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.
MARY KARR, The Art of Memoir