Note: this post originally appeared on Charlottesville’s WriterHouse blog.
After a week of furious scribbling, I passed my newly minted story off to a group of writer friends. “I’m excited by the idea,” I wrote over email, “but I’m not sure if it goes anywhere.”
Feedback trickled in over lunch. “I like the images,” one girl said.
“Nice use of dialogue,” offered another.
During the lengthy pause I picked at my fries. “Do you think that it, um, lacks…a point?”
The poet murmured something unintelligible.
The fiction writer looked at me sadly. “I never know what my point is either.”
“You know,” said the woman who straddled poetry and prose, “I never even know if I’m finished.”
We shared a brief silence and pondered the obvious: if we couldn’t identify our stories’ themes, how the hell could anyone else?
Fortunately my writing class met once a week. We broached this very subject while workshopping a classmate’s story about her grandmother’s interest in insects.
“What’s your theme?” the instructor asked her.
He looked at the rest of us. We nodded vigorously.
“My grandmother? And bugs?” She raised her eyebrows.
He sighed as though he heard that a lot. “Bugs are your subject.” We all looked at each other. “Your subject is separate from your theme.”
Cue the collective forehead slap.
“Your theme is the broader issue you cover—the universal idea, the heart of your story. It’s what your audience can immediately connect with, and until you articulate it, no one else will.”
As we talked it out, I came to realize that theme is a culmination of analysis and synthesis, the result of a clinical approach to a creative work. It may feel like an Oprah ah ha! moment, but it’s nearly impossible to experience while we write.
One barrier to enlightenment is that a work in progress remains unfinished. We need to examine all the pieces before we attempt to solve a puzzle, an idea that has roots in modern psychology. In a recent newspaper article profiling psych professor Tim Wilson, Wilson’s UVA colleague summarized human thought as follows: “The reasons we give for our choices, even when accurate, are not so much insights as after-the-fact constructions.” No wonder we struggle to identify theme as we script choice after choice in the nascent stages of plot development. Thematic analysis, like all human reasoning, might be a study of after-the-fact.
At lunch the next week, I shared my discovery. “We don’t have to panic,” I proselytized. “We don’t have to know theme until after we’re finished.”
I’d been waving my hands, so the waitress stopped by. “Can I get you something?” she asked me sweetly.
“I’m good for now.” As she walked away, I turned to my friends. “But I might know more later. Riiiiiight?”