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Posted on Oct 13, 2015

Writing memoir: Tips for Finding Your Memoir’s Theme — By Julia Scheeres

Writing Memoir Julia Scheeres
Julia Scheeres

A few months ago, we had an interesting piece on our blog from our Reedsy editor and advisor Rebecca Heyman on why authors should think twice before writing a "memoir". We believe that in a subjective industry like this one, it's important to showcase a variety of opinions. So when we interviewed narrative non-fiction author Julia Scheeres a few weeks ago, we asked her if she would contribute a blog post on writing memoir. 

Julia is the bestselling author of Jesus Land and one of our best memoir editors on Reedsy. She luckily accepted our offer, and leaves us with some great nuggets of wisdom on finding your memoir's theme. Memoir authors, this is for you.

My students often look stricken when I ask them this question:“What’s your memoir about?”

I don’t blame them – I also struggled with this question, even after my memoir was published. During dozens of radio interviews about Jesus Land, the host — who frequently didn’t have time to read my book – would bluntly ask: “So, what’s your book about?” and expect a zippy answer. I so dreaded that question. How was I supposed to reduce a 350-page book down to a single sentence or word?

“What’s your memoir about?” is also a confusing question because it can be answered two ways. The asker may merely want to know the general plot, or story arc, of your book, which you probably had figured out a long time ago. But she’s also usually curious about something deeper — the emotional story you’re trying to convey. Not just the what, but the why.

It was only in honing my sound bytes for radio interviews that I understood what my theme was. “Jesus Land is about the unbreakable bond between a brother and sister.” That’s the emotional story. The longer version hints at the plot: “Jesus Land is about the unbreakable bond between a brother and a sister raised in a hostile environment.”

Like me, you may not be able to put your theme into words until after several drafts of your book. But if you’re able to sort it out beforehand, you’ll waste a lot less time with superfluous events and characters.

Most memoirs are essentially survival stories. The author survives an ordeal — a harsh childhood, cancer, alcoholism, divorce, a loved one’s death, kidnapping, a plane crash — and lives to tell the tale. The theme therefore conveys something the author learned by enduring the experience: inner peace, resilience, empathy.

Examples of famous memoirs' themes:

Some memoirs are easier to categorize than others.

  • Mary Karr’s third memoir, Lit, for example, is about battling alcoholism with prayer;
  • Wasted is about Marya Hornbacher’s struggle to overcome a nearly-fatal eating disorder;
  • Tracy Ross sums up the theme in The Source of All Things, which details her painful relationship with her stepfather, in a single word: forgiveness.

Having an identifiable theme gives your memoir universal appeal. Readers who’ve likewise struggled to overcome a hardship will relate to your book and want to read it, feeling they share a commonality with you and may learn something about coping from your experience. And readers who’ve had the Hallmark card version of life will also read it to broaden their worldview and experience some vicarious drama.

Writing memoirs: tips for finding your memoir’s theme:

  • Tell someone your story. Note which parts arouse their curiosity and the questions they ask. The more you talk about your memoir, the clearer your theme will become in your mind.
  • Think about how you were changed by your experiences. You start your memoir at point A and end up at point Z. What did you learn between those two points?
  • Ask yourself, “why am I writing this book?” or “what do I want to say?” Lodge these queries in the back of your mind. The answers may come when you least expect them, such as at 5 a.m. or when you’re doing laps in the pool — moments when you’re relaxed and undistracted.
  • Consult someone who knows your story well. Ask them what they think are the most moving/ dramatic parts of your experience and why. As memoirists, sometimes we can be so close to our material that we become myopic — we can’t see the bigger picture or recurring threads that weave through our work. You may hear them say something like, “how did you survive xyz?” or “you were really abandoned as a child” — comments that could help you articulate your theme.
  • Write down the major events of your life and see if there is some connection between them. In doing so, you may well find the beats of your story.

You may find it takes several drafts before your true theme emerges. (Hint: it’s hidden in the events that you find yourself obsessing over the most, or that place where your deepest shame resides). When you figure it out, you’ll be able to slice off the flab – all the digressions and superfluous material that bogs your narrative down.

For me, it took several rewrites to figure out what Jesus Land was really about. I narrowed down my material to my dramatic teenage years. But I didn’t know which aspects of those years to focus on — moving to the countryside, my strict Christian household, the seething racism of rural Indiana, trying to fit in at a new school or being sent to a reformatory with my brother David. As I wrote, I kept coming back to David — my adopted black brother. My parents adopted David when he was 3 and I was a few months older. I gradually realized my relationship with David should be my “through line,” or the one constant against which all the other elements (racism, religion, abuse) unfolded.

Once this became clear, I was able to go through my pages and cut out the extraneous details that watered down the book’s central focus (such a long sections involving my high school boyfriend or various cliques). The result, I believe, is a more powerful and poignant book.

Narrative nonfiction must have a focused, deliberate arc and structure. As a memoirist, it’s your job to impose order and meaning on the chaos of life. That’s the art of writing memoir.

Check out Julia Scheeres' profile on Reedsy:

Are you struggling with your memoir? Do you have any questions for Julia? Just let us know in the comments below!

8 responses

Margaret Piton says:

16/10/2015 – 16:22

How do you know whether you have an interesting enough life to write a memoir?

Delaina Waldron says:

27/10/2015 – 17:08

Are memoirs supposed to teach people certain life's lessons? Did you write with the intention to teach your readers or just telling your story and writing what you learned from your experiences and triumphs? Can a memoir be written to sort of teach people who are experiencing the same problems as the writer or are memoirs just a another type of biography?

↪️ Julia Scheeres replied:

30/10/2015 – 22:03

I don't think a memoir's intention should be didactic, no. But the reader should come away from the memoir feeling like they (and you) have changed and perhaps gleaned some wisdom from the lived experience. But the intention is dramatic storytelling and reflection.

Jessica Paul says:

13/08/2018 – 16:07

Thank you very much for these useful tips! Soon I want to send my resume for a freelance writer position. I hope that I will succeed and I will successfully take up this post. I think that your advice can be applied not only to writing memoirs, but also to writing essays. So I'm sure that this will help me a lot. Thank you for sharing such interesting tips! I would like to see more articles for freelance writers on your site. I really hope that soon they will appear!

Sarah Schwarz says:

22/07/2019 – 18:33

Does a memoir need to include EVERY SINGLE dirty little secret of the authors life?

Andrina Treadgold says:

23/02/2020 – 03:00

Hi I'm writing a memoir / biography about my father who was a mid century architect in Australia. Is it possible for a book to sit between these two genres?

↪️ Martin Cavannagh replied:

25/02/2020 – 09:22

In terms of shelving in a bookshop, memoir and biography are effectively the same — I wouldn't expect there to be a major difference in tropes and expectations.

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