Book Review: The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

The Art of Memoir By Mary KarrMary Karr’s newly released The Art of Memoir couldn’t have arrived at a better time for me.

As bestselling author of The Liar’s Club, Cherry and Lit, and teacher of the form for thirty years, I couldn’t wait to devour her latest creation.

Written for both the “wannabe memoirist” and “general reader”, Karr’s passion for the reading, writing and teaching of her craft bursts through the door of every chapter.

As she tells her students:

“Listen up. I’m a passionate, messy teacher. I give a rat’s ass, and my sole job is to help students fall in love with what I already worship, which means, I show you stuff I’ve read that I can’t live without.”

(An extensive list of all the memoirs she has both read and taught stretches over five pages at the back of the book and had me gawping in awe.)

And this is what you get as you read on: a forthright, honest and in-your-face lesson as Karr pulls no punches, cutting to the chase by revealing the true nature of a memoirist:

“Unless you’re a doubter and a worrier, a nail biter, an apologizer, a rethinker, then memoir may not be your playpen. That’s the quality I’ve found most consistently in those life-story writers I’ve met. Truth is not their enemy. It’s the bannister they grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs. It’s the solution.”

For anyone looking for validation in writing memoir, there it is, right there.

But there is a price to pay, and for anyone wanting to know what writing (great) memoir really feels like, Karr socks it to us:

“In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right….The form always has profound psychological consequence on its author. It can’t not…… But nobody I know who’s written a great one described it as anything less than a major-league shit-eating contest…”

And just to make sure you really are ready to write memoir, she gives us chapter three: “Why Not to Write a Memoir: Plus a Pop Quiz to Protect the Bleeding & Box Out the Rigid”. (Her chapter headings intrigue as much as the content).

She never makes the reader feel like a failure or an idiot, but by the time you finish this chapter, you’ll know without a doubt whether memoir writing really is for you. Or not.

As Karr launches in, she delves deeper into the writing process of memoir, striping it down layer by layer,  peppered throughout with quotes from some of her favourite memoir reads and authors, while sharing the evolution of her own process.

Her frankness and honesty coupled with her generosity in exposing her struggles and successes, as well as offering practical advice about tricky challenges such as:  Dealing with Beloveds (On and Off the Page) – (chapter twelve)makes for compelling reading.

Truth in memoir is huge for Karr and she takes time to explore how our different concepts of memory can play havoc with our story-telling.  Ultimately, she believes that when the truth is fudged, a memoirist is “…missing the personal liberation that comes from the examined life”.  I agree.

She also explores “Sacred Carnality”, as in the vital importance of conjuring up the physical world for the reader (smell, taste, touch, image and noise). She writes of the memoirist’s “Internal Struggle” and how we reveal it as we write, but her passion takes off in leaps and bounds when she writes of “Voice”:

“Every great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice…For the readers, the voice has to exist from the first sentence.”

And again, towards the end of the book, she writes:

“Most memoirs fail because of voice. It’s not distinct enough to sound alive and compelling.”

Karr’s desire to show us how to bring our own unique, passion-filled voice to memoir pulses with heart and energy throughout this excellent read,  so that by the end of it, you feel as if you have just taken a one-on-one master-class of ‘How To Write A Great Memoir’ with the best teacher you are ever likely to have.

*Thank you to Harper Collins who provided a review copy of this book.

About Sherri Matthews

Sherri has been writing full time since 2011. Currently working on her memoir, 'Stranger in a White Dress', she has been published in a variety of national magazines, websites and three anthologies. Sherri raised her three, now adult children, in California for twenty years and today, lives in England’s West Country with her hubby, Aspie youngest, two cats, a grumpy bunny and a family of Chinese Button Quails. She keeps out of mischief blogging, gardening, walking by the sea and snapping endless photographs. Her garden robin muse vists regularly.
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87 Responses to Book Review: The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

  1. I knew you’d do an excellent job on this review, Sherri! Well done, my friend. I’m so proud of you! I know for sure, you’re memoir will be wonderful because of your unique voice. Nicely done! Now get back to that draft! ❤ ❤

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  2. Great review, Sherri. It has really made me want to read Mary’s book. It’s very interesting to read the bit about the importance of ‘the voice’. I’m sure that your very special voice will make your own memoir immensely readable. xx

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    • Sherri says:

      I’m so pleased this review has drawn you to Mary’s book, it really is a fabulous read thanks to her wonderful writing ‘voice’. Thank you so much for your lovely message and encouragement Sylvia 🙂 xx

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow!! I like her style and have never read anything she wrote [yet]. I know that for me the quotes and passages you cited above are the very reason [apart from not being a writer] that I would never write my full memoir – I could not, would not, go there again so fully! I acknowledge and admire completely those who do!! xoxo

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    • Sherri says:

      Thank you Pauline, and yes, I agree, I was glued to this book from beginning to end. But I must say to you that I enjoy your writing very much from what I’ve read on your blog and wonderfully rich comments, so maybe you really are a writer Pauline, more than you think 😉 But you’re right, memoir writing is not for everyone…if I were not compelled to write it, I would not do it for all the reasons she states above…! xoxo

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  4. jennypellett says:

    This really sounds like a good read – whether or not you’re writing a memoir – sounds like there’s lots of good advice there. You’ve done a great job with this review Sherri, well done. I’m sure you found your voice long ago but it does no harm to listen to it objectively as you go through your draft. I think yours will be an interesting and heartfelt read and I can’t wait to read the final thing. Crack on, my brave one and conquer the publishing world!

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    • Sherri says:

      There is so much great advice in her book Jenny, and a lot of it can be applied to any writing form. The big difference for memoir of course, is that the cast of characters is already ready and waiting! Thank you so much Jenny, I’m really thrilled you enjoyed the review, and also for your wonderful encouragement. as always. Ahh…you’re a sweetheart…I don’t feel very brave a lot of the time…*she says pulling covers over head*…but I’ll do my best… 😉 xx

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  5. dgkaye says:

    Wow Sherri, a fantastic lowdown of this book of which is on my shelf, begging to be read. You’ve pointed out some of Karr’s key points here which I was happy to have passed the test. I especially love this quote: “Unless you’re a doubter and a worrier, a nail biter, an apologizer, a rethinker, then memoir may not be your playpen.” I’m definitely in the right playpen. Thanks for showing us that. 🙂 hugs

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    • Sherri says:

      Thank YOU, that’s Debby, that’s wonderful, I’m delighted that you enjoyed this review, phew! Karr’s book is a must read, you will love it! I felt just the same as you when I read that particular passage: I am in that playpen right alongside you! In fact, I had a little cry when I read it because I felt that at last I understood why I have felt like this all my life and so am compelled to write memoir. I had never really understood why I stumbled around on those dark cellar stairs for so long…but I do know, and so glad to share that with you! xo

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Luanne says:

    Sherri, you’ve done a fabulous job of showing Karr’s personality here!!! Yours is the first review that has really made me anxious to get hold of a copy!!! Brava, friend!!! xo

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  7. Letizia says:

    ” It’s the bannister they grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs” I love that line!

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    • Sherri says:

      I cried when I read that line Letizia, I loved it so much…it struck such a deep chord in my heart, so that I knew right there and then why I write memoir. It all made perfect sense…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. OH my gawd, I love the excerpts! I have to check out this book. Fantastic review.

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    • Wait, what? Harper Collins sent you this to review?! O_o Wow. Sherri! That’s so cool.

      Like

    • Sherri says:

      You MUST read this book Sarah, it is mind-blowingly excellent and these excerpts are just a taster. I had to cut the draft of my original review in half, as I got a bit carried away! So glad you enjoyed it… thank you so much for letting me know!!! xo

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      • Okay. I’m buying. That’s it. You say I should get this, I will. (See? That was easy.) So… They “asked” you?! How? When did this happen? This is so very cool. (Did I miss something here?)

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      • Sherri says:

        Haha…that was really easy 😀 You won’t be disappointed, guaranteed! Oh Sarah, you make me smile..no, you didn’t miss anything, I didn’t broadcast it as I wasn’t sure what the ‘form’ was. I’ll email you… ❤

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      • Sherri says:

        Just to say I did what you asked Sarah, but I didn’t mind, honestly, I thought it looked really nice actually 🙂 I’m so glad you have your copy courtesy of your lovely husband…with a beautiful red bow and everything ❤ I can't wait to hear what you think about it and share notes of course… 🙂

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  9. Mary Karr’s memoirs are treasures, Sherry. LIAR’S CLUB is my favorite.
    You did an excellent job with this review. For sure I’ll be getting this!

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  10. Mumblypeg says:

    That was an amazing review!! I just have to read this woman’s work! She simply says it as it is and you have brought her work to life so expertly. You are the perfect memoir writer and I can hardly wait to read yours. Love M xxx

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    • Sherri says:

      You must read Karr’s memoirs and this book, she makes for a stunning read, you will love her work. Thank you so much dear Mumblypeg for your wonderful comment and encouragement and support…means so much to me…much love to you… 🙂 ❤ xxxxxxx

      Like

  11. ilkae2014 says:

    Hi Sherri!

    First of all a warm welcome back from my side. You might have seen that I took a break as well. So this is like a ‘back to blog-fun’ party.

    I have read your last post as well and enjoyed the pictures a lot. I also love the review and was really entertained by Karr’s writing style. I hope you are fine and set to go again 🙂

    Hugs, Ilka

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sherri says:

      Hi Ilka! So lovely to see you again after so long. And thank you so much for such a lovely, warm welcome back, your beautiful smile always bring such cheer to my day 🙂 Haha…I love the sound of a ‘back to blog-fun’ party…I’ll be over to your pad later today after I dash out again to run those never-ending errands 😉 I’m thrilled you enjoyed the review, Karr’s writing is fabulous. I couldn’t put her book down.
      Phew…trying to get back into the swing of things as you are too by the sounds of it. All is well, and I hope with you too, and that you and your lovely family had a wonderful summer 🙂 And here we go…ready? And we’re off!! Hugs back to you my friend… 🙂 xx

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  12. jeanne229 says:

    Fantastic review Sherri. I have had my eye on this book since I heard about it, and will now go out and get it posthaste. Just loved what you quoted here, and have resonated already with certain passages. As a committed “doubter and a worrier, a nail biter, an apologizer, a rethinker” myself, I was encouraged to read that these qualities were advantages, not handicaps, and came away encouraged to go back to my own memoir attempts. And as a ghostwriter of another individual’s memoir, I am reminded of the centrality of voice. Again, super job, and like Sarah B. above, boy am I impressed that you got a review copy!

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    • Sherri says:

      Oh Jeanne, I know just what you mean about the way Karr takes these ‘traits’ as qualities and not handicaps. For so long, I thought that I was ‘just that way’ and there it was, but to read this passage was a revelation to me. I had to read it several times and it also had me spill a few tears…of relief! At last…now I understand why I write memoir! I am so glad that you resonated in such a deep way too. This book will be a fantastic read for you Jeanne, thrilled to know that you are now encouraged to return to your own memoir. Your voice is crystal clear and strong. And thank you for your wonderful comment… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Denise says:

    Memoir is totally not my thing, I realise now from reading this! Which I would never have claimed, but it’s interesting to read something so incisive about what *precisely* makes a good memoirist. Instinctively from reading the writing on your blog, it’s clear that’s what you are good at. This book sounds very encouraging, both in terms of inspiration and also in highlighting what you already do well.

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    • Sherri says:

      I wasn’t sure what to expect at first when I started reading this book, but straight out of the gate, Karr gives it to us…memoir writer or not? Or maybe you are, but not quite yet…I wasn’t expecting to find such validation as to why I’ve felt the way I have my whole life and why it now makes perfect sense to me to write memoir. I just always assumed that everyone wrote some kind of ‘memoir’ at some point. I didn’t see that it was an actual ‘art form’. Yes, this really is an inspirational book. Karr packs punches but she is compassionate and kind and that comes across in buckets. And you inspire me to keep going with your wonderful encouragement…thanks so much Denise 😉 xx

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Norah says:

    This sounds like my sort of book, Sherri. I have read, and enjoyed reading, a lot of memoirs. I’m looking forward to reading yours. I would like to read the third chapter to find out if I should write memoir or not, but I am definitely not ready yet; not ready to tell my honest story and lay it bare. I thought the quote about the importance of honesty and its power to liberate through an examined life interesting. I agree – just not ready to go there yet. Thanks for sharing.

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    • Sherri says:

      This is the thing Norah, Karr does make a point of saying that it just could be that the time isn’t right to write your memoir. But…and this is crucial…you will know when it is. The thing is, there is only one way to write memoir and that is to ‘lay it bare’. And Karr explains just what this means when writing the true form of memoir. One thing she said that struck me to the core was that we need to be careful not to presume what others’ motives might be…we can only write about our own and what we did/thought/remembered/felt. And also, if there is family involved, to always, always, show the manuscript to them first, before publishing. I ran into this when I wrote an article about my dad in 2013 for Prima magazine. I didn’t want to publish it until I knew he was okay with it. I wanted him to know that it wasn’t about ‘airing the family’s dirty laundry’, but a story of love and reconcilation between a father and daughter. The result was that Dad gave me his blessing and he said that it ‘made him feel part of my life’. Karr said the same thing happened in her family, but that is the good side. There is always a dark side to wrting and publishing memoir, and i totally understand how you feel. I suppose you come to that point of totally accepting that you are going ahead with it and then doing it, and when you do, then you can write your memoir. But only then. Otherwise, it won’t work. Oh Norah, I could go on all day chatting to you about this, so I will park it here! But thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me, and I’m thrilled that you would like to read my memoir, wow! Now I just need to get back to those edits!! 🙂 xx

      Liked by 1 person

      • Norah says:

        Thanks for sharing all that extra information Sherri. It certainly convinces me that I am not ready to lay it all bare. But I definitely agree with the importance of not making presumptions about the motives, thoughts or feelings of others. We all perceive and remember events in different ways. In fact we all experience them in different ways. No two people have exactly the same experience even though they may be engaged in the same activity or involved in the same situation together. How they experience it will differ.
        I’m sure it took a lot of courage to share the story with your father. His response could have gone any way. Sometimes it is important to take that step and not let your own interpretations or guesses hold you back. It certainly worked in your case and allowed you and your father to mend some of the hurts.
        Yes, please get back to those edits so I can read soon. I’m guessing I’ll need to have the tissues ready – for tears of laughter as much as sorrow. Looking forward to it. 🙂

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      • Sherri says:

        You are so welcome Norah, I could talk about this ‘stuff’ all day, ha! Memory certainly is a complicated thing isn’t it? Thank you too for what you say about my dad. I felt a strong sense of conviction when I wrote it, as I do in writing my memoir. I know it sounds cliche, but it’s in the ‘owning’ of the story that I suppose we find that empowerment and so at last able to tell our story. I need to remember that when I wobble…

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  15. cardamone5 says:

    You got a review copy? Wow! I’m impressed. I have been meaning to pick up this book, and your post just gave me the boot I needed to do so. Thank you, dear friend. We need to communicate more about our shared endeavors (well, mine has been on the back burner for some time, but maybe it’s time to give it attention again.)

    Love,
    E

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    • Sherri says:

      I did indeed 🙂 You MUST read this book Elizabeth it is a must for any memoir writer. I do hope you will be able to return to your memoir. It’s taken me well over two and a half years just to get the first draft written, with long gaps inbetween, not to mention all the ‘angst’ inbetween. I’ll be in touch…shared communication is a good thing!!
      Love back to you… xo

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  16. Ali Isaac says:

    Hi Sherri, I really need to read this book. Ive tried so many times to write my story with Carys, but I’ve always abandoned it because I cant get the voice right. Maybe this book will help. It will be an entertaining read, from the sound of it, if nothing else! Thanks for this timely recommendation! 😊

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    • Sherri says:

      Hi Ali! Oh this book is a must read for you in that case, run, don’t walk! I did not think I would be able to get it read while focusing on writing my first draft, but it gave me the validation I did not expect to find that I was on the right path with writing my memoir, helping me understand why I have always felt so compelled to write it. And yes, Karr is a fantastic writer, I adore her writing and I just know you will thoroughly enjoy it! Thanks so much for letting me know your thoughts 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    Sherri Matthews​ with a brilliant review of The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. As someone who is working her way from 1962 to the present using music and memories I found that even in the review there are some great tips. If you are considering writing a memoir then this book perhaps should be your first port of call.. Mary Karr sounds like an amazingly inspirational teacher.

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  18. TanGental says:

    cracking Sherri; not sure I have anything to say that laying it bare would be at all interesting. But a book that explains the hows and whys has to be worthwhile.

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    • Sherri says:

      Thanks so much Geoff! I’m sure you have much that is interesting, laid bare or not, but memoir isn’t for everyone that’s for sure. I was glad to read that I’m in the right playpen though, as it explains why I’ve stumbled about in that dark cellar for so long. Karr’s writing is brilliant…

      Liked by 1 person

  19. restlessjo says:

    Well, now that you’ve read this and taken it to heart, as I know you have, you can’t fail, Sherri 🙂 And it’s not a book that I would ever have thought to read but you have convinced me.

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    • Sherri says:

      Well I thank you so much dear Jo…and reading what you say really does make me smile to think I’ve convinced you to read it 🙂 But you will find it a fascinating read, I can guarantee that 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Great review ma’am! I will add it to my list. 🙂

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  21. Fantastic review, Sherri.Thanks for sharing. I’ve read Cherry ad Liar’s Club years ago. I had no idea she’d written this one. So many books… I can’t keep up. 🙂 ❤

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  22. Wow, you did it and oh so well. You are simply, my dear, amazing! Like mummblypeg I cannot wait to read yours ! Writing a memoir has to be a lot. Like giving birth, pain, anticipation at long last the delivery! 🙂 So very very proud of you my friend! xoxoxoxo

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    • Sherri says:

      You are so right about the labour Diane! I’m still waiting for that long-awaited delivery, so need to keep pushing harder, lol 😀 Oh thank you so very much for your wonderful encouragement (mummblypeg you know well of course having met her when she visited CA 😉 ) and knowing you are proud of me means the world. Of course, I am immensly proud of you too…but that’s another story 😉 Love & hugs to you dearest friend 🙂 ❤ xoxo

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  23. Mary Karr is one of the best contemporary nonfiction writers I’ve read–and she’s so right. Memoir isn’t for everyone. I don’t think I’ll write another; it’s so wrenching. I’m finding it much less excruciating to be writing fiction. But I think it was important to write my first one – it got me over the need to explore my own life and motivation.

    And who knows? Maybe I’ll go back to it someday…

    Hoping your writing process will be a wonderful experience. Keep on keeping on. 🙂

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    • Sherri says:

      I feel the same way as you Tracy, that I can’t write anything else until I’ve written my memoir, although I admit that I have another one that is bubbling up but that is where it will stay for a while. Since writing flash fiction regularly, I’ve learnt just how great it is to have that free reign and to be able to take the story wherever I want; I know just what you mean about writing fiction being ‘much less excruciating’. Yet the compulsion to write memoir is one I can’t put away, and I know you get that. I do hope that your novel is progressing well and thanks so much for your good wishes…keeping keeping on 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  24. Charli Mills says:

    Terrific review! What timing to read such honest memoir words while drafting yours!

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  25. I just bought 2 other books on writing memoir. I’ll have to look at this one though because it sounds like it could be a great read as well as instructional. Thanks.

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  26. Great review Sherri. It sounds as though it is definitely one for me to read. I have just finished both Liars’ Club and Lit. I haven’t read Cherry. The thing I found fascinating with her memoirs was how she had huge gaps in her memory yet used high definition scenes and descriptions. She certainly knows how to write. You were given a great honour I feel being selected to do a review. Next you will be selected to present your manuscript which I amongst others am looking forward to reading. 🙂

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    • Sherri says:

      It’s great to read your thoughts Irene, especially since you’e just finished those books of hers, which I have yet to read. Sounds fascinating how she fills in those gaps, but I’m not surprised having now read about her writing process and the way she ‘gets around’ all the different aspects of writing memoir. Thanks so much for letting me know and I’m so glad you enjoyed the review. You will love the book, I too love the way she writes. I still Oh now that would be something wouldn’t it? We can but dream…and you are so very kind. But first, I need to take your great advice and get back to my memoir and get writing. I can’t wait for you to read it (thank you!!!) as I can’t wait to read yours… now let’s walk to clear our heads! 🙂 ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Sherri,
        You know I am happy to be a beta reader for you if you want. I’m certainly looking forward to reading your memoir.
        All these books make you stop and reflect on your own practice and whether you agree or disagree or where you stand on the subject.
        A walk sounds great. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Sherri says:

          Hi Irene, and yes, I am thrilled at your offer, thank you so much. I’ll be in touch when I’m ready to hand it over! Yes, it’s good to stop and reflect even as we go on to express our work with our own, unique voices. Great…get your boots on ‘cos I’m heading over right now 🙂 ❤

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ready when you are. Be prepared to feel depressed when you hand over your first copy for reading. I was amazed at how low I became when I handed mine out. The total opposite to the exhilaration felt when the first manuscript was completed. I guess it is like seeing your kids off to uni or the like. 🙂

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      • Sherri says:

        Good advice Irene, and yes, I can well understand that feeling when a story has lived with you for so long. Although I’m already feeling depressed since merging the first several chapters into one document, only to discover that I’ve put the original and recently edited ones in together so it’s one hot mess. I hope you won’t be waiting too long to read the MS, but at this rate, who knows 😮 😦

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  27. Fantastic review Sherri I don’t have any plans to write a memoir but after this post I feel like I want to. Look forward to reading yours.

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  28. Excellent! I made a hasty recommendation of the book on my blog (I was short of time!), but will delight in reblogging your more thorough review there too. Kudos!

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  29. Reblogged this on Margaret Langstaff and commented:
    Excellent, thorough review.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Pingback: Book Review: The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr | Scribblin' and a Scrawlin'

  31. Pingback: Blogging And The Three Year Rule | A View From My Summerhouse

  32. Lisa Reiter says:

    I am ordering this one! Love her obviously awesome perspective:

    “In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right….The form always has profound psychological consequence on its author. It can’t not…… But nobody I know who’s written a great one described it as anything less than a major-league shit-eating contest…”

    Priceless!

    Liked by 1 person

  33. Sherri says:

    Ha! You can see why Karr’s book knocked me out too! I just love the way she writes and that particular excerpt. We have to believe we’re writing great memoirs Lisa, for all the s*** we’re wading through to get to the end! A few black eyes too along the way 😮 You’ll love this book, can’t wait to share notes 🙂 xxx

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  34. Pingback: Memoir Monday: The Big Picture – Lisa Reiter – Sharing the Story

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