Master Your Own Story Like a Master: “The Art of Memoir”

If Vincent Van Gogh ever came back to life and hosted a painting class, like one of those drink-wine-and-paint-with-your-friends nights, there’s a good chance it would sell out quickly. Of course, part of the appeal would be his return from the grave, but you get the point.  If Serena Williams decided to spend her maternity leave teaching tennis lessons, people would sign up.  We want to learn from masters.

Mary Karr is the Serena of memoirs. Her three memoirs (The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit) have all stayed on best-seller lists for long spells and she’s made a life out of telling her life story.  In her latest book, The Art of Memoir, she’s essentially put a master class on paper.  And since so much of what she does lines up with our mission here at Rebel Pilgrim, it’s worth sitting at her feet for a minute and paying attention to how she frames her own story and why she feels compelled to tell it.

The entire book is a testament to how telling our own stories, crafting them, and sharing them, is a powerful way to not only connect to others, but to also make sense of our own lives and to see the storylines that are going on behind all the calendar dates. Whether we write best-sellers, or speak to crowds, or try to connect around coffee and bar tables, telling our stories is work and art.

Karr’s advice ranges from the poetic to the practical and all the best stuff is both.  Here are some highlights and brilliant things from Karr that we ought to use in telling our stories:

-We have to both doubt and trust our memory. We should ask questions of ourselves and our people when we try to remember stories as they happened.  We may have mis-told stories so many times that they have become real to us.  In a funny way, how we remember and frame the stories of our lives can be just as formative as what actually happened.

-When we tell stories, we should start with senses.  Good stories describe how a moment smells, sounds, looks, tastes, feels.

-We have to be willing to tell the hard truth.  Even in the details, vulnerability is a way to let others into the story.  Of course, we want to choose our audiences carefully but telling our hard stories has a way of healing the teller and listener alike.

-Small stories can serve larger stories.   Whether we’re looking at our lives, or some communal story, we should gather vignettes and sort out where all they lead, looking for themes and threads along the way.

-Despite fear, we all have stories we should be telling.  Karr admits being haunted by a deep fear that she can’t write with authority, even about herself.  Of course, the evidence seems obvious in her case that her stories have touched a nerve in a larger crowd and it’s been worth whatever pain the process caused.  It may be less obvious in our worlds, but it’s still true: Telling our stories binds us to each other and maybe more importantly, binds us to our own sense of meaning.  Sometimes the most important part of crafting my stories is re-telling them to myself.

A few lines from Karr that would go great on bumpers:

“A great voice renders the dullest event remarkable.”

“If I wrote vaguely enough, I risked nothing.”-

“A curious mind probing for truth may well set your scribbling ass free.”

Rebel Pilgrim is a creative agency based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Rebel Pilgrim believes that story is the only way to spark change and create excitement for any business or product. Start converting your uninterested crowds into engaged clients using the power of storytelling.