Linda Thornburg: Write The First Draft of a Great Memoir in Thirty Days, Part Three

Blue Sky Growing a Tree Branch in the Garden o...

Blue Sky Growing a Tree Branch in the Garden of Success (Photo credit:

Linda Thornburg runs the Memories Into Story website. Suggestions for how to approach the first draft of a memoir are offered here and in related articles on the site.

Day Two: Exploring Possible Themes

In order to complete the first draft of your manuscript in thirty days, you need to know your theme before you start writing. Themes in memoir are broad subject areas that certain aspects of your life embody. Some examples of memoir themes are:

The artist within

Living with Papa

A garden for each season

Growing up in small-town America

The writing life

Travels in Japan

List the things you are grateful for in your life. Take a broad approach so that you don’t end up focusing only on the present. What forces made you the person you are today? Can you see the value in even the darkest parts of your life now? This exercise can be quite powerful. It will help to clear your mind of negativity and fear and get you ready to begin outlining.

To find a theme that will help you focus your writing, try this process. Take a blank sheet of paper and write the words “me” in a circle in the middle. Without thinking about it too hard, draw a line radiating from the circle and write something about your life. Then draw another line radiating from the circle and do the same thing. Draw a third and fourth line with things about your life on each of them. Which line is the one that you can make “branches” off of most easily? That is, which one do you have most to say about? Draw branches off that line and write something on them.

The branching technique is a quick way to “mind map” and discover the area of your life that holds the most interest and energy for you as a writer. The topic with the most branches may reveal a theme, or at least hint at one.

After you’ve had a chance to do the branching exercise, rest for the day and let the ideas that have surfaced find their way through your subconscious. On the third day, you will work with some of those ideas.

Day Three: Refining Your Theme

By now you should have an idea of whether you are writing for family and close friends or for a wider audience. You also should be aware of some of your fears about the writing process and have some idea of the theme of your memoir.

When I tried the branching technique I ended up making a lot of lists. One was of people I had known intimately, one was of groups I had joined, one was of jobs I had held, and one was of men I had known. It became evident to me that what I needed to do was to find a device that would let me incorporate all my lists into a single memoir. That led me to some introspection about how I had defined myself as a woman, especially during my twenties and thirties. I realized that social norms — or fighting against them — had pushed me in certain directions.

By working with your branching from the previous day, you will find that certain themes emerge in your life’s trajectory. Consider these questions as your review your branching work:

1. What things about your past would you change if you could? If you find that your life experiences made you the person you are today, you won’t want to give up much. This is what happened to me; I realized that I am quite satisfied with who I am and have few regrets about the life that I have lived. What a wonderful revelation that was! I have almost always been a person who focused more on the future than on the past, but knowing that my past serves to make me who I am and that I like myself makes me happy.

If you find that there are a lot of things you would change about your past if you could, look for themes there. For example, if you had a bad marriage and wished you hadn’t married the person you did, what led you to that choice? How did your choice fit into the other patterns you exhibited in your life? Why did you stay in a bad marriage? Is there something that would serve as a theme for your memoir?

2. What was your subconscious telling you when you did your branching exercise? By thinking now about the things you left out or didn’t write down, you should have some clue about what has been most important. What do those first branching lines have in common? Is there a germ of a theme there?

3. Imagine that you are a little girl or boy and have the power to see into the future. When you were six years old, what about the life you lived would have been the most surprising? What would have been the most expected? By answering these two questions, does the beginning of a theme emerge?

4. I once heard a new age guru say that everyone has one or two questions they are trying to answer with their lives. Does your branching work suggest what those questions are? Does that help you define a theme for your memoir?

If you still don’t have a good idea for a theme, don’t worry. Work with a possible theme and it will become clearer as you progress. Take what you think might be your theme and do another branching exercise using that theme inside the circle in the middle of the page. Don’t think about it too hard; just write things on the lines radiating from that circle. This will be the skeleton for your memoir. But don’t worry. You don’t have to get it right; just let both sides of your brain work together to create branches for your newly discovered theme. Remember, you are looking for one branch that calls to you and that you can branch off of easily.

Your new branches should bring you closer to the subject material for your memoir. If you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere, try this exercise several times. Eventually the patterns will emerge. When you think you have a clear idea of what you will write about, rest for the day.

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2 thoughts on “Linda Thornburg: Write The First Draft of a Great Memoir in Thirty Days, Part Three

  1. hey hey!! this is a very nice website here and I just wanted to comment & say that you’ve done a great job here! Very nice choice of colors & layout, very easy on the eyes.. Nicely done!…

  2. Pingback: Searching for the red thread: On structuring a Turkish-American marital memoir (Part 1) | Slowly-by-Slowly

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