Updated: Jul 26, 2022
Let’s start at the very beginning, which I have heard is a very good place to start. To understand not only how to choose a theme for your memoir, you must understand why you need a theme for your memoir in the first place.
Does an autobiography need a theme? No. But aren't autobiography and memoir the same thing? No.
With my tongue firmly in my cheek, I blame bookstores for this confusion. I say this because bookstores, be they brick and mortar or online, lump memoirs and autobiographies together. Physically and conceptually, the two categories are joined at the hip. More than a handful of people have argued with me that the distinction is strictly semantic.
It is not.
Memoir Versus Autobiography—Again
If you hope to write a proper memoir, you must understand the core difference between memoir and autobiography:
An autobiography is the story of a life.
A memoir is a story from a life.
Memoirs often emerge from diaries or journals. Many memoir teachers I see online encourage you to use your diary or journal for this very reason. Other memoirists and teachers don’t approve of this. Here is my opinion, for what it’s worth: Do not structure a memoir to coincide with your journal entries. Remember, a memoir is not an autobiography. You should not attempt to document the whole of your life or even a large chunk of your life, which will be the tendency if you use a journal as a template.
The key to writing a really good memoir is to identify a really good theme that runs through some aspect of your life and focus solely on that.
What is a theme? Why is identifying one necessary? And how do I do it?
I’ll begin by quoting memoir teacher extraordinaire, Marion Roach Smith:
A memoir is not about you. It’s about something and you are its illustration.
A memoir is a story about something you know after something you’ve been through.
Let that first sentence sink in. “A memoir is not about you.” The best memoirs reveal how the writer changes as a person. Stories of transcendence.
Understanding Memoir Theme
Stories of transcendence? Like what? To begin to understand theme, first consider these generic theme categories:
• Accepting change
• Dealing with loss (job, marriage, friendship) or death
• Examining a career
• Surviving a dysfunctional family
• Overcoming a physical, mental, or emotional obstacle
• Triumphing over poverty or discrimination
Theme is a tough concept for first-time memoirists to wrap their heads around.
How do you know what might be a good theme for your memoir? Ask yourself these questions:
• Is there an episode in my life that changed me or altered my life’s path?
• Is there a person who significantly altered my life, personally or professionally?
• Was there a life event that haunts me and I can’t stop thinking about it?
• Have I experienced something traumatic/painful and found a way to rise above it?
As if identifying a theme for your memoir isn’t hard enough, let me throw another wrench in the works: You should be able to summarize your theme in one sentence that answers the question, “What is it about?”
Really, how is this possible, you ask? You have read the list of generic categories above. To help you conceptualize theme, here are some examples of specific, single-sentence memoir themes, which I totally made up:
• It’s about how my mother’s death from lung cancer at a young age caused me to quit smoking and become an anti-tobacco advocate. (It’s not about your mother’s death; it's about what you did with that experience to better the lives of others.)
• It’s about how becoming an empty-nester led me to open an art supply store and return to my love of painting. (It’s not about your kids leaving home and your sense of uselessness; it’s about how you found yourself again and gave your life new purpose.)
• It’s about a four-year slice of my life after my wife’s death during which I learned there is a silver lining to grief. (It’s not about your wife dying and your grief; it’s about opening your eyes and heart to new opportunities and relationships.)
• It’s about the year that one remarkable music teacher taught me to play the piano and put me on a path to a career as a composer. (It’s not about learning to play piano; it’s about how a caring teacher showed you a way to express beauty and thrill others through music.)
As I have said before in other blog posts, if you don’t have a clearly defined theme—which serves as a map on your memoir journey—you can find yourself wandering aimlessly throughout the entirety of your life. With a clearly defined theme—the lesson you learned from the experiences of your life—your writing stays on track and will impart to your readers the life lessons you want to share with them.
In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.