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?


If you’d like help writing your memoir or family history, I can help. Check out my Testimonials, then use the Contact tab to get in touch. I’m experienced and easy to work with, and my references are superb.

Twitter: @lynettebenton

Switching Memoirs—Temporarily

I’ve put aside work on the memoir, My Mother’s Money, that I’ve written several posts about. The opening chapters could do with some revisions, and I don’t have many creative thoughts about them right now.

I still feel the story is a gripping one, but I need to take a break from it for a bit.

In fact, the whole time I was churning out those opening chapters, my other memoir, the one about my trials and tribulations working for 11 bosses in 11 years—at a single institution—kept calling to me.

So, I’ve resumed work on that memoir. I’m happy to say that I’ve got four or five chapters done. Skirt! Magazine even published an abbreviated version of it in an essay I wrote, called “From Part Time to Parting Time.”

The Lesser of Two Evils
One of the perils of memoir writing is the crappy and/or unresolved feelings the process dredges up. So, I’m choosing my current poison, so to speak. It’s less unnerving to write about bosses and colleagues, and the various lives we live at work, than to write about my parents’ costly peccadilloes.

Oh, and by the way, the reason I have the luxury of revising the opening chapters of My Mother’s Money is that the agent who was reviewing it decided not to pursue publication. But, an online contact (whom I hope to meet in person next month), has indicated that her publisher would be willing to take a look at it.

So, at some point in the not too distant future, I’m going to have to go down that depressing road again, writing about my siblings’ and my missing inheritance.

Writer’s Remorse

Now that I’ve sent off those first chapters of My Mother’s Money to the interested agent (at least she was interested before she saw the manuscript), I wonder if I could have made it better, stronger, more lyrical and compelling.

Probably. But writing, revising, rewriting, editing, proofing, and reviewing—even with the help of my saintly friend, Elyse, an editor who took her task quite seriously—were exhausting. I’m not sure why; I’ve written tons of business and creative items in the past, and they were a breeze.

But after finishing those first memoir chapters, my head hurt, and my neck and shoulders ached. Maybe it was the requirement that I revisit my childhood to describe how money was viewed and handled in my family.

Perhaps it was the job of trying to be fair to the characters in the memoir—to present rounded portraits of them so they don’t come out looking like lunatics.

But probably it was just the effort of integrating all that I know about creative writing—and that I teach my writing students. Show, don’t tell. Engage your reader. Use interesting words. Mix up long and short sentences. Appeal to all the reader’s senses. Present evidence. Convey a mood. Pin down your characters in sharp dialog.

Of course I wished I’d had another two months or so to make the chapters better, but if they at least grab the agent’s attention and interest, I’ll be satisfied, even if she decides not to represent the book.

Who’d Read This Book Anyway?

A dying woman wanting her daughter to find money she’s hidden in her house.

Three people in mid life finding out that their mother has left them money, but who have little idea where it is?

And before they can get some of the money they know is waiting to be claimed by them, it mysteriously gets moved to a different location?

That’s my memoir. Would anybody want to read it?

I’m encouraged by the enthusiasm of people who’ve followed the story of my search for the money my mother left to my siblings and me and all the revelations my quest has dumped into my unwilling lap.

I recently dug up a manuscript I wrote years ago about women and money. A publisher, Basic Books, I think it was, had expressed interest in it.

But just before the deal was sealed, the editor I’d been working with left the company. The next editor wanted my manuscript rewritten in an entirely different format—at my own expense.

Since I’d already spent a small fortune collecting women’s stories of their histories with and attitudes towards money, I wasn’t having any of that. Instead, I just shelved the book.

But, I can see that parts of that manuscript are going to come in handy, as I finish writing My Mother’s Money. Nothing wrong with a little recycling, is there?

My Mother’s Money, a Memoir of Suspense

While my mother was failing in her later years, she indicated that she wanted me to find some money she had hidden her house. I use the word “indicate” because Mom’s stroke had rendered her unable to speak. My siblings and I needed the cash, since Mom was too ill to sign checks to cover her care or her household expenses.

Before she became ill, Mom wouldn’t tell my sister, my brother, or me where to find her important documents, how much money she had, nor where it was, only that we’d have enough to bury her. Our father had died twenty years earlier, so we couldn’t ask him. And he wouldn’t have known anyway, because she had kept her money secret from him, as well.

So, how would my siblings and I find our mother’s money? And how would we know when we had found all of it?

My memoir chronicles our discovery that the money my mother had hidden in her house was mere fraction of her financial assets. It describes the search we undertook to locate those assets, and the shocks and disillusionment we experienced along the way.

If you’re writing a book and want to tell us the plot—or just get some encouragement—please leave a comment.

To see some of the memoir writing resources I’ve found most helpful for my writing students’ work, as well as my own, take a look at Must-Have Memoir Writing Aids. And check the comments on that post for even more excellent resources.

The Problem of Time in “My Mother’s Money,” a Memoir

Alexis Grant, (The Traveling Writer), posed a provocative question on Twitter: How were memoir writers “playing with time . . . for the sake of the story arc?”

Since this is a problem I’ve faced—and probably will continue to face—in the memoir I’m writing, it’s helpful for me to think consciously about how I’m handling the sequence of events in my narrative to create a strong story. My goal is for readers of my memoir to experience the suspense, studded with unexpected revelations, that I did.

We writers have it drummed into us that we need an arresting opening to capture our audience’s interest right from the start. Writing my memoir chronologically might not have accomplished that. So, I decided to sprinkle the bombshells throughout the story—often, but not always, alternating incident and bombshell. I hope I’ve used a light enough touch so that readers won’t notice that device.

Then there’s memory. As I wrote, I recalled incidents from the past that fed into my story. So, I interspersed those memories, allowing the story to turn back on itself occasionally. I think that adds richness and context.

The memoir starts by setting the physical and psychological stage for the story. By the fourth paragraph, a smallish challenge is laid out. Then I insert the memory of an incident from the past that is relevant to this challenge. It involves my mother’s caution: If something happens to me, don’t throw anything out.

The second chapter goes back to my childhood, to pertinent facts—and financial incidents—in my immediate family. The third brings us to a big surprise, as the challenge escalates. The next lays out financial eccentricities of my immediate ancestors. So the present and past are also alternating.

And then, the quest, with its twists and surprises, begins in earnest.