Last updated on March 21, 2021
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!
Kelly Notaras is the founder of kn literary arts and the author of THE BOOK YOU WERE BORN TO WRITE: Everything You Need to (Finally) Get Your Wisdom Onto the Page and Into the World, published by Hay House. An editor for 20 years, she’s worked at HarperCollins, Penguin, Hyperion and Sounds True. She speaks regularly at the Hay House Writer’s Workshops and offers consultation by appointment. Find out more about how she can help you with your book.