Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers talk about The Liars’ Club
Brooke Warner and I are offering the next installment of our New York Times best-selling memoir series starting next week, April 7, for four consecutive weeks.
This time we are teaching The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr, and we will focus, as we always do in preparation for these courses, on how Karr uses craft and technique, and we’ll show you exactly how to implement these skill sets into your own writing.
Here are a few questions attendees of the free webinar last week posed that we thought might interest you.
What’s one of the most important things a writer can take away from studying Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club in depth?
Brooke: I see a lot of authors failing to slow down their writing—moving through scenes too quickly and not giving their readers enough sense of place and space. Mary Karr moves a quick pace at times, but then also slows way down, “showing” so effectively in her writing (as opposed to “telling”). Memoirists often get this feedback from readers that they are not showing enough, and so reading Mary Karr can help you understand exactly how to do this in your own writing.
Karr’s book was one of the early memoirs to reveal the “dysfunctional family.” Do you think this is still a relevant issue that writers need to learn about?
Linda Joy: Family dysfunction and trauma are evergreen topics. Many memoir writers we work with are writing about family issues that include loss, divorce, abuse, and mental illness—topics that are not generally welcomed by society and most families. The rule we hear—”don’t air your dirty laundry”—can slow down the process of revealing deep personal experiences for most writers, but Mary Karr shows us another way by putting it all out there. She uses humor, irony, and vivid descriptions to reveal the layers of her characters, who are close family members. Everyone’s family is unique, and each person has the blessings and the wounds from growing up in their family of origin. Your reader wants to know how you translated your experiences, and how you learned from them. When we teach these courses, we work to uncover the universal messages the authors are sharing, to showcase why a memoir like this would resonate with readers everywhere.
Karr’s book is complex in its construction, but what can we learn from seeing how she created a complex weaving of layers of her story and her family’s story?
The Liars’ Club has a complex structure, but what’s wonderful about it is that in its complexity, it shows writers of memoir how they have freedom to explore within their chosen structure. There is no one right way to write your book. Sometimes you need to just go with the flow; sometimes a rigid, formulaic structure makes the most sense. You won’t know till you’re in it, and feeling whether the container you’ve created is working, or whether your failure to create a container is hindering your progress. The structure of your memoir is something you must have a handle on in order to complete your book, but not to start it. Looking at Karr’s structure can help writers grasp the importance of scope. It’s always a good idea to ask yourself why a writer included what they included. Why did they start where they started, and end where they ended—even if you can’t know the reasons why. These questions inform your own writing process, and help you get a firmer handle on the scope of your own work.
What does Mary Karr do that every writer can learn to do better?
Karr paints vivid pictures using detailed descriptions. We open to a scene of chaos, where the doctor has been called and the sheriff is holding Mary’s sister. Mary’s nightgown had Texas bluebonnets “bunched into nosegays tied with ribbon.” The bed frame tilted against the wall with a “scary spidery look.” The character descriptions show the particulars, and drops the reader right into a time and a place with a clear depiction of who’s all there. She begins the book with a scene that she is trying to understand, to unpack, as many memoir writers are trying to do, especially in a first draft. In every class we teach we touch upon the elements of scene, but to recap here, a scene takes place at a particular moment in time, and in a specific location. A good way to manage your scenes is ask yourself the following questions:
- Where are you?
- When does this scene take place?
- What year is it, and how old are you?
- Who else is in the scene?
- What sensual details can bring your scene alive? Note sounds, smells, colors, and texture.
- Why is everyone in this scene-what significant event is taking place?
- What will the reader take away from this scene?
- How does this scene relate to your overall theme?
We hope you’ll join us for our four-week course about Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club. We focus both on the craft of the writer, but also how understanding what they did will make your writing shine brighter.
Check out the syllabus, and remember, NAMW members always get a discount, so you can join us for these four weeks for just $75.