Don’t Be Afraid

On page 248 of her memoir, LIT, Mary Karr shares a note she received from friend and former teacher, Tobias Wolff.  She taped it over her desk.

Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruit … Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed … Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else.  Take no care for your dignity.  Those were hard things for me to come by, and I offer them to you for what they may be worth.

This memoir business — the writing of memoir, I mean — is not for everyone.  Pointing that hot magnifying glass inward, feeling your own fingers type out your pettiness, your most shallow thoughts, things you would never even want to tell a shrink, is at once paralyzing and scary as all hell.  I was working away this morning when, as often happens, I got teary-eyed scared.  Of myself.  And it occurred to me that maybe I could tape that Tobias Wolff letter over my desk, too.

Thank you, Mary Karr, for sharing.


13 thoughts on “Don’t Be Afraid

  1. josephinecarr

    Yeah. well.


    I keep thinking about Samuel Pepys DIARY, written with no intention of being read. We so have that intention, and it’s our largest block.

    We simply shouldn’t care, yet we do.

    Good post.

  2. Lyra

    Tape it across your desk.

    I read this note twice. The first time I inserted “others”, as in “Don’t be afraid of others appearing angry, small-minded…” and I thought what a perfect quote for you after someone had gone too far in their critique of you or your work (you didn’t go into detail so forgive my filling in my own blanks. As you know, bad habit).

    Tape it, and feel free to insert “others”.

  3. erikamarks

    You know, Teri, I still struggle with the idea of not being afraid to reveal as a fiction writer. I think no matter if we write memoir, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, whatever it may be, it will always be a reflection of who we are and how and why we think the way we do. As it should be. Heck, why do this if we’re representing someone else’s muse, I suppose. Still there is sometimes great hesitation–either after we’ve put something on the page or while it idles in our head and our fingers hover above the keys.

  4. Sandra Bell Kirchman

    For all that I am an extrovert, there are some things about my life that I simply could not reveal in a memoir, no matter what I had taped across my desk. However, I could reveal them under the guise of fiction…and the comforting conviction that what people read is merely fiction and not a deeper reflection of me.

    That last thought is fiction itself, and I know it, but it lets me write things that, as I said, I could not write any other way.

  5. amyg

    lit was one of those books that scared me away from writing in the sense of, “how do you compete with that?!”

    i imagine her and franzen, and at one time, one of her loves DFW, sitting at the table of real writers–and me peeping in the window not even allowed in the same building.

    sorry, i’m being all melancholy and self-pity-ing. it’s a nasty state of affairs when i start saying things like, “i’ll never be as good as that.”

    1. Teri Post author

      AmyG, I think this about every other book I read. Well, it seems that way sometimes. I’ll be reading along — Sophie’s Choice, In Cold Blood, The Liar’s Club — and think, Damn! But then I have to kick myself back into reality and think that if I *never* did anything because someone else did it better, I’d never get off the couch. Perspective.

  6. MacDougal Street Baby

    Yes, I agree with you. Memoir writing is not for everyone. It certainly takes a level of vulnerability that other forms of writing do not require. On the flip side, it is this state of being that can produce the most creativity. I know for myself that when I am being the most open with the world and allowing others to see me in all of my many complex forms, I feel the most alive or connected and it’s at this point when I suddenly produce my best work. Brene Brown comes to mind. I remember her saying in one of her TED talks, vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity. So so true.

    1. Teri Post author

      You’re right, MSB — the level of exposure and vulnerability required can be overwhelming, but it’s also the crux of what makes memoir work.

    2. Lyra

      When I saw Jonathan Franzen being interviewed, he made this point really well. He said that when he’s really uncomfortable with what he’s writing, that’s when he knew to dig. His discomfort was his sign that he was onto something. The hard part, of course, is not running away screaming when you get there.

  7. Laura

    I can’t imagine what memoirists go through. I’ve only written a few short personal essay pieces (that have not seen the light of day as of yet) and the writing process was draining. And a little scary. One of my writing buddies is working on a wonderful memoir and I can see the struggle/vulnerability she goes through.

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