Tag Archives: Lit

FTF

Shhhh.  This blog is still on holiday, but I have to thank those of you who gathered up to send me this.

God knows I love fountain pens, and if you could feel this one — this one! — in your hand and see the ink on the page …. pure writerly pleasure, that’s what it is.  My scribbles don’t look so scribbly.  Y’all are spoiling me.

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I’ve always felt my real teachers are other writers (all of you included), and I spent Friday and Satruday with a couple of favorites:  Joan Didion and Mary Karr.

Since I just read Didion’s BLUE NIGHTS, I watched her latest Charlie Rose interview.  I also fired up her clip with Charlie from 15 years ago, in 1996.  Watching the 2 back-to-back taught me much … and broke my heart.  If you’re feeling your inner student, you can find her master class here, along with a montage of other Writers On Writing.

If you’re working on a memoir and feeling sassy, or even if you just need to shore up your courage (and who doesn’t?), here’s the Mary Karr interview.

The two lines I needed to hear most today?

1.  After saying she threw away the first 2,000 pages (two thousand!) of her last memoir, LIT, the interviewer asked her why.  Her simple answer:  It was boring!

2.  Her advice to newer writers:  Never show your work to anyone unit you think it’s finished.

And now … I’m off to work toward FTF.

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* Comments for this post have been turned off.  Enjoy the rest of 2011.

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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.

Sassafras, or Maybe Just Sass

I’m all wound up today, throwing around all manner of four-letter words and waving my hands in the air when I talk.  All I can think about is sass, sass, sass.  So of course I went looking for more…

#1  —  James Baldwin, from his 1984 Paris Review interview, when asked about recognizing talent in a writer:  “Talent is insignificant.  I know a lot of talented ruins.  Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”

#2 —  William Faulkner, from his 1956 Paris Review interview, when asked if he’s under any obligation to his reader:  “I myself am too busy to care about the public.  I have no time to wonder who is reading me.  I don’t care about John Doe’s opinion on my work or anyone else’s.”

Sometimes I read these interviews, and I wonder what they’re really wanting to say, what they’re holding back, whether they want to just say this is all a bunch of %&*#@!^(!*$^.  I didn’t, however, think this about the Faulkner piece.  If you have a chance, read the whole thing.  It’s a hoot.  At one point, the Interviewer tells him, Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they have read it two or three times.  What approach would you suggest for them?  To which Faulkner says:  “Read it four times.”

#3 —  I chose a book I love — Mary Karr’s LIT — for my May book club.  I was downright giddy with pleasure when I did it.  The next day, another Mary Karr devotee said basically this:  Oh no no no.  I worship at the Marr Karr altar and, therefore, could never do that.  What if they hated it?!?!  

Well, sister, it’s going to happen.  I hear the train coming.  And I’ll just have to bite down on a big bar of Ivory soap and survive it.  Today one of my bookclubbers sent me an e-mail:  “I’m about 1/2 way through.  Does it ever get happy?”  To which I wrote back:  “I’m not big on happy books.  I like the survival-of-life stuff.”

Better get that bar of soap out and keep it at the ready.


But What Is It About?

Looking up in Barcelona: What is this?

We had book club this week.  And sadly, once again, I did not finish the book.  Heck, I barely even started it (100 pages into Wally Lamb’s 700 page THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED).  I’m usually the snob who raises her hackles at those who don’t read the books.  Why be in a book club then? I think.  Not reading the book is rude, like when somebody gives you a nice gift and you don’t bother with a thank you.  I’m disappointed in me.

Everyone who finished the book loved it, but they also said you needed to “get past the Columbine stuff” and 150 pages before it kicked in.  So I guess I can blame myself for a lack of stick-to-it-ness, or no attention span.  I just kept thinking, What in the world is this about? and then I put the book down, threw up my hands, and gave up.

Onward.

It’s my turn to host book club for May, which also means I picked our next book:  LIT, a memoir by Mary Karr.  We don’t really read memoirs in this group, so it will be, well, interesting.  I’ve read it twice, and listened to it on audio a few times as well; that’s how much I love the story and the way only Mary Karr can tell it.  Yet, when I tried to describe what it’s about to that roomful of book-clubbers, I had a hard time.  So I sent them this great video:

Inside my head, the proverbial light bulb flashed:  I also have a hard time stating, succinctly, what my own WIP is about.  What’s your book about? people ask (seeming truly interested) and then I gawk at them with the blankest of blank faces while I struggle to spit out something unintelligible.  Watching this Mary Karr video over and over again is helping me find my words.

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.

Listening to “Lit”

Listening to Mary Karr read Lit, her latest memoir, might well be one of the best book-listening experiences of 2010.  As usual, I’ve already read the book — the minute it came out — and raced through it, sad to see it come to an end.  The Texas-swagger in her voice paired with the poetry of the prose just about knocks me right over.  And in typical Mary Karr fashion, the story is crazy-compelling.  As Mary would say, ” I shit you not.”

If you’re looking for an audio book, download Lit from iTunes and listen.  I double-dog dare you.  You can thank me later.