Thursday, January 28, 2016

“Zipped into your skin”

Write your memoir so that your "reader gets zipped into your skin," in the words of memoir guru Mary Karr.

Think back: Think of a book that made you feel you were in the story, smelling scents she smelled, tasting flavors he tasted, seeing sights she saw, hearing sounds she heard, feeling textures he felt. 

That's the kind of memoir you want to write—one with sensory details (smell, taste, sight, sound, and touch) because they will draw your readers into your story with you.

And you want to draw them in, to "zip them into your skin," because that's the way your message will make its way into the hearts and minds of your readers.

Notice sensory details of sight and sound that Naomi Benaron used in her novel set in Rwanda, Running the Rift

“He stood until the truck became a speck in the red swirl of dust.... [H]e broke into a run down the road, where life paraded on as if nothing had changed. He strained up the hill, sacks of sorghum and potatoes draped over bicycle handlebars or stacked in rickety wooden carts. Children herded goats fastened with bits of string, lugged jerricans filled with water, trotted with rafts of freshly gathered firewood on their heads. Women chatted on the way to and from the market, basins filled with fruits and vegetables balanced like fancy hats.”  

Because I lived in East Africa for a several years, Benaron’s details put a big grin on my face—they transported me back. For those not acquainted with that culture, her details offer an authentic view of life there. Her words make the reader feel he’s in the scene. 

Notice details of sight, sound, and smell in another excerpt from Running the Rift:

“Market goers created a congestion through which the truck barely moved. In the dying afternoon, hawkers called out bargains, packed up unsold tools and clothing, used appliances held together with hope and string. Flies swarmed around carcasses of meat. The aromas of over-ripe fruit and gamy animal flesh made Jean Patrick queasy. A bicycle taxi swerved into their path…. The woman on the back loosed a stream of insults in their direction. The radio droned; the truck engine whined and coughed. Their bodies jostled together from the potholed road….”

Butch Ward offers advice inspired by Jacqui Banaszynski:

"Write cinematically.
Movies pull us through stories
with strong themes,
compelling characters and revelatory details.
Written stories can do the same thing.
Help readers see.
Zoom in tight on details or images
that have the most meaning;
be descriptive and specific.
(Not 'old boots.'
But 'blonde Fryes with scuffed toes
and heels worn down from years of walking the fenceline.')

Caution: Avoid subjecting readers to irrelevant details—details that don’t enhance your main characters or your setting, details that don’t pertain to the point of your story/vignette.

Extraneous details slow down your story. Even worse: They can bore your readers. If your Great-Aunt Louise visited you at a life-changing moment but was not a key player in that pivotal point, readers don’t need to know she was from St. Paul, wore hippie clothes, and smelled of pot. 

Revisit key scenes in your rough draft and ask yourself, "What did the place smell like?" Were you in a stable, or at the perfume counter at Macy's?

Ask yourself, "What noises were in the background?" or "What did her skin feel like?" If you were eating tadpoles in okra sauce, how did that feel on your tongue—what was the texture? the taste? the smell?

Include details
that invite readers into your story
and let them experience it like you did.

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