Herewith a smart, practical essay on the fraught topic of authorial voice in memoir-writing. In the naive view, a memoir is just you telling your story — nothing simpler. In actual fact the narrator of a memoir is almost always binary, a double-thing, the you you once were and the you who is writing the book now, and one of the great arts is orchestrating the two so that they weave knowingly through the text, adding resonance, wisdom and a pleasing dance of time. Susan Hall is on the cusp of graduating with an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and knows whereof she speaks. As her quarry text for analysis she uses Mary Karr‘s wonderful 2005 memoir Cherry, a gorgeous, witty, frank, and immensely skillful story of Karr’s teenage years.
Some painting are said to jump right off the wall. Whether a painting is abstract or realistic, the artist uses color, line, and light, to trick the eye into believing that depth and dimension exists where there is only a flat canvas. A well-written memoir is similar. The reader must be able to enter an image of the author’s past that mimics time and life itself. Real time is chronological of course, yet our brains are so full of both memory and anticipation that the moment in which we find ourselves glides along between that which we recall and that which we expect. How does the memoirist simulate this? By telling a story of her past while including elements of the present, which was of course the future… then.
My own memoir-in-progress was lacking this quality. Frankly, it was flat. I was writing about my past with all of the descriptive fervor I could muster, and I worked hard to portray the persona of my young self, but my own authorial voice was missing. My attitude and wisdom in regard to my past would pop into the narrative unintentionally, in a way that only served to make it unclear. Then one day in workshop, a teacher asked, “Who is thinking this, the Sue of then or the Sue of now?” I had not made the distinction clear. I focused solely on the narrative of the past and disregarded the depth of character that I should have created by overlaying my current self onto the story.
Sue Silverman distinguishes the difference between these two voices in her book on writing, Fearless Confessions: A Writers Guide to Memoir as the voice of innocence and the voice of experience. She writes:
You can think of the Voice of Innocence much like the horizontal plot line: it’s the voice that tells the story of what happened, the events. On the other hand, think of the Voice of Experience like the vertical plot line: it’s the voice that interprets or reflects upon the events. (51)
It is the voice of experience that was missing from my work, the voice that “examines what the author, sitting at her desk writing, understands about events now” (Silverman 53).
In my reading, I began to look specifically for the two distinctly separate voices that an author must include, that of the subject in the scenes versus the current day author. What I discovered was that sometimes these voices mingle so closely that it is easy to miss. Yet some memoirists will juxtapose them so boldly that the author sitting at her desk, the author now, becomes as apparent a presence as the younger innocent character.
Sven Birkerts says that:
The narrator, who is also the narrative subject, can’t just be assumed. If the memoir is to be something more than a thin reportorial digest of events, if it is to matter, than the writer must create her identity on the page, making it as persuasive and compelling as that of any realized fictional protagonist. In other words, the memoirist’s “I” must be an inhabited character, a voice that takes possession of its account . . . Is the writer bemused by the actions of the younger self, or moved to contemplate a former innocence? The reader responds to a whole gamut of clues” (26, 27).
I set out to find the specific craft techniques with which a memoirist might create her identity on the page; I began to search for the clues. I chose to look specifically at Mary Karr’s work, because she presents her authorial voice with a wide variety of techniques. Karr presents herself, the subject then and the author now , with effective precision.
Mary Karr’s memoir Cherry is about her life in Leechfield, Texas, during her adolescent years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is a classic coming-of-age story in which the young, and often lonely, Karr searches for a connection to family, friends, and community. As her mother and father both occasionally leave home for short stretches of time (generally to get drunk) she turns to her sister, friends, and boyfriends to help her feel the comfort of belonging. But each of these people threaten to pull away from her as well. In the end she comes to realize, through the words of a friend, that as she separates from her community and moves out of Texas, she will bring with her the comfort of a consistent and strong sense of herself.
Surrounded by a varied group of characters, Karr sees herself as one who is smarter and more driven than most of the people in her town. This creates a lonely situation for her, as she rarely transforms herself in order to fit in with others. Instead she moves through friendships and relationships as the quasi-intellectual philosopher who aspires to eventually leave town and become a writer. While she is drawn to certain people, and she has some satisfying connections with many, her central struggle is rooted in her conflicting desires to feel both securely connected to those whom she loves while also recognizing and acting upon her individual aspirations.
Cherry begins with a prologue and is then structured into four parts. The prologue, entitled “California 1972,” portrays Karr as a young adult embarking on a car trip and move to California with a group of friends. Part ONE, entitled “Elementary’s End,” places Karr at the beginning of junior high school. The author’s teen years are then presented chronologically through the book, ending in the time just prior to the California trip. The beginning of the book, therefore, marks the end of the story.
This strategic use of temporal shifting allows the author to focus the memoir on the vertical story: the dynamics of the protagonist’s relationships and her unfurling sense-of-self. Because it has already been revealed that the young Karr will eventually move away, the story can concentrate on the events that lead to the author’s decision to move. It is not a story about what happened, but rather how and why it happened. The author seems to search for a deeper understanding of herself, as she reflects back over the events and her response to them.
The structure of Cherry is unique also in Karr’s use of point of view and tense because they change with each section of the book. The prologue is written in the second person, present tense. This particular second person point of view does not have the narrator speaking to another person addressed as “you” but rather is the author speaking to herself, or of herself. In this regard it is essentially the first person point of view with the narrator writing her own story, but with the word “you” in place of “I.” The pronouns are essentially interchangeable.
Part ONE begins the story with a more traditional first person past tense format. In part TWO the narrative remains in the first person but the tense is changed to present. The very short part THREE (only 12 pages long) moves back to the second person present tense. And part FOUR, which comprises more than half of the book, is done entirely in second person but with the tense changing from past, to present, and in the end to an overlap of future and present tense. These variations segue smoothly from section to section but serve to differentiate the stages of the young character’s story as she changes and grows. Karr’s elementary and junior high years are presented in the first person, while her high school years are presented in the second person. Each of the two halves of the book, the first half in first person and the second half in second person, progress from a start in the reminiscent quality of past tense, to the immediacy and intensity of present tense.
Chronologically, the story of young Karr begins in part ONE, titled “Elementary’s End.” But again the book begins with a prologue that marks the end of the story chronologically, in which the young adult narrator is departing for a surfing trip to California with a group of friends. In the prologue, Karr introduces the reader to her family and friends. She portrays her father as loving but removed. Her mother is interested in Karr’s adventures, but she is self-absorbed and relives her own sense of adventure vicariously through the young Karr. Her older sister Lecia is simply ashamed to be part of the family. Lecia tells people that she is an orphan “raised among distant-cousin lunatics” (9) in order to disassociate herself from the family. The impending trip to California is poorly planned and heavy drug use on the trip and a troubled time is foretold.
The first chapter opens with Karr at the end of her elementary school years, trying to literally elbow her way into a clique of friends, unsuccessfully. She introduces to the reader, the boy she had a crush on, John Cleary, and the girl who became her best friend, Clarice Fontenot. The narrator refers to herself and the other kids in her neighborhood as “still unformed” (43), thus establishing the theme of the book, which is Karr’s adolescent search for romantic relationships, friendships, and a sense of self as she disconnects from her family.
Part TWO is about young Karr’s developing sense of sexuality and the loss of her friendship to Clarice. She has her first kiss with John Cleary and spends time with him doing homework but also giving him a leg massage. Then, before the eighth grade, Clarice puts an end to their friendship. The author sees herself juxtaposed against Clarice, who wants to be a secretary while young Karr wants to be a poet or “Newspaper woman” (97). Clarice leaves the friendship because young Karr makes her feel bad about her aspirations and because Karr thinks she is smarter than Clarice. Which young Karr realizes, is true.
The very short Part THREE, entitled “Limbo” is about the author’s suicide attempt in the eighth grade. She writes of her mood at the time, “Oh you are manufacturing an arena of darkness in your sullen self” (113). She begins to “romance suicide” (113) and attempts it by taking an overdose of Anacin. Her parents come to her aid, although they do not know that it was an overdose that caused her to be sick. Her father drives a far distance to get her some plums, at her request. And young Karr wakes the next morning to “snap out of it” (117). She recognizes that she is loved and resolves to survive for that reason.
Part FOUR, entitled “High,” comprises more than half of the book. Young Karr is in high school and she becomes an active drug user. She makes a new best friend, Meredith Bright, based on the fact, according to young Karr, that they are both smarter than the other kids. They bond over a shared aptitude for literature and poetry and a recognition of their mutual suffering. Young Karr then begins dating a boy named Phil who is three years her senior. She becomes a rebel at school and faces the principal often, which causes her to wonder if the high school experience is going to give her the ticket out of Leechfield and into college as she hopes. She loses her virginity with Phil, but finds that as a result, she feels distant from him, and they break up.
Young Karr befriends a boy named Doonie, who is reintroduced from the prologue. He is one of the friends with whom she will travel to California. He is a surfer and a heavy drug user and scenes depict a variety of drug related events. So the story begins to point toward the books beginning and the story’s end, edging closer to the scene in the prologue when young Karr will embark on the trip.
Toward the end of the book young Karr is with two new friends at a bar. She is tripping and her experience becomes surreal and unnerving. She witnesses a woman shooting-up drugs into her neck as she lay on a bathroom floor carpeted in shards of broken syringes. Karr awakens the next day and thinks back over the night, then goes to Meredith’s house to tell her about it. Meredith tells Karr that she has accomplished something good by surviving the experience; she says that Karr has changed and yet remains the “same self” (276). The narrator reflects then on her young self as having been “only half-done inside” (276) but “something solid was starting to assemble inside” (276) her. On the final page Karr writes “That oddball catchphrase [the same self] will serve as a touchstone in years to come, an instant you’ll return to after traveling the far roads” (276). This line brings an ending solution to the prologue scene, which has not yet happened chronologically but which the reader anticipates. The entire book leads to this, to the strength the author had begun to find as a teen that would carry her through the time in California and always.
The voice of the narrator moves from being brazen to brave, from inquisitive to in-depth. The writing becomes denser in the second half of the book, with long complex sentences that often hold multiple images, concepts, or actions. The imagery and scenes become intense, gripping, with suspense and tension as the young Karr pushes forward through her high school years. The complexity of her life then, is reflected in the complexity of her syntax and imagery.
There is a tone of resolution in the end. The current-day author is gentle with herself, as if she is telling her young self that her struggle makes full sense. Her current attitude is illuminated in that final interjection of her future self when she writes, “That oddball catchphrase will serve as a touchstone in years to come” (276). The word “oddball” is light and humorous as it also acknowledges her opinion of her young self. It is slightly judgmental, but light and forgiving. In this final passage, we see that the author has come to fully understand her young self as well as how the young Karr determined the eventual path of the older Karr. The author emerged then, as well as again now, with new wisdom. She is changed yet the “same self.”
Birkerts says that a memoir becomes:
. . . a work comprising at least two time lines – present and past. The now and the then (the many thens), for it is the juxtaposition of the two – in whatever configuration – that creates the quasi-spatial illusion most approximating the sensations of lived experience, of recollection merging into the ongoing business of living . . . The sin qua non of memoir, with the past deepening and giving authority to the present, and the present (just by virtue of being invoked) creating the necessary depth of field for the persuasive idea of the past” (6).
It is not enough then, to simply record the past. The present-day experience of the memoirist, superimposed over her memories of the past, creates the closest approximation of the phenomenon of life itself, lived always in a moment preceded by a culmination of both lost and recalled moments.
In Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative, Thomas Larson writes that “This layered simultaneity, time over time, is the prime relational dynamic between the memoir and memoirist: the remembering and the remembered self” (36). If the author includes only a recollection of the past, the result is less about “memoir” and more about the reporting of events. Silverman suggests, “Without this Voice of Experience, the memoir might address significant events, but it would read more like journalism – timely – whereas it should feel timeless” (55).
Karr reveals her current self in the narrative of Cherry when she inserts her presence on the page using the following techniques:
1) She makes direct reference to her current self within the narrative.
2) She interjects the future with prolepsis or a flash-forward.
3) She indicates a shift in perspective from that of the young subject of the scene to that of the current day author by using a change in the tense.
4) She blends her wisdom into the narrative with interpretations of herself within both time lines.
Karr begins Chapter One, following the prologue, with a direct and clear indication of the two time lines comprising the book. The first sentence opens the chapter in the author’s past, with imagery of a girl’s pets. But Karr skillfully puts her current self immediately into the second sentence. She writes, “Violet Durkey has a hamster and a miniature turtle who lives in a shallow plastic bowl under a palm tree with snap-on fronds, and an albino rabbit named snuffles with pink ears from Easter. It’s the hamster I’m thinking about here” (17). These two sentences comprise the total first paragraph and set up the binary structure for the entire book. The author is presented in the now as clearly as she presents herself then by beginning the story with vivid and distinct imagery from her past and then including the word “here” with a direct reference to herself. The second sentence essentially says, “I’m here.”
In many instances, Karr refers directly to her current moment of writing. In one example she gives a bit of back-story about her mother’s past, but then returns to the time of the writing of the story. She writes, “Mother also had a secret history of hasty marriages and equally hasty dissolutions . . . But I’m writing about the 1960s, when Lecia and I didn’t yet know about all her pre-Daddy adventures” (23). This technique enables her to fill her sentences with action as she brings the reader further back in time, then up to her present moment of writing, before segueing back into the 1960s where her story is unfolding. The reader is carried in a fast moving time machine that wraps the author’s chronological life into the “timeless” and fully dimensional quality that Silverman and Birkerts both suggest.
We see the direct indication of the author’s moment of writing similarly when she shows the reader a particular choice she has made in the writing process. For example Karr introduces a new character, a boyfriend in high school, by writing, “Let’s call him Phil” (164). She could have simply used the fictitious name and kept the focus on the story timeline from the past. But the author’s current moment of writing is indicated with her decision-making process itself. Her presence is also directly implied with the inclusion of the first person contraction: “let’s.”
In addition to revealing the author’s presence with the illumination of her decisions as she writes, Karr also insinuates her present self by including her process of recalling her past. For example, she writes about a comment she made to her mother, “You want the butter passed, you don’t talk about arrows shooting. I said something to that effect” (36). Here, she admits that the memory is not entirely clear. She asserts that she said something to her mother in that particular dialogue all those years ago, but she doesn’t recall exactly what it was. This brings the reader out of the story of the past and into the current experience of the author as she is engaged in the act of remembering. While it has the effect of overlaying the two time lines, her honesty about the limitations of her memory makes her a trustworthy author and deepens her character.
The interjections of the current day author add dimension and depth to the other characters as well. Karr uses her current memories and attitude to reveal more about a character than her young self would have known or been able to articulate. She writes in a passage about her older sister Lecia, “I looked down at Lecia. Surely her hair hadn’t been in curlers all day, but that’s how I recall it—in giant wire rollers under a lacy net” (39). This reference to her memory—how she recalls her sister now, tells the reader much more about the characters than the image alone could. Karr, as an adult, has put her memories into categories, as we all do. So her sister takes on a persona, almost a caricature of a stereotype. The reader is told, in effect, that Lecia spent so much time with her hair in rollers that the current day Karr automatically recalls her this way. One might surmise that Lecia was preoccupied with looking good. There is a humorous sarcasm in the current day author’s tone that is playful. Although the passage alone does not explain exactly what the author thought about the rollers then, or what she thinks about them now, the passage shines a light on the two characters, the author Karr and her sister, enough to create some unanswered questions about their relationship. Thus creating some tension and allowing the simple image of the hair rollers to provide more information about the character than it otherwise would have without the author’s current day perspective.
Parenthetical asides abound in Cherry. Within them, Karr also interjects her presence directly. The parentheses themselves simply point to the presence of the author now. They are the commentary of the narrator, and not the thoughts or words of the young subject of the story. They offer a perspective that the young Karr, the subject of the scene, could not have.
As if sharing a secret even more personal than the childhood events in the story, Karr confesses in one parenthetical aside that she often didn’t wash her hands when she was young. In a scene that takes place in the restroom at a roller-skating rink she writes, “This song was warped by coming through the pink plywood door to where we stood at a makeshift sink with little blue packets of Wash—‘N’—dry for after you got done peeing. (Actually, because I never overtly peed on my hands, I never bothered with hand washing anyway)” (18). In this humorous parenthetical wink, Karr’s confident sense of self invites the reader’s respect. The technique allows the author to create the dual timeline as well as to add information, interpretation, irony, and the attitude of the author.
A prolepsis takes the narrative to a future point ahead of the time in which the story or scene occurs. It is a flash-forward, and although it can portray a scene that is expected to happen, or imagined might happen, in Karr’s memoir she uses prolepsis often to reveal events or interpretations of events that actually did happen later in her life. Karr does this first and foremost by beginning the book with the chronological ending. The reader knows what the author knows, that young Karr will eventually take a trip to California.
Karr layers the time lines with the use of prolepsis throughout the book as well. She is able to create a persona for both of her characters, the young subject of the scenes and the wise author who is formulating the story. For example, early on in the book she interjects the author now with a prolepsis in a parenthetical aside that portrays the changes in her attitude from then to now. In the scene, young Karr begins to feel estranged from her boy friend when he engages in silly pastimes and she discovers that her attraction to him is beginning to diminish. But the author now has a gentle and compassionate view of the boy in retrospect. She writes a prolepsis parenthetically:
The worst of these is a record of two guys having a fart contest, which ends when one actually batches his pants. (Twenty years later, this notion and its attendant memory will strike you as wicked funny. Also you could then recall the boy’s tender, odd ministrations with the fondness they warranted.) (188)
The prolepsis technique transforms the flat chronological timeline of the young character into a three-dimensional form, like turning a line drawing of a square into one of a cube. The reader is placed within the timeless space of the author’s past and present. For example in a passage in which young Karr takes a drawing tablet from her mother’s studio and begins a journal, she writes,
Any fable I’ve told about who I was then dissolves when I read that loose-jointed script I wrote. We tend to overlay grown-up wisdom across the blanker selves that the young actually proffer. (When my son was born, I remember staring into his blue, wondering eyes, then asking the obstetrical nurse what he might be thinking. ‘You know the static channel on your TV?’ she answered.) (24).
This flash-forward reveals that Karr experienced profound life-changing events such as childbirth and parenting. The juxtaposition of the innocent and naive young Mary in the scene against the persona of the mature author who has endured child rearing, indicates that the perspective of the memoirist is from a vantage point that is a culmination of the entirety of her life. It portrays the older and wiser character who survived the challenges of her childhood and leaves the reader in that space in between, wondering what the next page will reveal about her path from naive to wise.
Karr uses prolepsis also to create dimension around events, exposing them from the naive vantage point of the young Karr as well as from the wise author who knows what the young girl did not. For example, in the prologue we see the young character anticipate the trip to California; the narrator reveals what her young self expects and hopes for. She uses prolepsis at this early stage of the book to show that the awaited trip will in fact impact the young character’s life in a profoundly different way than what she envisioned at the time. She writes of the friends who will join her on the trip, “ . . . though before those six bodies in your company have hardened into adulthood, several will be cut down by drug-related obliterations. Two will take their own lives. Two will pull time in jail” (13). Then she continues to write of herself, “Who saw it coming? Not you, certainly. Not the friends who follow soon in their own frail vehicles. Casualties to jack up the tally” (14). She follows this passage with a reference to her later self at a specific age, and with particular details that reveal to the reader how Karr will eventually contextualize her experience in California. She writes,
In Los Angeles, drugs work these transformative magics till the place stands as a geographical epicenter of grief, a city as sacked and ruined for you as Troy. Well into your forties, any time business forces you to fly there and you watch the airport tarmac unfurl from your cabin’s glinting oval, it will feel like the wrong side of some psychic track (14).
Juxtaposed against the young character’s hopes and dreams for the trip before it happens, this flash-forward provides very moving dramatic irony.
Karr renders the binary aspect of time in Cherry with her use of tense, by changing it within the narrative to indicate which of the two timelines she is writing from. Each of the two halves of the book is written first with past tense then changes to present tense. But within each, the author occasionally switches from one to the other as a way to transport the reader from a focus on the young Karr’s perspective to that of the current author. An example of this occurs in Part ONE when she shifts from past to present tense within a single paragraph. In a scene in which young Karr is at a park watching a tackle football game with a group of her friends, she writes, “In fact, even once the game had ended, when the big boys had run off to make phone calls or do chores, we stayed waiting to be called for supper. I can almost hear the melamine plates being slid from the various cupboards and stacked on tile counters” (32). Her shift to present tense indicates her current moment of writing, when she can hear plates sliding in her memory/imagination.
She continues this reflective voice with the use of another tense switch later in the same passage, but in this one she also adds a direct reference to her current moment of memory/writing. She writes,
At some moment, Clarice figured out as none of us had before how to shinny up the goalpost. That sight of her squiggling up the yellow pole magically yanks the memory from something far-off into a kind of 3-D present. I am alive in it. There’s early frost on the grass, and my ant bites itch (32, 33).
This particular passage continues for another six paragraphs in the present tense. The imagery is vivid and the reader is immersed in the immediacy of it, adding to the level of tension and suspense as Clarice “yanks both her pants and her underscancies down around her bare feet” until an adult neighbor arrives on the scene “holding [a] spatula in her hand with which she intends to blister [the children’s’] asses, Clarice most specifically” (33). Karr segues the transition back to past tense with the use of a prolepsis. She writes, “Decades later, I asked Clarice point blank why she did it. We were in our forties then, living two thousand miles apart, and talking – oddly enough – on our car phones” (34). The prolepsis that she adds at the end brings the reader through another time traveling adventure, up to the future while also nestled back into past tense. This technique pulls the reader out of the past moment, and fully into the visceral quality of the author’s memory; the reader is simultaneously in now and then.
Karr reverses the technique in Part TWO. She writes in present tense throughout, with the immediacy of the memories as she did in the short passage above from Part ONE. To indicate the presence of the current author’s reflective process, therefore, she switches back to past tense. For example, she writes about a night when she is thinking about John Cleary and she masturbates and has an orgasm. She writes in present tense, “Then the horse leaps between my legs, and that soaring fall enters me, and everything dissolves” (88). The paragraph that follows this passage is then written in the past tense after the author makes a direct reference to her current moment of remembering. She reflects on the scene when she writes: “I remember the next morning, or think I do, lolling in bed like my own bride . . . Touching myself didn’t seem so bad. Mother said everybody did that . . . What shamed me was the plastic bag [filled with John Cleary’s hair, stolen by Karr for use in a love spell], that an ardor so pure as mine for John Cleary could involve such deceit” (88, 89).
The presence of the adult author in this particular example allows the reader to feel comfortable with the subject. Without the wise and mature reflection of the grown woman, the scene might simply be treading too close to a private moment in a child’s life. By reflecting so blatantly from a place of wisdom, the author invites the reader to reflect along with her on this private moment, thus retaining and even enhancing a high level of trust for the author. This also acts to elicit empathy for the author, both as a young girl and as a mature and confident adult.
In Part THREE, which is only 12 pages long, Karr indicates her presence by remaining in the present tense while condensing large spans of time into one passage, as though an entire time period was emerging as a present memory. For example, she writes, “Thus junior high seems a series of mishaps that vault you involuntarily from one mudhole to another—each time landing deeper, more remote” (104). Rather than interjecting her presence with asides, she allows the reader to watch her memory and reflecting process as it happens. The narration zooms in to the specifics of a moment and a scene, and then zooms out to a more reflective perspective. This cinematic technique with the use of time portrays the memory process of the current day author and puts her presence on the page. But it also allows the short section of the book to span an entire year in her youth, to condense the time into a single transformative experience.
In Part FOUR, which comprises the entire second half of the book, Karr uses all of these tense-change techniques. It is written in second person point of view, and she repeats the shift from past tense to present tense midway through, as she did in the first half of the book in the 1st person point of view. She insinuates the adult author again, by shifting temporarily from one tense to another. In the final chapter, though, she inserts the future tense. It is a use of the prolepsis technique but indicates the wisdom that the author has gained and it propels the end of the story into the unwritten future. As quoted earlier in this paper, she writes in present tense, “For years you’ve felt only half-done inside, cobbled together by paper clips . . . but something solid is starting to assemble inside you” (276). Then she reflects with her current wisdom and writes in future tense, “That oddball catchphrase will serve as a touchstone in years to come, an instant you’ll return to after traveling the far roads” (276).
Karr’s interpretations of the events in her story put the author’s presence on the page in the most enriching way. The wisdom portrayed in this technique gives her character depth and substance while again enhancing the three dimensional aspect to time and memory.
Of a scene in which she loses her virginity, Karr writes,
You’re not scared of the physical act, for Phil has been kind. But you have one raging horror of looking like you don’t know what to do (you don’t), and another horror of looking like a slut, and so don’t tell him that you’re on the pill, hoping the rubber he winds up using will numb his smart dick from knowing that some brute stole your cherry. (How odd, you’ll later think, that you embarked on your first love affair—meant as an intimacy—with such a large sexual secret in tow” (182).
This example of her interpretation expressed in a prolepsis portrays the wisdom of the current author to such an extent that it reflects the very theme of the book. Without it, the event in the story would simply be journalistically reported. With an emotionally laden subject such as sex and intimacy, to omit the wisdom gained through introspection would make the information nothing but titillating at best, bordering on pornographic. But by inserting the depth of wisdom in this scene, the theme of the book, which is Karr’s dualistic search for both intimacy and independence, is enhanced.
The author’s interpretation of events and characters is often inserted in small doses, such as a parenthetical aside. But Karr enriches the work as a whole when she occasionally includes a full passage of reflective wisdom. In the following example she illuminates important information about her friend Meredith’s character as well as her own, while she also adds commentary and provides valuable insight. She writes:
Kids in distressed families are great repositories of silence and carry in their bodies whole arctic wastelands of words not to be uttered, stories not to be told. Or to be told in sketchiest form—merely brushed by. It’s an irony that airing these dramas is often a family’s chief taboo. Yet the bristling agony secrecy causes can only be relieved by talk—hours and hours of unmuzzled talk, the recounting of stories. Who listens is almost beside the point, so long as the watching eyes remain lit and the head tilts at the angle indicating attention and care.
Without such talk by the kids of these families, there’s usually a grave sense of personal fault, of failing to rescue those beloveds lost or doomed. That silence ticks out inside its bearer the constant small sting of indictment—what it, what if, what if; why didn’t I, why didn’t I, why didn’t I . . .
It’s the gravity of such silence that you detect in Meredith. At some point, she levels her sea green eyes on you and says: I can tell that you’ve suffered. Which observation takes your breath away in its simple nobility (156).
Karr builds the reflective narrative and then segues into the scene with Meredith so that, side-by-side, the interpretation of the author stands juxtaposed to the frank observation made by Meredith. The two time lines complement each other. Each becomes more potent due to the presence of the other. As it stands, the shared empathetic understanding between the two girls is clearly portrayed. Had the author presented only the scene from the past, Meredith’s statement alone would have an entirely different effect on the passage. She might sound insincere. But more importantly, the interpretation of the author simply illuminates very important information about her life and her story.
At times, Karr interjects her interpretations in an unfinished form, so that the reader sees her current-day action of introspection. For example, in the prologue she writes, “Maybe it’s only after your daddy’s been dead fifteen years that you create this longing of yours for him and his denial of it, because it’s easier to bear the notion that he rejected you than vise versa” (8). The word “maybe” in this use of prolepsis/interpretation, propels the narrative into a new direction, taking the reader out of the scene and into the action of the current author’s thought process. Simultaneously, though, it brings the reader deeper into the substance of the scene itself. Rather than a simple depiction of an event, which is the moment when young Karr is ready to leave for California and her father ignores her, it illuminates her young character’s turmoil.
Once again, the layering of her time lines puts the reader deeply and equally in now and then, mimicking the way we experience consciousness. But in the author’s act of interpreting her story, the archetypal search for meaning is revealed. The reader is able to see her own introspective action mirrored in the author’s quest for self-knowledge.
. . . new modes of access are wanted, new perspectives through which our late-modern lives can be understood. And this is one of the signal uses of the memoir. For whatever story the memoirist may tell, he or she is also at the same time modeling a way to reflectively make sense of experience – using hindsight to follow the thread back into the labyrinth. Reading their work, we borrow their investigative energy and contemplate similar ways of accessing our own lives (22).
In this regard, Karr’s use of her own current day interpretation of herself, both then and now, is a universal action that every reader can relate to. The content of the introspection is moving, but the bravery of the act itself inspires the reader and invites a deeper commitment to the read.
The illusion of passage and panorama of time is just one of the many effects gained by the techniques discussed in this essay. With the use of direct references to the current-day author, prolepsis, tense changes, and interpretation, Karr shines a spotlight on herself in the moment of writing, thus creating dimensional form. The young character becomes a person with an impending future, which creates a sense of importance to the events unfolding in the scenes. Also, a conversation begins to emerge, a dialogue between the author and reader, which draws the reader in. And with the author’s wisdom and growth superimposed over the struggles of the young character, the persona of the narrator becomes realistic and authoritative. Karr’s techniques help to create a fully realized character with a thoroughly dimensional life.
The author’s multifaceted persona is not simply enhanced but truly created when she tells her story from binary vantage points. The characters of the past and present juxtapose each other and each one stands out more boldly against the backdrop of the other. Ultimately there is a relationship between these two separate voices, as the author looks back on herself with both a subjective and objective point of view. Two time lines wrapped like DNA around each other create a timelessness and timeliness and it becomes the story of she who has lived to tell the tale.
The author of a memoir, who is necessarily also a character, becomes lifelike and believable when she is presented with the complexities of life experience over time that include growth, struggle, and eventual wisdom. Such a character, intimately whispering her story in the ear of the reader, transcends the pages and comes to life.
Birkerts, Sven. The Art of Time in Memoir. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2008.
Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.
Karr, Mary. Cherry: A Memoir. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2000.
Larson, Thomas. Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. Athens: Swallow Press, 2007.
Silverman, Sue William. Fearless Confessions: A Writers Guide to Memoir. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2009.
Cherry is my favourite among Mary Karr’s works – lovely use of it as illustration here by a fellow Lesley grad. Cheers!
Sue, I only recently read Liar’s Club (I considered reading it a couple of years ago, but thought,”I’m not going to read that – Liar’s Club sounds like one of those sentimental, self-indulgent memoirs.” Why I had that impression I don’t know). Now, I’m so glad I read it, and look forward to reading Cherry. Thanks for sharing an intelligently written piece. And the examples are spot-on. Congratulations on graduating!