Mary Karr — The Master of Memoir on Creative Process and Finding Gifts in the Suffering (#479)

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For me, the solution to fear is curiosity and presence. I can’t be terrified and curious at the same time.

— Mary Karr

Mary Karr (@marykarrlit) is the author of three award-winning, bestselling memoirs: The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit. She is also the author of The Art of Memoir, which lays bare her own process as she breaks down the craft of memoir, and Tropic of Squalor, her latest volume of poetry.

A Guggenheim fellow in poetry, Karr has won Pushcart Prizes for both verse and essays. Other grants include the Whiting Award, PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and a Radcliffe/Bunting Institute Fellowship. Karr is also the Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University.

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Want to hear another episode with a writer who isn’t afraid to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable? Listen to my conversation with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk in which we discuss maintaining surface tension in a story, making people faint with words, the therapeutic application of dangerous writing, cross-cultural explorations of mythology, and much more.


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  • Mary elaborates on an excellent, real-life illustration of why she became a memoirist sharing her life growing up in what she calls “The Ringworm Belt.” [04:40]
  • What does Mary consider to be the catalyst for expressing herself in the way she does and publishing it to the world? [06:59]
  • On the role that reading played for young Mary. [10:13]
  • What was the feeling that elicited Mary’s desire to become a poet when she was five or six years old — even though she’d never met one? [13:04]
  • “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” seems to be graffiti artist Banksy’s 21st-century adaptation of the Cesar A. Cruz 1997 poem title “To Comfort The Disturbed, and to Disturb the Comfortable: Onward Children of the Sun,” which was apparently modified from humorist Finley Peter Dunne’s 1902 sarcastic media critique that stated: “Th’ newspaper…comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable.” [17:07]
  • As a high school dropout, how did Mary weasel her way into college, and what was it about the environment that turned her from someone who got a D in art her senior year to an A student in college? [17:57]
  • How Mary, even after leaving the place where she’d gone through so much trauma, brought the darkness with her wherever she went. [22:22]
  • With up to 1,200 applications submitted for 12 positions, how is it decided who gets into Mary’s hyper-selective graduate seminar at Syracuse University? [26:06]
  • What does the first day of this class look like, and what is it designed to illustrate about the way we process the memories that build our memoirs? [29:10]
  • Another effective, memorable exercise: writing down beautiful pieces of language one might encounter in a commonplace book, and maybe helping others in need keep an eye out for door number three when the first two seem unnecessarily rash. [35:02]
  • Having grown up in an atheistic household, what is the importance and utility of prayer in Mary’s life today? What part did it play in helping her maintain sobriety? [39:09]
  • Now Catholic, what do the Ignatian exercises mean to Mary? How do they help her remain mindful of the everyday experiences for which she’s grateful — like the feeling she gets from seeing Steve Kornacki delivering election updates on MSNBC? [52:28]
  • Obligatory Texas talk about weaponry and hunting. [58:49]
  • In what kind of forge did Mary’s unique wordsmithing come to be? [1:02:24]
  • On rough drafts, the process of revision, and tapping into past memories for storytelling grist. [1:10:22]
  • When dredging up past memories is painful and draining, what does Mary do to cope with it all, and why does writing about it seem to be such a different experience from expressing it in some other way? [1:18:52]
  • At 65, why does Mary feel the happiest she’s ever been, and what advice would she give her younger self about therapy? [1:22:34]
  • What type of therapy has been most effective for Mary (and what’s been the least)? [1:26:04]
  • Mary’s solution to fear, and how getting through an uncomfortable time can be like having a trick knee or trying to quit smoking. [1:30:16]
  • We don’t always recognize the gifts we’re given by suffering through disappointing and difficult times until long after the fact. [1:35:37]
  • What would Mary’s billboard say? [1:44:19]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:45:21]


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