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Memoir Theme vs. Memoir Plot

An opened book with ray of sunlight on it
Let the light shine on your memoir!

I’m going to say something controversial, so stick with me. Here goes.

Many of the problems that first-time memoir writers struggle with are the result of a simple truth—they don’t fully understand what memoir is!

There. I said it.

Many people writing memoir don’t actually understand what a memoir is supposed to be or do. The formula for writing a good memoir is relatively simple, but most novice memoirists make it more complicated than it needs to be.

I am a writing coach and editor who specializes in memoir. I chose memoir as my specialty because I had read that it is an oft-misunderstood subgenre of an oft-misunderstood genre, creative nonfiction. I took that as a challenge!

Through my years of learning what memoir is and isn’t (it’s not autobiography, for one thing), understanding its intricacies, and mastering the art of its structure, I always begin by asking a potential client the same simple-sounding question:

What is your memoir about?

But the question is at once simple and complex. The correct way to answer this question is the concept that trips up most of my memoir clients. Why? Because people always answer this question by telling me their plot, not their theme.

“Huh? Plot. Theme. What’s the difference?”

Understanding the difference is essential to writing a good memoir with minimal anguish and maximum success. I talked about this in my post Thinking About Writing a Memoir? Read This First.

Memoir Theme and Plot are Different

Get ready. This will be on the test.

Theme is what a memoir is about.

Plot is how the theme is conveyed.

Clear as mud? It must be, because despite many books and articles being written about the distinction, it is a confusion that persists among memoir writers and, I’m sorry to say, even many memoir editors.

So here is another explanation of theme in a nutshell.

What is the theme of your memoir? It is your argument.

In writing, an argument is the claim you make that you then have to support. (In academic writing, it’s called a thesis.) An argument is a line of reasoning, backed by evidence, that proves a point.

Knowing where to begin your memoir and where to end it is easy-peasy to decide if you know what argument you will present in your memoir and include only the stories that illustrate that argument.

Any clearer? I hope you’re nodding your head vigorously.

Why does having a theme matter in a memoir? Why can’t you just write about your life and talk about whatever is weighing on you, or gnawing at you, or that you want to brag about? You absolutely can! But then it’s not a memoir.

If what you want (or need) to write about is some aspect of your life that has caused you trauma, pain, or grief, or brought you happiness, joy, a clearer sense of self, success, or true love, then, by all means, do it. Write it. But what you are writing is likely more of a therapeutic journal or a series of interconnected personal essays.

If you really want to write a memoir that people will read all the way through, there must be a point to the story you’re telling.

Your personal story must impart a universal lesson that others can relate to, and reveal something you learned that you share with readers to enlighten, soothe, or benefit them.

a hand holding several books, first says Shared Stories

The Definition of Memoir

Here’s a great time to restate, for the umpteenth time, the ultimate definition of memoir, according to Memoir Maven Marion Roach Smith:

Your memoir is not about you. It’s about something and you are its illustration.

My blog post How to Choose a Memoir Theme states this clearly, and I’ve repeated it in one or two (or three) other blog posts. And yet, I feel the need to say it again, because it is the single most important aspect of writing a cohesive, enjoyable memoir.

Common Memoir Stumbling Blocks

When I begin to coach a memoir client, these are the comments I hear most often:

  • I don’t know how to start. When (or how) should I start my story?

  • I can’t decide which stories to include. How much of my life should I write about?

  • I don’t know how to end the book. When (or how) should I finish my story?

These questions are easy to answer when you understand the purpose of a memoir and have a clearly defined theme.

When I’ve been hired to edit a memoir manuscript, these are the two questions my clients most often ask:

  • Is it too long?

  • Is it too short?

These, too, are easily answered questions when you have a clearly defined theme.

Writer: Is my memoir too short?

Me: Did you share all the stories that illustrate the theme of your memoir? Did you start by setting up the memoir and showing the reader what’s at stake for you to deal with? And then tell the stories that explore this thoroughly? And conclude by bringing the journey to a resolution?

If you answer no to these questions, your memoir is incomplete. If you can answer yes to these questions, then your memoir is (probably) just right!

Writer: Is my memoir too long?

Me: Did you share stories that have nothing to do with your theme? Did you include stories that start long before the genesis of your theme? Did you include stories that go beyond the point of the resolution of your theme?

If you answer yes to these questions, then the memoir is too long. If you answer no to these questions, then your memoir is (probably) just right!

It’s Not About Memoir Word Length

You see, too short or too long is not about word count. It’s about exploring your theme by including stories that show your struggle, failures, successes, and growth, and ending by showing the reader that you will be OK. Maybe your problem isn’t actually fixed—your marriage still ends, despite your efforts you can’t help a loved one deal with their mental illness, because of your health you will have to close your business after all. But your resolution demonstrates that you have accepted your situation and you can move forward, stronger, wiser, and with a clear purpose.

Are you ready to write your memoir? Let me help you make that happen.

Cover of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism

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.

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