“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 Rand, The Romantic Manifesto
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. 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.
Themes are the underlying structure of your memoir. Some people isolate their theme by asking questions like:
- What is my purpose in writing this memoir?
- Why do I think my dominant ideas have merit for anyone else?
- Where is the commonality in my story that will resonate for others?
- Is my experience unique enough to be interesting, but universal enough to relate?
- Who is my anticipated reader?
- 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?
- Caring for the Environment
- Cultural Diversity
- Taking a Stand
Adjusting to a New Life
- 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
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, movement in inherent in the title. Also, the concept of discovery. And I’ve given readers a clue about transformation. Each of those elements – movement, discovery, and transformation will keep a reader engaged.
With 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 the everyday 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 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.
With your selected events, are you growing in awareness, overcoming something, or changing? That 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.
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