Is it Memoir or Family History?

A student in one of my creative writing classes for boomers and seniors asked, “Do you have to be the main character in your memoir?”

“Yes,” I responded. Then I paused and said, “Let me think about this.”

I was facing a dilemma that had been skirting around the edges of my creative consciousness for months. You see, I’ve been writing two books that I call “memoir.” But these two “memoirs” feel quite different from each other, and not just in subject matter.

At first I thought they were different because one (“My Mother’s Money,” or perhaps I’ll call it “Almost an Heiress”) is unresolved, while the other is resolved; it’s over. But there remained something else that made them feel as if they belonged to two different genres. My student’s question brought my discomfort about labeling these two books to the fore.

“My Mother’s Money” is an exploration of my family’s utterly byzantine way of handling and bequeathing money. Although I make appearances in the story, I’m a minor character, more of an observer, bystander, or unfortunate victim.

In the other memoir (thus far, unnamed), which is about my insane experiences working for 11 bosses in 11 years at a single institution, I’m the main character. I’m not only telling the story, I’m driving it.

I’ve got a ton of books about memoir, so I’ll be doing some research on this question. I hope to be able to share answers in my next post.

In the meantime, do you feel “My Mother’s Money” is a memoir, a family history, or what? Have you faced a similar blurring of genre lines in your writing?

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Twitter: @lynettebenton

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12 thoughts on “Is it Memoir or Family History?

  1. MM is definitely a memoir. You are the narrator and it is (directly or indirectly) about your life. Those are the only two elements I believe are necessary to call it “memoir.” And, btw, they both sound like such fascinating and provocative stories. Hurry up and finish!

  2. I so hope you’ll read them before they’re finished. Maybe just the first 3 chapters of each—if they’re really interesting. If you start to snore, just stop reading. 🙂

  3. Pingback: It’s a Memoir . . . Apparently

  4. Pingback: Virginia Lloyd's blog » Is that a memoir or a family history you’re writing?

  5. Thanks for your take on it, Bonnie. I agree it’s related to perspective. I think it might also have something to do with emphasis. It’s just a label anyway—whether I’m discussing it w/ my students or working on my own memoir/family history.

  6. The best memoir I have ever read is, “A Memoir of Mary Anne”. It was a true story about a little girl who went to live in a convent. She had all kinds of health problems, including a cleft palate. It is truly one of the best books I can remember reading, and it was written by one of the nuns with the little girl as the main character. I’m so glad I just saw this. I’m going to read it again. Thanks!

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