Underlying all of your stories is its theme. The theme is really a message, the global way in which you understand your story – either in its entirety or in its parts.
The theme conveys the essence of the you (or the them) that you want the reader, and history, to know and understand. The theme provides spirit to your piece, the breath of life that individualizes your life story.
1) The theme is dependent on your insights. Insights are glimpses of understanding. (“Oh, that’s why–or how–she did that!”) When insights accumulate, as you view your stories over time, and bring them into ever sharper focus, you begin to see larger, broader conclusions about your subject’s life–and even the meaning of life itself. The themes of your stories evolve from, and are synonymous with, these conclusions.
Self-serving excuses should not be confused with insight. For instance, we might write in our life stories that it was because of our parents’ style of raising children or of the strictures of our ethnic group or of the limitations imposed by our socio-economic class that we have not achieved certain goals. Of course, this “insight” fails to account for our failure as adults to create our own opportunities to overcome these very real shortcomings or to turn them into advantages in a creative way. This so-called “insight” then is really a self-serving excuse to avoid doing work on how we live our lives.
2) Discover the theme of your story as you proceed. It is all right to begin writing without a specific theme in mind. As you write, and re-write (rewriting is crucial in deepening your sense of the story’s meaning), be attentive to the theme which may gradually reveal itself to you. This process can be an intriguing one if you are open to it. Theme is revealed as you find yourself using certain words and phrases or expressing certain ideas over and over again. Discovering your theme in this way is not only important but it can catch your interest and make your life writing compelling. It will keep you coming back to your writing.
Good luck developing your memoir’s theme!