Memoirist Looks at Theme

by Matilda Butler on January 3, 2013

catnav-alchemy-activePost #67 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

What Is Your Theme?

memoir-theme, writing a memoirWriting your memoir in 2013? If you have already started or if you are just beginning to undertake a memoir, you soon encounter a discussion of theme and message. I’d like to give you a fun take on this topic with a quick look back to my holiday family gathering.

What is theme and message? If this is still a bit fuzzy for you, here’s a quick statement. Theme is the larger of the two. Often it is a universal–think love, adversity, coming of age, abuse, life lessons. Many memoirs will have the same theme. Message, on the other hand, is the particular. It is your take on the theme. No one else would ever have exactly your message.

Example of theme
Let me give you an example from a party rather than a memoir. This holiday season, I decided to have a red and green theme. This is hardly unique. You can find these two colors used in many homes and stores and even public light displays. You might say that they are a universal. But my message, my interpretation of that theme is quite unique. Let me show you:

memoir and theme, memoir writing This time, I told the family that I would fix all the food and that my theme was red and green. Here’s one of the appetizers that was out during the time we opened presents. My first thought was to put the watermelon balls back into the watermelon basket and the honeydew balls into their own basket. But once I saw the effect, I swapped them. It made the theme clearer.

What else for appetizers? We had red salsa with corn chips and two kinds of green kale chips for sampling (Black Truffle Rosemary and Cashew Cheese). Of course, a theme is just that. Not every single food item had to be red or green. So we had Monkey Bread and four types of cheese and spiced nuts. No other strong colors to distract.

Similarly, when writing your memoir, there is one main theme. Of course, not every scene or vignette or chapter needs to specifically address the theme.

memoir and theme, theme and message, craft of memoir, memoir writingOnce the presents were opened, we moved on to the table for the first course — a two-toned green and red soup. The bottom layer was a thick avocado soup that supported a lovely and spicy tomato soup. A thin slice of Persian cucumber rested on top of a light dusting of finely chopped cilantro.

By now the theme was well established and hopefully not overwhelming.

memoir-theme, how to write a memoirWhen we write, it is important to focus on the reader. However, there are times when we may get more of a kick out of something we write than the reader will. At least, we love the creative process and hopefully write in a way that touches the reader.

I needed a main course that featured red and green. While at the grocery store, I saw lovely red peppers at a low price. I went home pondering what I could do with them. Then I thought of a recipe for baked spaghetti that is in our forthcoming story/cookbook. (Memories Sweet and Savory: Dinners Edition that will soon be available as an iBook). That led to the idea of fixing the baked spaghetti, cutting a cap from each pepper, stuffing the spaghetti inside, putting the cap back on, and baking all the peppers at the last minute. The ones you see in this photo are ready to go into the oven. I removed two caps so that you can see inside.

When I took the peppers out of the 375 degree oven after 40 minutes, I put one on each plate, snuggled against lightly steamed red and green swiss chard that was seasoned with preserved lemons.

memoir writing and use of theme, memoirOf course, no holiday meal is complete without a festive dessert. One of my sons had sent me a photo of strawberry Santas that had been made with whipped cream. Since I’m a gluten-free vegan, I needed to modify the idea. Therefore, I ended up making chocolate cupcakes and vanilla cupcakes stuffed with caramel. Then I pretended there was a big snow storm that iced their tops. And just before family arrived, I topped each one with a strawberry Santa that used frosting instead of dairy. They were a big hit. (Hint: If you ever try this, don’t leave them sitting beneath the undercounted lights. Two Santas decided to go sliding off their cupcake hill. Fortunately, I caught them just in time and moved the cake stand to a cooler spot.)

memoir-theme-table-1My photos of the food show some of the specific ways that the theme revealed itself. But stepping back, you can see two other ways that I invoked the red and green theme. Here is a photo of my table. I folded two napkins into origami lotus blossoms — the red cloth ones were used for the main course and the paper green ones, placed inside, were used for dessert. The red napkins just didn’t pop enough. In other words, they didn’t really contribute to the theme. That’s when I added the green ones.

You’ll probably find that once you have the theme for your memoir, that there are times you want to invoke it again. You may find that it has gotten lost in all your words. It doesn’t take much to bring it up again without having to say “And my theme is…”

memoir writing with a theme, writingAnd finally, there are subtle ways to continue the theme. Of course, using red and green at the holiday season makes it super easy. But you’ll find ways even in your memoir. Here you see the three red and green toys purchased for our three grand dogs. Because a big fuss was made in giving the squeaky toys to the dogs, everyone’s attention focused on these colorful additions to the festivities.

4 Tips for Using Theme in Memoir Writing
1. Read about writing and theme. There are many good resources on the Internet. If you have purchased our [Essential] Women’s Memoir Writing Workshop 21 Video Lessons, be sure to check out the one on theme and message. We give you background as well as good examples. Then we have writing exercises to help you determine your theme.

2. Decide on the universal theme that is most appropriate for your memoir. If you aren’t sure at first, that is all right. But don’t wait too long or the particular stories you put into your memoir may not be coherent for the reader.

3. As you begin each chapter or vignette, remind yourself of the theme. You don’t need to be blatant with use of your theme as you write. You just want it to help you focus.

4. Look at the memoir you are currently reading. What is it’s theme? What about the previous one you just finished? Does theme help the author connect with the reader? Is it a shorthand way to draw the reader in without too much explanation? Think about the ways that knowing your theme helps you reach your readers.

2013 and Writing
We have many topics that we will cover this year on Women’s Memoirs. We’ll examine the craft of memoir writing as well as marketing and publishing. We hope 2013 will be your best year yet. Be sure to let us know how we can best help you.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Annie Payne January 16, 2013 at

Matilda,
Congratulations on really highlighting the use of theme through at story. Your example of your red and green theme, plus accompanying photos, brought the message home in a vivid and almost tangible manner.
Many thanks,
Annie

Marcia Quinn Noren January 16, 2013 at

I very much appreciate one specific point, so clearly made in this article. “When we write, it is important to focus on the reader.”

I honestly believe that this is the primary key to understanding why we write. In authoring a memoir, after processing our own life’s experience, sifting, filtering, and offering up the final result as a gift to the reader, we have poured our deepest selves into those words.

Matilda Butler January 16, 2013 at

Annie: Thanks for you comment. I’ve struggled to find a clear way to explain theme and am especially pleased that you found this one helpful.

Matilda Butler January 16, 2013 at

Marcia: I love you notion that our writing is a gift to the reader — indeed it is. Yet during the writing, it is too easy to become caught up in thinking just about our own lives rather than how we can present our lives in a way that connects to others.

You’ve given all of us an excellent reminder that when we write memoir, we are processing, sifting and filtering.

Thanks.

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