The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 16. The Road to Hell Is Paved with Exaggeration

don’t brandish your stump
over other people’s heads
don’t knock your white cane
on the panes of the well-fed

Zbigniew Herbert,
“Mr. Cogito Reflects on Suffering”

To hammer home for practitioners what I’ve said before, the worst events or the most spectacular wins don’t make the best books. Maybe the most truly felt event does—or some cunning mix of voice and story shaped by passion. Plenty of folks have triumphed over way more than I ever faced. I was born in the richest country in the world to literate, employed parents who owned their home. Some start out brain-damaged in rape camps in far-flung gulags. My suffering is not one iota of what such folks endure.

To manufacture stuff in hopes of selling more books means you never do honor to your own trials and conquests, what Faulkner might call your postage stamp of reality. If you trust that what you felt deeply warrants your emotional response, try to honor your past by writing it that way. Sometimes true agony is not even discernible to the human eye. As a kid, when I saw my mother’s mouth become a straight line and heard her speak in a Yankee accent as her posture went super straight, I knew she was tanked. The rat scrabble this set off in my head, as I tried to figure out how to stop the chaos approaching us like a runaway train, was torment. Rendering a small external stimulus inside a child’s impotent body can provide a moving experience for a reader.

Also, making you and yours seem hyperbizarre can keep a reader from identifying with you or being inside an experience.

Some writers’ talents work in the realm of the hyperbizarre, but they’re rare. My abilities seem more tethered to the real rather than the surreal, so I try to normalize the strange so the reader can access it.