Story and Theme

One of the convictions I came to about the core of my writing process in 2005 at Odyssey was that the kernel of any story I sat down to write, the notion from which all the rest of it sprung, had to be theme.

Now, this never exactly worked as a hard and fast rule. Often, the actual spark of a story comes to me in the form of an image. For “The Utter Proximity of God”, my initial mental picture was of an old draft animal falling dead in the middle of plowing a field, which image I actually lifted (as I often do) from the lyrics of Grateful Dead songs: “Brown-Eyed Women” (“Gone are the days when the ox fall down / he’d take up the yoke and plow the fields around”) and “New Speedway Boogie” (“I don’t know but I been told / if the horse don’t pull you’ve got to carry the load”). But those two references alone immediately evoke, for me, a whole web of meaning surrounding the myth of the working man, including the tragic death of Boxer the horse in Animal Farm, the parable of the sower, Millet’s iconic painting elevating the peasant class, faith, damnation, the redeeming nature of toil, Marx’s Platonic idealization of the proletariat, etc, etc. From that one image, I leapt almost automatically through all these interpretations to what I knew the story had to be about: the potential conflict and harmony between faith and practicality in the face of adversity. The same process happened with “Hope and Erosion”—I went from an image of a sandcastle washing away to the futile quest of a hermit crab hero.

I love this method. It’s very visual, and it gets to the heart of what interests me most about writing fiction, which is the ideas. But lately I have perceived a drawback to it that makes me want to try to force myself to choose story ideas based on plots, not themes. My theme tends to become my guiding force–it’s what I look to when in doubt about anything else in the story, plot & character included. So I think there are a lot of situations in which my love for theme becomes a crutch. And in reaching for it, too often I abandon or lose that other essential element, without which theme can only come across as a boring-ass lecture: that element being the capacity of a story to grip the reader, make them care, make them want to engage with and understand the story on the same level at which they engage with their own lives.

That in mind, as soon as I can clear away the considerable mess of projects already cluttering the desktop of my mind, I think I’m going to try forcing myself to come at a new story from a different angle. I’ll allow myself to start from an image, maybe–but I’m going to try to make those usual intuitive connections on a different web than usual. Try to draw from the classic plots, rather than from the usual half-baked philosophical notions.

It strikes me this endeavor may go somewhat against Justin’s art teacher’s notion about doing what’s fun. With which I do agree wholeheartedly, and too often forget to follow. I will try to keep that advice in mind as well as I proceed.

The art of writing too often resembles the art of keeping half a dozen pots simmering low on the stove all at once, stirring them two at a time, half at random, while once in awhile popping open the oven to drizzle juice over the roast. And sipping a pint on the side.

One comment

  1. It’s less about having “fun” and more about not being “precious”. At least, that’s what I took away from my teacher’s exercise. But, yeah, the twelve pots simmering on the stove while checking on the roast analogy is all too familiar to me.

    I also endorse the swiping of plots.

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