So, there I was a couple of weeks ago, proudly flipping through the completed first chapters of my memoir, My Mother’s Money.
I had the hook, followed by a gripping scene to introduce the story’s first complication. Then I plunged readers (and the main characters) into a big surprise. Chapter 4 shed light on how the whole conundrum probably originated in the first place. Nice.
Now it was time to stop the artistry and get down to plain old storytelling. I needed to describe the search my siblings and I would have to undertake to find the money our mother left us when she died without a will, nor even telling us an inheritance existed. And for that, I needed a chronological plot.
Of course, I couldn’t remember every conversation and action involved in the search—the roles various people played, our behavior, failures, and frustrations. I would have to draft a timeline, constructed from emails, letters, and the notes and journal entries I had made.
But reviewing and summarizing the contents of just the emails was so upsetting that I couldn’t work with them for more than a few minutes at a time—until I came up with a strategy:
I pretend I’m an amanuensis—a secretary—just writing up notes about other peoples’ lives.
It’s good I hit on this approach, because now I’m inserting into the timeline information from journals and the notes I took while my mother was dying, and the only way I can do this is to distance myself from them.
It’s still not easy. In fact, it’s pretty depressing. But I’m detached enough most of the time to persevere. I think the story needs to be told (besides entertaining readers, it might serve as a warning), and no one else is going to do it.
To protect myself enough to get this book written, I need detachment. As Heather Sellers, author of Chapter After Chapter; Page After Page; and the memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, says in an insightful interview about memoir writing, “You have to be completely in it and completely out of it, both at once.”