When I was sixteen, seventeen, and beyond, I listened to the music that was hip in my circle. I woke each morning to my clock radio, and the English accent of DJ Richard Blade on KROQ, back when KROQ was cutting edge (do any radio stations matter anymore?). I listened to (and liked) The Cure, The Smiths, Tears for Fears, Pet Shop Boys, Marc Almond and Soft Cell. All those skinny, fey, sensitive English boys with their black nail polish. But alone in my room, away from friends and their strict censure on what was cool, I listened to Bruce late into the night, and dreamed of escape. Whatever word pops into your mind when you hear “Bruce Springsteen,” (patriotic, American, blue collar, corny), the thing that pops into my head is: unabashed romantic.
All you really need to know about Bruce the Romantic, and my own deep-seated love of Americana, the open road and the urge for transcendence, is in the opening lines of "The Promised Land:"
On a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert
I pick up my money and head back into town./
Driving 'cross the Waynesboro county line,
I got the radio on, and I'm just killing time./
Working all day in my daddy's garage
Driving all night, chasing some mirage./
But pretty soon, little girl, I'm gonna take charge.
Well the dogs on Main Street howl/
'Cause they understand,
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister I ain't a boy/No, I'm a man
And I believe in a promised land.
God. That still slays me. And it still ignites that urge in me, to find a boy with grease under his fingernails, and say, “let's get outta here.” (The fact that post-divorce, post-'80s Bruce deals with what the hell that boy & girl are supposed to do with themselves at the inevitable end of the road is why I don't pay much attention to him these days. Sorry.)
But this post isn't about Bruce. It's about me, in the dark. Back in high school, it was the literal dark of my bedroom and listening to the sound of hope, taking to heart the line about the passenger door being wide open, and all I had to do was climb in.
And now I'm a lot older, and the voice in the dark, my figurative dark of struggling to pass as a responsible, well-adjusted citizen and parent, is writer Mary Karr. With her trio of memoirs recounting her dramatic childhood (The Liar's Club), her drug-addled, frustrated and lonely adolescence (Cherry) and then her adult struggles with alcohol and the demons of her past (Lit), Karr continues to be not just a mentor and inspiration for my writing self, but also a sort of lifeline, an extended hand by which I can pull myself out of the muck of my own past and figure out how to deal with it. Not just on the page but...really deal with it.
I think all writers and artists and creatives need mentors – someone to look up to, someone who's gone before and blazed a trail. A path of breadcrumbs to follow, before you can strike out and make your own path (just to nail down that metaphor). As a college student, both undergrad and graduate, I never encountered that mentor. I was taught by some wonderful, charismatic male professors who vibrated with a love of good books – but that wasn't mentoring. (I also had a few sorry, washed-up, ego-driven professors that had to be skirted around like mean-tempered dogs.) But a woman writer, professor, or even, hell, just a like-minded older soul that I could emulate and maybe leech some life wisdom out of – that woman never (and hasn't yet) crossed my path.
So, I've got Mary Karr. How to explain the feeling of recognition so strong that it's a form of relief, to read what I've known and experienced all my life, elucidated there in black & white on a page?
“Kids in distressed families are great repositories of silence and carry in their bodies whole arctic wastelands of words not to be uttered, stories not to be told. Or to be told in sketchiest form – merely brushed by. It's an irony that airing these dramas is often a family's chief taboo. […] Without such talk by the kids of these families, there's usually a grave sense of personal fault, of failing to rescue those beloveds lost or doomed. That silence ticks out inside its bearer the constant small sting of indictment—what if, what if, what if; why didn't I, why didn't I, why didn't I....” (From Cherry)Or, in a brief aside, comparing herself, a Texas girl from a crazy, blue-collar family to her well-to-do, well-parented peers at a private college, she describes the feeling of being an outsider: “I sensed a dashed line around me where invisible scissors would soon clip me away.” And this: “Their bottomless cool—their cynical postures grown from privilege they were ungrateful for—could make me hate them. Born on third base, my daddy always said of the well off, and think they hit a home run. But by God, I could outdrink the little suckers, and when the dashed lines around my body felt sharp enough to be visible, I might take up a held-out bottle.” (From Lit)
Yes. Karr's sense of being perforated as a clip-out coupon mirrors my own metaphor that I feel around my own so-called peers and the chatty members of the local PTA: of being a busted vase, barely held together by Super-Glue. The cracks might not be visible, but they're always present. And on bad days, that Super-Glue feels more like tape that's barely sticky enough to keep me together.
Re-reading Karr lately reminds me that I need to get back to it – my writing, my own memoir that I've written out long-hand on yellow legal pads. It's fearsome work, which she acknowledges: "The emotional stakes a memoirist bets with could not be higher, and it's physically enervating. I nap on a daily basis like a cross-country trucker." Reading her 2009 interview in The Paris Review again this week, I take heart that I'm on the right path. According to the interview, she's working on a memoir-writing textbook – which you best believe I will gobble up like Reese's Pieces when and if it's published.
If I ever meet Mary Karr in person, I'll likely either be struck dumb and dumber ("er...I really, really like your work...."), or be so starstruck that I'll puke all over her expensive shoes. So this post is my fan letter, to my own personal rock star. I'm holding up my Bic lighter way out here in the cheap seats, Ms. Karr. Rock on.