Who Your Memoir Is Really About

memoirs writing tips May 21, 2023
Find the theme of your memoir

Everybody who decides to write a memoir starts with a “why” in mind. (Or at least they should.) We long to tell the stories of traumas and trials we’ve triumphed over; to highlight successes we’ve achieved and what it took to accomplish them; to share our hard-won wisdom and lessons learned. We want our suffering to count for something. We want our experience on Earth to matter. We want to help others avoid the mistakes we’ve made.

As humans, we share an innate desire to make meaning of our lives and to leave a mark—to proclaim, I was here! And a memoir is an excellent form of self-expression—the perfect way to satisfy these desires.

But therein lies the challenge: though your memoir is about your life, it’s not actually about you.

Your Memoir Isn’t About You

In a New Yorker article, J.R. Moehringer, ghostwriter for Prince Harry’s memoir Spare, explains:

 “...strange as it may seem, memoir isn’t about you. It’s not even the story of your life. It’s a story carved from your life, a particular series of events chosen because they have the greatest resonance for the widest range of people….”

You and I, we’re not royalty. (Well, maybe you are, in which case you and Prince Harry will have a lot to chat about.) Even if you are just a little bit famous, notoriety is not the thing that will compel people to read about your life. What they will want to read about is how you navigated grief, what you did to overcome injustice and obstacles, how you overcame shame and abuse.

Memoir is less about your circumstances and more about what you did with those circumstances—how they shaped you or altered the course of your life. Your story offers a mirror to readers. They want to see themselves in your story; they want to step into your shoes and walk a mile with you. Not because they care about you but because they care about themselves. 

Find Your Theme

The work of a memoirist is to link your experiences with your reader. You do this by honing in on the deeper, universal theme that your story is about, such as survival in the face of life-threatening adversity, finding joy after a season of all-consuming grief, overcoming trials and traumas, and finding a way to forgive after a soul-crushing betrayal. There are as many themes as there are human experiences.

The next time someone asks you what your memoir is about, resist describing the plot: “It’s about the time I lived on my aunt and uncle’s farm for a summer after my parents got divorced and learned how to plant alfalfa and have fun because there weren’t any kids to play with.” Nobody cares.

Instead, think about what your story is really about:

“Coming to terms with loneliness and learning how to love my own company.”

“Finding my voice after being silenced by shame and abuse.”

“Learning to speak the truth when no one else would.”

“Uncovering and healing from mother-wounds.”

“Overcoming the fear of abandonment and rejection and learning to live freely as my true self.”

If you haven’t yet articulated what the theme of your memoir is, take a few minutes now and try this with your own story.

  • What are one or two themes embedded in your memoir?
  • Write them down.
  • Pretend someone asks you what your memoir is about? How will you respond?

Once you’ve identified your theme(s), type them at the top of your manuscript or put them on a sticky note on your computer. Remember to write for the reader, and let your theme be your guide.

Your memoir is about the reader. Not you. Write for the reader. Find the universal theme in your story that readers will resonate with.

If you can hone in on the deeper meaning of your memoir, you will find a captive audience—readers who will glean insights and hope from your story as they navigate their own circumstances.


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