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Thursday, March 30, 2006

'Theme' Is a Scary Word

I have always hated having to identify themes in books. My slacker nature, perhaps. Or fear of being wrong and looking stupid in class or at book groups, maybe.

As a writer, someone who is supposed to be infusing a piece with meaning, this antipathy to theme is a Problem, capital P on purpose. (I'm making a distinction between writer and journalist. Simplistically put, for hard-news stories journalists make an effort to keep their opinions about meaning to a minimum.)

You have to have a theme in your piece (Why? See next paragraph), and a theme usually boils down to a big, vague, one-word Eternal Truth, like: Failure. Joy. Loneliness. Or a pithy sentence: Friends adapt. Love conquers all. A dog’s love is the best.

Truth? Who am I to figure out the truth, let alone hand it out to someone? I faced that question in my first year of the MFA program. The answer is: Get over it. If you want readers to connect with your piece, to have it mean something to them, to resonate with them emotionally, it has to Mean Something.

I’m still (STILL!) queasy about themes. Here’s how I deal with it:

  • I use caps on words like Truth to make them seem vaguely archaic and ridiculous. For me, it lightens up the seriousness of it all. It's like that advice given to nervous speechmakers about imagining everyone in the audience in underwear.
  • Instead of theme, I think in terms of The Big So-What. Translated: The big question every story has to answer is “So what?” Why is this important? There HAS to be an answer, or the story is a string of words on the page. Example: When some big rock star died, a friend of mine remembered that she had seen him when she was a kid standing in a music store. She'd looked over and, boom, recognized him trying out some guitar. End of episode. She wondered if she should pitch the story to a paper. No. There's no good answer to "so what?"
  • As I write, I keep in mind the question, “What is this story about?” This avoids both “T” words, Theme and Truth. And when you answer this question, it can’t be in terms of what happens in the story. That’s the answer a third-grader is likely to give his mom when she asks what a movie is about—“It’s about this boy who wants a dog, then he finds a dog that came from outer space and the dog can talk to him and then the dog tries to organize other dogs to satisfy the Great Dane and the boy tries to help so that all the dogs won’t be recalled to the mother planet. . . .” Nah. The movie is about “friends help friends.”

OK. Enough on a stressful topic! Go write something, already!

category: craft

2 Comments:

Anonymous cirrus said...

The idea of "themes" in a work (especially nonfiction) has always been kind of amorphous to me. This helped me quantify it and pare it down a little. Thanks!

4:00 PM  
Anonymous cirrus said...

The idea of "themes" in a work (especially nonfiction) has always been kind of amorphous to me. This helped me quantify it and pare it down a little. Thanks!

4:00 PM  

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