When I first began to write stories, the first advice I received (that made writing seem doable) was this: put two characters in a room. Lock the door. See what happens. This advice made writing fun, but when it came right down to it, not all that productive. I wrote lots of great lines, but not a whole lot of story.
As I continued to study craft, I began to change my ways. I still believed in discovery, but now I had feedback to respond to. I also found myself having to answer questions I had never thought about before. Things like: what does your character want? Why? What do they believe? What do they fear? This feedback stretched me. It also made me think about my role in the process. At Vermont College of Fine Arts, I wrote my thesis on what directors can teach novelists. I was looking for structure, but also something else. Let’s call it the why. The juice. The motivation.
Or in other words, theme.
Right away, I got a lot of push back—and for good reasons. Theme too soon could make a story didactic. It could interfere with the spontaneous intuition that a writer needs to discover a story. And yet, the idea would not go away. I was a writer who didn’t feel as wedded to genre as what I wanted to say.
That’s when I heard Sara Pennypacker speak at Anderson’s Book Breakfast.
In that lecture, she talked about her lofty goals for writing her glorious novel, Pax, a story with big ideas about the consequences of war. For what it’s worth, it is also a book she took many years to write, that she didn’t always feel ready to write.
But she persevered.
Because she had something to say.
At this point in the lecture, I wanted to stand up, pump my fist, and yell, “YES.” (But I didn’t. I was trying to make a good impression!)
But even now, as I write this, I can’t help wanting to use exclamation points. My best work arrives when I know what I want to say—when the spark of inspiration—either through news or an image or a song or an experience—is accompanied by purpose.
It’s also how I feel about reading. The books I remember best, the books I loved the most, the books that might have even touched my soul or changed how I saw the world all had one thing in common: a strong universal theme.
Theme is the guts of story. It’s what comes from the questions that gnaw at the subconscious. It comes from obsessions and grows out of tension that comes from asking hard questions and exploring universal ideas THAT MATTER to the writer. Theme is the lens that helps me find the passion or conflict, the connectivity and the contradictions that drive the story forward. Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, writes that theme involves emotion, logic, and judgment. Donald Maass, in The Fire in Fiction, says, “It is the underlying conviction that makes the words matter.”
CONVICTION. I like that word.
When we know what we want to say, we know which well to go to for more inspiration. And that is important because face it: it takes so long to write a novel. It just isn’t worth it if the concepts or questions don’t mean something important. It’s also hard to deal with feedback when you are not committed to what you want to say.
John Gardner describes my process and goal to a tee: “The writer . . . broods on every image that occurs to him, turning it over and over, puzzling it, hunting for connections, trying to figure out–before he writes, while he writes, and in the process of repeated revisions–what it is he really thinks. . . . Only when he thinks about a story in this way does he achieve not just an alternative reality or, loosely, an imitation of nature, but true, firm art–fiction as serious thought.”
More important, theme connects us to readers. To their hearts. And for good reason!
Theme can help make a story speak to many generations with multiple experiences. When we have something big to say, the reader can feel it. I believe that more than good writing, it is the story and what’s behind it—the gnawing subconscious behind the impulse to write—that connects us to our readers and gets them attached to our characters.
So, are you ready to embrace the themes that matter to you?
Make a list. Ask: what is your story about? What do you want to say? What are the themes that constantly come up in conversation…that gnaw at YOUR subconscious? What do you want your reader to think about as you are writing?
Christopher Reeve once said, “So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.”
Today, summon the will. Don’t be afraid of what you want to say. Grasp it and write.