I heard Mary Karr read in Berkeley a week or two ago. She was a shining beacon of honesty, this beautiful badass with a whip-quick tongue and more smarts than all of us in the audience combined. She got on stage and said things like, “Writing about my family set them free.” And then she turned around and said, “Oh, that guy. He was a complete nutburger.” I devoured Lit, her book about “getting drunk and getting sober; becoming a mother by letting go of a mother; learning to write by learning to live.”
I sat in the audience clutching one of my last advance copies of Dog Medicine in my sweaty palm. I whispered to my friend Karen, “Do I give it to her?”
Karen said, “Yes! Of course!”
“You think?” I said.
We stood in Mary’s book-signing line. As I watched her smile and scrawl her name with a thick black marker in book after book, I thought about how voraciously I had read her books as a budding writer, how in-awe she left me with her honesty and structure, and how I remain floored that her book proposal for one book turned into three knockout memoirs.
Then I thought about how many years I’ve been working on my book, and how many tears I’ve shed and how many grey hairs I’ve sprouted and how many pounds I’ve accumulated sitting ass-in-chair. Then when it was my turn to give her my copy of her new book for her to sign, my hand shook and I held out my book. “This is for you,” I said, not nearly loud enough. “It’s my memoir. It’s not out yet. You can just recycle it if you want.”
You. Can. Just. Recycle. It. If. You. Want.
Why do I do this?
Why? My life’s work? Reduced, by me, to recycle-worthy paper waste.
The thing is, I felt okay saying this at the time. I even felt a little relieved, because Mary probably gets a lot of readers coming at her, handing her all sorts of earnest, sweaty manuscripts.
But a few weeks have gone by, and I’m mad at myself. I should have said, “I poured my goddamned heart into these pages. This is the best I’ve got, and if it’s any good, it’s because of brilliant writers like you.”
She smiled, read Dog Medicine’s title and subtitle out loud and thanked me. I said “You’re welcome,” and walked off into the cool Berkeley night.
A few days later, I cracked open her newest title,The Art of Memoir, and read her first line: “No one elected me the boss of memoir.” I thought… Again…
Why do we do this?
No man would think to write this disclaimer as the opening line of his craft book about memoir after publishing three best-selling memoirs. It wouldn’t even occur to him. But here we are, denouncing ourselves in our introductory lines.
Mary, as your loyal reader, I anoint you: Boss of Memoir.
And I take it back.
Please don’t recycle Dog Medicine. If you can’t read it, at least leave it someplace where someone might find it. Let the pages live. I didn’t mean it. “Recycle the book.” I didn’t mean to say those words.