Have you found your theme?
The Blanchard River runs along the east boundary of the farm where my Mother grew up. The river also framed my Mother’s childhood days. Even after leaving the farm and having a family of her own, the river remained a part of her identity.
Mom often talked about the Blanchard as the place where she learned to swim, to row a boat, and to trust the overhanging vines to carry her safely from one side of the river to the other. The river was the place where Mom developed a sense of independence and adventure. She sometimes credited the river for giving her the courage to follow unpaved paths on her journey through life. The river meandered, taking many twists and turns along the way. And that’s how Mom described her life. In her memoir, she wrote, "The Blanchard River shaped my childhood. I think it shaped the rest of my life, as well."
There are places in her memoir where Mom uses images of the river to describe her experiences and feelings. In one section, she talks about feeling carried along by the currents of life. In another section, she describes feeling drained, with little energy left to continue her journey. She might have chosen “A River Runs Through It” as the title of her memoir; but as you may know, that title was already used by author Norman Maclean in his semi-autobiographical story, which was later turned into a movie.
Over the years, I’ve read many memoirs and autobiographical essays and discovered that they’re often framed around a specific theme. For my mother, it was a river. Others have used hiking, birdwatching, fishing, sailing, becoming a teacher or a grandmother, and working a farm. I’ve seen memoirs, too, where the theme tying it all together focuses on a specific aspect of one’s development, such as spirituality, friendship, simplicity, loss, forgiveness, environmentalism, and gratitude. Hildegard Flanner in Brief Cherishing writes about her life on a vineyard in Northern California and shares stories of her relationship with trees. She writes, “I have loved trees. I have planted trees. ... As I grow older ... the image of new young trees in place of the old ones creeps temptingly into my mind.”
My relationship with nature is a theme I’ve used in telling my own autobiographical stories. From childhood, I’ve been fascinated and inspired by nature. I’ve written about nature as my playground, my classroom, my place of worship, and my source of inspiration. In my own memoir, I describe how nature has played a role in my career choice, in deciding where to live, and in adding joy to my excursions with two young grandchildren.
Have you found your theme? If not, you might reflect on significant memories from childhood. Have any of your childhood experiences inspired your choices as an adult? You might also think about what you like to do – gardening, singing, hiking, reading, writing, etc. Where and when did what you enjoy first take root? How did your interests or specific experiences shape your life? Once you’ve found your theme, you’re well on your way to writing your story. Chances are, once you’ve found your theme, you’ll also discover new dimensions about yourself.
The ecological identity tree is an exercise I used in writing my own memoir. Directions on how to do this can be found here. This exercise worked well for me because of my focus on nature. You might find it helpful to adapt this exercise to an “identity theme” of your own. Instead of an ecological identity tree, you might have a tree based on your spiritual identity, your identity as a musician, etc.
Begin by sketching an outline of a tree. Include roots, trunk, branches, and leaves. You can add fruit, as well, if that fits with your theme. The next step involves reflecting on how your theme has taken shape throughout your life. What personal experiences from childhood planted the seeds of your interest or identity? If your theme is music, for example, you might recall such experiences as playing the piano, singing in a musical, or listening to music at Grandma’s house. Record your childhood experiences on the roots of the tree. Then add other theme-related experiences on the trunk, branches, and leaves of the tree. Music-theme experiences might include “entering a music conservatory,” “becoming a music teacher,” or “singing the Messiah at Carnegie Hall.” If you’re a composer, you might record titles of your compositions on the fruit of the tree.
Once you’ve identified a theme and completed your identity tree exercise, you’re ready to write your personal stories. You can use the entire tree as a framework for your memoir or use what you’ve written on one of the roots or branches to develop an autobiographical essay. Either way, developing and reflecting on an identity tree can be, not only a form of self-expression, but a path to self-discovery, as well. Enjoy the process!