Memoir Writing: Which Stories to Tell & Which to Leave Out

salim73So you’re writing a memoir, and maybe you’ve begun to feel overwhelmed. Your life is just so…big, right? You’ve experienced years and years worth of stuff. You can’t possibly write about all of it, because you’d be spending the rest of your life in front of a computer. Some stories you definitely want to include, but others will have to be left out.

With so much material to choose from, how can you possibly decide?

Let your theme be your guide.

Many memoirs have an overarching theme, and it’s a good idea to keep yours in mind when you’re writing. Not only can it help you decide which stories to tell and which to leave out, but it can also help keep you from wandering off on writing tangents that don’t really belong in your memoir.

But what is a theme, exactly?

Think of a memoir as a necklace – say, a string of pearls. Each pearl is a story from your life.  Those stories are strung together on a ribbon or a chain. Think of that chain as your theme.

You could potentially tell thousands of stories about things that happened to you in your life, but if the theme of your memoir is conquering cancer, you probably don’t need to tell the story about your first slow dance in the sixth grade – unless it has some bearing on your battle with cancer.

Don’t know what your memoir’s central theme is? That’s O.K. Typically, a memoir’s theme will reveal itself after you’ve started writing.  In fact, once you get clear about what “theme” is, I urge you to promptly forget about it.  At least for a little while.

Themes are often unconscious. They bubble up in the back of your mind while you’re busy with storytelling. A theme shouldn’t be over-thought.

But you should also keep in mind that many memoirs, if you look at them closely, have more than one theme lingering just beneath the surface. Some themes might appear in some chapters but not in others, ebbing and flowing throughout the pages of the book. Nevertheless, there should be one major theme that ties all of your anecdotes together.

memoir-plantThink about a gardener planting a seed.  The gardener tucks the seed safely under a layer of moist soil, then leaves it alone. Sure, he’s always there in the background, making sure the ground is watered and gets plenty of sun. But he doesn’t go outside and poke at the ground ten times a day, looking for signs of life. At least not if he wants to grow a healthy plant.

Consider this blog post the sunshine and rain your theme needs to be stirred into a seedling, and then into a robust, blooming plant. Read it, understand it, then let your theme be urged to the surface gently, in its own good time.

That said, keep an eye out for those hints of green emerging from the soil. If something like a theme strikes you while writing, or even while washing the dishes or driving to the supermarket, simply notice it.

So what are some examples of “theme” in a memoir?  Here are a few:

  • Abandonment is something you never get over
  • American women sacrifice their happiness to body image concerns
  • You can’t stop change
  • A sense of community is disappearing from our towns and cities
  • Determination is admirable but it can also kill you
  • Faith heals emotional wounds
  • Denial leads to eventual unhappiness
  • No matter how wide the generation gap, music can bring people together
  • Heroes are an example to our children
  • Immigrants are hard-working people
  • A jealous spouse leads to an unhappy marriage
  • Peer pressure helps shape who we are, for better or worse
  • Some people will do anything to survive
  • Experiencing war was horrifying, but it made me into a man

death be not proudWant some more specific examples? O.K. Take Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther. In this memoir, Gunther writes about his son, Johnny, who died of a brain tumor at the age of seventeen. Johnny endured multiple surgeries and great discomfort during the fifteen months between his diagnosis and death. However, he was a brave kid. Despite the difficulties he faced, Johnny continued to engage enthusiastically with life, all throughout his illness. He continued to socialize, kept up with his schoolwork, and remained intellectually curious. And he was mindful of keeping his fears to himself in order to spare the feelings of others.

I’d say the main theme of this memoir is facing death with courage.

However, you could also argue for some additional themes in Death Be Not Proud. For example, you could also say this memoir is about relishing life. Johnny had a deep interest in science and never stopped engaging his brain with the wonders of the world around him – even when that brain harbored disease. He continued with his scientific experiments throughout his illness. He didn’t fear dying so much as he feared not living – because he loved the experience of life so much.

We could identify yet another theme in Death Be Not Proud: childhood versus manhood. As Johnny faces his illness and impending death, he is described by his father as existing somewhere between childhood and manhood. In one way, at the age of seventeen, Johnny is between childhood and manhood. In another way, Johnny continues to love life with the guilelessness of a child, yet he rapidly develops an elegant maturity in dealing with his circumstances.

So, we have a pretty clear overarching theme here: facing death with courage, but interwoven in Johnny’s story are the additional themes of love of life and existing somewhere between childhood and manhood.

The next time you have a quiet moment, sit and think about the memoir you want to write. Visualize it in your mind as though you’re watching a movie. Keep a pad of paper and a pen in your lap while you do this. If it helps to close your eyes, go for it. If you associate certain songs with key moments in your life, listen to them while you do this exercise. Imagine they are the soundtrack of your memoir-movie.

On that movie screen in your imagination, what images do you see? What bits of dialogue do you hear? Who are the characters on-screen? What’s going on?

Without breaking your stride too much, jot down a word or two that will help you recall these images later. You might even be clever enough to do this without opening your eyes.

Next, look at your notes and ask yourself, what stories do these images, snippets of dialogue,  and characters represent? What is this “movie” about? Write down your answers.

Now, look over everything you’ve written. Do you see certain themes emerging again and again?

What themes keep coming up in your stories over and over?

If you see the same (or related) themes repeatedly, there’s a good chance those will be the main themes of your memoir. But keep an open mind, because after you actually start writing, other, stronger themes may emerge.

Later, when the first draft of your manuscript is finished, you’ll begin the editing process. At that point, you may want to look for stories in your manuscript that have no connection with your main themes. You may find they don’t gel with the rest of the book. That’s a good indicator that those stories should get cut and maybe saved for a future memoir.

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011).

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