Mary Karr’s Memoir Checklist To Stave Off Dread


Mary Karr is an American poet, essayist and memoirist. She is well known for her best-selling books, Lit: A Memoir, Cherry, and The Liars’ Club

She published The Art of Memoir in 2015. In the book, she includes ‘An Incomplete Checklist To Stave Off Dread’. She says:

“Writers hate formulas and checklists. It’s way more fun to masquerade as a natural shaman who channels beautiful pages as the oracle once channelled 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.
  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 humour 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.’

If you’re looking for more posts on memoirs, try these:

  1. The 5 Top Tips For Turning Memories Into A Book
  2. 5 Essential Tips For Writing A Memoir
  3. The Truth About Memoirs – What Took You Off The Desire Line?

Amanda Patterson by Amanda Patterson

If you enjoyed this article, read:

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  3. Making Time To Write: 4 Tips From Janet Evanovich
  4. All About Cinderella – Kurt Vonnegut Explains The Shapes Of Stories

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