Friday, October 28, 2011

Beyond FLY-BY: Decoding Mary Karr

Poet and best-selling memoirist (THE LIARS’ CLUB, CHERRY, LIT) Mary Karr was recently in Denver for a Lighthouse Writers Workshop Writer’s Studio weekend that included an interview and Q&A, an after-dinner pep talk and fundraising push (“Pony up and ride, y’all”) for Lighthouse, then a Sunday morning seminar. Each event was packed with local writers and Mary Karr fans, some of whom were already familiar with her biting wit, acidic dark humor, self-effacing tendencies, and ferociously blunt Texan take on life.

I wasn’t, but I sure am now:

On family: “We’re all hell-damned via those we love or even with whom we share our DNA.”

The reverse of this hits home when I consider the main character of my novel-in-progress, who’s not only struggling to parent despite her own parents’ shaky examples but fears hurting those she loves through her own mistakes.

On her son: “I was protective of my son when LIT came out but CHERRY was harder because he was in junior high.”

Her son is now a film-maker at Blind Spot Studios.

On writing: “Every great work of art is about trying to love somebody.”

I’m plowing through THE LIARS’ CLUB; this quote brings to mind the portrait Mary Karr’s mother painted of her own mother.

Quoted Lorrie Moore as saying “Life is a field of corn and literature is all that corn distilled into a shot glass.”

“Those things you avoid writing about lead to ‘of course’ moments. And when you discover that, you go back to the beginning and readjust.”

“Create an emotional experience, create characters that readers will want to follow whether they like them or not.”

“Refuse to write a boring book with your name on it.”

Against decorative writing: “Decorative writing leads to absence of emotion in the reader and a lack of clarity.”

“I like poems that reward further study.”

“I love John Ashbery but despise his work.”

“What matters, as the French Symbolist poets of the nineteenth century said, is the aroma of the poem.”

On listening, and not, to the advice of those smarter than you: “In the middle of writing the fifteenth version of LIT I was heartbroken. Don DeLillo sent me a postcard that said ‘Write or Die.’ I sent him a postcard that said ‘Write and Die.’”

“I was told by [poet] Etheridge [Knight]: ‘You’re not a preacher, you’re a singer. Your dad keeps knocking but you won’t let him in.’ I had to stop trying to make a representation of myself to others.”

On great non-fiction: Mary’s list of top 100 non-fiction titles, written in 2009 for Modern Library.

On lousy non-fiction: Said some memoirists use “gimmicks to impress” and “get confidence and comfort by not dealing with who they are.”

“You can’t run away from who you are.”

“You can’t run fast and loose with the truth.”

On INFINITE JEST: “It’s a big book guys in short black jackets in New York carry around.”

“David Foster Wallace was a great plot master and sense-by-sense master, but I don’t want to reread INFINITE JEST ever.”

On writing a memoir: “You remember through the lens of who you are now.”

“Protect your pages. It’s not about their view of what happened. You probably had strapped onto your head their view your whole damn life.”

“Be suspect of your interpretations. Lies of interpretation happen. I don’t label, I don’t speculate how others felt. I speculate on interpretations.”

“Analyze your opinions of others. Provide details. Ask why. Write what you know, identify speculation. Don’t feel obliged to represent [another’s opinion of what happened] but if it’s directly opposite to yours, feel obliged to note it.”

“Poke at your assumptions to break through. All writers fail when they lie. Give three-dimensional evidence. Put the vision on the page.”

“People read memoirs based on voice. If they like the narrator or are fascinated by the voice they’ll keep reading. [Each of my books] has suspense due to a narrative through-line that was discovered during writing.”

“You have to change within the book.”

“It’s not about how you feel, redeeming yourself, or getting even.”

She suggested if you want to get even you should carry a shotgun. And then she told the story of how Mississippi novelist Richard Ford once used his shotgun to get even when sent a book to review. The book was by an author who’d given one of his books a bad review, so he put it on his front porch, shot a hole in it, and sent it back.

“Just be honest. Tell the reader what you’re doing because you will be busted.”

On discipline: “When writing LIT I did nothing but write Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, no phone, email…I didn’t even answer the door. No social events. My fiancé would go to the opening of an envelope. I had to cut myself off, give myself nowhere to go.”

“Stay inside. You will write something. Some days two sentences. Good days six pages, lucky days seven pages. I had a weekly aggregate and when I reached my goal I could take a hot bath—I love hot baths, baptism every time. Massages. I treat myself well. I treat myself like a mental patient. Good food in the house. Yoga Thursday and Friday or daily mass Thursday and Friday, or I’d go see my shrink.”

On church: “What brings you back is the simple faith of the people. Awe in others, moving reminders that we’re like other people.” Then she added she really thinks of everyone else as “traffic,” usually just in her way.

“The American religion is doubt. Whoever believes the least, wins.”

On inspiration: “I am never interested and inspired. I’m interested and inspired by a seven-figure check. I’m in this for the money.” She then added she wouldn’t be in Denver if she hadn’t been paid to be there, adding she’d rather be home “shopping for a new Thanksgiving table.”

On why she writes: “I told my friend Lorrie Moore: ‘I don’t like writing, reading, touring, speaking, so why am I a writer?’ And she said ‘Because you like having written.’”

On what motivates her: When “I forget to feel my butt in the chair. That thoughtlessness.”

“As an adult, spiritual healing helps me see myself. [Writing is] cathartic but not revelationary. I enjoy that power of resurrection.”

On Lighthouse: “I see writing as necessary, life-saving, essential for a city’s circulation system. Lighthouse—its openness, its support—it’s an amazing thing that’s made out of air. Essentially an affordable university and it’s very impressive. You’re essentially creating that’s branching out to hospitals, the elderly, young people, the disenfranchised, and you’re saving lives.”

“‘Fail better’ as Samuel Beckett said. [Writers need] the presence of a community to support us in that enterprise.”

On poetry: Mentioned Poetry Fix, short talks on specific poems that can be viewed on her YouTube channel.

Quoted “The First Step” by Constantine Cavafy and the haunting “There Was Earth Inside Them” by Paul Celan.

“I write poetry to have that connection to great poets. It’s sustenance for me.”

And I attend Lighthouse Writer’s Studio and Fly-By Writer’s Project weekends to have that connection to great writers like Mary Karr, Alexi Zentner, Robin Black, Colson Whitehead, Tobias Wolff, Lorrie Moore. It’s sustenance for me.


Blogger Melissa Taylor said...

sounds inspiring!

9:18 AM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

Definitely, M! Love your photo! :)

9:23 AM  
Blogger JDiego said...

Excellent recap. Thanks for catching all those great MK quotes.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

You're welcome, J.D.! She had a lot of them!

1:36 PM  

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