All stories have themes, and your biography is no exception. Theme, after all, is just another word for a central idea that runs through a narrative. Lots of common themes crop up again and again in literature. In fact, you’re probably already familiar with some of them: Love, power, politics, and history are all common themes that crop up in all forms of media.
When it comes to memoirs, themes can be as varied as people are. US presidents, for example, have published memoirs with themes as varied as dealing with crises, hope for the future, and the art of making a deal.
Working out the theme of your memoir can make it way easier to write. Your theme is what your book is about — what you’re going to focus on when writing. In some cases, it can be the key that opens up your story and allows you to tell it in a way that really works.
5 Classic Memoir Themes
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to picking a theme for your memoir, but there are some common themes to be aware of. Here are a few of them. Do any fit with your story?
1. Triumph Over Adversity
Your memoir might be the story of how you got to where you are today: how you ran a marathon, started a business, traveled the world, or met the love of your life. The common theme here is success, no matter what obstacles you found in your way.
There are dozens of famous memoirs that have success against the odds as a central theme. Take a look at Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or The Water Is Wide by Pat Conroy for some well-known and highly-regarded examples.
Throughout history people have survived some extraordinary circumstances — everything from world wars to plane crashes to being lost at sea. A survival story not only tells the tale of how someone escaped a sticky situation, but also about the rest of their life and what events equipped them with the skills and mindset to pull through.
If you fancy taking a look at a great survival-themed memoir, you could try Aaron Ralston’s memoir Between a Rock and a Hard Place. This book was the basis for the film 127 Hours — an extraordinary true story of how Aaron survived when trapped in a canyon in the desert.
3. Friends and Family
Our friends, family and partners are what make us who we are. Many memoirs have friends and family as a central theme. They tell the story of how these people helped shape the narrator’s life or allowed them to find their place in the world.
For some great examples of memoirs that put friends and family front and center, take a look at the StoryTerrace biographies Reflections at 80 by Alan Robbins and This is Me by Joyce Powell. Both of these memoirs celebrate not just their subjects, but the most important people around them, too.
4. Coming of Age
Growing up isn’t always easy. A coming-of-age story focuses on the narrator’s younger years and tells the tale of how they navigated childhood and adolescence — while laying the foundations for their adult selves.
There are hundreds of great coming-of-age memoirs out there. Everyone from film star Michael J. Fox, to ex-President Barrack Obama, to children’s author Roald Dahl has penned one. Even the most famous celebrity has a childhood, and the sometimes-funny, sometimes-messy process of growing up makes for a great read — especially when you already know how it turns out in the end!
5. Accepting Change
Life is full of surprises. Some are good while others can be difficult to deal with. A great theme for a memoir is accepting a sudden or unexpected change. That change could be moving to a new country, losing your job, or taking on an incredible journey to find a new direction in life.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (a National Book Award winner) is a great example of a book that makes change its central theme. And it’s not alone. Famed memoir Eat, Pray, Love also tells a story with transformation at its heart.
So What’s Your Theme?
If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to telling your life story, picking out a theme can be a huge help. Your theme can be a central pillar around which you build the rest of your story, or the scaffolding that helps your story stand up.
But how do you find the theme that’s right for you?
Talking to the important people in your life can be incredibly helpful. You might ask friends and family what they think defines you. Their answers can help you decide whether your life story should focus on exotic travel, your business dealings, or something else.
Sorting through your souvenirs and diaries can also help jog your memories. What have you kept over the years? What do you most value? Have you held onto things that make you laugh? If so, then maybe a central theme could be comedy, or the absurdity of life. If its mementoes from a life of fulfilling work, then make work your theme.
You can also chat with your StoryTerrace biographer about themes. Once you’ve sat down and told them your life story, they’ll be able to suggest a good theme to build your memoir around. After all, a professional writer is an expert at crafting a narrative around a central theme.
Got a theme in mind and want to discuss it further? If so, get in touch to see how we can help you write your memoirs. Alternatively, you can sign up for our newsletter for more about writing and sharing your life story.