Memoirs – They’re Not All About You

by limebirdvanessa

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?

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29 Comments to “Memoirs – They’re Not All About You”

  1. Interesting post Vanessa, I’ve often wondered why anyone would want to read a memoir unless it was some famous person who had done some wild thing – but it never occurred to me that even ordinary people do and see extraordinary things all the time! I’ve never looked at it quite this way before.
    Having a theme, a continuing idea running through the book – I have to say it’s very compelling and now that I think of it, I guess I have read a good many like this!

  2. Great post, Vanessa. I have years and years of journals. If I were to try to write memoirs, how would I condense a life into one book? In a way, this is the editorial part: culling through the stories to tighten it and make it a “work.”

  3. When I did my Creative Writing course, we had to do several pieces of Life Writing and I really enjoyed the experience. The key was the theme running through the stories. It was the first time I fully engaged with writing in the first person, seeing as I was writing from my POV. I don’t think I could possibly draw anything in my life out to a novel, but a few short stories were very enjoyable to write.

  4. Settling on my two themes was the hardest part of putting my memoir together. I had so much material and knew it couldn’t all just be thrown in the book. Once I decided on my themes, I knew what material to include and which stories had to left out. And I could shape the material that I included to accentuate the themes, hint at them every once in a while, just to keep them alive and to keep the momentum going. Because even themes (like plots) need resolution.

    Of course I didn’t know this when I decided to write a memoir. I just figured my stories would be enough. Wrong! A good memoir is as carefully crafted and plotted as a good novel.

  5. I’m a big fan of themes, personally. Actually, for my more serialized fiction stories, I like my each of my chapters to focus on a particular theme.

    What I really like about the heart of this post is that it’s all about story, and how it’s not nearly so difficult to realize the correlations between plot, theme, and people. Our lives are stories weaved over time and generations. When we take a step back and look at them with a wide-angle lens, as we might do with a memoir, we should be able to see the arcs and subplots and climaxes like we’d see in any good story.

    Great post, Vanessa!

  6. I’ve never really thought about writing a memoir, even as an exercise for myself. And you’re right—there has to be a greater theme to it that simply recording a series of events or thoughts about those events. The reader has to be able to identify with the account. Very interesting post!

    • Thank you. It’s funny, I imagined that everyone had thought of writing a memoir at some point! But I see Jilanne below has also said that she’s never thought about it either, so I guess lots of people haven’t!

  7. I’ve never thought about this before, most likely because I’ve never thought about writing a memoir. Now that I think about the memoirs I’ve read recently, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking, I realize that they both centered around a single theme. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  8. Great post Vanessa! I don’t think I’ll ever write a memior but I did have to do an autobiography module at uni and my theme somehow became places I’ve been stuck in or small gaps that I’ve been shoved through; underneath beds, inside sofa beds, through small upper story windows etc. It was actually quite fun chronicling my childhood from one escape attempt to the next but I’m not sure that it would work for an entire book!

  9. I am awaiting your memoir. Whatever the theme, I suspect it will be awesome.

  10. Very interesting, Vanessa. As I read this I realised one of my novels is actually a fictitious memoir. And I think it has a theme, probably a few, actually. Hopefully not too many. But I get the feeling I’m on the right track! I cautiously move forward…
    Thank you!

  11. I have, on occasion, thought about writing a fictionalised version of the years I spent as a volunteer in Nigeria (the only time that I have kept a diary) but never sat down to do it. I have, however, used some of my experiences in a short story (Bush Soup) although I’m sure that the bush meat I ate was not from a crashed spaceship! Also, the protagonist of my upcoming YA novel is of Nigerian parentage.

    I don’t often read memoirs, but I would recommend “Where did it all go right? : Growing Up Normal in the 70s” by Andrew Collins. I bought it because I grew up at the same time about 14 miles from the author… For anyone who feels like reliving spacehoppers, chopper bikes and Blue Peter it is great. It is also very funny. Here is the first part of the blurb “Andrew Collins was born 37 years ago in Northampton. His parents never split up, in fact they rarely exchanged a cross word. No-one abused him. Nobody died. He got on well with his brother and sister and none of his friends drowned in a canal. He has never stayed overnight in a hospital and has no emotional scars from his upbringing, except a slight lingering resentment that Anita Barker once mocked the stabilisers on his bike.” I don’t supposed he had a theme really (apart from ‘what the 70s’ was like) so I would say that, if ones writing is good enough (and in this case, funny enough) then the most mundane of things can be readable

    • Ooh, you really should write about the years you spent as a volunteer in Nigeria, that sounds fascinating!

      I guess life in the 70s was enough of a theme for him, as you say if the writing is good enough then there doesn’t need to be any major hook to carry it through. I love how he has turned it around and made something of the fact that nothing really happened – maybe that’s the theme! I shall have to add that one to my reading list. I was born in 1970, so I’m sure there would be much for me to relate to.

  12. I’m a sucker for themes, and I weave them through my fiction writing. Themes are wonderful devices. I actually don’t really pick one and then write. For me, they evolve organically and once I see it emerge, then I pay close attention to how I can pick it through the story at various points, without overdoing it — because that can be deadly!!

    I can see how a memoir would need a theme first though, because you have to really pick and choose the most effective memories/events that will showcase the theme.

    Great post, V.

    • Thanks Kate.

      I think themes can really help to carry you through whatever you’re writing can’t thet – they give you something to keep going back to when you’re not sure where you’re heading!

  13. I can’t tell you how much I needed this. My boyfriend is currently writing some of the things he’s experienced and getting it ready for me to write the memoirs for him. I must admit I’ve never been a fan of non-fiction, so I was a bit lost as to how to write it. All I knew was that his story needed to be told. Yes I think I still need more before I can write it, but you have given us both a starting point. I’m very grateful to you.

    • Well I’m very pleased if this is helped! As you say, it’s a starting point and then you can build on it. Some memoirs are written as if they are fiction, except they are true! You might prefer to go that route.

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