The PTT of Memoir—Positioning, Theme, and Takeaway
On March 8, I participated in a roundtable discussion with Linda Joy Myers, President of the National Association of Memoir Writers, on the topic of techniques to get unstuck and into flow. If you’re interested in hearing more, you can listen to the archive here:
Among the many tips and ideas we discussed—from the value of creating an outline to freewriting to keeping your inner critic out of the way—was the role of theme in memoir.
This got me thinking about the value of theme, but also about two other important deliverables memoirists need to be thinking about when writing and selling their memoirs: positioning and takeaway. A memoir has to be able to be positioned (if not by you then by your future marketing team—so you might as well do this heavy-lifting before you start shopping your work) in order to sell. Its themes and takeaways need to be clear for an editor and his or her Editorial Board to be sold on the idea that it will hold value and meaning for a reader. With that in mind, here’s my quick 101 on these three invaluable deliverables.
Positioning Your Memoir
I’ve written about positioning before because it’s a concept that the average unpublished or first-time author too often fails to consider, usually because they just want to write and they don’t have a marketing background. Positioning you or your work is a process that involves understanding where you and/or your book belong in the marketplace, and how you are or will be perceived by your customers, fans, or buyers.
When it comes to memoir, you will generally position yourself by comparing your book to another writer’s. Overused examples include: “I’m the female David Sedaris,” or “My book is the next Eat, Pray, Love.” Because these are so overused, try to get more creative if either of these sentences are currently parked in your query letter or book proposal. Another way to position yourself is to counter-position yourself. For instance:
“My book is a cancer memoir in the vein of Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place. Unlike Corrigan, however, I do not delve into the deep or poignant side of cancer, intentionally keeping it light. My book is meant to be an uplifting, sassy look at motherhood and surviving cancer. My audience is younger women and young mothers, so think of my book as a mix between Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay and Bad Mother with a cancer twist.”
You can see right away how this positioning works—regardless of what you feel about such an approach. Do not try to be all things to all people. The more you can drill down and position your work as appropriate to a specific subset of readers the more likely you will be to get the attention of an agent or editor.
Identify Your Themes
As I mentioned, I’ve been turning around this idea of theme in memoir since the March 8 roundtable, in part because I said something on the call about most memoir being the result of having lived through something hard or challenging; or from having overcome something. And this is true to a certain extent. Misery memoir is the industry term for a very popular subset of memoir that includes books about mental illness (An Unquiet Mind), growing up in a crazy household (Jesus Land), eating disorders (Wasted), addiction (Drinking, A Love Story), surviving abuse (A Child Called It), difficult relationships and subsequent divorces (Happens Every Day), being the parent of a child with a disease or disorder (Schuyler’s Monster), and the list goes on and on. But of course there are uplifting memoirs, too—memoirs based on yearlong experiments (Julie and Julia), finding love in unlikely places (The Dirty Life), food glorious food (Blood, Bones, and Butter), traveling the world (Wanderlust), dance (Tango), parenting (Operating Instructions) . . . and this list too goes on and on and on.
So, what’s the point? That all memoirs must be easily identified for their theme—mental illness, abuse, food, travel, dance—but they all must have bigger umbrella themes too—becoming a different person, changing your life, going through a transformation, gaining a new perspective. The drill-down themes are the specific and nitty-gritty. They help to position your book and they do not need to be nuanced. But you will always have inherent themes—like the food in food memoir—and the more multilayered ones, like why cooking her way through Julia Child’s cookbook gave Julie Powell’s life new meaning. It takes the whole book to get there, but this subject of longing for meaning and finding it is certainly there—throughout.
The payoff of understanding your themes and making them work for you is felt by the reader of your book—whether that’s the agent who takes you on, the editor who buys your book, or your eventual reader. And theme is as important to the marketing of your book as it is to the writing. Knowing what your themes are (yes, you can have many) before you start is valuable (though not essential). Carrying them through the memoir is also hugely important. Every single chapter, in fact, should carry a theme, or two or three. For me, themes and through-threads are interchangeable. They’re what fuel the ah-has for your reader and probably, if you stop to think about it, what’s driving you to write your memoir in the first place.
If you can’t tell me in one sentence what your book is about, you’re not as clear as you need to be about your themes. Oftentimes my first exercise with someone when they approach me with a new idea for a memoir is to map out the themes of the book—well before we get to the outlining. So if you’re not 100% clear on this, do this exercise for yourself and for your book. It’s important for your memoir and critical for your proposal.
The Magic of Takeaways
As much as I think theme is important and I talk about it incessantly, if your book is lacking takeaways it’s completely unsalable. Lots of writers fail to truly express what their takeaways are because they think they’re inherent. For instance, you’re writing a book about an eating disorder and you get better and the takeaway is “things turned out.” But that’s not enough. Readers are looking for takeaways throughout the entire book. Just as a theme or two should run through every chapter, so should a takeaway. When I ask my clients to outline their books, I often require a takeaway sentence after each chapter summary. A takeaway might look something like this:
“Beauty is fleeting, and it’s not the only measure of a woman’s value. In this chapter the reader sees the author realizing for the first time that a man could love her for something deeper than her looks. This is a breakthrough moment for the author, and she ruminates on how she’s valued her beauty above all other qualities and how this has impacted her life.”
You’ll see that this is still about the author, but it’s an invitation for the reader to examine the ways in which she may have fallen prey to this kind of thinking. It invites the reader to examine broader social messaging and it is a subject that’s relatively universal. Even women who have not relied on their looks or who don’t feel defined by their beauty can relate to the sentiment of this takeaway in some capacity.
Just like theme, it’s good to know and understand your takeaways before you start writing. Or, if you’re already done with your memoir and you’ve never considered takeaways, find ways to go into the work and draw them out. Most likely they’re already there, laying tangled or hidden in the story. As the writer of a memoir, your job is to show them to the reader. You can do this subtly or overtly, depending on your voice, your style, and your skill.
I’d argue that these three things—positioning, theme, and takeaway—are what editors and agents are most often looking for when they’re examining a work, in addition to good writing and platform. But I’ve seen very well-written memoirs without any clear positioning and struggled to figure out how and where it could sell. Sometimes these are literary memoirs that span the entire life of the author, or that detail a particular adventure but fail to showcase the change effected by said adventure. Just because you lived it and it was interesting, exciting, and/or changed your life doesn’t mean that you have a built-in readership. So incorporate the above points and I assure you that your memoir will be far better received by agents, editors, and readers alike.