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How to Write a Full-Length Memoir

Lesson 11 of 25

Identifying Your Theme


How to Write a Full-Length Memoir

Lesson 11 of 25

Identifying Your Theme


Lesson Info

Identifying Your Theme

I'm gonna move on to, and forgive me for, you know, all of these stories we could look at much more closely. But I want to look at a bunch of 'em. "I was born and raised in South Africa, "left as a newlywed to live in Italy. "My relationship with my first husband "and the unraveling of our marriage." Look at how history sort of comes alive, here. That was a thing, at one point. And this is Bonnie's story. And where, there's Bonnie! Okay, does this yet feel like a memoir? No, it does not. This is a whole, this is the story, some of the story of Bonnie's life. There's three marriages. There's several continents. We've got South Africa, Rome, Florida, a little bit of Vietnam, kind of. Does anybody see a theme in any of this? There's a whole lot of stuff going on. I think there's a clue. I see a clue, here. The ending of a much-wanted pregnancy, much-wanted pregnancy that affected me during my entire life. And similar to Dale, there was an event that happened when she was young that contin...

ued to be a force in her life. From a storytelling standpoint, incidentally, you've kind of got the storytelling backward. You say, "Emotional ending to a much-wanted pregnancy." Okay so, here's how Bonnie wrote it. "Ending to pregnancy. "Contracted German measles. "Much-wanted." (dry eraser marker squeaks) Here's the good storytelling way. I wanted a baby so badly. Wanted baby. Beat number two: got pregnant. Beat number three: got German measles. Beat number four: had to end pregnancy. Feel the difference between those? This is the non-storytelling. First thing you did was tell the result, the ending, before we get the beginning. So it's a very small point, but it's a very important one. If you want to replicate, on the page, an experience that has shaped you, powerfully, any experience, but especially one that shaped you here, let me live through it. Don't tell me the pregnancy ended until you've told me that you were pregnant. And don't tell me just that you were pregnant. Tell me how much you wanted to be pregnant. Any end to any pregnancy is a hard experience. Even if a person chooses to have an abortion, it's always a hard experience. But the context, so important in whatever story you tell, the context. Any father dying for any five-year-old is hard. But a father dying of polio, from one day to the next, for a girl who never even got to see him leave the house sick, or her mother talked to her about it, is the context of Dale's loss. The context of your loss has to be told in this order. I'm taking a wild guess on Bonnie's story because I really don't know Bonnie. We have, you know, some of the people that I talk to here, I've worked with in other classes. Not true for you. Right. But partly, I think about that because children come up a few more times. Yeah. You did have children. And then, you did something pretty amazing. You adopted two more children when you weren't that young, right? Right. How old were you? I was 47 when I adopted the first one and 50 when I adopted my second one. Yes. But my whole story is a story of loss and getting through the loss. And I don't want my story to be a sad story. So I come from a very quirky background, very quirky parents, but I always felt that I had to be. I couldn't rely on anybody. I had to be self-reliant. And that's my theme. Okay. I was always waiting to be saved, but in the end, I know now that I can only save myself. Okay, as with Shinozawa-- Yes. so far, I haven't seen any pictures. Right. And that's why I chose the German measles because that was a scene. That was a picture; that was a story. These are interpretations: quirky parents, waiting to be saved. These are the kinds of things that we figure out on the couch or the chair, in therapy, after lots of storytelling. So I want to know the stories before you get to that. And lots of loss in your life. You're correct that that's a theme. It also happens to be the theme in almost all of our lives. So what did your? What was the nature of your particular loss? What is the piece of loss that you want to look at? Is it loss of children? Is it loss of marriage? Is it loss of home? Is it loss of country? Well, it's loss of all of those. (laughs) Yes. That's my theme, but-- That may be the theme of your life. Yes. But that's not gonna work for a memoir. No. What particular loss do you want to explore in a memoir? I had a loss of my independence. I was always dependent on somebody, my whole life, until my husband passed away, 10 years ago-- Aha! and I became my own person. Still not liking that, "became my own person." Can anybody draw a picture of "became my own person"? No, so you had a good marriage. You were happy. I was married at 19. We came from South Africa, together, and we built a life in Florida. So we came together, as immigrants, built a life, and that was my happy life. And I've gotta tell you. The same things that we all want to have happen in our lives are not what we want in our memoirs, so much. So that whole, decades perhaps, of happiness, it may not be what your memoir is. You memoir probably is about when the happy life ended. Yes. The moments of conflict and trouble. Yes, yes. Although we have to know, as I said to Dale, what was lost. I need to have some picture. Usually, when somebody dies, we get to describe the person who's died. Part of Dale's story is she doesn't even get to describe the person who died. All she can do is describe the fantasy. So you, how did your husband die? My husband died of cancer, liver cancer. And you were quite young, then. You were in your 40s, 50s? I was in my 50s, actually. In your 50s, yeah, I will call that quite young. (audience chuckles) Going back, my mom passed away. She had MS for many years of me, growing up. No, no, no, no, no. I want you to tell one story at a time. Okay. So I want you to explore. And the reason I chose to focus in on the moment after the death of your husband is because I'm seeing a change. "I used to." Right. "I used to have a happy, loving marriage "in which I was taken care of. "My husband died." That's a bad thing; it's not a good thing. We all know that. But, in the course of the bad thing, a good thing happened. And what was that? I gained my independence-- Okay. for the first time in my life. That is a story. For the first time. So married: "I used to be married. "I used to be cared for. (dry eraser marker squeaks) "I used to have love." We could go on and on about all the things, financial security, probably. Yes. And what was your husband's name? Ron. Okay, and "I used to have Ron. (dry eraser marker squeaks) "Ron died"; I'm making this really simple. "I'm not married." Well, you did get married again. But interestingly, we cut off before that. This is not; we don't. Whoever this husband is, the new one now, he's not part of this story. No. No. Right. (chuckles) (audience laughs) Sorry. (laughs) What's his name? David. David, David doesn't matter. (audience laughs) Okay, okay, so "no marriage." And this is the difference between your life and your memoir. Your life does. In your life, David matters a whole lot. Right. In your life, many of the things that have happened, in the last 10 years since you've been with David, are really important. Last two years. Just two years, okay. Right. But for the purposes of this story, as I'm conceiving it, as I'm looking at a quest, a journey, a resolution, it's "no marriage, not cared for, "no love for a while." (dry eraser marker squeaks) Maybe financial issues became more pressing after Ron's death. "No money or not as much money, no Ron." Okay, that's all very obvious, dramatic change. Here's another change. "Not independent" before and "independent." (dry eraser marker squeaks) And "always wanted to be." You know, I began this day by saying, "Find your character. "Know what your character wants "and what's getting in the way." And I'm certainly not saying Ron was getting in the way. But life, the way life played out, you were. It's a nice problem to have, but you didn't have to be independent. You didn't have to develop this skill. Right, right. And in the course of a terrible loss, you gained something that you wished you could have gained another way. Right, right. I have no doubt about that one. That feels like a story, Bonnie. Okay. But what I have, all the other stuff. And I very deliberately chose Bonnie's bio because it had so much stuff, as our lives do. This looks like. I mean, this is an utterly unique bio. I've never met somebody who has this particular set of stuff. But it's got so many pieces, as our lives do. And the first thing, the segment was called, "Locating Our Story." Because the first thing we have to do is go through all the stuff of our lives: mother with MS, German measles, abortion, Vietnamese adopted daughters, divorce, widowhood later in life, still young, marriage, third marriage, Rome, Florida, Cape Town, and pick the story. Find the story. Right. And when you do, you may discover that what you wanna do first is write an essay. Because if you're having trouble finding focus, and this class is about writing the book-length memoir. But one of the things I said at the beginning is, "Write a whole lot of essays "before you write the book-length memoir." It feels, for me, as I'm talking to you, like it would be a great exercise to write an essay about the loss of Ron. And not, "first this happened, this happened, "this happened," of course. But, "I had a wonderful life. "I was cared. "I lived in this house." And we can set the stage, raise the curtains, on what you had because to understand the loss, we first have to see what you used to have, before you lost him. But also, give me a sense of the problem. "I never really knew if I could manage on my own." That's right; I never did. And that's got to feel. You know, I have a different set of problems. (chuckles) I don't know that one 'cause I have managed on my own, most of my life. I read it in your book. So my problem would be the opposite. Yes, I read that in your book, yeah. Yeah, but for you, that was your journey. And the unique thing is that each of us has our own. And they're all so different. I actually, incidentally, I really do. The German measles, which has now been erased, (chuckles) I really do think that that is a story. Okay. How old were you when that happened? When Ron died? No, no, the German measles. 20. 20. Yeah. So 20 years old. Yes, and it did impact me. That's what followed my adoption and my quest for children. Of course, well, that's what I got. That's what I got. You were endlessly trying to replace that child. Right, right, I was. I'm gonna move on. Yes. But I want you to write that essay, first. And then, I want you to, maybe write a few more essays. Okay. I so believe. (chuckles) You know, this is the book-length memoir. I so believe in that part of writing. I'll just put it in the context of writing a book-length memoir. As you're approaching your book-length memoir, write an essay or two.

Class Description

Bundle this class with How To Write a Personal Essay and save!

You don’t have to be a famous celebrity to have a story worth sharing. And you don’t need to have a long life full of significant events and intriguing encounters. To write a compelling memoir, you just need to highlight your most unique, interesting or transformative experiences—the moments in your life that really matter.

Master memoirist and bestselling author Joyce Maynard is the ideal person to show you how to take your life story and transform it into a fascinating book that gets published and finds an audience.

You’ll begin by identifying the major themes of your life and which one you want to explore. Then you’ll figure out who your characters are and their motivations, what the conflict of the story is, and how it will ultimately be resolved. Maynard will use both her own books and the work of students in the live audience to illustrate the writing process, giving you both the tools and the inspiration you need to translate your life into a fascinating memoir.

In this class, you’ll learn how to:

  • Figure out where and how to begin and not feel overwhelmed.
  • Identify the difference between “What happened?” and “What did it mean?”
  • Eliminate the parts of your story that don’t belong and focus on the big emotional moments that changed you.
  • Write about the small events that support the overarching story.
  • Maintain your point of view and not lose sight of your real story.
  • Stop worrying about hurting or alienating someone in your life or yourself.
  • End your memoir—when your own life isn’t over yet.


Michelle Foulia

I've been working on my memoir for over a year and was close to the end of the first draft. This amazing class is filled with so much wisdom and excellent teaching. I have watched all the videos back to back, made plenty of notes and loved every moment. I am really grateful I bought this class before moving any further with my memoir as sadly I definitely need to start from scratch. As frustrating as that is, I am relieved it happened now and I can use all this knowledge in the rewrite. I also can't wait to read Joyce Maynard's books. Brilliant!

Doris Freeston

Excellent course! Joyce Maynard provides valuable insights and practical instruction in the art of memoir writing, while telling her own stories, with grace, humility and humour. Thank you, Joyce.

Chevaun Nel

Joyce is amazing, I got so much out of this class, thank you so much :)