Recently I’ve been thinking about the theme of unforeseen consequences, something my teenage daughter and I talked about over the weekend. She has an excellent mentor at her part-time job. This mentor has influenced my daughter so significantly that my daughter’s goals for the future and even her driving passions have changed as a result. But what my daughter does not know is that numerous people were greatly disappointed when the mentor left her previous role, believing she had been released without just cause. They felt sympathy and frustration over the situation, seeing it as entirely a negative thing. The unforeseen consequence that the story of her dismissal has for me, though, is new and promising directions for my daughter’s future. I can’t help musing over the wisdom of that old maxim about how when a window closes, a door opens.
An acquaintance told me an even more remarkable story about unforeseen consequences. After fifteen years of marriage, her husband shocked her by literally walking out the door and leaving their marriage one Saturday morning. “When he said he was leaving, I thought he meant he was going to Home Depot,” she told me. Bereft, my acquaintance flew overseas to visit her oldest friend, something that hadn’t been in her plans that year at all. The two women spent two weeks together and grew closer than they’d been since they were girls.
A year later, my acquaintance’s long-distance friend died. It was tragic, but there was some comfort for my acquaintance in knowing that she and her friend had spent so much quality time together with no foreknowledge at all that it would be the last time they ever saw each other. And what drove them together was the husband’s betrayal – something she couldn’t have possibly imagined as a positive thing at the time.
Her story continued. A few months later, my acquaintance met a new man, fell in love and married. She’s sure the new husband was a gift that her deceased friend sent her from heaven. Happy memories in the face of grief, and new love, resulted from one very disruptive deed that at the time seemed entirely without possible benefits.
Some of my memoir clients take this approach instinctively. Often they have a particular word that they want to use in their memoir title because it reflects a guiding theme throughout their life. Keeping their focus on this one word helps them to shape the anecdotes they tell. For one client, it was “resilience.” She wanted to be sure that all the chapters of her memoir related in some way to that word and that concept. For another it was “detective.” She believed that in different ways, she had sought clues throughout her life, and wanted to represent her narrative as an ongoing piece of detective work.
If you’re stalling out in telling the story of your life, think about working with a theme rather than a straightforward chronology. What unforeseen consequences have dictated your fate? What coincidences have changed the path of your life? What chance meetings opened up a new chapter for you?
The themes you could choose are countless. And the stories they generate may at first seem disparate and disconnected. But after a while, they may start to coalesce into a comprehensive narrative. You might be surprised to find out that your life story too has governing themes that go well beyond a simple linear list of dates and places.
Need help getting started – or getting finished – with your memoir? Please be in touch any time to discuss!