If you’re anything like me, you can while away an entire weekend with a bottomless cup o’ tea and an amazing memoir.
And for us personal transformation junkies, memoir is a double hit of goodness. How so?
The best memoirs center on the author’s biggest, most important process of transformation.
That transformation may be positive or negative. (The best memoirs have elements of both.)
But there’s a big difference between a truly great memoir and one that’s just sort of…meh. (You might call the latter a meh-moir. Ba-dum-bum!)
So what’s the difference that makes the difference? It’s all about the theme for your memoir.
The Power of a Universal Theme
As readers, we gravitate toward memoirs that show our protagonist transforming as they go from a clear Point A to a clear Point B.
In other words, we see the author starting as one person, and ending up another—most often improved—version of herself.
(NOTE: This transformation is sometimes an internal process. Outside circumstances may remain the same, but we can feel that she is a different person.)
This is why I often tell my clients to set three main anchors for the story:
- Who they were before their transformative experience
- What happened during the transformative experience
- How they were different after the transformative experience.
Once you have these anchors, the next step is to ask yourself which universal themes run throughout your story.
A theme is a learning arc that ties the various scenes of your memoir together with meaning.
The best themes are impersonal and universal, meaning they connect your unique story to your reader’s own experience.
For example, your reader has never summited Mt. Everest wearing nothing but a speedo (unlike you, you sexy beast!). But he will be able to identify with your story because the theme of “overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds” runs in his life, too.
Themes speak to intrinsic human questions. They are the secret sauce in the great mythologies, the best novels, the most compelling movies and—you guessed it—the best memoirs.
A Quick Trip Back to Ninth Grade English
Themes tend to represent some sort of a struggle between opposing forces—either between the different parts of ourselves, between us and others, or between us and larger forces outside of our control.
You may recall the major categories of literary themes from your ninth grade English class:
- Self vs. Self
- Self vs. Other
- Self vs. Nature (God, “the world,” etc.)
And often, there’s some combination of the above.
For example, in Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the protagonist is pitted against both the wilderness and her own internal demons.
Paula, Isabel Allende’s perennially selling memoir, is written as a letter to her gravely ill daughter. While the story includes challenges that fall into the categories of Self vs. Self and Self vs. Other, the primary theme is ultimately Self vs. Nature: Isabel, a mother, up against a rare and deadly blood disorder that has rendered her beloved Paula comatose.
While few readers have been through the exact same circumstances as Cheryl Strayed and Isabel Allende, they will certainly recognize the themes from their own lives.
By developing the universal themes represented by our unique stories, we ensure that our readers can relate.
And it worked; both of these books were bestsellers, and Isabel Allende notes that she has received more letters in response to Paula then to any other book she has written.
A coincidence? Maybe. But I think it has something to do with the power and universality of the books’ themes.
Getting Started with Themes
So how do you know what themes to focus on in your own memoir?
The exercise below will help you start. In just 30 minutes, you’ll look at your best stories, map your own transformation and then choose multiple universal learnings from my list of common memoir themes.
This exercise won’t help you choose scenes or develop your characters. For help with these critical issues, you’ll have to go here.
Your choice of theme for your memoir is where you find the sweet spot between the story you need to write—and the message the world most needs to hear from you.
So I hope you’ll set aside 30 minutes, download this PDF and see what kind of magic you can create!
Have fun and let me know how it goes!
8 thoughts on “How to Choose a Theme for Your Memoir”
I love all your information that I have received on my email. I am getting a lot of help and great ideas !!I appreciate all the support ; this is my first writing experience and I am learning a lot about myself. I feel better knowing that I am in the right place ;since I have felt this emotional transformation ; and thought I was going insane. Good to know that my insanity is normal.
Wendy, We are so grateful to have you as a reader of the blog and newsletter! We are happy to provide support in any way we can. We are so happy that you are learning so much about yourself in the process of continuing on your writing journey. Memoir can be so healing and a great discovery process. Let us know how it continues to go.
Thankyou. You nailed it. Clear and concise. Very helpful for me at this precise time. Tidied up a lot of loose ends.
Kelly, This is so helpful. I just could not make up my mind what my book is about. I was searching for themes – unsuccessfully. I now feel very optimistic that I’m about to clarify my thinking. Thanks so much!
Ed, We are so glad you found this post helpful! Thanks so much for reading and keep us posted on how your project goes.
Kelly, I first heard of you when I signed up for the seven-day challenge 2021 with Hay House. I did sign up for the year and I watch the videos, do all the exercises which I find helpful and quite interesting. Sharing back and forth on the Private Facebook Writers Platform has been inspiring also.
I found you on Youtube and this has been enlighting as well. Looking forward to exploring all your blogs and posts where ever they may be. I am enjoying what I am learning on both platforms. I also bought Scrivener and looking forward to its challenges. Keep up the good inspiring work. My Website marthaklimek.com is about Paranormal Activity and Spirits that live among us and with me. I am trying to keep up with many platforms on Social Media but find it challenging because of time restraints. By the way, I am over halfway through your book, The Book You Were Born to Write and it is great. I will write the review and hope you will reach the 1,000 goal mark.
It’s so heartwarming to see how KN Literary has inspired you! I’m also delighted to see that you are enjoying Kelly’s book!
For access to our blog, please visit the following link: https://knliterary.com/blog
For access to Kelly’s videos, please visit the following link: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoEWlt0rBh1-uaPAhblttLA/videos
You are a constant in inspiring me to continue writing. I found you when I did a Hay House event. I am always grateful for your ideas and challenges. Thank you!