How I accidentally left voice out of my own childhood memoir

A memoir depends 100% on voice—Mary karr

I was at a writer’s conference when an agent on a  panel grew exasperated and yelled to the crowd of aspiring memoir writers: “Voice! Voice! Anything else you can fix!”

What is voice in a memoir? It’s in that  “I”  that dots every page. Such a skinny little word, yet behind it  is everything that matters. The “I” determines the success or failure of the memoir.  It tells the story, reflects on it, and stars in it. Voice is

often treated as if it’s this mysterious element –everybody tells you how much you need it, but nobody tells you what it is. I’ve seen it compared to riding a bicycle, a creature emerging from a swamp, that sort of thing. Here I use  the word “voice” for  the eccentric, knowledgeable, or trustworthy personality of the storyteller, whom  we call the narrator. (“Personality” is another word for voice, really.

What are my qualifications for sitting on my lofty cloud, raining wisdom and advice about voice in the memoir on you? Well, I’ve studied it and taught it.

But I’m mainly qualified because I’ve all the mistakes myself. Hopefully so you won’t have to. (You’re welcome).

The story goes back years. I was 34, and had talked my way into a job as editor  on an upscale interior design  magazine  called “SF.” , a position for which I was woefully unfit.  remember at the interview making up something  about my  passion for the Cezanne-like effect of a scarf arranged on a coffee table, but I got that detail out of a book. Soon I was interviewing people about their furnishings, asking about the baroque couch next to the  antique Japanese altar table, the  T’ang Dynasty terracotta  figure of a court lady atop a wenge coffee table. The Chinese limestone jar that o stroked admiringly when the woman said, . “it was  a burial jar for a baby.”

Meanwhile I’d been publishing little humor pieces in the Sunday paper, and was thrilled when an agent friend got me an advance to write a rollicking book about growing up in a big family.  That now-moldy contract came from a young editor at Doubleday named Casey Feutch who came from a family of 12 kids (that’s a tip for you: look for editors you have something in common with).

The contract said: “Work shall be based on the Author’s growing up in a wild Irish family, consisting of seven children, an angry mother, and a wayward father who travels the back roads of California in search of frustrated dreams.”

This was my chance to turn the subject of interior design back over to those who could tell white from  no  crème anglaise walls. and do my own writing. I had so many good stories! The world deserved to hear them. My father himself, by then living in a bakery truck in the Mohave, was supportive: ”Go ahead, say I blasted your life at a tender age. There must be some way we can get famous.”

The book was to be called The Prodigal Father.  But that was over 20 titles ago, and today I just call it Lagunitas, for that damp little town across the Golden Gate Bridge I grew up in. Lagunitas—now known for Coho salmon, Janis Joplin, and now for an IPA (India Pale Ale) that’s the only beer my husband Bill drinks— In 1988, was a nothing little town that I was going to put on the map myself.

I fired up my Radio Shack TRS-80 computer and started to type. It was all going in:  the layer cakes Grandma studded with toothpicks to hold them together, what a wonderful child I was, all of it.

I had complete confidence that I could write a book.

I never did.

Oh, I worked on it. Wrote draft after draft for year after year. Doubleday sent flowers, cards, and encouraging letters, followed in time by requests for the return of the $2500 advance (which I’d put into a purring black Toyota Corolla, on which I burned out three clutches.

I couldn’t send them the manuscript. It was bad. I wrote about the rainy day my mother drove the car off the road while taking the six of us kids to the dentist. I was  proud of my images, “the windshield wipers rubbed noisily on the glass, providing us   wedge-shaped glimpses of the gray-green trees and hills folded in a row like Sunday newspapers in green plastic rain wrappers.”

Isn’t that good, “Sunday newspapers in green plastic rain wrappers? I had lots of good stuff like that. But when I read parts of the book aloud to people, my listeners’ faces were blank afterward. “I liked it all,” someone would say, meaning she didn’t know what was wrong, but something sure was.

I never quit. I didn’t have to, because every time I realized how bad it was, I had a great idea for how to fix it. Instead of starting the story in Lagunitas in 1961, I’d start in 1941, with my father hotfooting it through pineapple fields under the falling Japanese bombs.

I’d make it a novel. A memoir, a novel again, from my mother’s point of view. Linked essays! A play! If I was changing it ,say, from a novel to a memoir,   I’d globally replace “Casey” –my name is the novel version –with “I”. And of course, I’d always miss a few, so you’d get sentences like this:

“I ran out outside with her new jug of instant cocoa mix.”

After each brainstorm, I’d cover the dining room table and floor with my new notes and plot outlines, making my husband Bill clean  around them. Then I’d bombard my weary writing partners with yet another version of the first 50 pages.

Since that first Doubleday contract the earth has circled the sun many, many times. My feet have gone  from size 8 to 9 and ½, my kids have grown up, black hairs have sprouted on my chin.  I wince at memories: of being locked in the bathroom to work on it while my 14-month-old granddaughter pounded on the door, saying, “where’s Bobbie?”  Of dictating notes to a laptop beside me as I drove to Marin to stay with my terminally ill mother, and of slipping off the bed where she and I were watching a movie together to go work on it some more.

I was churning in place like an empty dryer. Why  couldn’t I make the damn book work? I was a newspaper columnist by then, with some magazine work and a couple of other books to my credit.

I never saw the simple fact that I had no voice in that book. Voice is the most obvious thing in the world, but we don’t see it. I didn’t see it though by then I was teaching voice in the memoir in Saturday workshops at my house.


It wasn’t until a stranger I hired off the Internet told me that reading Lagunitas felt like turning over the pages of a photo  album that I finally quit. Bad memoir! Go to your room!  I threw out the printouts, put it away forever.

I thought and hoped I had, anyway.But as I listened to the writers in my workshops, sometimes a thought would sidle in: could these voice exercises be the key to that cobwebby memoir that I hadn’t  destroyed the computer files of?

No! Push that thought back. Not going down that rabbit hole again.

Then one day I gave out a prompt in class, and, having to shut up anyway while everybody wrote, decided grumpily to do it myself.

I can’t remember the exact suggestion I gave, but it was something like “write a summary of your mother as a parent.” Here’s a bit of it:

It occurs to me that she was more like an affectionate babysitter. She looked after us, made those steaming bowls of oatmeal, shopped for jeans at the Bargain Box, cut our hair when it was either that or lead us around by the hand, but left the raising of us –the lessons, the parables, the stories about family –to somebody else, somebody who presumably would arrive home and do that after she left.  This other person was detained somehow, maybe caught in traffic, or stopping off to pick up college catalogs and losing track of the time, and so she never actually arrived, and so we stayed with the babysitter.


My students liked it. After years of teaching, you can tell. The listeners lean forward, faces tight with interest. Or they grow still, their glances going elsewhere as they listen, instead of staying on your face in frozen approving looks. Barbara Cressman’s eyes were shining, the way they do when she’s about to get soppy.

I liked that little passage myself.   It had the voice I wanted —that of the adult author taking a wry look back, rather than that of a nine-year-old prattling in your ear. with a larger understanding.

So  here I am, in the rabbit hole.  I made a writing group  out of my class pets  (and good critiquers) and started doing my own exercises, the ones you’ll see in this book. So I need this book as much as anybody. –That’s why I wrote it. So I could read it.

I can talk the talk but can I walk the walk?  Let’s find out.

And how about you? Do you have a memoir written, or in progress, or in mind? Then this book is for you.

A relaxed, winning voice is not something a person is born with. You work at it. This book will show you exactly how. It all should be fun. Exciting, really. For us print-besotted folks, voice is joy, both in the writing and in the reading.


The wonderfully helpful exercises, models and prompts in this workbook

The only thing I have heard is “write, write and write.”  Which I know is important. But what if all I do is write and it is all crap? – a student

Ok, Sometimes the right voice for a memoir may come to you naturally, without your even trying . Many of my memoir students start out with a great voice, a voice that suits both their  personality and the story they’re  and my main job is to get them  to have confidence in it.

Or maybe it’s good in places. In others, however,  there’s  maybe the faintest whine, or it becomes too dense with information, or too abstract, or repetitive . In these cases you fix the voice just where it needs fixing. Maybe you haven’t found it yet, though you’ve got a pile of drafts. That abandoned manuscript in your drawer?  Pull it out. Many of my projects–memoir, nonfiction, essays, poems, children’s stories –that I move from one new laptop to another, or jam into a file with drafts sticking out the end, don’t work because I haven’t found the  right voice for them. I like discovering that, because if I know what’s wrong, I have a chance of fixing it.

First  we need to have a little chat about writing exercises. Yes, I know. Writers hate writing exercises. My student Bill Putnam, who lives in Santa Cruz, wrote a terrific response to a prompt I gave him, that will go right into his book on gaining a healthy lifestyle after a heart attack. Then he added grumpily:  “I hate this prompt crap. They feel as if they’re just a writing exercise and I’m not that interested in doing writing exercises.” And we  all know, to our sorrow, that sheer volume of writing by itself does not produce voice. Relying on voice is like relying on talent –not enough. You have to do the work, learn the craft. Beethoven was good, but all that practicing didn’t hurt.

The  compilation of exercises, exhortations, and examples here is different. This is directed writing: The exercises are designed to get you into the habit of thinking of yourself, and of the events you’re writing about, as material –material from which you’ll select only what you need for the story you’re telling, the way a cook removes from a cupboard only the ingredients for the meal he has in mind. As you decide what to include, what to leave out, what to heighten, what to minimize, you aren’t transcribing from life. You are creating art. Art selects from life, and arranges those selections into a literary work of art.  And what they teach you will be part of you as a writer for the rest of your life.  So will the confidence they give you.

“What do I do with it afterward?” a student asks when I assign an exercise that is more to . Well, enough it goes right into the book as written. And if it doesn’t? Well, what do you do with your exhilarating run in the park after the run is over? It becomes part of you. You ran today so you have confidence you will run tomorrow. Confidence is  a requirement for as audacious a venture as personal writing.  You’ll be stronger, and smug in your discovery of your disciplined self.

Fie, yes, I  have a tough time doing exercises myself. I am not immune to that  nagging feeling that they must be DIRECTLY RELEVANT TO WHAT I’M TRYING TO DO THIS VERY MINUTE or  they just take time from something I want to be writing.

So maybe you and a writer friend, or group, or class, should vow to go through the book and do the exercises together. Meanwhile  let’s  look at some examples of how voice begins seducing the reader  on the first page, in the  opening lines.

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