How to Choose the Perfect Topic for Your Memoir

22 Feb 2022


You have a story to tell, and you want to write a book. Not just any book, though. You want to write a book about your life.

You love a good memoir, and you know that they are popular. You’ve lived an interesting life and you think it would translate into a remarkable memoir.

But how do you write it? Do you simply tell the story of your life, or does it need to be more zeroed in than that?

Spoiler alert! Yes! A good memoir should have some focus beyond just telling the story of your life. The good news is that you have many options when selecting a plan of attack for your memoir. Here are a few suggestions to help you figure out what your memoir should be about.

What is a memoir?

Let's start with the basics.

Before you can write a memoir, you need to understand just what makes a memoir a memoir and not an autobiography.

According to Merriam-Webster, a memoir is 'a narrative composed from personal experience.' In contrast, an autobiography is defined as 'a usually written account of a person's life in their own words.'

There are two words there that make all the difference:

A memoir is a narrative based on your life’s experiences, while an autobiography is an account of your life.

In other words, your memoir needs to be a story. That means it will need structure, plot, theme, characters, and emotion.

Another way to look at it is this: A great memoir can become a great movie, while an autobiography becomes a documentary. It’s a tale with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you want to keep your readers imagining what’s happening as if it’s on the big screen.

It’s all about the theme!

A memoir is a story of personal change. It’s not a chronicle of your whole life from birth to death.

It's about who you were as a person at one point in your life and the situations and actions that establish a fundamental change in how you think and act from that point on.

It may be a period of years or just one remarkably significant afternoon.

But your memoir should focus on a limited period of time when you uncovered a new truth.

Think about some of the most popular memoirs of the past few decades. Each gives you a peek into the emotional growth of the author through some significant situations. Some are broader than others, but each has a definite theme on which the narrative of the author’s life is built.

Here are a few good examples:

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen – Battling mental illness and the mental health system experience.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth GilbertEnlightening travel experiences as the author copes with divorce.

The Tender Bar by J. R. MoehringerLonging for his estranged father or some sort of father figure while trying not to become like his father as he grows into adulthood.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya AngelouRacism, poverty, and learning to love oneself.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill BrysonLife in civilization versus life out in nature.

Tuesdays with Morrie – Mitch AlbomLife lessons and mentorship.

How many of those memoirs also became successful movies? Yeah, most of them. That’s what we’re talking about!

If you’re not sure what kind of theme you could use, consider some of these common, yet successful, themes found in memoirs:

  • Accepting change
  • Coming of age
  • Dealing with loss
  • Determination
  • Discrimination
  • Divorce
  • Drug addiction
  • Faith
  • Friendship
  • Forgiveness
  • Greed
  • Hard work
  • Hope
  • Leadership
  • Overcoming adversity
  • Parenthood
  • Poverty
  • Self-esteem
  • Survival
  • War
  • Wealth
  • Weight loss

This list is just the tip of the iceberg, but it gives you the idea.

There’s something bigger going on in your story than just a recounting of a part of your life. Your theme becomes the thread that holds your story together and keeps it moving forward.

What theme should I choose?

So, you might be asking yourself this question. Of course, the answer is very personal.

Your memoir is based on your life, so why not start there?

If you're struggling to come up with a theme that resonates with you, list out 5-10 major events from your life that you feel changed you somehow. What were you like at the beginning of each event, and how did you grow from it?

You may be looking for the event that had the greatest impact on your life, or you may notice that several of your events are centered around the same concept.

Keep your reading audience in mind. Whom are you writing it for, and what do you want them to take away from your story?

As you begin to outline your memoir with your theme in place, you’ll know quickly if it’s right or not.

It’s your story. Your memoir is about you, but it’s about more than you. Choose the right theme for your memoir, and you can weave a story that people will love to read over and over again.

It’s also about structure.

You may have noticed that all or most of the memoirs cited above have also been made into successful movies.

The reason they work so well as movies is because they have structured stories. They follow a standard story structure with a beginning, a rise to a climax, and a resolution.

Now, they may not be blockbuster action flicks with car chase scenes and explosions, but they're cinematic.

Keep in mind other aspects of your story such as:

  • Setting. You may have one central setting or dozens of places but choose them carefully and make them real for your readers.
  • Characters. One of the great opportunities in a memoir is the chance to showcase the characters in your life! In some cases, you may want to tread lightly so as not to offend but stay true to your story.
  • Conflict. No story is very interesting unless there is conflict. What do you want in your story, and what stands in your way? Make your readers feel the stakes and worry about the outcome along with you.
  • Emotion. This cannot be stressed enough! Whether it’s humor, grief, fear, relief, or any other emotion, it has to be a major part of your memoir. Your readers don’t just want to read about your life; they want to ride that roller coaster with you and come out just as changed at the end of the ride as you were.

If you want to write your memoir and you already believe you have a story to tell, the key is to home in on the events that had the greatest impact on you and craft your story around them. Then, start outlining your story and get the ball rolling.

Writing your memoir can be difficult and time-consuming, but it can also be a deeply rewarding experience.

And if you find that you need help with the writing, don’t be afraid to hire a ghostwriter to help.

The most important thing is that you enjoy every minute of the process!

Tyler Omoth 
Tyler grew up knowing he wanted to be a writer. In 2005 he landed his first professional writing role as a radio advertising copywriter. Since then he has penned over 70 books for children as well as blog posts, white papers, press releases, greeting cards and articles. He's even managed to get a few short stories and poems published. He's written for just about every kind of business out there and loves the challenge of finding the right voice to fit each client, even if it means matching their existing voice. He believes that the best writing strikes an emotional chord, even if it's just a 30-second advertisement. He is Hubspot certified for content marketing and knows how to create content that is SEO friendly. A Minnesota transplant living in Tampa, FL, when he's not writing Tyler is probably watching baseball or embracing the chaos of life with his wife, Mary, and twin toddlers, Gavin and Rachel.

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