Universal memoir themes

As promised a few days ago, I’d like to offer a list of universal memoir themes.

Gornick 2Vivian Gornick, author of The Situation and the Story: The Art of the Personal Narrative, says: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer – the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” The story is the work of literature’s theme.

In my book: Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide

          • Plot (situation) = the suicide of a gifted bipolar musician brings parents grief, guilt, and anger
          • Theme (story) = 1) limits the mother has in controlling and protecting her son, 2) surviving the son’s suicide, and 3) the mother’s journey to claim her own creative powers

waxlerI’ve listed below some other universal theme ideas for lifestory and memoir writers who are writing to an audience larger than just their family members. I also highly recommend Jerry Waxler’s book called Memoir Revolution. Waxler goes into more detail about universal memoir themes and provides example upon example from the hundreds of memoirs he’s read and studied. However, he says: “the world of memoirs expands to infinity…many of the ideas and lessons in memoirs transcend categories altogether.”

Universal Lifestory Themes

Daughter(son)-mother
Daughter(son)-father relationship
Mother(father)-child relationship/parenting
Career vs. mothering
Mr. Mom/stay at home dads
Transitioning from work to retirement
Child with addiction
Parent with addiction
Child with mental illness
Adult child with mental illness
Own mental illness
Suicide
Recovery from addictions/alcholism
Emotional abuse/abandonment/physical abuse
Marriage
Adoption
Births through surrogates
Trauma/PTSD
War
Pursuing the life of an artist
Living outside of culture’s proscriptions
Traveling
Spirituality
Escaping long-held religious beliefs
Grief
Grief survival
Forgiveness
Redemption
Passion for the environment
Political activism
Near death experiences
Past life regression

Original cover

Original cover

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