“I never called my parents alcoholics; I showed myself pouring vodka down the sink. Give information in the form you received it.”
Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir
If you’re caught in the self-doubt of wondering how your personal story could be of any interest to a wider audience, you need to clarify the universal theme(s) in your story. This is the first step in mapping out where your memoir will sit in the marketplace. It’s also a quick way to get over that internal dilemma of “who the hell cares about this little thing that’s happened to me?”
The universe exists in a cycle of storytelling. What pulls us in, again and again, is when we can relate. We relate through universal feelings and themes.
What is a universal theme?
Universal themes are what draw people to memoir again and again. From pain to relationships to family stories to embracing key life challenges (marriage, mourning, emigration), we love to read how other people have dealt with huge problems.
It must be the voyeur in us all.
Excellent memoir writing gives us this birds-eye-view into the inner workings and problem solving machinations in another person’s psyche.
Mary Karr did this so profoundly in The Liars Club, which told the story of her childhood in a dirt-poor Texas oil town, but one of the universal themes she so brilliantly explores is the stories we absorb and believe from our parents and how they shape us (I read The Liars Club twice before I wrote A Letter From Paris. Karr and I have completely different backgrounds, but both memoirs explored the theme of family stories, how to know what’s true, and what children absorb from their parents.)
This is because both her memoir and mine share a universal theme.
A universal theme is an idea that can apply to anyone regardless of cultural differences or geographic location. It’s these themes and ideas that unite us as humans – the kinds of things people can all say ‘me too’ about, which is one of the main reasons people love to read memoir. That nodding ‘me too’ is such a healing, profound, feeling, isn’t it? To know that someone on the other side of the world has been through similar – or worse, and felt the same way as you.
Some examples of universal themes in memoir:
Romantic love, grief, motherhood, addiction, recovery, achievement, trauma, healing, emigration to a foreign culture, loss, education struggles, cultural beliefs related to our gender, physical achievement, financial or career achievement, divorce….
Example 1: Grief
Strayed’s Wild would never have sold so many millions of copies if it was merely a chronicle of a solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail. At essence it’s a story about grief, which is about as universal a topic as you can find.
Example 2: Masculine and feminine archetypes and cultural conditioning
Even with more positive memoirs – for example, Steph Jagger’s Unbound, which chronicled a journey across the ski slopes breaking the world record for snow-skiing (what’s going to be deeply personal about that?), the book remains interesting to readers who aren’t into skiing because Jagger explores the universal theme of the feminine and masculine archetypes she absorbed growing up.
How to weave your universal theme into your memoir:
Memoir is most powerful when we’re not just chronicling the details of an outward journey, but really showing the inner journey and conflict, too.
While outwardly it sounds like a great and positive goal – to travel across the world and smash a record – ultimately the ‘inner journey’ of the protagonist wasn’t conquering the ski slopes but her own ideas of what it was to be a woman in the 21st century and how she could come to some sort of reckoning with that.
How to weave universal themes into a personal narrative – from Unbound by Steph Jagger:
“I was desperate to prove I was one of the guys because proving that would mean no one would find out that I didn’t want the marriage and the kids and the bright orange Sundance trampoline. I spent my whole life looking for the next big thing, the next race, the next ribbon, the next way I could prove I had worth somewhere else, somewhere other than the sewing machine…”
It’s coming to a sense of reckoning with her femininity that is the real inner journey of the book, and that’s a very universal theme many career-minded and goal-orientated women can relate to.
All bestselling memoirs explore an inner battle through an outwards journey, and it’s essential that you dig deep and identify the universal themes before you sit down and write the first draft.
Having a strong universal theme is one of the topics I explore in Secrets of Bestselling Memoirs.
Did this help? Comment below if you have any questions, I’d love to hear from you!