The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 7. How to Choose a Detail

Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to notice. Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life.

James Wood, How Fiction Works

As a kid, one way I handled my own family crisis was to pick on a littler kid next door, Mickey Heinz. Yes, I was picked on, but I also did picking on back—part of the economy of misery handed down from older to younger on the block. While writing Liars’ Club, I interrogated my memory, coming up with four possible details to give a reader.

1.A bunch of us dared him to take his pants off in his closet with a neighbor girl right before we knew his mama was coming home from a dash to the store.

2.I made him eat something nasty in a sandwich—mud or dogshit, I can’t recall which.

3.I used to ask him to play hide-and-seek and then just go home while he looked all afternoon.

4.I got him to smoke Nestle’s Quik rolled up in toilet paper, which blistered his tongue.

Number 1 would almost require a whole scene. It’d take too long to tell. Plus the memory is mostly semantic—an idea rather than concrete images. I didn’t trust it. The story could have been neighborhood legend. I had no physical visuals from the story.

Number 2 also sounds like something I may have just heard. Making somebody eat something awful in my neighborhood was a common trick—maybe it wasn’t this kid at all.

Number 3 isn’t as dramatic as any of the other scenes.

But number 4, with the fake cigarette, is like nothing I’ve heard elsewhere. It led to a string of physical details: i.e., one dad across the street rolled his own smokes on a red-plastic-and-tin roller. We snitched it from a kitchen drawer, along with the Quik from a cabinet.

Those concrete images made me trust my memory of the whole scene as mine, not just something I heard about. And the carnality of the burned tongue is something anybody who’s ever sipped scalding coffee can practically feel. There’s an intimate “truth” that helps the reader enter the scene—small and particular. I also remembered he showed his mother the blistered tongue, and that we as a neighborhood listened to his spanking in the bathroom after, which was also very specific—“a hairbrush on his blubbery little ass.” That image shows our perverse, collective glee at somebody else’s pain. Plus overhearing other families’ dramas forms a big part of that memoir; what worried children often worry about is not seen but overheard.