The danger in reading great writing is the arrogance that one can emulate it.
I started my first memoir in present tense because I thought I could pull off the immediacy of Jennifer Lauck in Blackbird: A Childhood Lost and Found. The result was a messy chapter of multiples tenses that had to be completely rewritten.
I’m in love with Mary Karr’s memoir The Liar’s Club the same way; her storytelling inspires me to rewrite whole passages of my work in progress the way she writes of her childhood in Texas. I savored her descriptions like expensive chocolate:
That morning, when I woke up lying under the back slant of the windshield, the world smelled not unlike a wicked fart in a close room. I opened my eyes. In the fields of gator grass, you could see the ghostly outline of oil rigs bucking in slow motion. They always reminded me of rodeo riders, or of some huge servant creatures rising up and bowing down to nothing in particular. … Then there were the white oil-storage tanks, miles of them, like the abandoned eggs of some terrible prehistoric insect.
I can’t resist similes that evocative. Her 1995 award-winning memoir of growing up with two alcoholic parents and the secrets that caused their pain was a treat to read. I picked it up at a used book store this past summer and finally began reading it when Stephen King mentioned it in the first line of his own memoir on writing: “I was stunned by Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liar’s Club. Not just by its ferocity, its beauty, and by her delightful grasp of the vernacular, but by its totality — she is a woman who remembers everything about her early years.”
She doesn’t remember everything, of course, but she deftly mixes her childhood memories with an adult perspective that I as a memoirist admire. Reading her work is not unlike the experience she describes of trying to understand art philosophy: “I loved the idea that looking at a painting or listening to a concerto could make you somehow ‘transcend’ the day-in, day-out bullshit that grinds you down; how in one instant of pure attention you could draw something inside that made you forever larger.”
The Liar’s Club has that power — to make you forever larger.