How To Uncover Great Memoir Themes

May 18, 2020 | Memoirs, Tips and How To

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Memoir Writing: The Nine Things You Need To Know

From time to time I like to bring a guest blogger on for a fresh perspective on my bi-weekly “Ask a Ghostwriter” blog series. Today my colleague and friend, Laura Sherman offers us some advice. As a high-quality professional ghostwriter, Laura has a lot of experience developing memoirs and memoir themes and she’s here to talk about it.

How to Uncover a Great Memoir Theme

When you write a top-quality work of fiction, you must have powerful themes woven throughout the work. The same goes for a memoir. After all, a great memoir takes the reader on the journey of the hero of the story (you). To be a compelling read, your path should lead to growth or transformation. Once you discover what this element is for your story, it might just point you in the direction of your memoir theme. 

For many memoir authors the cornerstones of their projects center around the victories of their journeys. With these stories, the focus will be about the lessons they have learned along the way. They can’t be bashful about sharing the mistakes they made for all to see. They need to be an open book. However, by the end, the memoir author is almost always the conquering hero. 

Remember, though the journey, your readers will be by your side, sharing in your triumph.

What Is A Theme?

Simply put, the theme of a book is the main idea that ties everything together for the reader. 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, “Love” is quite popular and can be seen in many shapes and forms throughout great literature: Romeo and Juliet has a clear-cut theme of unrequited love, while Winnie the Pooh shows the power of love in friendship.

A theme can also delve into complex issues 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 and nuances of evil and good. 

The theme of a story 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 Memoir Themes Relate?

When you write your memoir, you’re not just publishing a list of memories. You’re sharing the story of pivotal moments in your life. These are composed of the lessons you’ve learned that have shaped who you are today. 

To capture your readers’ interest, you will need to share these incidents in the most interesting way possible. Create action by recounting key events. Then highlight the people who influenced you most, as they will become characters in your book. 

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 To Uncover Great Memoir Themes

Finding great memoir themes can be a challenge. Here are some ideas to help you uncover yours:

  1. 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 a theme.
  2. Summarize your story in one or two sentences. Ask yourself, “What is my story about?” When you can boil that down into an elevator pitch, you’ve unearthed the core of your story, and the theme often reveals itself.
  3. 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 a great memoir theme.
  4. Talk to someone who knows your story. Since she has an outside perspective, she may spot a theme which will unify your message.

As a ghostwriter, I’m often asked to help my clients select a great memoir theme. For example, one of my clients suffered from an oppressive influence as a child. She hadn’t recognized this prior to our conversation, but when the stories started flooding out, she realized that an old “friend” wasn’t the hero she remembered him to be. One theme that came from these discussions was how one can overcome childhood adversities to become a success.

Examples Of Great Memoir Themes

When looking for a powerful memoir theme, it’s often helpful to review themes from memoirs you’ve enjoyed. Which memoir themes were you most drawn to? See if you can decipher the author’s intention as you read and re-read his book.

Here are a few popular memoir themes you might consider for your book.

Family Is Important

Parenting and family as a memoir theme

This is a popular theme. 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 can be inspirational.

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.

In addition, simply recording your family history for future generations is a valuable undertaking. This is a popular request of ghostwriters.

Persistence Is The Key To Success

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 in the middle of the battle and really don’t have anything positive to share, now isn’t the time to write. And if your real goal is just to complain, your readers won’t appreciate it. 

Unwavering 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. For instance, if you’re a successful businessperson, your theme might be how you slayed the personal demons that threatened to hold you back in order to rise up in the business world.

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.

Being True To Oneself Brings Rewards

Memoir Themes by Erick Mertz Writing

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 others who don’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 and doubters, and have succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, may instill hope in others undergoing a similar struggle. Keep in mind that artists come in many shapes and sizes. Entrepreneurs are one of my favorite kinds of artists in the business world.

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 help them strike out on a new path.

If you’ve broken the bonds of conservative convention 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 you traveled to a different country and immersed yourself in its culture, thereby gaining a broader understanding of what others have to endure to survive and a deeper appreciation of your own opportunities. 

Or perhaps the journey is more figurative, more internal. It may be that you have overcome a debilitating fear in order to pursue your dream. Or possibly you’ve been able to make a change for the better, improving your moral compass along the way. There are many versions of this theme.

Life Transitions Can Bring New Experiences and Joys

Love as a memoir theme

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 memoir, 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. 

Author Bio: Laura Sherman (aka the Friendly Ghostwriter) has been helping authors write their stories for twenty years. When she’s not busy building worlds for her clients, she homeschools three children as the family travels the country in her RV.