What’s Your Memoir About? Discovering Your Life Story’s Themes 3

MEMOIR WRITING can be a messy process. When you begin writing a life story, it’s often in response to a strong inner urging to share your experiences — your challenges and triumphs, pain and joy — with others. You know, intuitively, there are others somewhere out in the world who will be encouraged or emboldened or comforted by your story.

But you don’t always know what the main messages or themes of your story are. There may be one or many. Typically, there is a core or primary theme with sub-themes.

You may know the general WHAT of it — relationships, family secrets, addiction, abuse, travel, illness — but you may not fully understand the underlying thread or threads that run through your story. For example, a story about overcoming addiction, may have sub-themes (threads) of abuse, narcissism, abandonment, an individual response to peer pressure, insecurity, or coming-of-age. These underlying themes are like subplots in fiction. They give texture and depth to your memoir.

Identifying and building on these themes is important if you want your memoir to reach your audience and have meaningful impact.

For example, my memoir, Accidental Jesus Freak, about my years in the evangelical Jesus Movement, is not only a story about a religious cult in the 1970s — it’s also a story about the connection between self-esteem and male-female conflict in patriarchal fundamentalist culture. Exploring these themes and making them more visible added depth and coherence to my story.

Not the Mother I Remember is a memoir of a complicated mother-daughter relationship. Yet, it also contains the sub-themes of self-esteem, emotional insecurity, and power dynamics in love-hate relationships. It explores finding the universal human experience in the familial roles we find ourselves in.

So how to you go about finding your sub-themes?


Here are a few methods you can use to explore the emotional themes underlying your main story.

Choose one to get started.

  • Read what you have written so far. For each major scene or event, identify and make note of the internal emotional conflict your younger self was experiencing. Why did you respond the way you did to that event? What attitudes, beliefs, and other factors came into play? Notice if these same emotional conflicts presented themselves in other situations.
  • Make a list of the major turning points in your story. What do these turning points have in common?
  • Notice if certain metaphors keep popping up in your writing. If so, explore those metaphors more deeply by extending them. You can read a few examples of how to extend metaphors in my article, Metaphors for Life. How can these metaphors add contours to your story?
  • Study other memoirs with similar topics. What are the sub-themes that resonate most for you? Chances are, you also have those experiential and emotional themes running through your life story as well. How have those themes played out in your life?
  • Answer this question in one sentence: What is your memoir about? Then, ask that same question using your answer as the subject. Keep digging deeper by continuing to ask the question using the subject of each subsequent answer as many times as it takes to uncover one or more core issues underlying the main theme.
    • For example, if your first answer is: “My memoir is about my escape from an abusive relationship,” ask, “What was the abusive relationship about?” (You could also ask, “What was the escape about?”) If you answer, “The abusive relationship was about not trusting myself,” then ask the follow up question, “What was not trusting myself about?” And so on.
  • Write a list of what you, the narrator of your story, learned from each event in the story, and how you changed from beginning to end. What inner and outer transformations take place in each chapter? What transformations take place from beginning to end?
  • Ask yourself, Why am I writing this memoir? What do I want it to accomplish? Who do I want to help or connect with or influence?
  • Have someone you trust read your story and ask what they think are the most moving parts. If you are just starting out to write, then tell someone your story and ask what makes they are most curious about. What questions do they ask? These can give you clues as to your main and sub-themes.


Finally, keep in mind that memoir is not a random string of life anecdotes, but a coherent story focused on your main and underlying themes. It has a message.

You may not always know that message when you begin writing, but at some point you need to pause and reflect on the themes emerging in your story. When you begin asking questions about the what and why of your story and how your life experiences have changed who you are in the world, you will begin to pick out those threads that will form the tapestry of your memoir.


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