If you’re writing a personal story and you want it to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, then you need to identify your universal themes.
What is a Universal Theme?
Universal themes in your personal story can be relatable to people across the world regardless of location or socio-economic demographic. Read on for how to find the universal theme or themes in your memoir!
Why this helps you with doubt
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 to a personal story through universal feelings and themes.
Why do you need 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 memoirs share a universal theme.
Definition of 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, pandemic, loss, education struggles, cultural beliefs related to our gender, physical achievement, financial or career achievement, divorce….
Example 1: Grief
Cheryl 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:
I think it was Tara Westover (author of EDUCATED) who said that the universal is best approached through the personal.
Think those incredibly personal parts of your story that show a wider societal or physical issue: this helps the reader identify with you and really understand and empathise with your story.
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.
Steph Jagger explores societal expectations of women and cultural gender norms in this excerpt from her memoir Unbound
“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.
To sum up
All bestselling memoirs explore an inner battle through an outwards journey, and Universal Themes are what makes your personal story relatable and relevant to a wider audience. Yes, your story is unique, and no two people experience the same universal event in the same way, but by identifying your universal themes you’ll be able to look at how your particular story has been told before, and make sure it’s relatable to as wide an audience possible. You best explore the universal through the personal – through your specific experiences of that theme in how it relates to the journey of your memoir as a whole.