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

Story

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.

Somebody Wanted But So
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.

Theme

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:arc of a rainbow

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Make a list of significant events in your life. Look for common threads.
  3. 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)
  4. 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)
  5. 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)
  6. 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)
  7. 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)
  8. 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?

 

 

 

16 comments

  1. I liked the way you summarized the start for a story and then how to come up with a theme. It would certainly make it easier to get into story telling, especially for young students.

    1. Thanks, Gerri. The “Somebody Wanted But So” approach definitely works well when teaching students to summarize. I’m amazed too at how well it works to explain the bones of story for all ages.

  2. I can see now why my memoir needs a theme. Thanks for explaining the ins and outs of finding a theme for your memoir so clearly. I think I will search for my theme using either #2 Making a list of significant events in my life and looking for common threads. Or, I might try #7 Making a list of conflicts in my life, wording them as pairs of opposed values or feelings. Then making a list of the times when the conflict has shown up in my life. Those two methods seem like they might work for my memoir since I already have a grasp on what I want to write about. I think by doing either of these two exercises or perhaps both in order to confirm what I find will help me define my theme.

    1. Hi Susan,
      It sounds as if you are well on your way. That’s terrific! As you refine your theme, I’m sure you’re going to keep progressing by leaps and bounds.

      Next week’s post offers writing tips. I hope you’ll find it equally useful.

      1. Thanks, Karen, for the encouragement and the resources you are researching and providing on this topic. I am sure I will find writing tips useful since I have never written anything before…well, nothing of this magnitude. As you know I write rather long comments. 😉

  3. Thanks for sharing these tips, Karen. I especially love the Natalie Goldberg quote. I totally agree that ‘surrendering to the page’ is a key aspect of any personal writing.

  4. Hi Karen, This posting is extremely useful to me. As you may recall I am struggling with getting started on writing my memoir and I think the lack of a theme definitely is why. Not only that but the signposts as to how to identify the theme definitely is something I want to do. For me it will be a July task!
    Thank you for the posting!

    1. And thank YOU for the comment, Fran. I’m really happy to know that the posting is useful. It sounds like a great project to start in July when you are home.

  5. Karen, this is such a clear and succinct explanation of the structure of memoir, and what makes it work. I especially like the way that you have explained what a theme is, and how the theme relates to the story and the character arc. In fact, I think that your points about theme, story, and character arc would also apply to writing fiction. It makes me want to revisit my attempted novels and rethink them in term of theme, story, and character arc.

    Brilliantly written! I am really enjoying your series on memoir.

    Jude

    1. Thank you so much, Jude. Your comment inspires me as I sit down today to write the next installment in the memoir series.
      It’s so good that you are retiring soon and will have ample opportunity to revisit your novels. It will be beneficial for you, moving your novels further along the road to completion, and it will be beneficial for your readers – count me among them- who are looking forward to your books.
      Karen

  6. I have bookmarked this article as well, Karen. You are such a great teacher! Thanks for doing the hard work and pointing out the best anecdotes and tips you have gathered. I have been struggling with the theme for my memoir for a while. After this two-month break from my writing (traveling and meeting friends and family), I will deduce my theme once and for all. There are so many themes I can pick from to weave the story around, but I think I am more passionate about a certain one than the others… Now, writing and focusing about that, will be quite difficult as well!

  7. Thank you, Liesbet. I really appreciate your kind words.

    I know you have many, many options for theme and am so glad that you have uncovered one that you feel more passionate about than others. While it’s still going to be a challenge to focus on and write about that theme, at least it will give you a fence around your story so that you don’t exhaust yourself by trying to write about every detail of every significant moment in your life.

    There was a time when I was doing my doctorate in education. (I stopped, but that’s another story.) One of my biggest problems was determining the theme of my thesis. I’ll never forget the look on my professor’s face when I told him I wanted to write about every moment of interaction in my classroom. I actually tried to do just that for a while and it was crazy-making! So I get it that it’s tough to limit your work to a theme, and I really get why it’s essential. You are so going to rock this, Liesbet. I’ve no doubt at all.

    1. Thank you for your encouraging words once again, Karen. I just have to get over the fact that this will be a difficult, time-consuming project and not the “get it all out and write it down – I have the material, the rest should follow” project that I thought it would be. 🙂 No worries… I will get there and the end result, whenever it exists, has to be great, not just fine.

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