- In The Glass Castle: A Memoir, Jeannette Walls wrote about her very unusual childhood and bizarre parents.
- In 700 Sundays, Billy Crystal wrote about growing up, with an emphasis on his relationship with his father, whose life with Billy lasted only 700 Sundays.
- In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion wrote about coping with grief after the death of her husband.
None of these wonderful memoirs required authors to invent plot lines, characters, locations, scenarios or anything else – indeed, if they had, they wouldn’t be memoirs! All of the elements were taken straight from their lives. But the authors had to think of their personal stories in a different way; not just as a series of stories. Each of the memoirs painted a picture of a unique time in the author’s life, expressed emotion, built upon a theme, and ultimately showed how the author changed as a result of what he or she had gone through.
Remember that the three things readers want from a memoir are a strong theme, emotional engagement and entertainment. These authors accomplished these goals brilliantly. And you can, too.
What have you experienced?
Your own life is the source of endless memoir ideas. Just think about it for a minute. Have you ever:
- Loved and lost?
- Accomplished something in spite of great difficulties?
- Been abused or abandoned?
- Learned to appreciate nature or art?
- Risen above betrayal?
- Forgiven someone who did the unforgivable?
- Wrestled with right versus wrong, or good versus evil?
- Taken a stand, despite the risk?
- Been a party to the creation of something wonderful, important, exotic or profitable?
- Lost a child, parent or spouse? Or a friend? Even an enemy?
- Been so angry you did something completely out of character?
- Been through a war, either as a combatant or civilian?
- Found or lost faith in God?
- Been incredibly lonely or depressed?
- Had reason to be incredibly grateful to someone or something?
- Moved from one culture to another?
- Wondered if you were adopted, because you’re nothing like your parents or siblings?
- Gone to jail?
- Looked back and felt incredibly bad about something you did, or didn’t do?
- Tackled an impossible task, willingly or not, and succeeded? Or failed?
- Been a member of a group were you felt inferior, or superior, to the others? Or just an outsider?
- Cared for, advised or assisted people going through difficult times?
- Traveled, and seen or done things others don’t usually see or do?
- Immersed yourself completely in something, from baking to chess, your kids to your garden?
- Developed an incredible collection of something, and spent years meeting people and going places to do so?
If you can say “yes” to any of the above, then ask yourself which of these experiences changed you profoundly. Those that have are possible material for a memoir.
Your life is filled with memoir ideas!
The list above contains just a few of the many possible ideas for memoirs. If you’re not sure what your memoir should be about, think through all that has happened to you. Ask yourself about the challenges, questions, hurdles or insights that have arisen from your experiences. Your potential themes lie in your answer to this question.