Monday, November 12, 2018

"A stubborn little bulldog of a reviser"

Thinking memoir these days - Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir was helpful not least because of how much it encourages you to write bad pages in the wrong voice first and worry later about how it is all going to come right! "Carnality" is her term for what makes memoir come alive - can you feel it through the five senses? My own personal carnality (yes, of course there are sounds and smells and colors as well) is overwhelmingly in words and ideas....

Some highlights:
Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice…. The secret to any voice grows from a writer’s finding a tractor beam of inner truth about psychological conflicts to shine the way. While an artist consciously constructs a voice, she chooses its elements because they’re natural expressions of character. So above all, a voice has to sound like the person wielding it—the super-most interesting version of that person ever—and grow from her core self…. However you charm people in the world, you should do so on the page.

A memoirist’s nature—the self who shapes memory’s filter—will prove the source of her talent. By talent, I mean not just surface literary gifts, though those are part of the package, but life experiences, personal values, approach, thought processes, perceptions, and innate character.
There's a good account of why Karr couldn’t write the story of her childhood in the form of a novel, and how and why The Liars' Club only came to life when she admitted that it had to be nonfiction (I heard Robert Polito tell this story, they were in the same writing group during those years, but it is nice to have a citable version from the author herself!). Maybe the most useful stretch for teaching would be Chapter 14: “Personal Run-Ins with Fake Voices.”

Karr writes extremely well about the psychological shift she experiences, with each book project, of finally finding the right voice: “The images in my head suddenly had words representing them on the page. And accompanying the words was a state of consciousness. It almost felt like I’d walked into some inner room where my lived experiences could pass through and come out as language.” Her sequel thought (and why she is a memoirist rather than a novelist, this wouldn't be true for many writers of fiction): “If the voice worked as a living contract with the reader, it also strangely bound me to candor. To make stuff up would somehow have broken the spell the voice cast over me.”

She is also particularly good on revision:
I always circle my own stories, avoiding the truth like a pooch staked to a clothesline pole, spiraling closer and closer with each revision till—with each book—my false self finally lines up eye to eye with the true one.

On the most basic level, bad sentences make bad books. Poet Robert Hass taught me you can rewrite a poem by making every single line better. I revise and revise and revise. Any editor of mine will tell you how crappy my early drafts are. Revisions are about clarifying and evoking feelings in the reader in the same way they were once evoked in me.

... other than a few instances of luck, good work only comes through revision ....

... those early pages I threw away were somehow necessary, even if I wrote past them. They were way stations I needed to visit to eliminate them from the final itinerary.

For me, the last 20 percent of a book’s improvement takes 95 percent of the effort—all in the editing. I can honestly say not one page I’ve ever published appears anywhere close to how it came out in the first draft. A poem might take sixty versions. I am not much of a writer, but I am a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser.

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