The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 22. An Incomplete Checklist to Stave Off Dread

Plain words on plain paper. Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a windowpane. Cut every page you write by at least a third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours. Work out what you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can. Eat meat. Drink blood. Give up your social life and don’t think you can have friends. Rise in the quiet hours of the night and prick your fingertips and use the blood for ink; that will cure you of persiflage!

But do I take my own advice? Not a bit. Persiflage is my nom de guerre. (Don’t use foreign expressions. It’s elitist.)

Hilary Mantel, Giving Up the Ghost

For those of you with a naturally generative talent, able to bang out pages by the ream, this chapter may only help you later in the process, when it’s time to revise and organize and tighten. But mostly I’m writing for that human creature who sits down brimming with a story, then thinks, Oh, shit. What first?

This chapter answers that, so far as I can. It should also lend some comfort: ts’ok to be lost. Being lost—as I’ve said elsewhere—is a prelude to finding new paths. And any curious writer will have to do a lot of wandering before any book’s done. You won’t have most of your elements on day one. You should have:

1.Crisp memories—that carnal world in your head

2.Stories and a passion to tell them

3.Some introductory information or data to get across

4.The self-discipline to work in scary blankness for some period of time (for me it takes three to five weeks to find a way in, though I’ve been in the weeds for a year at a pop)

Everything else, you can figure out as you go. In fact, if you start telling your stories, the pieces tend to fall into place. As you work, you’re looking for those other elements mentioned before—a voice that exploits your talent and an interior point of view, complete with an inner enemy to organize the book around.

Writers hate formulas and checklists. It’s way more fun to masquerade as a natural shaman who channels beautiful pages as the oracle once channeled Zeus. But looking at my own books, I’ve found they all include most of the stuff below—as do most of the books I teach.

Here’s my list:

1.Paint a physical reality that uses all the senses and exists in the time you’re writing about—a singular, fascinating place peopled with objects and characters we believe in. Should include the speaker’s body or some kinesthetic elements.

2.Tell a story that gives the reader some idea of your milieu and exploits your talent. We remember in stories, and for a writer, story is where you start.

3.Package information about your present self or backstory so it has emotional conflict or scene.

All the rest of these are interior:

4.Set emotional stakes—why is the writer passionate about or desperate to deal with the past—the hint of an inner enemy?

5.Think, figure, wonder, guess. Show yourself weighing what’s true, your fantasies, values, schemes, and failures.

6.Change times back and forth—early on, establish the “looking back” voice, and the “being in it” voice.

7.Collude with the reader about your relationship with the truth and memory.

8.Show not so much how you suffer in long passages, but how you survive. Use humor or an interjecting adult voice to help a reader over the dark places.

9.Don’t exaggerate. Trust that what you felt deeply is valid.

10.Watch your blind spots—in revision, if not before, search for reversals. Beware of what you avoid and what you cling to.

11.(Related to all of the above) Love your characters. Ask yourself what underlay their acts and versions of the past. Sometimes I pray to see people I’m angry at or resentful of as God sees them, which heals both page and heart.

And one big fat caveat: lead with your own talent, which may cause you to ignore all I’ve recommended.