll feel a leaning sensation toward what I’m supposed to do. Like a dowser’s wand. It’s a solid tug. Even if that direction is scary for me—like refusing the first offers for Lit, or like the writing of it was. There’ll be quiet around it. This takes days, sometimes weeks. The trick is not to act until you have a solid leaning, and not to obsess until you get that—really give the problem up, in a way. You might say you leave it to your intuition. I say I leave it to the Holy Spirit. The God-centered choices tend to stay solidly quiet.

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3 responses to “What Would You Write If You Weren’t Afraid? Mary Karr on the Art of Memoir”

  1. Patricia F. says:

    In May, I watched a YouTube video of Mary Karr delivering the Commencement Address at Syracuse University. This interview sounds a lot like Ms. Karr’s remarks: funny, and yet very insightful. I hope the SU grads got as much out of her remarks as I did.

  2. J Thompson says:

    Wow. She truly described my prayer life!

  3. […] at the moment. At the core of the book lies a Gospel question if ever there was one, namely, “What would you write [do/say/be] if you weren’t afraid?” – David […]

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