by Jerry Waxler
Write your memoir! Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time.
Along the journey of turning life into a story, many teachers will advise you to focus on a single theme. They say, “Avoid sounding like this book is a record of your whole life. If you do that, it will really be an autobiography. In order to write a memoir, you need to focus on a single driving theme. When you can tell me what your story is ‘about’ you can call it a memoir.”
The part of this advice that I love is that a memoir is not just about the events of a life. The events themselves are simply the framework. The “real story” is under the surface, in the emotional and dramatic pressures that carry the character and the reader forward from first page to last.
When I read a memoir that has earned a place on my shelf and in my heart, I reap the rewards of the author’s creative passion and endless hours required to turn the humdrum sequence of life’s events into the magical form of a story. By offering me this memoir, the author has given me the gift of “life as a story,” a gift that inspires me to see the power, dignity and hope that make ordinary lives worth living. The memoir also inspires me as a writer. When I return to my desk, I attempt to follow the same path, and perform the same magical conversion to my own experience.
The thing I hate about the advice is actually following it. As a memoir writer, my first ten thousand steps related to pulling events out of memory, lining them up on paper, developing scenes, finding emotional connections, recognizing compelling forces. When I teach memoir writing, I look at a room of people who lived lives with all the complexity life can bring. I don’t expect or advise them to look for a theme until they are far, far along in their process.
Finding the theme, a crucial requirement for a book you buy at the store, can seem ridiculously out of reach for the story you are attempting to understand about yourself. What do you mean, “What is the theme? It was my life!” Life has so many dimensions. Must you really limit your story to just one of them?
To learn more about how this works, I turn, as usual to the memoirs I read, and realize that when I dig under the surface, even the ones that are compelling, powerful stories have more than just one theme.
The humorous, ironic memoir Man Made by Joel Stein is “about” the attempt of a first time father to embrace his new role, as well as the theme identified in the title about his attempt to understand the meaning of “being a man.”
The crazy, wildly romantic Bohemian Love Diaries by Slash Coleman is not just “about” intense romances that don’t work out. It’s about a man trying to live as if his life is a work of art.
Linda Joy Myers’ Don’t Call Me Mother is not only about the heartbreaking abandonment by her own mother. It’s also “about” coming of age in a small town in the Midwest, about the power of extended family, and on a subtler level is about the long lens of forgiveness and wisdom that occurs later in life.
Saddled by Susan Richards is “about” a horse who saved her, but it’s also about a woman trying to find a career, and a life free of abusive men, and free of the self-abuse of alcohol.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell is “about” the friendship of two women, but it’s also “about” the evolution of adults who continue to find themselves, relying on dogs, and sobriety meetings, and each other.
Many of my favorite memoirs demonstrate that discovering who you are does not end at 20, or 25 or even 50. After finding sobriety, or after having a baby, or after leaving home, or making peace with your parents, you have the opportunity to Come of Age again.
In my next post, I’ll dig deeper into the title and theme of Sonia Marsh’s book Freeways to Flipflops. It has a remarkably simple title that points to a complex, complete slice of her life. And Sonia Marsh like other memoir authors and memoir activists, is a role model who can help the rest of us follow in her footsteps.
If you are past information-gathering and ready to develop a book that will appeal to readers, you will enter this outward-facing stage of your journey. As you struggle to find the single, emotionally grabbing principle that drives your story, you will realize you are also looking for the title, and the reverse is true as well. As you look for the title, it will help you find the theme.
This “high concept” is not just a superficial marketing ploy. It will provide you with a framework that can help you relate to your readers’ expectations. Then using that synopsis, you can reread your manuscript for yet another revision, keeping in mind the expectations your title establishes with your readers.
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