Have you ever thought of writing a memoir? Have you considered what theme it would have? If you’re anything like me then you won’t have given much thought to the theme – it will be a book about me and my life, that is the theme, right? Wrong. Well, wrong if you want to write something that people will actually want to read. A while ago, on my personal blog, I interviewed Lorna Lee about her newly published memoir, ‘How Was I Supposed to Know?’ and one of the things she said in the interview was “Memoirs need a theme like fiction needs a plot.” That stayed with me, I thought about it a lot and realised how true it is. Would you buy a novel which was described as ‘The life of a character who has some quite interesting experiences.’? Of course you wouldn’t. You want a story, a plot, a point to it. And it’s the same with a memoir. Unless you are a big name celebrity, then it’s unlikely that anyone will want to read about your life without there being a great hook on which you hang your experiences.
People often use the words ‘memoir/s’ and ‘autobiography’ interchangeably, but there is a distinction. An autobiography tends to be a chronological account of somebody’s life, whereas a memoir can focus on just a short period of time, or a collection of selected experiences without the need to explain how one thing leads on from another. I would argue that even an autobiography needs a theme beyond just the person, but I’m going to focus specifically on memoirs for now.
So how do you decide on the theme?
- If your memoir is going to be a single slice of your life, such as the year you spent backpacking across Asia, then you have a great starting point to deciding on your theme. But you still need to drill down further – What aspect of that journey will be the thread that ties it all together? It could be the food, it could be the shoes you wore, or the friendships you made, it could be some aspect of your personality which helped or hindered your journey. Think widely.
- If however you want to write about a collection of experiences from across your lifetime, you might need to spend a bit longer deciding on the theme. Jot down some ideas for which stories and experiences from your life you might like to include. Is there a common element to them? Maybe most of them involve the joys and challenges of family relationships, maybe several of them focus on trips you have taken, maybe they are all about simple pleasures, or surviving against the odds, or finding the laughter in any situation. You may be lucky and immediately see a common theme that can be built on. If not, then think beyond those experiences. Your hobbies, your goals in life, your health, the things you love to do, do any of those offer something you could use as a running theme through the book?
Once you have your theme, then think of that as the backbone to your writing. The experiences and stories are the rest of your bones; they may look different to the backbone, and they may move independently from it, but they all link back to it in some way.
So what would my theme be? I haven’t decided yet. What would yours be?