Overcoming Overwhelm: Using Theme as a Tool to Focus your Memoir

by Cathy Luna

I’m going to tell you a secret.

Last summer, when I’d been working on my memoir for about five years, I complained to a writer friend that I was feeling overwhelmed by my project, awash in all the scraps and scenes and stories I had written in workshops and collected in a Scrivener ‘project’ (the digital equivalent of a three-ring binder) that I called “Zero Draft.”

My friend suggested I print out what I had written so far and then read through it.  “It will give you a better idea what to leave in and what to take out in your next draft,” she said.

I wasn’t sure how many pages I would end up printing: in Scrivener, you don’t know how many pages you’ve collected inside a project until you get it ready to print. I hit ‘compile’ and ‘manuscript’ and then waited….and waited.  The colorful little wheel spun on my screen and spun and kept spinning. I went to the bathroom and came back. Still spinning. Finally, the print screen popped up. I reached toward the keyboard, but, luckily, my eye snagged on the numbers on my screen before I pressed the blue print button.

“1 of 1,028.”  What? I’d written over a thousand pages? No way.

But it was true.

No wonder I felt overwhelmed! How had I written so much? I knew the story I was telling wasn’t small – it spanned more than twenty-five years – but I thought I had stayed laser-focused on my theme, the unresolved grief I had lived with after my father went missing-in-action over Laos in 1969, when I was six years old.  

I learned a few things about theme from this unexpected (and, for a long-time writing teacher, embarrassing) discovery. When I went back into Scrivener and scrolled through the pieces I had collected, I realized that “unresolved grief” was too broad, too diffuse to be helpful. Grief was a part of who I was, growing up; it was the air I breathed. Parent night in second grade–unresolved grief? Check. Too much sex too young—unresolved grief? Check. Never asking questions about my father – unresolved grief? Check.

My story was about unresolved grief, yes, but what about it? For theme to be useful to us, as writers, we need to articulate not just the universal human experiences (e.g. loss, caretaking, immigration), emotions (e.g. fear, joy, grief), and/or values (e.g. courage, determination, compassion) that our story taps into, but what it is we learned about that universal topic and how it is we learned it.

For memoirists, Vivian Gornick writes, what counts is ‘the movement toward wisdom.’ One way I have been able to winnow down my 1,028 pages has been to look for that magnetic river of change, what Kelly Notaras calls ‘the learning arc’ of my story, starting with those early moments when my protagonist (the younger me), deals with her grief by denying it, and tracing the ways she changes and grows until the final pages of my story, when she comes to understand that grief is the price of love, and that, to be fully alive in the world, she must find the courage to face her loss.

If you would like to explore this and other ways to understand, articulate, and use theme as a tool in your memoir writing, please join me in my six-week Writers in Progress workshop, What’s your Big Idea?: Theme in Memoir, Wednesdays, from 9:30am – 12:30 pm, beginning September 9, 2020.

Cathy Luna