Updated: Jan 8, 2021
A memoir is about something you know after something you’ve been through. The theme of a memoir answers the question “What’s it about?” Before you start to write, sum up your memoir in one sentence that answers this question. One sentence.
This paragraph is a combination of three crucial points I make in the Introduction to Memoir PowerPoint presentation I give locally. The definition of memoir— it’s about something you know after something you’ve been through—comes as a surprise to everyone in the audience at these presentations.
First, because most people think that memoirs and autobiographies are the same. They are not. A memoir is more like a novel than an autobiography. I discuss this in greater detail in my blog post With Creative Nonfiction, Reality Meets Storytelling. Second, because most people don’t understand the difference between theme and plot.
A sample memoir theme is,
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.
The plot explains what happened. What actually happened. The facts. The details. The names, the dates, the places. But that is not the theme. The theme is how the author was changed by her mother’s death from lung cancer; a change that included quitting smoking and becoming an advocate for the anti-tobacco movement. The why of the story—the death of a loved one left you saddened but ultimately wiser and stronger, determined to make a change.
If I’ve already written (a bit) about this, why am I addressing it again? Because I specialize in teaching and editing memoir. I love the genre and I’m determined to help people understand that memoir isn’t autobiography. It’s way cooler and more interesting. But, as I’ve already said, I tell folks, before you start to write, sum up your memoir in one sentence that answers the question what’s it about?
Our Brains are Hardwired for Story Lessons
What has brought me back to this subject is, I’m reading Wired For Story by Lisa Cron. The subtitle is, The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. This isn’t your average creative writing guide. The main contention of the book is that our human brains have evolved to tell stories to share information and experiences and to want to read or listen to these stories to learn about experiences we have not yet had ourselves. When an early Homo Sapien created a cave painting of a bull goring a man with his horns, it was meant to teach the next guy who moved in a life-saving lesson.
In the first two chapters, Cron works hard to make sure we understand the key concept of storytelling: our brains have evolved to want stories that teach us something. We don’t like chaos or confusion in our minds when we read. We want a problem posed and a problem solved. Even in fiction, our brains crave lessons. What problem is the protagonist facing? How will this problem be resolved? What lessons will the protagonist learn along the way? And, as Cron makes clear, this is not the plot—it is the theme.
Theme in Storytelling is Paramount
The theme, clearly defined and addressed, is more important than the minutia of the plot. Readers want a dilemma presented and triumphed over, because our brains still like to learn something from everything we read. A story that fails to do that will only leave readers frustrated and disappointed. Says Cron,
Since theme is the underlying point the narrative makes about the human experience, it’s also where the universal lies. The universal is a feeling, emotion, or truth that resonates with us all.
I have many pages to go in Wired For Story. But I’ve already learned a valuable lesson as an editor (see, Cron is right): as I do with teaching memoir, a client who is a writer of fiction must be able to answer the question “What’s it about?” with an understanding that I don’t want to hear the plot. I want to know the theme—what the protagonist will know after what the writer puts them through. If a writer can’t answer that question, they are not ready to begin writing.
[UPDATE 8/20/19: I feel the need to clarify Lisa Cron's point about theme vs. plot. She says in a later chapter that theme is not more important than plot; they are equal in importance, but not to be confused. An author should not write a story that uses the theme as the plot. Says Cron, "...your theme begets the story's tone, which begets the mood the reader feels.... Because as crucial as theme is, it is never stated outright; it always implied."]