Adapted from Writing the Hawai‘i Memoir: Advice and Exercises to Help You Tell Your Story by Darien Gee (Watermark Publishing). Winner of the 2015 Hawai’i Book Publishers’ Ka Palapala Po’okela Award. Excerpts and free downloadable worksheets are here. Learn more at Darien’s website or support Darien’s work by purchasing a copy ($12.99 at Watermark Publishing, $14.95 on Amazon, $6.99 on Kindle).

Because it’s possible to write many different stories about your life, it helps to choose a theme that will guide the memoir or life story you’ll be working on. One or more themes may appear in your writing, but it’s good to have an overall theme that propels your story forward. This will also help you later when you are deciding what to keep and what to cut.

Themes vs. Topics

People sometimes get confused with a theme versus a topic.

Themes tend to be universal, with big picture implications that can apply to multiple situations or moments.

Topics, on the other hand, tend to be about something specific. Another way to look at it is like this: the theme is the WHY while the topic is the WHAT.

An example: the theme is family, and the topic is Thanksgiving Dinner in 1985.

Another example: the theme is moving, and the topic is the challenge of moving with two dogs, three cats, and a potbellied pig.

Using Themes with Micro Prose

Themes are also helpful if you are writing micro prose and aren’t sure if your individual pieces cohere into a single collection. Writers might look at 30-90 individual narratives and be unclear as to what links them together. While identifying key themes is only one part of the equation, it’s a central one, and it can help you decide what might be missing from your manuscript, too.

If you have existing work, my suggestion is to first print out my list of themes below. Next, read through your work and highlight all the themes that appear. If you’re more of a methodical writer, when a theme appears more than once, put a tally mark next to it to keep track. If you’re more of an intuitive writer, don’t bother with the tally marks, just highlight the theme when it comes up.

When you’re done reading your work, return to your theme print-out. Of all the highlighted themes, which 3-5 appear the most? If you’re more of a methodical writer, choose the themes that appear most frequently. If you’re more of an intuitive writer, which 3-5 themes want your attention, even if you didn’t highlight it (ie it doesn’t appear in your work yet)? Trust your response to the list now that you’ve read your work. For example, if you haven’t written about “friendship” yet, for instance, but you are drawn to that as a theme, this process might be telling you to consider filling in the gaps with more pieces that focus on friendship.

Once you’ve identified 3-5 key themes that resonate with you, return to your work and select those pieces the best reflect those themes. Use a TOC (table of contents) to organize them into a new project binder. Give the project a working title if you haven’t already.

You can also print out the individual pieces and put them on the wall or on a sliding door where you can see each page. You should be able to view one page at a time (micro is 300 words or less; use 1.5 or 1.15 spacing to ensure it fits on one page, with 1.25″ margins). This helps keep the project active while you continue to write any additional pieces for your manuscript now that you know your key themes.

Does Your Synopsis or Blurb Include Your Themes?

Another helpful tip is to write a short synopsis or blurb of your project. In 3-4 sentences, tell us what it’s about. Write it like book jacket copy, similar to something you might read if you picked up a book and flipped it over to learn more about it. Hint: your themes should appear in the description!

Here is an example from Maggie Smith’s memoir, which I highly recommend for anyone looking at how to weave a collection of micro prose together–she does it exquisitely. The themes are bolded for emphasis (mine) –there are 13 by my count. You will have more than your 3-5 key themes, but you’ll want to keep your focus on those key themes as you write and let the others develop naturally. In Maggie’s case, her primary themes could be considered marriage and re-commitment to self, the rest could be considered secondary, for example.

In her memoir You Could Make This Place Beautiful, poet Maggie Smith explores the disintegration of her marriage and her renewed commitment to herself [accepting change]. The book begins with one woman’s personal heartbreak [betrayal], but its circles widen into a reckoning with contemporary womanhood, traditional gender roles, and the power dynamics that persist even in many progressive homes. With the spirit of self-inquiry and empathy she’s known for, Smith interweaves snapshots of a life with meditations on secrets, anger, forgiveness, and narrative itself. The power of these pieces is cumulative: page after page, they build into a larger interrogation of family, work, and patriarchy.

From the book jacket of You Could Make This Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith

Key Memoir Themes

Here are some memoir themes to consider (this list is regularly updated):

Abandonment
Abuse
Accepting Change
Accidents
Activism
Addiction
Adjusting to a New Life
Adoption
Anger
Appearances
Arts and Crafts
Being Gifted
Belonging
Betrayal
Bravery
Brotherhood
Bullies
Call to Hawaiʻi
Caring for the Environment
Censorship
Challenges
Change
Childhood
Children
Coming of Age
Commitment
Communication
Community
Cooperation
Coping with Loss
Courage and Honor
Cultural Diversity
Customs and Traditions
Dance
Death and Dying
Discrimination
Diversity
Divorce
Dreams
Effects of War

Entrepreneurship
Ethical Dilemmas
Euthanasia
Faith
Family
Fear
Forgiveness
Freedom
Friendship
Gender Issues
Good vs. Evil
Gratitude
Grief
Growing Up
Guilt
Handicaps
Hawaiian Heritage
Heroes
Heroism
History
Homesteading
Honesty
Hope
Humor
Identity
Immigrants or Immigration
Initiation
Innocence
Intergenerational Relationships
Intergenerational Trauma
Invincibility
Jealousy
Jobs
Leadership
Living Abroad
Living Off the Grid
Loneliness
Loss
Love

Loyalty
Making Choices
Marriage
Media
Medical Challenges
Medical Procedures
Mental Health
Morals and Values
Moving
Nature (The Great Outdoors)
Nostalgia
Patriarchy
Patriotism
Peace
Peer Pressure
Pets
Political Issues
Poverty
Preservation
Rebirth
Relationships
Religion
Science
Secrets
Self-esteem
Separation
Social Change
Social Media
Storytelling
Surfing
Surgery
Survival
Taking a Stand
Teamwork
Travel
Trust
War
Womanhood
Work (also Career)

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