You might be thinking, “Memoirs are just life stories. Why would they need to have themes?” Well, the truth is that memoir themes are vital to your story’s success. After all, a memoir is a specialized autobiography and, as such, it must follow the rules of literature.
What is a theme?
Simply put, the theme of a book is the main idea that ties everything together. This idea might express a basic universal truth, such as Love, Friendship, War, or Faith.
These general themes can be further refined to explore a specific aspect. For instance, in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare broke down the idea of “Love” and particularly examined forbidden love and its potential consequences.
A theme can also delve into a deeper concept, such as the battle between good and evil. For example, I’m currently reading A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, which explores many shades of good and evil throughout.
The theme is usually not stated outright. Instead, the author gives the reader insight into his view of the world and the human condition through the characters’ beliefs, actions, experiences and conversations.
How do themes relate to memoirs?
When you write your memoir, you’re not just publishing a shopping list of memories. You are telling the story of pivotal moments in your life, of the lessons you’ve learned that make you who you are.
To capture your readers’ interest, you will need to share these incidents in the most interesting way possible, highlighting key events (creating action) and the people who influenced you most (who become characters in your book).
So, your memoir must follow the same rules as any good piece of literature: you must be able to tie the threads of your story tapestry together with a compelling theme.
How do I find my memoir themes?
If you’re struggling to find a good theme, check out my detailed article: Tips To Find Your Memoir Theme. To summarize, here are some key ideas you can explore:
- Look over your life story. Were there any obstacles you overcame? What lessons did you learn along the way? Jot these down, and they might point you in the direction of one or two memoir themes.
- Summarize your story in one or two sentences. When you drill down to the core of what your story is about, the theme often reveals itself.
- Step back and look at the big picture. Ask yourself questions such as “Why did I make that choice?” or “What would I do differently now that I know what I know today?” These questions could help you formulate your memoir themes.
- Talk to someone who knows your story. Since she has an outside perspective, she may spot similarities to unify your message.
I was working with a client who had an oppressive influence as a child. She hadn’t recognized it prior to our conversation, but when the stories started flooding out, she realized that an old schoolteacher wasn’t the hero she remembered him to be. One theme that came from these discussions is how one can overcome childhood adversities to become a success.
So, what are some good themes for your memoir? Well, let’s start with some examples of great memoir themes that I’ve encountered in my two decades as a ghostwriter. Maybe a few will resonate with you. Feel free to make adjustments to make them work for your story.
Persistence always wins in the end
If you’ve lived a hard life, one with lots of obstacles to overcome, this can be a great theme if you’ve triumphed. Others will benefit greatly from your story, perhaps finding the strength to pull themselves out of their current hardship.
Note: If you’re still amid the battle and really don’t have anything positive to share, now isn’t the time to write. And if your real goal is to complain to your reader, your story won’t make for a good read. I mean, would you want to read a book like that?
Continual courage can lead to victory
We have all experienced battles where the odds seemed against us. It’s what you do at those moments that counts and can make for a good story. If your life is filled with examples of courage and integrity, that would be a great theme.
I’ve ghostwritten many books with this theme. In fact, three different clients came to me with stories of escaping communism and fascism in bold and daring ways. We can all learn from their bravery.
Family is important
This is a simple theme, but a good one. In this day and age, where the media reports that most marriages fail and children are growing up without the support and love of their parents, a good memoir showing the beautiful bond of family is a needed commodity. Of course, this theme can go beyond the traditional family structure. If you’ve experienced success and happiness in a non-traditional setting, this can truly inspire others in a similar situation.
Then there is always a need for good advice. Especially in the field of parenting. If you’ve evolved a unique approach that had positive results, you will have an interested audience.
Simply recording your family history for future generations is also a great concept! This is a popular request of a ghostwriter.
Ethical people lead better lives
If your story highlights times when you stood up and did the right thing, even when it was difficult for you, your story can set an important example for others. It isn’t always easy to keep your integrity, especially when peers are pressuring you to do the opposite.
Writing a book that shows how you succeeded by being ethical can help others make similar choices in their own lives. Perhaps someone will pick up your book when he’s at an important crossroad in his life and just needs a gentle nudge to make the right decision.
Crime doesn’t pay
Over the years I have received a number of requests from former inmates who are eager to share their stories of reform. The ones who are passionate about this subject, who regularly go out and speak to young adults, can do well with a complementary memoir.
A memoir from a former inmate will be rough in places and won’t always be happy-go-lucky, but the lessons learned by someone who has traveled the wrong path can be helpful to others. This theme only works if the author is presently leading a successful and ethical life.
Being true to oneself brings rewards
In a world of peer pressure and a constant demand to conform, it can be hard to find one’s way. Influencers from all corners of the globe (or perhaps just down the street) loudly proclaim their “truths” and harass anyone who doesn’t agree. If you’ve remained true to your beliefs despite pressure to surrender, your courage can be a beacon for others to do the same.
For example, many young artists are guided away from their passions by people around them. The ones who have weathered the critics around them and have succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations may instill hope in others undergoing a similar struggle.
Some people have had a difficult decision to make in life and chose an unconventional route. Those authors could motivate others to consider alternative ways as well.
I ghostwrote a book about a woman whose young son had horrible symptoms. She defied her doctors by doing independent research and discovered the true nature of her son’s illness, thus saving him. This story continues to inspire parents all over the globe struggling with a similar problem.
Journeying outside of one’s comfort zone expands horizons
So many people have well-established routines that ultimately don’t do much to fulfill their true life goals. I think most people have a vague awareness that things could be different, could be better, but have no idea how to implement the changes required to make a difference.
If you’ve broken the bonds and found new vistas of joy and fulfillment, your journey could encourage others to take their own leaps of faith.
This journey could be literal. Perhaps the author traveled to a different country and immersed himself in its culture, thereby gaining a broader understanding of what others have to endure to survive and a deeper appreciation of his own opportunities.
Or perhaps the journey is more figurative, more internal. It may be that the author has overcome a potent fear in order to pursue her dream. Or possibly she’s been able to make a change for the better, improving her moral compass along the way.
Life transitions can bring new experiences and joys
Shakespeare wrote a famous monologue about the seven ages of man, detailing each stage a person transitions through in life, a concept philosophers have been contemplating for eons. Each shift into a new phase of life can be a potent memoir theme.
Some transitions can be joyful, while others are often fraught with difficulties. How did you approach a shift in life? Did you discover a new method of tackling a transition that could help others?
For example, perhaps when you and your spouse had children while maintaining full time jobs, you discovered some methods to juggle both successfully. Or if you’ve hit retirement early and have started a new business, you can share your successful actions and help others do the same.
As you begin to write your life story, there are so many great and inspiring memoir themes for you to explore. Really, you just need to look at the positive impact your story could have on others and then write it from the heart.
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