Edward Short’s review of Mary Karr’s Lit (which I also reviewed here), contains a few paragraphs very relevant to all memoir writers. I invite you to read the complete review here. Short’s insights are brilliant.

Here are the four most relevant paragraphs to our concerns as we seek to understand the power of memoir to go beyond the telling of the events of a single life:

“There are many brilliant memoirists with Karr’s mordant comedic gifts — one thinks of Ford Madox Ford, Osbert Sitwell, Gwen Raverat, and Lorna Sage — but there is only one who has Karr’s profound sense of sin, charged with an even greater understanding of love, and that is the granddaddy of all memoirists, the man who invented the genre: St. Augustine.
‘Rest in [God] and you will be at rest,’ St. Augustine says in the Confessions in a passage that describes the arduous mission of the Catholic autobiographer.
Where are you going to along rough paths? What is the goal of your journey? The good which you love is from him. But it is only as it is related to him that it is good and sweet. Otherwise it will justly become bitter; for that comes from him is unjustly loved if he has been abandoned. With that end in view do you again and again walk along difficult and laborious paths (Wisdom 5:7)? There is no rest where you seek for it . . . .
These are the paths that Karr has mapped out with a cartographer’s precision, and what makes the latest installment of her memoirs so powerful is that it incorporates her discovery of what St. Augustine discovered in Milan in the fourth century, with the help of St. Ambrose. ‘He who for us is life itself descended here and endured death and slew it by the abundance of his life. In a thunderstorm voice he called us to return to him, at that secret place where he came forth to us.’ Karr’s latest memoir can be read as a kind of listening to this voice. Like T. S. Eliot, she attends very closely to what the thunder said.”
Memoir readers: What role does sin and confession play in the memoir today? If you have read Lit, do you agree with Short’s reading?
Memoir writers: T or F: Acknowledging sin helps the writer avoid two problems with voice– the whiny victim or the smug satisfaction of the proud achiever.

Shirley Showalter


  1. Susan Cushman on February 5, 2010 at 1:37 am

    As a memoir reader AND writer (8 personal essays published, book-length memoir in progress) I agree with Short–if you don't come clean, your writing will be contrived, or as you say, “whiny or smug.” Confession brings healing and relief from anger. “Lit” is my all-time favorite memoir, and it's obvious that Karr faced down her demons before she wrote it. Other greats? “Dry” by Augusten Burroughs, “The Unbreakable Child” by Kim Michelle Richardson, “A Girl Named Zippy” by Haven Kimmel, and “Faith, Eventually” by Anne Lamott.

  2. shirleyhs on February 5, 2010 at 2:03 am

    Susan, thanks so much for this comment. It's so great to find people here who found me on Twitter and vice versa. I need to spend more time on your blog, obviously. We have much in common. I've written about 40 years of marriage, have grown children, and attempt to follow Christ in my daily life. I also think Lit is one of the best memoirs I have ever read. Did you catch the list of Karr's own top 11 memoirs in a previous post here? I will be blogging about them. I'll also be looking out for your tweets and posts! Thanks for starting what I hope will be a longer conversation.

  3. jerrywaxler on February 8, 2010 at 2:49 am

    As for confession, I found Frank McCourt's “Angela's Ashes” to be a sort of giant confession. Towards the end of the book he sits with a priest. When he refuses to enter the confessional, the priest says in effect “let's just sit here and you can tell me your story. It will make you feel better.” He tells the priest, and incidentally also tells us, and presumably in the telling he shares his load. A friend of mine who grew up on a farm says, Firewood heats you twice, first when you cut it and second when you burn it. Memoirs are like that. They relieve you when you write, and then when you share. JerryMemory Writers Network

  4. richardgilbert on February 8, 2010 at 7:07 am

    So glad you called our attention to this. I think that confession in the sense of speaking the truth is vital. It takes courage and isn't trivial. And a sense of sin in the sense that anything which diminishes or takes for granted the gift of life is a sin—unhappiness is a sin. Not in the religious way, but in the truly spiritual. Perhaps because I've just blogged on Kierkegaard such things are on my mind, but I feel that more than these forgiveness is the sine qua non of memoir as it is of life. I find this aspect implicit in what you have quoted concerning Karr's work. And from what I have read of her, she can be angry but isn't bitter, because of forgiveness. I admire her for that.

  5. whollyjeanne on February 8, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    well, huh. i picked up “lit” again last thursday . . . and, for unrecognized reasons, put it back on the shelf (again). as for your t/f question, my answer is t. drawing from my life and the lives of others, i have written personal histories and memoirs, and my thesis in grad school focused on autoethnography. whether reading or writing, i prefer those in which the author flat-out owns their life, finding it cleaner somehow, cutting through that snivelly, whiney, woe-is-me, wallowing voice.

  6. Susan Cushman on February 8, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    Karr does just what you prefer: she “flat out owns her life” and there is no sniveling, whining or wallowing. I wonder what that “unrecognized reason” is that you put the book back on the shelf?

  7. whollyjeanne on February 8, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    don't think that's the reason cause i loved cherry and liar – especially liar in which some of the things weren't true, but karr refused to tell which ones aren't true and successfully argued for it to remain a memoir instead of going onto the fiction shelf. i think it has more to do with it being a hardback, and since i do most of my reading at bedtime, i usually wait till the paperbacks come out because hardback books can become lethal weapons when i doze off and they meet with my nose;) after leaving my comment earlier this morning, i clicked over to my local library and reserved lit. will just make sure i read during the awake and upright hours.

  8. whollyjeanne on February 8, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    well, red-faced jeanne here to say that when i read susan's comment out loud, i realize i misread it before. susan, i thought you were pondering IF karr's flat-out honest writing was my unrecognized reason. now i see you asked WHAT that unrecognized reason is. so i've answered, to the best of my knowledge, it'll just sound a little wonky without this context.

  9. shirleyhs on February 8, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    I love this interpretation of Angela's Ashes. And I hope I can remember the quote about firewood heating you twice. Memoir is definitely like that. We get to live many lives if we can reflect on them deeply and at different stages of live.

  10. shirleyhs on February 10, 2010 at 12:53 am

    Enjoyed your post on Kierkegaard and added your blog to my blogroll. (Thanks for adding mine to yours.) I quite agree about forgiveness. Have you ever written at length about that subject?

  11. shirleyhs on February 10, 2010 at 12:59 am

    I love when readers start talking to each other! Reminds me of the times in class when I could just sit back and watch the class carry the conversation forward on their own. Hope you can read Lit without any permanent damage to your nose, whollyjeanne.

  12. whollyjeanne on February 10, 2010 at 1:20 am

    thanks for letting us crash at your place, shirley.

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