I've spoken with many memoirists who tell me they are writing a memoir, but when I ask them what it's about, they look panicked. It's OK to have a whole book written and still not be sure what it is you're trying to say. In fact, it's common. I don't think I truly understood the theme of my memoir until it was published and I began doing radio interviews where the announcers expect short, quippy replies to their questions. I had to make up sound bites on the spot and in doing so I discovered my theme: The silver lining of grief. Here are a few things you can do to dig deep and get to the kernel of what your memoir is really about BEFORE your book is published (which I highly recommend):
1. Plot your scenes on a line
Reduce each scene to a phrase or sentence and then pull out a long sheet of paper and some pens. Imagine the line you draw as a river and the turns in the river occur whenever one of the scenes changes the narrator in some way (i.e. narrator gets married, has an epiphany, suffers a loss). When you're done, notice if there are any scenes missing. Add them in. Not enough bends in the river? Then sit down and try to think of some stories where the narrator experienced a change. Notice any patterns that might be happening. Are all the stories clustered in one place? Perhaps you need to look there for your theme. The point here is to look at your overall story from above (literally) and in doing so, be better able to grasp the story all at once. This will often lead to an aha moment.
2. Sum up your memoir in one sentence
Figure out the elevator pitch or the sound bite of your book. Mine is usually something along the lines of "It's about a four year slice of my life after my husband's death during which I learned there is a silver lining to grief." Summing up your memoir in terms of what you learned during the time covered in the memoir will help you find your theme.
3. Tell someone the story of your memoir
Telling someone about your memoir will help you begin to clarify what you want to say. Note what questions they ask. Are you missing something? What story do they tell you in exchange? Look for a theme in these conversations. Talk about your memoir often. The more you talk about it, the more clear it becomes in your mind and the more you have to really nail down what it's about.
4. Look at each chapter and determine how the narrator (you) changed from the start of the chapter to the end
Examine what the narrator has learned over the course of the chapter. The narrator began the chapter as A and ended as B. The change can be as simple as having an idea about something to being as dramatic as becoming a widow. Look at the first paragraph of your chapter and try and find a way of connecting it to the last paragraph.
5. Look at the whole book and determine how the narrator (you) changed from the start of the book to the end.
Now do the same thing as in #4, but apply it to the whole book. Who was your narrator at the beginning of the book and who is the narrator at the end of the book? If you can't find the change, it may be a sign that you may need to dig a little deeper into your emotions and tell stories that you are avoiding because they are painful or could be hurtful. Those are the stories that are most important to write and are usually the ones that contain that kernel of your theme.
6. Make a mind map
Come up with a few themes that you think your memoir might be about. Reduce them to one word. Keep them simple. Some examples might be: addiction, grief, home, family, illness. Take a sheet of paper and in the center, write the word and draw a circle around it. Now reduce your scenes into one word or phrase and write them down and circle them. Link any that connect directly to your theme word. Link any that connect to each other. Are there unlinked circled words? How do they fit in? Do you need those scenes? Do they make you think of another theme word? If so, then start a new map using the new theme word and see what patterns begin to emerge. You may discover an entirely new theme word. Be on the lookout for it.
7. Ask yourself "What am I trying to say" with this book?" and "Who am I trying to help with this book?"
Keep these questions in the back of your mind. The answers may come when you least expect them. At 3 a.m. or when you're in the shower. As you're writing, have the questions there with you. Let the answers flow into your writing, but try not to think about them too much. It will happen just through the course of writing. If you're having trouble answering these questions, have other people read your work and ask them the questions. Their answers may surprise you.
8. Have other people read your work
Often, as memoirists, we are much too close to our material that we can't see our own story and what it means. We don't notice common threads that weave through our work. If someone has read a lot of your work, you may begin to hear things like, "You seem to always write about your mom," or "Did you realize that all your stories have an element of abandonment in them?" Pay attention to those comments. They are big clues to your theme.
9. Read other memoirs and try to figure out their themes.
There is nothing like reading other people's work to learn the craft of writing. It's true that many writers of memoir don't like to read other people's memoirs, as they are writing their own for fear of having it contaminate their writing, and that's a personal preference. But it is a wonderful way to begin to see patterns and themes in a work. If you don't want to read new memoirs as you write, you can think back on memoirs you've read in the past and try to figure out their themes.
10. Notice patterns in your text.
Do you find you have no stories about your mother, and yet she is a major part of the story? Perhaps all your stories show one character doing an action over and over, or many characters are doing the same thing over and over (leaving the narrator, for instance). Is there an object that recurs? Is there a phrase or a place that recurs? These patterns can be clues to your theme.
Finding your theme is, to me, the most rewarding part of writing memoir. It helps you tell the story that contains universal truths, that when other people read them think to themselves, "That happened to me! I am not the only one!" That, certainly is the whole point of writing memoir.