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Digging up the themes of your life

Our lives are so big. Where does one start in making sense of and recording one’s life story?

Digging up memories and stories, and finding the overarching theme or themes of your memoir, is like digging into soil – you never know what you will find.

I believe you need to push through the top soil – that is the banal, day-to-day stuff – and into the more primal, meaningful and sometimes painful “essence” of your life. Your fingers may press against slimy worms and decaying compost. The soil will get under your nails. But push through, because it’s here that the seeds of your memoir are hidden.

In this exercise, we will unearth the memories that will help you tap into the recurring themes of your life; the things that move you emotionally and underpin who you are, where you have come from and where you might be going.

Beware, we’re going in without gardening gloves – this could get messy.


A thick wad of sticky notes. Pen. A few clean sheets of paper. Timer. A table clear of detritus.

Time required

30-40 minutes


Set a timer for ten minutes.

Go into a quiet, comfortable space, and imagine you are speaking with a dear friend about your life – you are telling her/him about some of the pivotal experiences you have had that have made you who you are. This may include stories you have been told or things about your family that you have researched. Without thinking too much about it, write down key words, sentences, images, feelings and smells that come to mind, each on a separate sticky note. Do not edit or discard – just write the words or phrases down. The less you think about it consciously, the better.

When ten minutes is up, lay out all the sticky notes on the table. Can you see any patterns? Are there any broader themes that become apparent? About love? Loss? Family? Disconnection? If you can, group the sticky notes into themes.

Now set your timer for ten minutes again and sit quietly and look at what you have written – are there more images or memories that come to mind? Is there an overarching theme or image that becomes apparent, from which the other themes might fan out? Once again, write down anything that comes to mind on your sticky notes, and regroup them if necessary.

Finally, transfer these to a document or clean sheet of paper. These are the seeds from which your memoir might grow.

About Spiri Tsintziras

Spiri has written several books, including ‘Afternoons in Ithaka’, a memoir of self-discovery, family, connection and the power of a tomato. Spiri’s life writings have been published in newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Spiri blogs at www.tribaltomato.com and runs the communications business Writing Spirit.

Spiri will be running a Business Writing workshop on Annual Reports in Melbourneand a workshop on This Fascinating Life – Writing Memoir in Woodend in June 2017. And she is available for in-house training through our Business Writing program.


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