The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 15. On Book Structure and the Order of Information

Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being. Do you desire to create a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.

St. Augustine, City of God

In terms of basic book shape, I’ve used the same approach in all three of mine: I start with a flash forward that shows what’s at stake emotionally for me over the course of a book, then tell the story in straightforward, linear time.

I wouldn’t suggest that shape for everybody, but I would say you have to start out setting emotional stakes—why the enterprise is a passionate one for you, what’s at risk—early on. That’s why the flashback structure, which I borrowed from Conroy and Crews (among thousands of other storytellers), is a time-honored one. It’s sitting on the coffin, telling the tale of a death—or rebirth, in my case.

Young writers often ask me to help them order information in a story. But there’s a proven method you can try. Imagine sitting down to tell it to a pal at lunch. You’d have no problem figuring out what goes where.

Usually the big story seems simple: They were assholes, I was a saint. If you look at it ruthlessly, you may find the story was more like: I richly provoked them, and they became assholes; or, They were mostly assholes, but could be a lot of fun to be with; or, They were so sick and sad, they couldn’t help being assholes, the poor bastards; or, We took turns being assholes. . . . (I always joke to students that everything I’ve ever written started out: I am sad. The end. By Mary Karr.)

There’s the big, almost-capital-S Story of a whole book (how I survived becoming an orphan by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, say), and there are smaller stories or anecdotes—the time Stooge and I stole the watermelons. If you let yourself tell those smaller anecdotes or stories, the overarching capital-S Story will eventually rise into view.