You Can Call Me Block, for Short

Samuel Johnson Isn't Afraid of Telling It Like It Is

It’s satisfying to have someone smarter than you are conducting interviews, to have them ask questions you couldn’t conjure up yourself. But sometimes the most satisfying questions are the simple ones, the ones you’ve been wondering about for a long time.

It isn’t like I’ve been repeatedly asking why Mary Karr wrote her memoirs. But I have often wondered why, in general, people feel the urge to write memoirs. Some reasons make perfect sense—such as Cheryl Strayed’s answer on the AWP panel I saw in February. Strayed moved from fiction to memoir when she realized her real mother and her real mother’s story were becoming conflated with the mother and mother’s story in her novel. One morning she woke up sobbing, knowing that she needed to write what really happened in order to preserve her real mother in her own memory.

I wonder if this is often the reason for turning to the truth in writing: feeling the need to preserve something sacred. I also wonder if sometimes the process of writing a memoir is helpful in making sense of something that one can’t otherwise make good enough sense of. The act of putting it into a greater context can help highlight the grand patterns.

I was surprised to read Mary Karr’s response to an interview question posed by Amanda Fortini for the Paris Review about why she wrote her first memoir. When Fortini asked:

Why did you feel a need to document your life? Did you write The Liars’ Club in order to get the story off your chest?

This part of Karr’s response wasn’t so surprising:

By the time I wrote The Liars’ Club, it was off my fucking chest. I’d slogged through therapy, and my family was fairly healed, in no small part due to my mother’s own hard-won sobriety. I was divorced and sober and, remarkably enough, employed as a college professor teaching poetry. My sister’s family was the picture of prosperity. My dad had died after being paralyzed for five years. My son was thriving. But our story was nonetheless standing in line to be written.

This is the part that really knocked my stuffing out:

Plus I needed the cake. Like Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” I was newly divorced, a single mom feeling around for change in pocket lint. I didn’t have a car, which meant taking my kid to the grocery store in his red wagon, and two hours of bus time to pick him up after school on days I taught.

I’m not being sarcastic either. My students sometimes ask me to tell them when I’m being serious. “We can’t tell,” they say. “You look the same when you’re joking and when you’re not.”

I’m telling the truth: I never write with money in mind as an end result. My mercenary thoughts are more like this: If I get this published, then I’ll be able to write it in my bio, or, If I get something published someday, then maybe I’ll get an even better teaching gig.

This idea of writing for money feels wrong for me. Not to say that Mary Karr shouldn’t have done it. I’m glad she did. She’s a funny, vivid, and full-of-surprises story teller. But does anything feel strange to the rest of you about selling your life experiences? Is this a normal mode of thought–this idea of Samuel Johnson’s that those who don’t write for money are blockheads?

My dad has always called my sister and me Knuckleheads. Now, thanks to Samuel Johnson, I have a new name for myself.


  • Jenny says:

    Good post, Shira. I’ve read that Ken Follett also started writing because he was broke and had a young family and his car died. But I suspect that most people who write for money do not succeed as Mary Karr did–unless you’re a reality TV celebrity, like Snooki or something–clearly, she wouldn’t write except for money! The problem is the people who succeed are interviewed, but those who fail are not, and I’m sure there are a lot more writers who have failed to ever make a cent. I think the only reasonable goal to have in writing is to try your best to make good art.

  • Brendan says:

    It seems right to me. While of course I harbor fantasies of my novel becoming a bestseller, I would hate to try and write something simply because I think it would sell. Nor do I feel a need to validate my writing ability by being paid. “You’d be paid to write,” does not make a potential job more appealing.

  • tanya.debuff says:

    Karr is such a spitfire! Gotta love that. I agree with the person above who said that many people have probably written with the same ideal, to make some money–it’s just that we don’t hear from them. Money doesn’t motivate me to write, but then no one’s offered to pay me for writing, either. If and when I get to Karr’s skill level, maybe that’ll be an option. :)

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