May 26, 2024

Theme as Your Memoir’s North Star

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Is there such a thing as a memoir without a central theme or themes? Yes, but it’s called an autobiography, or just a bunch of strung-together scenes about “what happened,” which is not enough to make a meaningful memoir.

Theme can be a tough topic for memoirists to wrap their minds around. After all, most of us have lived very big and full lives and sometimes writing with theme in mind feels like reducing your experience to just a small part of your life—not necessarily representative of the whole. Human beings are the sum of all our parts (and experiences), but when we write memoir, we’re choosing to focus more explicitly on certain parts of our lives, rather than our whole lives.  

I’ve had memoirists push back at me over the years plenty of times on this point. “I don’t want to be the poster child for anxiety,” one writer told me a few years back, and yet she was writing a memoir about anxiety. Another thoughtful writer told me that she didn’t like the idea that her life would be reduced to the story of her journey from sickness to health, but the issue there, too, was that this journey was the core focus of her memoir.

Writing with your theme front and center does not mean you cannot write about other aspects of your life; of course you can. But theme is the atmosphere of your memoir. As such, if you’re writing a book about love addiction, you can write about your family-of-origin, your job, your relationship, your children, but it should be through the lens of love addiction. If you lose sight of that lens, the reader will stumble into a scene and wonder what the hell is going on.

If you’ve settled on your theme, think of it like a pair of glasses. Maybe your glasses have yellow lenses, or purple lenses. If you’ve ever skied with tinted glasses, you know you can still see everything—all the terrain is visible and even sharper—but it’s tinged with the color of the lens. This is a brilliant metaphor for theme. If you write something that is not tinged with the color of your theme, you need to rework the scene. It doesn’t mean the scene inherently doesn’t belong, but your scene should inform your theme. If it doesn’t, keep working at it. Mary Karr (author of The Art of Memoir) once shared in an interview that writing memoir is like pulling at taffy. You keep pulling and working it till it takes the shape that serves the story.

This leads us to the image of the North Star. Imagining your theme as your North Star is an effective exercise in orienting and re-orienting and orienting yourself again. This is a constant struggle with memoir, because it’s so easy to just write the next scene that you remember, or that occurs to you, or that follows whatever you last wrote. But you need to ask yourself questions:

  • How does what I’m about to write inform my theme?
  • Can what I’m about to write be framed in such a way that it touches upon/highlights my theme?
  • What’s my theme again??

Print yourself an image of a North Star to hang in your writing space. It could even be the one that accompanies this post. Write your theme (or themes) on it or near the image. Then consider your theme(s) as you write, and integrate this consideration into your decision-making process as you figure out what scenes to include in your memoir. Remember that just because something happened doesn’t mean it must go in your memoir. Be discerning. Write with your theme ever-present, guiding you with its certainty and clarity.

Want to learn more about getting to what matters quickly and succinctly? If so, we invite you to our 6-consecutive-week ELEVATE YOUR MEMOIR BOOT CAMP starting on September 22, 2020.

In Week 4, our guest teacher Reyna Grande, author of A Dream Called Home, Across a Hundred Mountains, and Dancing with Butterflies has got you covered on theme, describing why it’s so foundational to memoir writing and how critical it is to supporting you to get focused with your ideas and your writing.

Earlier this year, Reyna spoke with Oprah about inequalities in the publishing industry for Latinx writers, and has been an active voice in raising awareness about disparities that exist when it comes to who gets published and

Check out our BOOT CAMP (September 22-October 27). We hope you’ll join us for this topic and more—and discover new ways to ELEVATE YOUR MEMOIR.   

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