Theme and Plot – The Yin and Yang of Memoir

The Story Circle Network Conference in Austin, Texas was an amazing gathering of women eager to help one another write their stories. From April 11 – 13 we gathered to learn from each other.

It was a rich three days of conversations, workshops, and celebrations centered on memoir and personal stories. We shared the challenges and successes of the writing life, as well as supporting each other in developing our skills.

I played two roles at the conference – as a coach assisting other writers with specific issues or questions about their work. And as a facilitator, a role I joyfully shared with dear friend and fellow Dream of Things author, Madeline Sharples.

Our workshop, “Telling Healing Stories: How to Write a Compelling Memoir,” attracted 35 women to learn more about how to take a life crisis and turn it into engaging prose.

We addressed two important aspects of compelling storytelling – plot and theme.

These two aspects are interrelated – the yin and yang of an effective memoir.

English: Yin yang picture Español: Yin yang

English: Yin yang picture Español: Yin yang (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Plot is the yang, active aspect – what happens in your story, or as author Vivian Gornick calls it, “the situation” you are describing.

To help tease out your key plot points we talked about a concept introduced by Amber Starfire at her excellent workshop “A Legacy of Story.” She encouraged participants to make a list of their “Burning Moments,” those events with the greatest emotional impact.

Linda Joy Meyers, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers teaches a similar technique: the Turning Point exercise. List the 10-20 most significant and memorable moments of your life and begin to write them one by one. Linda advises, “Write these moments in scene with sensual details, and you will be well on your way to writing your memoir!”

Madeline shared how she structured her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On and offered prompts to help participants write about their burning moments or turning points.

Flowing beneath the surface of the plot (or situation) is what Gornick refers to as “the story” – the emotional heart or theme of the memoir. It is as she puts it, “The thing one has come to say.” The story is not the same as the situation, but knowing your situation or plot really well can lead you to the underlying story, or theme, of your book. This is the yin, intuitive aspect of your story.

When I was writing Swimming with Maya it took me a very long time to tease out the real theme of the book. Gornick’s excellent book The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative helped me understand the difference between plot and theme, and make my memoir more unified and coherent by weaving the theme throughout the entire book.

The situation in my memoir is the sudden death of a gifted young woman on the cusp of realizing her dream of becoming an actress, and her mother’s profound grief over the loss of her daughter. But the theme is about the enmeshment of mother and daughter and how the two fight their way to separate identities while at the same time remaining united. This is why the metaphor of water resonates throughout the book, leading the reader on a journey of deeper, symbolic understanding of how the mother and daughter continue to “swim” in their love and shared dream.

In exploring the situation underlying the story with participants, I also offered writing prompts to help them get to the heart of their themes. A manuscript that focuses only on plot, no matter how well it is crafted, will leave the reader unsatisfied. As writers, we have to dig deeper to find the real gold in our stories. Searching for our themes and clarifying them is the work that leads to the creation of a page turning story.


That’s the Way Life Lives

Maya’s quirky little saying, “That’s the way live lives,” was meant to comfort me. Today, on the 22nd anniversary of her death, it still does. I have a beautiful bouquet of lilacs on my writing table in  her honor. Her spunk, fierce intelligence, and beauty are with me more than ever today. And her wisdom: Life has its way with us. Flowing with it is the only sane choice.

Swimming with Maya – the book I wrote to honor the mother-daughter dance – is my way of keeping Maya present in my life and the lives of countless others. Today, thanks to the miracle of social media and my publisher’s creativity, the book is at the top of the e-book charts on Amazon. It takes a village to accomplish that, so I am grateful to people too numerous to name. Maya is too, and she sends her love and thanks.

Maya at age 18

Maya at age 18

Life wears away our rough edges year by year. I’ll never know what kinds of life lessons might have changed Maya, yet I believe nothing fate threw at her could have eradicated her vivacious humor or penchant for risk – only death accomplished that.

As a bubbly five-year-old, she already knew that life was living  through her and that all that aliveness was a gift, a gift she needed to remind her tearful mother about.

I can still see her upturned face, the snap in her eyes, and feel her hand in mine when she told me, “Mommy, don’t be sad. That’s the way life lives.”

Lately, I’ve been playing with photos of my girl. Arranging and rearranging them on a card table in my office. It is striking in how many of these pictures Maya has her arm around me, flung over my shoulders, a protective and proprietary hug that says, “This is my mom. My best friend. It’s us against the world.”

We were co-conspirators. Our shared dream was Maya’s acting career, her face on amovie screen.  She was racing toward the dream with a speed that took my breath away. Just the day before her accident she was accepted into the film and theater arts  program at UCLA as a community college transfer student with a full scholarship.


We were jubilant. In the space of 24 hours life whirled in another direction, and Maya lay in an intensive care unit profoundly unconscious.

To view a full account of the accident and my decision to donate her organs and tissues to strangers in need,

Today, the recipient of Maya’s liver, Patti Frame is holding her beautiful new grandson in her arms. Today, Olivia Jaras, the daughter of the man who received Maya’s heart, is playing with her two little daughters. Those who received Maya’s kidneys, her corneas, and her skin and bone tissue are living fuller, richer lives because of it.

And today, those of us who loved her are celebrating Maya’s life along with readers of Swimming with Maya. April is National Donate Life Month. Let’s make April 6 “That’s the way life lives” day.