Mary Karr's Memoir Checklist To Stave Off Dread

Mary Karr’s Memoir Checklist


If you’re writing a memoir, read this post where we’ve shared American writer, Mary Karr’s memoir checklist.

Mary Karr is an American poet, essayist, and memoirist, born 16 January 1955. She is well known for her best-selling books, Lit: A Memoir, Cherry, and The Liars’ Club.

She is a Professor of English Literature at Syracuse University. Her many awards include The Whiting Writer’s Award, an NEA, a Radcliffe Bunting Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Karr published The Art of Memoir in 2015. In it, she combines her teaching expertise and her therapy experience with her skill as a writer. She gives a personal account into how a memoir is created, drawing on her own work in the genre.

The memoir includes excerpts from her favourite memoirs, other memoirists’ experiences, and her own process. She looks at memory, identity, and history, and how exploring it in a memoir can be a cathartic experience for the writer.

In the book, she includes ‘An Incomplete Checklist To Stave Off Dread‘.

Mary Karr’s Memoir Checklist

She writes:

“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.’

Source for photograph: MaryKarr.com

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

  1. Why You Need To Write Your Memoir Like Fiction
  2. 10 Memoir Mistakes Writers Should Avoid At All Costs
  3. How To Use Dialogue In Memoirs
  4. Writing A Memoir? Narrow Your Focus

P.S. If you want to learn how to write a memoir, join our Secrets of a Memoirist course.

Amanda Patterson by Amanda Patterson

If you enjoyed this article, read:

  1. Writing Advice From The World’s Most Famous Authors
  2. 5 Tips For Writing Vivid Fiction From Edgar Allan Poe
  3. Making Time To Write: 4 Tips From Janet Evanovich
  4. All About Cinderella – Kurt Vonnegut Explains The Shapes Of Stories