The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 13. On Information, Facts, and Data

The most interesting information comes from children, for they tell all they know and then stop.

Mark Twain

The first chapters of most memoirs are fact-packed. Facts are the meat and potatoes of writing—necessary for a meal but devoid of much innate savor. Nobody buys a memoir—except maybe those by ubiquitous celebrities—to master the cold data of someone’s life. Most memoirists stand daunted by the first information-dense chapter, wondering how to cram in all that background data without the pages sounding like a shampoo bottle’s list of ingredients. Informational writing tells, it doesn’t show. Some writers make such great sentences that they fascinate even while dispensing facts. But mostly information is the good writer’s nemesis. It yanks the reader out of scenes, away from drama and lived experience, where the reader can watch external events and interpret them on his own. Getting fed bland information is like being preached to by a schoolmarm.

That said, here’s the kind of data you might need to squeeze in.

–I was fourteen and seven feet tall.

–The war’s losses increased tenfold, and yet high command denied we were losing.

–The drought lasted seven years and bankrupted the family.

–His father was a banker, his mother a homemaker.

Some facts hold so much drama or psychological interest, they prompt natural curiosity and a desire to know more:

–In 1968, he shot himself with a Smith and Wesson pistol.

The most skillful writers either package facts so they hold this kind of psychological interest, or the data get palmed off in carnal scenes the reader can imagine and engage with on a physical level. In these books, you often don’t notice you’re being fed a string of facts. They’re sprinkled into other writing like pepper—there when you need them, but otherwise invisible.

My own first drafts start with information, then I try to herd that information out of my head into a remembered or living scene. I often interview myself about how I came to an opinion. Then, rather than present an abstract judgment (“She was a thief”), I try to re-create how I came to that opinion. “She was a thief” becomes “I stared into the computer’s big green eye, inside which sat the web site where my diamond bracelet was being sold, Lydia’s email contact in the corner.”

Some data, you may think you need to blurt out—the year, for instance. But saying, “On the news that summer, I watched the president resign before helicopters on the White House lawn” says “Nixon administration” to the reader in a slightly more fetching way. One cheap way writers try to strap on character is with T-shirt slogans and brand-name clothing. I encourage my students to work a little harder than this. Try to find something singular and dramatic a person does, instead of just gluing on a label that limits meaning to present-day fashion and won’t make sense fifty years hence.

Take data about a speaker’s age and size. “Standing under the orange hoop, I was the only freshman who could lift one ape-long arm and brush net.” This says age and size and basketball prowess while being evocative. “I tried to hunch inside the new letter jacket, but my bony wrists stuck out.” This adds an element of psychology—self-consciousness.

Rather than simply describing his father’s physique in Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt dispenses data about the price on his father’s head and then occupies a child’s mind pondering his father’s actual noggin being paid for.

[My father] fought with the Old IRA and for some desperate act he wound up a fugitive with a price on his head.

When I was a child I would look at my father, the thinning hair, the collapsing teeth, and wonder why anybody would give money for a head like that. When I was thirteen my father’s mother told me a secret: as a wee lad your poor father was dropped on his head. It was an accident. He was never the same after, and you must remember that people dropped on their heads can be a bit peculiar.

McCourt’s talent for verbal wit packed into a child’s mindset means the paternal bean serves as an occasion for dispensing other, more dramatic data. He lets us hear in his grandmother’s voice how he learned about his father’s dropped-on head. This foreshadows the family’s coming disasters and promises drama, piquing a reader’s curiosity. In the course of all that, he gives us a carnal portrait of the old man, too.

George Orwell’s moving memoir of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, also palms off key data in a subtle way. Rather than start with the political sects and conflicts within the revolutionary ranks, he focuses on his encounter with a single Italian freedom fighter. The description of the young guy locates the book as a song of praise to the peasant people Orwell futilely fought alongside against fascism. It’s one of dozens such portraits, and it shows us why he’s there.

He was a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or -six, with reddish yellow hair and powerful shoulders. His peaked leather cap was pulled fiercely over one eye. He was standing in profile to me, his chin on his breast, gazing with a puzzled frown at a map, which one of the officers had open on the table. Something in the face deeply moved me. It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend—the kind of face you would expect in an Anarchist, though likely as not he was a Communist. . . . As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hope he liked me as well as I liked him.

By speculating whether he’s an Anarchist or a Communist, Orwell lets us in on the dissent within the leftist ranks while saving us the boredom of a lengthy political disquisition. He knows he has to make us care about the people first, so he shares a sliver of how he came to care. What makes Orwell a genius is trusting that this small, strange moment that touched him so deeply could also touch a reader if he told it frankly enough.

In any good memoir, the writer tries to meet the reader where she is by offering information in the way it’s felt—to reflect the writer’s inner values and cares either in clever linguistic form (like McCourt) or dramatic scene (like Orwell).