Mary Karr — The Master of Memoir on Creative Process and Finding Gifts in the Suffering (#479)

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For me, the solution to fear is curiosity and presence. I can’t be terrified and curious at the same time.

— Mary Karr

Mary Karr (@marykarrlit) is the author of three award-winning, bestselling memoirs: The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit. She is also the author of The Art of Memoir, which lays bare her own process as she breaks down the craft of memoir, and Tropic of Squalor, her latest volume of poetry.

A Guggenheim fellow in poetry, Karr has won Pushcart Prizes for both verse and essays. Other grants include the Whiting Award, PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and a Radcliffe/Bunting Institute Fellowship. Karr is also the Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University.

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#479: Mary Karr — The Master of Memoir on Creative Process and Finding Gifts in the Suffering

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Want to hear another episode with a writer who isn’t afraid to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable? Listen to my conversation with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, in which we discuss maintaining surface tension in a story, making people faint with words, the therapeutic application of dangerous writing, cross-cultural explorations of mythology, and much more.

#457: Chuck Palahniuk, Author of Fight Club — A Masterclass in Creative Living and Dangerous Writing


  • Connect with Mary Karr:

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram


  • Mary elaborates on an excellent, real-life illustration of why she became a memoirist sharing her life growing up in what she calls “The Ringworm Belt.” [04:40]
  • What does Mary consider to be the catalyst for expressing herself in the way she does and publishing it to the world? [06:59]
  • On the role that reading played for young Mary. [10:13]
  • What was the feeling that elicited Mary’s desire to become a poet when she was five or six years old — even though she’d never met one? [13:04]
  • “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” seems to be graffiti artist Banksy’s 21st-century adaptation of the Cesar A. Cruz 1997 poem title “To Comfort The Disturbed, and to Disturb the Comfortable: Onward Children of the Sun,” which was apparently modified from humorist Finley Peter Dunne’s 1902 sarcastic media critique that stated: “Th’ newspaper…comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable.” [17:07]
  • As a high school dropout, how did Mary weasel her way into college, and what was it about the environment that turned her from someone who got a D in art her senior year to an A student in college? [17:57]
  • How Mary, even after leaving the place where she’d gone through so much trauma, brought the darkness with her wherever she went. [22:22]
  • With up to 1,200 applications submitted for 12 positions, how is it decided who gets into Mary’s hyper-selective graduate seminar at Syracuse University? [26:06]
  • What does the first day of this class look like, and what is it designed to illustrate about the way we process the memories that build our memoirs? [29:10]
  • Another effective, memorable exercise: writing down beautiful pieces of language one might encounter in a commonplace book, and maybe helping others in need keep an eye out for door number three when the first two seem unnecessarily rash. [35:02]
  • Having grown up in an atheistic household, what is the importance and utility of prayer in Mary’s life today? What part did it play in helping her maintain sobriety? [39:09]
  • Now Catholic, what do the Ignatian exercises mean to Mary? How do they help her remain mindful of the everyday experiences for which she’s grateful — like the feeling she gets from seeing Steve Kornacki delivering election updates on MSNBC? [52:28]
  • Obligatory Texas talk about weaponry and hunting. [58:49]
  • In what kind of forge did Mary’s unique wordsmithing come to be? [1:02:24]
  • On rough drafts, the process of revision, and tapping into past memories for storytelling grist. [1:10:22]
  • When dredging up past memories is painful and draining, what does Mary do to cope with it all, and why does writing about it seem to be such a different experience from expressing it in some other way? [1:18:52]
  • At 65, why does Mary feel the happiest she’s ever been, and what advice would she give her younger self about therapy? [1:22:34]
  • What type of therapy has been most effective for Mary (and what’s been the least)? [1:26:04]
  • Mary’s solution to fear, and how getting through an uncomfortable time can be like having a trick knee or trying to quit smoking. [1:30:16]
  • We don’t always recognize the gifts we’re given by suffering through disappointing and difficult times until long after the fact. [1:35:37]
  • What would Mary’s billboard say? [1:44:19]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:45:21]


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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11 Replies to “Mary Karr — The Master of Memoir on Creative Process and Finding Gifts in the Suffering (#479)”

  1. This is one of my favorite podcast episodes of all time…. what an interesting woman, fascinating storyteller and such an entertaining and wonderful surprise. Thanks for bringing her to all of us, can’t wait to dive into her work! Well done Tim and Mary.

  2. Great episode! I’d love to hear more interviews/tips on the topic of dealing with uncomfortable situations. Maybe even more specifically in the business world, I.e. client dissatisfaction/conflict. Or any materials you can recommend via your five bullet Friday!

  3. (Nothing to do with Mary Karr) Tim, you ask us to reply to your 5-Bullet Friday — November 13, 2020 “in the blog comments” (which take some finding!)

    I wouldn’t dispute that Rabbi Sacks was probably an incredible man. As he passed away last Saturday, I would also offer all condolences t all who know him.

    However, I’m taken aback by your comment, “I’m sure he’s already helping those in need on the other side”. Surely someone as clear-thinking and investigative as Tim Ferriss has worked out by now that there is no “other side”?

    Or was that just a tongue-in-cheek comment to appease those who haven’t worked it out yet?

    1. You believe that there is no “other side”, no life after this one. It doesn’t make it so. I believe there is life after death. My believing doesn’t make it so either. I also believe that we’ll find out whereas you have no hope that there is anything to find out.
      Your argument that all “clear-thinking and investigative folk should believe as you believe is erroneous.
      Maybe one day you yourself will “work out” that there is life after death, that this life is not all there is. Happy investigating.

  4. Hi Tim, my comment is not related to this particular interview but rather the advertisement for venison. If Maui has animals it needs to cull, why don’t they use birth control in their food? I know someone in Los Angeles who does this at a feral cat colony which assists in keeping that population down in addition to the trapping, and spay and neuter that she does. Birth control certainly seems a lot nicer to me than killing animals because there are too many and then eating the benefits.

  5. Thank you so much for your candor Mary. Your life journey mirrored my own in many ways. I laughed so much and teared up a bit too. My mother didn’t try to kill me..not outright anyway, but she was funny and engaging and not a ‘present mother …I still have to scars…Daddy was in the war and totally emotionally unavailable…drugs, alcohol, joined a cult and later, with an amazing therapist now 17 years in recovery..thank you so much for your inspiring interview.

  6. Her billboard is great. You need a sandwich. (I need a sandwich) I could listen to her frank wisdom forever. Thanks. Also I have another question– I can’t post it here. I promise it’s cool. I am too- honest. I’m a physics teacher. Will you email me so I can email you? I know I know. It’s about a mansion and healing and it’s probably magic.

  7. Loved this and listening to Mary. She is brilliant, funny, smart and inspiring. I was touched and/or belly laughed throughout the whole podcast. 👍🏻

  8. I came across this interview randomly on Twitter, as a fan of Mary Karr’s. I don’t usually even look at Twitter and hadn’t heard of Tim Ferriss (sorry!!) but enjoyed the podcast so much that now I’ve started listening to some of Tim’s other interviews during my late-afternoon laps with headphones, around the park. Soon I wondered, further, “Who is this guy–Tim?” One podcast mentions him being in Austin, TX, while in another he’s in San Francisco. I looked at his website under the “About” section, which is wonderfully cryptic. Here, Tim “likes bear claws” and apparently enjoys “writing about himself in the third person.” I guess I’ll just have to listen to more podcasts, especially since I am intrigued by the bear claws thing. Strangely, that is the single food item I have told people throughout my whole entire life that I can’t stand! Whoah, and here’s someone who lists it as the top item in their bio.
    Thanks, Tim, for some unexpectedly entertaining listening.

  9. great interview and good idea bout keeping the journal of loved lines/quotes. The best part for me was when Mary told you about her body talking to her more loudly than her pain persona reminded me of the first retreat I did here its therapy on steroids, but in a good way. And the best one-liner was the belt buckle big enough to get HBO was hilarious.