Setting The Memoir Table

The Dining Room in Carter Library

Last night I hosted Book Club and man was I worried as I set that table — I’d picked Mary Karr’s LIT and I was certain they were either going to (a) hate the book, (b) not bother finishing it, or even worse (c) hate Mary Karr.  My god, what was I going to DO if they hated my Mary Karr?!

Like most of my totally irrational fears, this one didn’t pan out.  I won’t say everyone loved LIT, but they liked it well enough and pretty much everyone finished — except for one, who’s Kindle died right in the middle of reading — and I was thrilled with the discussion it prompted.  I’m not sure we’ve ever discussed a book where so many of us could quote from the book without opening it.  How about that mother saying, “I’m a lot of fun to be with.”  Or how she was such a “sneaky bitch.”  Remember that woman from AA who kept her Vokda in a turkey carcass in the freezer and, when she couldn’t midwife it out one night, just tipped up the whole bird!  Or that guy who blew himself up because he needed a cigarette and forgot the stove gas was on from when he tried to kill himself.

Insert ROUSING LAUGHTER all over the place …  Funny how funny tragedy can be.  My Mary Karr, bless her, does this better than anyone.  I worship at her altar.

Since we don’t read many memoirs in this Book Club, I decided to use some of my favorite tell-alls as the table decor.  Note THE LIARS CLUB right there in front, and also Kathryn Harrison’s THE KISS (also the topic today over at Betsy’s) to the right of it.  THE KISS has been a favorite since the first time I got my hands on it.  It’s a small book with big print and the craziest damned story — sparsely and achingly told — the kind of story you read in one sitting.  I’ve read it no less than 5 times.  I even wrote a paper about in grad school (what a study in structure, voice, the not naming of names, etc…).  Harrison’s prose is no less than brilliant.  But I can’t for the life of me get anyone to read this book.  I tried to sell it again last night but, as usual, no one was buying.

What am I doing wrong?  (aside from trying to shove it like a stick of dynamite into everyone’s purse and then hover over them while they read every last word)  If you want to read some excellent interviews with Kathryn Harrison, here’s her website.  I love her matter-of-fact answers.  And in light of James Frey coming back into view with his latest Oprah interview, you might find Kathyrn’s answer to this question worth its weight:

Q: Your 1997 memoir, The Kiss, is a stunning look at father-daughter incest, and feels quite confessional. How do you incorporate translation when writing about your own life?

KH: I teach memoir writing, so I’ll answer as both a writer and as a teacher. We’re very aware right now of writers like James Frey or Augusten Burroughs being accused of fabricating too much to call what they write memoir, and a lot of my students are anxious about how strictly faithful a writer must be to factual truth. My feeling is, if you’re doing your best to tell the truth, it will be evident in your work. I was asked to blurb James Frey’s book, so I read it before all the controversy, but immediately I responded to the book as an exercise in self-mythologizing rather than memoir. Memoir, to me, is anti-narcissistic; it leans towards discomfort; it relies on self-scrutiny. If a writer is engaged in that process he or she is being faithful to the idea of truth and honesty. Truth is not a destination but a direction; it never has a capital T, not if you’re mortal. A lot of how a book reads has to do with the writer’s agenda; if your agenda is to reveal yourself honestly, then your narrative will read that way, no matter if every detail is factually accurate or not. I think text is more transparent than people assume. 

Keep reading.  I promise not to hover.  Much.

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18 thoughts on “Setting The Memoir Table

  1. Averil Dean

    I will out myself and admit that I very rarely read memoir. It’s not that I object to the subject matter, the darkness or the realism. It’s . . . it’s . . .

    I’m a writer lost for words. Why don’t I read memoir? In the end, I suppose it’s just a personal preference for fiction, and nothing more than that.

    1. Teri Post author

      Averil, I need to read more fiction. In fact, I’m taking a recommendation that Lyra made yesterday and jumping into a great, all made up, story!

  2. lisahgolden

    Okay, now I really want to read The Kiss. I have a friend who’s been struggling with a memoir about incest at the hands of her stepfather. It’s been at least four years that I know of that she’s been working on it. I’m going to ask her if she’s read The Kiss.

    I think the subject is one that people are intensely uncomfortable with, but sometimes the best stories are the ones that shake us to our core precisely because they make us uncomfortable.

    I’m so glad for you that Mary Karr was well received. Oh to be that funny and introspective at the same time.

  3. Lyra

    1. I want to hang out in that wondrous room surrounded by those books and talk all night long.

    2. Books as centerpiece/table art. Love.

    3.I can’t make out the books that you picked to display? What are they and did you pick those because thy’re your favorites or the most accessible for people who are new to memoir? Or did you pick the prettiest :)?

    1. Teri Post author

      I tried to pick books that might interest them. And also a variety of writer-types and subject-matter. You have to admit though, THE LIARS CLUB sure is pretty with it’s bright red cover. 🙂

  4. Downith

    I have to admit, after reading Betsy today I would not have wanted to read it, but the links you provided might just change my mind.

    On a lighter note, love the table setting – how do you get your napkins to stay like that!

    1. Teri Post author

      The Betsy comments are fascinating because they almost follow the lines of what people in general think of this book. I know what struck me the most was the way she decided to tell it. It’s the most sparse prose I think I’ve ever seen.

      As for the napkins, that’s their newness showing. Never been unfolded! I promise you they will never look like that again.

  5. macdougalstreetbaby

    Oh, how I would love to be part of your book club!!! And, yes, I definitely have put The Kiss on my TO READ list. Who knows why certain stories move us? I’m not much of a chick lit person but I loved these series of books by Emily Giffin (Baby Proof, Something Borrowed, Something Blue) but a close relative of mine hated them. I was really offended. You would have thought I had written them!

    1. Teri Post author

      My dear MSB: Step. Away. From the Italics. How does this happen to you? And actually I’m a little jealous because I can’t italicize anything when I’m commenting on people’s blogs (hence all the screaming all-caps…)

  6. Sherry Stanfa-Stanley

    You don’t want me in your book club. I’m the one who LOVED “Let the Great World Spin,” remember?

    I read much more fiction than I do memoir. I prefer escape to reality most of the time.

    But after reading Betsy’s blog post, and now this, I am putting “The Kiss” on my TBR list.

    We do have our own little book club, in a cyber-sort-of-way. Thanks for continuing to share!

  7. Laura

    I’m kind of embarrassed to say that I still haven’t read LIT even though it’s on my list. Yesterday, when I was still in Portland, I saw it at Powell’s and totally thought of you. I actually picked up a copy and carried it around for about 20 minutes, but sadly, I soon had a dozen books in my arms and I just knew my suitcase couldn’t handle that many for the trip home. LIT went back on the shelf, but only because I *knew* I’d follow through and get it from the library very soon. I also haven’t read The Kiss yet. I so need to get on this! I really value your book suggestions, so no hovering necessary. 🙂

  8. amyg

    teri, when we all finally sit down for our first official writers group meeting (in person), your job’s going to be setting up the table/room. for sure.

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