How important is theme in a memoir?
Theme in a memoir is absolutely important!
Here’s is a distinction between a family-focused autobiography and a memoir that, I hope, will help you to appreciate the value and the role of theme in your memoir.
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First: a reminder of definitions
People are always wanting to know the difference between an autobiography and a memoir.
- An autobiography is about a whole life—birth to the present. Your kids will love your autobiography. The public may not. Generally speaking, an autobiography of a public person is more successful in interesting a large audience than the autobiography of an unknown. You focus on writing an autobiography for your family, you have opted for a great goal. (I wish I had an autobiography of my grandparents—don’t you!)
- A memoir is about a specific period of a life: e.g., a memoir of abuse, a memoir of parenting an autistic child, a Vietnam War memoir, etc. Because of the narrow focus of a memoir, anyone interested in your topic—e.g., of parenting an autistic child—is likely to be interested in your story.
Why a memoir of a not-famous person is theme driven
If the subject of the autobiography is famous, many people will be curious about the details of that life. Details often become more meaningful if they are attached to fame. Perhaps we want to know how Jackie Kennedy touched up the gray in her hair or how Matt Damon always cuts himself when he shaves. The same details about a not-famous person are likely to fall flat and not interest us.
The way to interest a reader in a memoir is to select a narrow topic in which you can claim expertise—also known as experience—and play it for all it’s worth.
Of course, all the rules of good writing apply with the distinction that a memoir (vs. autobiography) is theme-driven, message rich.
This is why someone reads a memoir—to learn about how to live his/her life better. Your theme in a memoir delivers that message. (By the way, this is also why people usually write only one autobiography but can indulge in composing several memoirs.
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