Memoir: What’s Your Theme?

By: Marilyn L. Davis

“The writer who develops a beautiful style, but has nothing to say, represents a kind of arrested aesthetic development; he is like a pianist who acquires a brilliant technique by playing finger-exercises, but never gives a concert.” ― Ayn RandThe Romantic Manifesto

Start With Your Basic Components


three cars porches

Memoirs span a portion of an individual’s life, and while there are compelling stories in each of our lives, simply telling the stories isn’t enough, because each of us has a story, and initially, there are more similarities than differences in them; they’re the basic components of everyone’s life. Birth, early childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

We tend to be like the three cars. We’re almost the same with slight variations, and that is not going to be enough to attract a reader.

Without a unifying theme, your memoir is just interesting snippets that you thought might appeal to a reader. Those stories need to be part of a greater whole and provide meaningful truths, and that’s where the unifying theme comes in.

Finding Your Theme

Themes are the underlying structure of your memoir. Some people isolate their theme by asking questions like:

  1. What is my purpose in writing this memoir?
  2. Why do I think my dominant ideas have merit for anyone else?
  3. Where is the commonality in my story that will resonate with others?
  4. Is my experience unique enough to be interesting, but universal enough to relate?
  5. Who is my anticipated reader?
  6. What is this “about” besides a portion of my life?

Answering those questions help you decide on your theme. What are some wide-ranging, universally appealing themes?


  • Abandonment
  • Bullying
  • Childhood
  • Neglect
  • Survival


  • Caring for the Environment
  • Community
  • Cultural Diversity
  • Taking a Stand

Adjusting to a New Life

  • Adoption
  • Caring for an aging parent
  • Coming of Age
  • Immigrants or Immigration
  • Life-altering Accidents
  • PTSD and mental health issues


  • Overcoming a Disability
  • Surviving a war

Grief and Loss

  • Death
  • Divorce


  • Actors
  • Politicians
  • Sales
  • Teachers


  • Betrayal
  • Commitment
  • Family
  • Marriage


Drive the Theme Home

A theme drives the stories. That theme will also help you find your title. Clearly, in my memoir, Finding North: A Woman’s Journey from Addict 2 Advocate, a movement is inherent in the title. Also, the concept of discovery. What exactly will I find? Why a direction? Does the direction signify something?

And I’ve given readers a clue about transformation. Each of those elements – movement, discovery, and transformation will keep a reader engaged.


moving porche marilyn l davis two drops of ink themeWith each passage of your memoir, are you emotionally moving the reader towards a conclusion? When you move your reader emotionally, are you paying attention to the natural pauses in life and giving the reader a bit of breathing room?

If you’re rushing to get to the “good parts”, slow down. It’s in those early drafts, where you’re writing all your life events for the span of your memoir, that you will see which events solidify your theme. You may also discover that you need a flashback to help your reader understand and fully explore the overall landscape of your memoir.

Those detours are acceptable if they help the reader understand the back story. A good memoir balances the excitement with everyday events and encounters in a way that the reader has time to fully absorb the lessons, but is not bored.


When you discover a truth and then share it, does the reader understand the significance of the breakthrough? The wife who discovers the infidelity will have an understanding of odd behaviors, the adopted child may discover why they felt different from their siblings, or the scientist who was part of a gang until they took a class and knew they wanted to dedicate their life to finding a way to live on Mars.

Each of these discoveries transformed these people. And it’s that transformation that appeals, even when outcomes are different for the writer and reader.

The reader may be more interested in how the writer gained awareness or made changes in their lives. Sometimes, it’s the process of awareness that appeals to the reader, not what the writer found out. The process and realizations for the writer may be different than the reader, but the actions necessary for the writer to reach a conclusion are the same for the reader, and maybe the reader gains knowledge and awareness of learning how someone else made discoveries.

This is information that the reader can use in their lives, and as such, the writer has done a good job. If the story is interesting as well, then the writing is engaging as well as informative.


porche wheelWith your selected events, are you growing in awareness, overcoming something, or changing? Are you becoming someone other than who you were in the beginning? Did you discover aspects of yourself that could be modified or enhanced to be a better person?

These transformations  will keep your reader wondering, “What happens next?”

When we wonder what happens next, how you felt and what you thought have appeal. We see you transforming and becoming someone else, and that can encourage others to make different choices in their lives, too.

More posts to help you write the best memoir you can:

Memoir: White Rain, Penny Candy, and Crooked Politicians

Memory Lane: Memoir and Reverse Writing

The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Arcing, Enhancing and Advancing the Memoir

Memoir: Your Story, My Story, Our Stories

Writing a Memoir of Restoration, Renewal, and Rediscovery

Untangling the Messes: How Much Truth to Put in the Memoir?


Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing



    • Hi, Carol E’s. I think I said it in one of your other comments, so forgive me if I’m repeating. You memoir seems like survival and overcoming, so it’s already got two themes. Is your editor doing line edit or developmental, as it sounds like you’re afraid that they will cut out all the “good parts” that you want included. Sometimes, one event if it is done well can encapsulate multiple examples of the same type of behaviors. Letting us know how you felt and what you thought in the event is often more interesting to the reader than several events that follow the pattern. Certainly, at the end of a particularly telling event, you can relate it back to another or fast forward to one with transitional phrases, like, “this felt like the time that”, or “I would have to endure this again when….”. Then we begin to understand the gravity of the situations or the sheer number of times that “x” happened.

      The other issue with memoirs about abuse, abandonment, and neglect is we readers need relief. I know that reads odd. You’re probably wondering why a reader is entitled to relief when it conceivably took you years to have any. Because we can’t hold our breath, sit on the edge of our chair, or have heightened anxiety for too long, or we just put it down.

      I hope that doesn’t read discouraging in any way. I’ll always encourage people to keep plugging away. See what your editor says and let me know. I’m genuinely interested.

      • Marilyn, thanks. I’m glad you wrote about giving the reader relief, which I had been hyper-aware of all the way through. I know – from life – that most people cannot swallow these events easily, and you must also lay down a solid foundation that you, as the abused, are not made of glass either. There’s lots of breathing room, if you will, and lots of comic relief, especially with other characters.

        I don’t know these term differences, “line editing,” and “developmental,” but I can make a good guess as to what they mean and my editor will be helping with some development if I, in fact, wind up handing her a blob of clay she’d still need to sculpt. But that won’t be the case. There IS a story with an arc and everything. It’s just long. My main anxiety about all of this is that the ms. is just too long, otherwise (a few tweaks and) I am basically happy with it. If it were a 100 pages shorter and I really knew what genre it was, I’d be golden.

        -Carol Es

  1. Good stuff, Marilyn. I would add that these things, discovery and transformation, are driven by characters. That is why we are more interested in how vs results. We get to live the events through the character(s) and that is the rich world of reading. Thank you for sharing in such an organized way.

    • Hi, Jerry, I appreciate your addition to the post. That vicarious experience that we have when reading about someone else is what enriches our lives. It can also keep us from making similar mistakes or learn how best to do something. Again, thank you for taking the time to comment.

  2. Hi, Abbie, thank you for reading, commenting and being encouraging. I’ve written a fair amount about the process of memoir because it’s been necessary while writing mine to fully understand the mechanics of good memoir writing. Hopefully, the memoir will be improved if I put my advice into practice. She smiles.

  3. This insight is just priceless!! In the contemplative stage of writing a book, and you’ve got many answers here that I’d not yet considered the questions! Thanks for sharing your wisdom!!

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