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What Makes a Memoir Great. Part 3. Theme.

In parts 1 and 2, we talked about the necessity for a memoir to have an engaging story and engaging characters.  In part 3, I draw your attention to the essential nature of “Theme.

A strong theme is one of the elements that separates great from ordinary memoir, and further separates memoir from autobiography. Theme raises the subject matter to a higher plane, so it is not just about “me, me, me” but it is about some larger, universal concern – such as love, or loss, or fly fishing. There are thousands of possible themes, circling around the hopes and dreams, passions and concerns of us mortals as we follow our journey of life. I can’t begin to list all the potential themes, but some useful categories are family, work, growing up, love, relationships, money, travel, hobbies, physical and mental health, spirituality and religion, sports, nature, creativity, war and peace. You get the idea. Themes are (usually) large, abstract concepts that underlie a thousand actions.

Must you know your theme before you start writing?

Intuitively, the answer to this question would seem to be “Yes.” In actuality, I think the answer is “No.” Of course, it’s helpful to know what you’re writing about before you start writing. But writing to discover your theme is a great way to go. Write about what you want to understand. Write about what draws you in emotionally. When I started writing “King of Doubt” I had a few scenes in mind, but I had no idea what my theme was. In fact, even after completing the first draft, I still wasn’t sure. It was sometime deep into a second full revision that the theme began to find me. I was searching for it, but it found me more than I found it. I read and re-read scenes, remaining as open as I could, looking for common words, common images, unanswered questions. Like looking at a picture that at first seems unintelligible, but the more you gaze at it, the more it comes in to focus. The words, “Self doubt” emerged as if from some deep place within.

What does the theme add to the story?

Theme unifies the story as it raises it to a universal, or at least a higher, plane. Your story and my story may, on the surface, be quite different. But if you’ve ever battled with self doubt–and who among us hasn’t?–though at many levels of intensity, you will most likely connect with my story. And this is what readers are after (albeit often subconsciously) – to see themselves in your story, and to recognize that they are not alone, but part of a universal experience.

The moment of discovering your theme is a Eureka! moment like none other. It will add momentum and motivation to your writing. It will supply meaning, where before you might have wondered why you were working on this “superficial” story.  It will lead you forward like a star in the sky. It is the heart and soul of your story.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you.