An exercise to help you identify the theme of your memoir from First Draft: Memoir in a Year – Theme tutor Liam Pieper.
There’s a Golden Rule of writing, one of Kurt Vonnegut’s which every writer should live by which is, “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”
If you’re going to write a memoir, or any sort of autobiographical writing, you have a responsibility to your reader to make it worth a reader’s time, and the best way to do that is to make sure it’s about something. ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ is about reinvention. ‘Angela’s Ashes’ is about resilience and hope, amongst other things. And so on.
Although memoir deals in facts, good memoir shares some storytelling tricks and tropes with fiction, namely, a story must follow a character (that’s you) on a journey (that’s your life) and they must be changed by the adventure, or learn something from it. This, the reason you are writing a memoir, beyond a vague desire to tell one’s story, is the theme, and it’s one of the most important things you can think about when writing autobiography.
Take ‘Lord of The Flies’. Pretend that was somebody’s memoir. If you asked the protagonist what his story was, he would say something like, “That time we got a bit nuts and smashed in the pig-boy.” If you asked him what his story was about, then he would have to think a bit harder, and would come up with something like, “The heart of man is primitive and dark, and the idea of innocence a fig leaf over the brutality of the human soul?” And you’d say, “Right on.”
We are the sum of our experience; that is, we become who we are due to the accumulation of lessons that life teaches us as we live it.
With that in mind, write a short autobiographical story which tells the story of a formative event from your past and in doing so, draw out the theme.
Think of an episode in your past that was particularly memorable. It can be happy, or sad, or somewhere in between. Perhaps the time your dog died when you were 13? Or your first kiss? What did your loss teach about death and grieving? What did your first kiss teach you about romance?
Write a short story (as long as you like—aim for 500 words and keep going up to 3000 if you feel like it) about the episode, in the third person. Be as objective as possible, as though another author is introducing you as a character in their book.
As much as possible, look at your own experience from the outside. Try to write it like a conventional short story. Your main character (that’s you) should encounter narrative tension, including a problem they must solve, or an obstacle to overcome. By the end of the story, the tension should be resolved, for better or worse, and the character (or at least the reader) should have learned something about life, be a little richer for the experience.
Once you’ve got a draft, read it through, imagining that you are a stranger reading it for the first time. Do you see elements that would appeal to a stranger picking up the book? Would they understand what the deeper thematic meaning of the story is? Go back and redraft to enhance those elements.
Try it! You’ll like the results. Scout’s honour.
About Liam Pieper
Liam Pieper is a Melbourne-based author and the Editor of Writers Bloc, a publishing platform for emerging writers. His memoir ‘The Feel-Good Hit of The Year’ was shortlisted for the National Biography Award and a Ned Kelly Award. It was followed in 2015 by a collection of humorous essays and kind-of-sort-of sequel, ‘Mistakes Were Made’. He was the recipient of the 2014 M Literary Award. In 2015 he was the inaugural UNESCO creative resident of the City of Literature of Prague, and the winner of the 2015 Geoff Dean Short Story Competition. His first novel will be released through Penguin Australia in 2016.