"I was a heathen most of my life," said Mary Karr, University of San Francisco's inaugural speaker in the Ignatian Lecture Series on Writing and Spirituality in mid-September. "It was more likely I’d become a pole dancer or a drug mule than a Catholic."
It's the kind of quick wit Karr used throughout the evening talk, interlaced with humility and generous honesty, as she discussed the role of religion in her life and in her work. Before she became an acclaimed writer, she had some "bad jobs" including crawfish trucking.
Now the award-winning poet and New York Times best-selling memoirist of The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit has a new book: The Art of Memoir.
But her discussion hardly focused on the book or its promotion. Mostly, she talked about prayer.
"I ask God what to write and try to write out of that," said the self-described "black-belt sinner" who, growing up, never really believed in God, which she likened to believing in the Easter bunny.
Twenty-six years sober, Karr described her last drink—"hitting concrete" in a car accident—and says she "became teachable in that moment." She said she prays and pursues spirituality "because I want to be a little less of an asshole."
Today, Karr also uses prayer as a writing ritual. But she was clear that opening to inspiration is a daily practice: "God didn’t offer a 5-year plan for a manuscript."
In the beginning, she started with rote prayer. Eventually, she said, "something started happening—a quiet place opening up inside; a moment of peace." She said Catholic communion was like poetry.
Eventually, it was through prayer that Karr tuned in and turned down a seven-figure advance for Lit. She said she never second-guessed her decision, and the book ended up in a better situation. In fact, without her spiritual practice, she didn't think she'd have written anything with the success she did.
"I’m not a good writer. I’m a dogged little bulldog of a rewriter," said Karr, who described the first draft of Lit as "glib and shallow" and joked that her first drafts wouldn’t get her into the MFA program at USF.
Lest you mistake her mastery for writing ease, here's a reality check:
Liars' Club took her three and a half years to write, unless you count the four years she first attempted it as a novel. "I almost have to count the 15 years I was in therapy before I wrote it," she added. Lit took nine years to complete: "I threw away twelve hundred finished pages. I broke the delete key on my computer."
Karr teaches at Syracuse University, which awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2015. In response to an audience question, she said she's learned from her students that writing is "extremely hard and extremely lonely." She described writing memoir, in particular, as psychologically and morally jarring.
Thankfully, that hardship never stopped the critically acclaimed writer from working to completion.
"It hurts and you cry and then you put back on your big-girl panties and put your butt back in the chair."