“Press at the Edge of Memory and Truth”

Mary Karr talks with Sherman Alexie at The New Yorker Festival 2017

October 6, 2017

nyfWhen I heard that Mary Karr was going to have a 90-minute conversation with Sherman Alexie as part of the New Yorker Festival of 2017, I had to find a way to get to NYC.  I searched flights from Denver to LaGuardia, searched lodging on TripAdvisor, mapped out an itinerary.  After I had the logistics of the trip mapped out, I realized that on October 7, the morning after their conversation, I had to be in Denver for a commitment to present at a conference.  The adrenaline rush to hear two of my favorite writers puddled into disappointment. 

But I kept at the planning.  And an unlikely solution came to me.  I’d fly out on Friday morning, arrive in the City around 3:00, find the theater, have dinner, and go listen to the conversation which would end at 8:30.  I’d catch the flight back to Denver at 10:45 and arrive at DIA around 1:00 a.m.  A long day, seventeen hours, but sandwiched in between flights would be a literary event I would not have the opportunity to experience any other way. 

In the dark theater of the School of Visual Arts in the Chelsea neighborhood, I scribbled notes in the composition notebook I always carry, sporadic chicken scratchings, scrawled out haphazardly and cross-ways to the lined paper.

So what stuck from the 90 minutes?

In the best moments, it felt like eavesdropping on two people who hold huge mutual respect for each other talking about family, in general, and more specifically about Sherman Alexie’s newest work, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, a memoir about his relationship with his mother who died in July of 2015.  Of course, they were also “on” and their conversation had an audience; the act of being observed changes the nature of the object being observed.  We were, in essence, a part of the event.

There were awkward moments in the conversation like there are in any other conversation.  Moments when Mary’s question (it was such an intimate space that I am going to sometimes use first names), a good question, caused Sherman to pause, gather his thoughts, and in some instances, collect himself before answering.  He became choked up with some responses, like when he commented on how his mother probably saved his life:  “the first was when she quit drinking and the second was when she let me leave the rez.”

Karr’s questions were almost those of a therapist – exploring, pressing Sherman to reveal motivations behind the book, the drive to tell the story about his relationship with his mother.  And he said early in the conversation, “I had never written about her before” that he “avoided writing about her” and was somewhat “scared of writing honestly about my mother. I wanted to be truthful.”  Mary said later, “your book is very loving” toward her and it was a book that had to be written.

At one point, Sherman said something like “I knew there would be this priestly thing” about having this conversation with Mary.  So maybe the conversation was somewhat confessional since they joked about Mary’s Catholicism and Sherman’s belief system characterized by what he calls “spiritual coincidences.”

At other times, she probed about the nature of memoir writing.  She asked him if he considered writing this book as fiction.  In the first three months after his mother’s death, Sherman wrote something like 150 poems and “thought [he] had a book of poetry.”  And somehow it morphed into his first – and what sounds like his last – memoir.  “I’m not going to do it again!” he laughed when Mary pressed him about the challenge of writing memoir, a genre, she joked, that’s “very ghetto in the literature world. You’ve sunk to the bottom.”

In the midst of writing my own memoir, I was an active and reflective listener during the dialogue, listening carefully as Karr mentioned how family stories change depending on who is telling them and with the different occasions and contexts for the telling.  How we move, as Sherman said, from being “the boy on the kitchen floor,” absorbing the stories and experiences in the family, to being the storyteller, the voice for the family stories and family history.  And that shift is always a jolt as you may hold on to an idea that you convince yourself is true about your family – but perspective, time, and memory may ultimately challenge that idea.

And there it was, the heart of the conversation, the reason I was there eavesdropping: the steady pulse throughout their talk about family, truth, and memory.   To illustrate, Sherman’s memoir includes the story of his mother being conceived by rape told three different times in the memoir.  And when Sherman told how he came to write that story of his mother (and of his older sister who was also conceived by a rape), Mary expressed her admiration at his “willingness to press at all the edges of memory and truth and how stories are told in your family.”

My daughter would ask, once I was back in Colorado, if attending the conversation was a life-changing event.  I had to think for a minute.  Did the conversation change my life?  It was a once-in-a-lifetime event in many ways – but did that make it life-changing? If I had to label it something, the label would be “life affirming” or at least “affirming of a writerly life.”

It affirmed the power of stories and the necessity of telling them. It’s through sharing our experience in the world that we may give others strength and hope.

I’m left these three weeks later, summoning the courage to press at the edges of memory, to tell my one, true story.

One Response to ““Press at the Edge of Memory and Truth””

  1. Glad I threatened to book the flight if you didn’t! 😂 What a great experience and now a memory! Nice reflective blog entry.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: