Theme is something writers often talk about, especially literary writers. You rarely hear a romance writer agonize over nailing her theme before she begins writing. Which might be why “genre” fiction often has more to say about the human condition — and way more accessibly — than, um, some of the more notoriously impenetrable literary novels touted as the pinnacle of high art. (Read: Ulysses. No, on second thought, don’t. Most boring book ever, even with the dirty bits. No one is “above” narrative – it’s how the brain is wired to process information, not something we can, or should, transcend. Sorry, James.)
The problem with the preoccupation with theme is that it obscures what really matters: having something specific to say to someone. Story is communication. And yet, when it comes to teaching writing, theme often comes before anything else.
The problem with the preoccupation with theme is that it obscures what really matters: having something specific to say to someone.
All this focus on theme is something I’ve come to believe derails writers from the get-go. And by the get-go, I mean kindergarten. I’ve recently been doing work with a brilliantly maverick public school district, helping them incorporate “story” into how they teach writing. Which, as it turns out, means undoing a lot (okay, just about all) of how writing is currently taught, given state mandated we’re-going-to-test-for-it-because-its-technically-quantifiable curriculum.
Case in point: theme.
Theme is a concept that often makes seasoned writers quake – it feels esoteric, somehow highbrow, definitely academic — the sort of thing that scholars bestow upon “great literature” so graduate students can endlessly debate these novels in small, earnest seminars. Or, as a student of mine, who’d just received an MFA from one of the most prestigious universities in the country, said of her experience: “They made me read books that made me cry.” Beat. “Because they were so boring.”
Rule of thumb: Narrative gives birth to theme, not the other way around. Theme without narrative is a big fat sleep-inducing “Who cares?” Sure, theme might be helpful when analyzing something that has already been written, but it’s insanely unhelpful when trying to write something from scratch.
And yet, kids as young as seven are asked up front, before putting pencil to paper, “What’s your theme?” Just trying to define how theme manifests in a story is hard enough. To then parse it out into something specific enough to sit down and begin writing? Impossible. Why? Because theme itself is general, vague, and thus meaningless as a starting point.
Rule of thumb: Narrative gives birth to theme, not the other way around. Theme without narrative is a big fat sleep-inducing “Who cares?”
It’s kind of ironic, because theme is actually something incredibly simple: What does this story say about human nature? Which means that, by definition, every effective story has a theme, whether or not the writer has given it a moment’s thought.
And here’s the rub, when the teacher asks, “What’s your theme?” she’s not actually asking about theme at all. What she’s really asking is something much simpler, much clearer, and much more helpful.
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