They say don’t meet your heroes, but I met one of mine last week at school—the Teddy Roosevelt on my Favorite Writer Mount Rushmore—and don’t worry: I’m still here, unscathed, even more enchanted, the opposite of jaded, eager to tell you all about it.
Mary Karr, for those unfamiliar, is known in the literary world as The Godmother of the Modern Memoir. A classmate of mine referred to her as The J.K. Rowling of Writing About Personal Shit—in terms of both prolific output and far-reaching impact. I described her to my parents as being as revolutionary in her field as Steph Curry is in his. It’s not hyperbole. And it’s also not hyperbole when I say that meeting her (on Thursday, April 12th at 7:04pm Eastern Time) was the most starstruck I’ve been since I met Nomar Garciaparra as a wide-eyed eight-year-old who had dressed up as Nomar for Halloween three years in a row. (Side note: Karr taught at Emerson a million years ago with David Foster Wallace. AND they briefly dated. I was not aware of this before last Thursday. It was all a lot to process.)
Karr read excerpts from most of her books, including Lit which is likely her most critically-acclaimed memoir:
I had an appetite for drink, a taste for it, a talent. Maybe it fostered in me a creeping ambition-deficit disorder, but it could ease an ache…which ensures that life gets lived in miniature. In lieu of the large emotions—sorrow, fury, joy—I had their junior counterparts—anxiety, irritation, excitement. But humming through me like a third rail was poetry, the myth that if I could shuffle the right words into the right order, I could get my story straight, write myself into an existence that included the company of sacred misfit poets whose pages had kept me company as a kid…as a toddler, Mother’s slate-blue volume of Shakespeare served as my booster seat, and in grade school, I memorized speeches she’d read aloud, to distract or engage her. Picture a bedridden woman with an ice pack balanced on her throbbing head while a girl—age seven, draped in a bedsheet and wearing a cardboard crown—recites Macbeth as Lady M. scrubs blood off.
Obviously, she’s able to find humor in the darkest places in her life (“A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.”). Obviously, she’s more performer than most introverted writers, equipped with a rare, in-person writerly bluster and what’s left of her childhood (often foul-mouthed) East Texas twang. But what I was most drawn to during her reading was how she’s the impossibly perfect blend of self-deprecating, self-knowledgable, and self-empowering. There’s nothing like it. And all of that charm boils down to language and syntax, her prose clearly coming from a poetry background:
There’s a space at the bottom of an exhale, a little hitch between taking in and letting out that’s a perfect zero you can go into. There’s a rest point between the heart muscle’s close and open – an instant of keenest living when you’re momentarily dead. You can rest there.
I brought my copy of Lit to her signing table after. She saw my Harry Styles sweatshirt.
“Is your name Harry?”
“Oh…uh….” *Sweating. Looks around frantically* “It’s…my name…it’s.. actually Will…”
“Will! That’s always been my favorite name!”
*Sweats more. Mutters something incoherent.* “And I’m… just a Will…not a William. Harry’s… actually for Harry Styles…”
“Oh, I know him!”
*Pulls up sweatshirt sleeve to show Harry Styles’ unofficial slogan*
“Oh…isn’t that wonderful? Treat People With Kindness. Always. Always. I love that. Here you go, sweetie.”
*Will Not Harry floats away with signed book. Remains smiling for 5 days. End scene.*