Why Your Memoir Needs a Theme and How to Choose One
Let’s be honest. No one, not even your children and grandchildren, care about the dusty, dry details of your life. What will captivate readers is if you are able to extract meaning from the stories you tell, meaning that resonates and elevates your story from the personal to the universal. There’s no getting around it–your memoir needs a theme.
The personal life, deeply lived, takes you beyond the personal…and reaches universality.Anais Nin
The Difference Between Story and Theme
When teaching students to summarize a story, I used to use a simple little chart. Kylene Beers talked about it in one of her books, but she wasn’t the original author. I’m not sure where it came from. Here it is, with an example from Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
|Goldilocks||to take a nap in little bear’s bed||the bear family came home and found her||she jumped up and ran home as fast as she could|
The bones of a story are really that simple: what the character wanted, what got in the way, and what happened in the end. But what brings a story to life is the character arc, which refers to the change in a character because of the realizations she has as she goes through whatever happens in her life.
A memoir is never just about the events that happen to you. Every good memoir reveals how you change as a person–emotionally, psychologically, perhaps morally.
A theme answers the question, “What is this about?”
Because the theme is always about a big idea, it’s how you give your memoir universal appeal. Marion Roach Smith, author of the brilliant little book, The Memoir Project, offers a helpful example:
Let’s say you found some photos of your partner with someone who isn’t you. That’s your story, or what Smith calls your illustration. It isn’t your theme. You use your specific story (the photos) to illustrate the universal theme, which might be captured through a single word (betrayal) or an emotion (sadness).
Why Every Memoir Needs a Theme and a Character Arc
Having a theme not only helps your reader connect to your work, but also makes the writing process much easier. When you write, only those stories that illustrate the theme get included. And within each story, you include only those details that are pertinent to the theme. Smith gives us another useful example:
Imagine that your theme is a phrase (generations of a loving family) and the illustration for a chapter is your maternal grandmother. The story you choose to tell is of how she taught you to bake cupcakes when you were five years old. Since your theme is clearly identified, you don’t need to tell us the colour of your grandmother’s eyes, her height or her weight. You do need to tell us if she washed your little hands inside her own. As Smith says, “The details we need to know reveal her care with those she loved; the others are mere descriptions and hold no weight.” (p.29)
Tristine Rainer tells us why we need a character arc: “It is worth considering what story you want your life to tell. Why? Why not just write down everything you can remember…? Because it won’t be alive, it won’t tap into the power of myth, it won’t participate in the kind of truth that we read narrative for.” (p. 38, Your Life as Story) There’s more about truth in memoir in this post.
It’s a supreme act of control to understand a life as a story that resonates with others. It’s not a diary. It’s taking this chaos and making a story out of it, attempting to make art out of it.Dani Shapiro
Getting to Theme on a Super Highway
If you like to plan, or if you don’t have a lot of writing time at your disposal, you may want to choose your theme before you write a single word. Any of the following eight approaches may help:
- If you have kept journals or done any writing, review your work looking for ideas or feelings that surface more than once. If you can’t find that, look for where the writing has energy.
- Make a list of significant events in your life. Look for common threads.
- Think of small, self-contained incidents that are vivid in your memory. If you still remember those incidents, it is because they contain a universal truth. There’s your theme. (William Zinsser, How to Write a Memoir)
- Write a page about why you want to write a memoir. If this helps to identify your audience, it may also lead to clarity about the story you want to tell. (Diane Taylor, The Gift of Memoir)
- Add a strong noun to a topic that interests you. Natalie Goldberg’s example is “the history of nuts.” As soon as the word ‘history’ is added, possibilities abound. Now, instead of just talking about enjoying cashews when you watch television, you might talk about nutty lovers you have known. (Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away)
- Divide your life by decades or by ages and say what you wanted at each time in your life. Look for common themes. (Tristine Rainer, Your Life as Story)
- Make a list of conflicts in your life. Try to word them as pairs of opposed values or feelings, such as money/spirituality. Make a list of times when the conflict has shown up in your life. (Tristine Rainer, Your Life as Story)
- Use Smith’s algorithm — “this is an (x) and the illustration is (y).” It will help you remember that the theme is predominant and your specific story is an illustration of that theme.
What is it you love and are willing to give to the page? It’s why we write memoir, not to immortalize but to surrender ourselves. It is our one great act of generosity.Natalie Goldberg
Getting to Theme via Winding Country Roads
While your readers will benefit enormously from your memoir you, the memoir writer, have the most to gain. The tremendous advantage of coming to understand the patterns of your life may be best realized if you have the time to take a slow, thoughtful meander towards a theme.
Simply write day after day for weeks and months on end. You can write about whatever memory is foremost in your mind, or you can write in response to a prompt. Smith suggests “I left…” as a great starter because as soon as you leave one thing for another, you’re changing. More prompts will be offered in next week’s How to Write a Memoir post.
When you have written for many weeks or months, look for patterns in your writing. William Zinsser says,
“They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursuing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take.”
Zinsser concludes with, “Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.” Of course if it were that easy, everyone would be doing it! Still, Zinsser makes a good point, a point echoed by Tristine Rainer. She urges us to imagine our theme and our character arc as the string that holds together the pearls of our story–the scenes, images, details, and dialogue. We need that string, but once it’s there our focus is, appropriately, on the pearls.
Are you convinced that your memoir needs a theme? Which method of developing a theme would work best for you?
#3 – Why Your Memoir Needs a Theme and How to Choose One