Discover Your Memoir’s Underlying Themes 15

MEMOIRS ARE DRIVEN BY THEME. When you begin writing your memoir, it’s because you want to tell a story about a particular aspect of your life. It could be the discovery of a family secret, going through the loss of a loved one, overcoming an abusive childhood or addiction, or what it’s like to live with mental illness. All of these themes and many more are found in memoir.

Every memoir also contains underlying themes — threads of concepts and images that are woven into the fabric of the memoir. Underlying themes are to memoir as subplots are to fiction. They provide depth and richness to the memoir. Often, they are not obvious, not even to the author until she begins writing.

For example, my newest memoir, Accidental Jesus Freak (February 2018) is, on the surface, a memoir of my years in the Jesus Movement and the outgrowth of fundamentalist churches and communes during the 1970s and 80s. But as I wrote I discovered a number of underlying themes that provide depth of understanding and reflection related to my overarching story. These themes include instability from constantly moving, self-esteem and relationship issues, and male-female conflict embedded in the fundamentalist culture. As I revised my manuscript, I was able to connect and make these themes more visible, which added deeper levels of understanding to the story and helped to create a coherent whole.

Here are a few techniques to help you identify your underlying themes:

  • Pay attention to recurring images and metaphors. If you find that images of water, mountains, trails, clouds, etc., are repetitively popping up in your writing, take note and dig deeper. There’s a reason those images are rising to the surface. What do they represent for you? How can you leverage the power of those metaphors to tell your story?

    One word of caution. Don’t mix too many different metaphors into your work. Focus on one or two and let those do the heavy lifting.
  • Perform a Creative Cluster using the primary concept of your memoir as the nucleus. For example, if your memoir is about raising children, write “raising children” in the center of the page and draw a circle around it. Write whatever associated words come to mind around that nucleus. Draw a circle around each word and let the associations radiate outward. Each word may have associations of its own. When you’re done, review the cluster of words for recurring ideas and images. These may be your underlying themes.
  • Get feedback. Ask your critique group or a friend you can trust to give you honest feedback to read your work with an eye to identifying underlying themes. Sometimes an “outsider” can readily see what you are unaware of.
  • Identify the underlying themes in others’ memoirs. This is a great way to see how other writers handle threading these themes throughout their stories.

If you’re currently in the process of writing a memoir (or think you might write a memoir someday), share what your memoir is about in 25 words or less in the comments below. Then list a few underlying themes you know or suspect are embedded in your story.


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15 thoughts on “Discover Your Memoir’s Underlying Themes

  • Sara Etgen-Baker

    I’ve been writing memoir vignettes for almost nine years. I want to compile them into a collection. I recognize that there must be an underlying theme or even themes that will bind them together. I’ve yet to find it but doing so is my first priority in the new year. Your article was helpful. Thanks!

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Thank you, Sara. Look for topics or issues that keep coming up in your vignettes. Also, essay collections do not all need to have the same theme. You may find two or three themes. Then you can place your vignettes in separate, related parts within the overall collection. Make sense?

  • RYCJ

    Great exercise! I’m working on a memoir centering around life events that have inspired the ‘realistic novels’ I’ve published. Guess the central ‘theme’ will boil down to getting really creative with the writing. lol…or coll…

  • Marjorie Kildare

    One theme is my relationship with Will from whom I learned much, specifically how to live and how to die. Even as a girl, my Inner Voice whispered, “You deserve better. You are worthy of more, of what you dream” – and now live.

    I wrote first and encircled: Being Single and Loving Life. Radiating from this: Sacred/ Sacred Sexuality/Simplicity/Love of Mother Nature/Feminist Spirituality/Simple Living/Gratitude/Single & Soaring/Journaling/Stillness/Song of My Soul/Health/Healing/Home/My Own Food/Reading/ Researching/
    Silence/Peace/Quiet/Mindfulness/Cleanliness/Organized/Unencumbered/Freedom/Liberty/My Turn-MyTime/Poetry & Writing Poetry…

    Then came, “Be Still and Know that I am God/Goddess” and “No More the Good Samaritan for all and everyone, but for myself, MySelf, my Soul, my Spirit.

    (Much more than 25 words, but that’s what came on one page.)

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Thank you for sharing, Marjorie. You’ll want to distill that down into two or three encompassing themes. At the heart of what you wrote, I read: self-worth, inner divine strength, and standing strong in one’s Self. Did I get that right?

  • William J. Burrows

    I started my memoir intending it to be about my family’s battle with mental health. Then I realized it was a memoir about me and my journey, which changed the emphasis to one of co-dependency and recovery. By the time I finished my second draft, I’d incorporated the spiritual aspects of my journey. I’m left with a memoir with two central themes–my crisis-to-crisis life with my dysfunctional family, and my spiritual conversion to Catholicism. Now I have to decide which should be the primary focus when marketing it.

  • Anna

    My memoir is about it never being too late to change my life’s trajoctory. subthemes I’m unearthing are imposter syndrome, loss, self-esteem, and sexuality. After reading your comment about a collection of essays, I’m thinking this may be a better route for me than a book-length memoir.