What is the Theme of Your Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

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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.

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)


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17 thoughts on “What is the Theme of Your Memoir?

  1. Great topic. And very timely for me. You are right: I couldn’t find my real story (my primary themes) in my “two years in Kazakhstan” memoir until after I’d written all 387 pages. 87 pages too many). My challenge now is the backstory: how much is too much and “where” is too soon. When is that blog post coming out? :). Welcome back.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Janet. Your discovery of a theme after you wrote the whole draft simply means that the first round was to discover and sort out the facts and develop a writing style. An admirable feat!! As for how much backstory to include, if you go this blog’s main page and scroll down on the right to the Search feature and type in the word “backstory” you will find a number of essays on this difficult topic. For example, How Much Childhood Should I Include in my Memoir, http://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog//childhood-include-memoir/

    I’m so excited to hear about your labor of love, attempting to “find the story.” Yay!! And with the former Russian empire prominently in the news, and your later-in-life Peace Corps experience it sounds like a timely and interesting story. Jerry

  3. Jerry … I am thoroughly enjoying your series on memoir writing.

    I think the question of “theme” is particularly important. But I would say (as I’ve done in a guest post for Kathy Pooler this week), that it often takes time for the author to know what the story is about … time for the factual memories to “age” into something that has meaning.

  4. Thanks for another excellent post, Jerry. I have found that theme reveals itself over time. With every rewrite, it becomes more prominent–along the lines of the story that needs to be told will reveal itself in the writing. Every one of us has a story but finding the heart that story is the challenge. Mary Gottschalk addresses this very effectively in her upcoming guest post on my blog 6/27. I’m loving your memoir writing series, Jerry!

  5. Thanks for your comment, Mary. I agree that for many of us it takes time to find a theme. And the path to finding that theme can vary enormously from one writer to another. I look forward to reading your guest post. Feel free to post the link here if you would like.

    Best wishes,

  6. Jerry, a very thought provoking post, well-written and filled with good advice. I’m finding as I draft my memoir that the theme has been like yarn unraveling from a project I’m knitting, which in turn sends me seeking a resolution to get back on track, i.e. writing my story with this theme. I also find that it may change unexpectedly with the revelation of some hidden memory.

  7. Nicely said, Sherrey. I love that joy of discovery as well as the problem solving that happens during all sorts of creative activities. Best wishes, Jerry

  8. This post is so timely for me as well. Thank you. Over the past two years I have written many short stories about my 30 years of traveling to and living in Africa. But I am very aware I have no theme (30 years in Africa is not a theme) and have been stuck for awhile now. It is difficult to take the stories and turn them into one book length story. I have been struggling with how to proceed from here. Thanks. Lori from AfricaInside.org

  9. Hi Lori,

    I suspect there are many powerful themes, starting not entirely from your outer circumstances but your inner ones. What pulls you? Why all these trips? How did you grow through the years? The challenge for moving from personal stories to memoir, might be in the difficulty of switching the emphasis from the outer world to your inner one. In a book length story, your inner growth is crucial. I think I have a post coming up in my series on Sonia Marsh’s Freeways to Flipflops on this subject. She went to Belize and describes a lot about the external facts of her world but she also provides a fascinating, important understanding of the psychological unfolding that takes place within her and the members of her family.

    You have spent years developing a style of writing that highlights the things you see in Africa, but perhaps need to develop a keener appreciation for the unfolding of the inner story that was going along with it.

    Developing a new style or slant of writing is incredibly difficult. It’s like learning to speak in a foreign language, and then losing one’s original accent. It takes a huge effort even to find the “mental muscles” – we become so accustomed to thinking one way. Writing the memoir requires you not just to see the world but also what impact the world has on you. For me, the most exciting part about memoirs and what makes them so memorable and important though are the glimpses into what makes people tick.

    Having said all of that, there might be plenty of people who are mainly interested in the outer stories. A “memoir” is a broad term and can sometimes simply be a tale of Africa through your eyes. Read “Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey” by Angie Brenner and Joy Stocke. It might not be a bestseller but it is a lovely tour of Turkey as seen through the eyes of two women traveling to a country they love. Read Sam Manicom’s “Into Africa,” about nothing more nor less than his motorcycle ride from the north end to the south end of the continent. Both are entirely legitimate in their claim on the word “memoir” but don’t go deep into the inner motivation of the character.

    Best wishes,

  10. Theme is such an important – and often elusive concept – especially in memoir. Thanks for starting this conversation, Jerry. I too struggled with theme while writing Swimming with Maya. Vivian Gornick’s book, The Situation and the Story was a godsend. The events we write about, “the situation,” ride on top of the underlying heart or theme, “the story.” It is this theme that unifies a memoir and shows the writer what to keep and what to leave out. While the situation in Swimming with Maya describes the death of my 19-year-old daughter, the underlying theme is resilience, letting go, and celebrating life. During many rounds of revision, I honed this theme and ruthlessly deleted any material that did not support it. You are totally right that at some point in the writing, the author must “face outwards” and really look at the work from the point of view of the reader. Then, she can select the scenes and reflections that amplify her theme and unify her book into a satisfying experience for the reader.

  11. Thanks for adding to the discussion, Eleanor. Your experience is perfect. The first ten thousand times you tell yourself the story of death, it seems to be about loss, but over time, the story gradually transforms into resilience. I have not read Swimming with Maya but it sounds like exactly the type of meaning that resonates with me, and makes me enter a memoir into my encyclopedia of human understanding. How we continue despite death is one of the powerful themes in life.

    Best wishes,

  12. Hi, Jerry: I looked up this post from almost a year ago because I am grappling with structure and theme issues as, apparently, everyone does. I’m stubbornly refusing to just write my first full draft of my memoir, in scenes, and see where it takes me. After reading your post, though, it dawned on me that I’m falling into something akin to an emotional trap summarized by “Grow and I will water you.” I think I finally get it — write and only then will the theme/structure emerge. Thank you and the comment writers for finally helping this sink in.

  13. Frances, Congratulations for making a breakthrough in getting your memories transformed into a story, and congratulations for your tenacity. The note is especially gratifying to me, because as a teacher, the “pay off” is to know I’m helping. All these good things are ingredients of memoir writing – tenacity, learning, breakthroughs, sharing. The hard work pays off with creative satisfaction. Best wishes, Jerry

  14. Jerry, I am new to your blog. I am beginning to write my memoir. Although I think I understand what you are saying — that through writing your theme will emerge — how do you keep focused without having a theme in the beginning? Am I missing something?

  15. Hi Charles, Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. At the beginning, just focus on telling the story. As you record anecdotes, allow your thoughts and emotions to emerge onto the page. And then place the events in sequence, in chronological order. You will start to see “chapters” coalesce, and the emotions that carried you in a certain direction. As you form the story you learn about yourself. So it’s a learning process. Don’t impose a theme. Discover it. I hope this helps! Best wishes, Jerry

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