That’s right, enough screwing around. This post is all about THE ME. The big ol’ me, in all my… whats that? Oh. OHH.
Yeah, I guess that makes more sense.
Now, I’m not here to get all heavy-handed about theme. I may be an English teacher and a kind-of-avid reader and a self-professed almost-amateur writer, but I don’t think the world or any narrative starts and stops with theme. Not even a rolling stop. Not even an oh-I-didn’t-know-that-was-a-stop-sign non-stop. It’s important, sure. But there’s more to life than theme.
But not that much more, right? I mean, for any narrative, there’s a theme. Any story, any poem, any six-second video of a guy texting and walking into traffic and getting obliterated by a bus has a theme. Theme bleeds out of the story’s every orifice, it leaks out through the eyes and the nostrils and the earholes like a thick Ebola slurry. It infuses every chapter, every sentence with its rosy, heady fog. It’s there and unavoidable, like a screaming baby on a 5-hour flight. You can’t have literature without it.
But how do you create it?
No, I’m really asking. How do you craft theme? Or, maybe more importantly, should you even try?
Theme is bouncing around the inside of my skull thanks to a conversation I had a few nights ago with a friend of mine about a story she wants to write. Interestingly, she and I come from entirely different schools of storybuilding. Like, she’s been pondering this idea for weeks if not months, has characters and names and costumes and really specific details of the set mapped out, and I… well, when I have an idea, I get about as far as thinking, “maybe it’d be cool if this thing happened and there was a guy with a thing like that” and then I start writing. She’s analyzing possibilities and eventualities and the implications of interactions between these two characters and the symbolism of this character’s color scheme and I’m wondering if in my story one of the characters can get away with another fart joke.
So I shared with her my particular thoughs on attempting to convey a grand message through the narrative: it feels wrong. Or, rather, it feels wrong to start there. I should further clarify that it feels wrong to start there for me. I feel as if theme, much like the all-female non-reproductive dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, will find a way. Like weeds in a garden or mildew in a bathroom, it’s always there, lurking just out of sight, waiting for you to neglect it for a scant moment so that it can spring forth fully formed. Trying, therefore, to cultivate theme makes about as much sense as trying to grow weeds (not weed, STAY WITH ME PEOPLE). Why put all that effort into something that’s going to happen anyway? Isn’t it a waste of my time trying to encourage mildew to grow when I could conceivably be building entirely new bathrooms?
But then I take a moment and I wonder what my story is all about. I mean what it’s about. You know, the big about, the one that seems super-important after four or five whiskey sours and you’ve just gotten finished talking about how every speck of dust in the universe is connected to every other speck and THAT’S why the government puts those chemicals in the water, man, to keep us from being absorbed by the cosmic ether, even though that’s obviously the next stage in human evolution. You know, what my story’s ABOUT, man. And it’s about sticktoitiveness, it’s about determination and the will to overcome, it’s about magical typewriters and Greek gods and mobsters. It’s about believing in yourself and accomplishing anything, as George McFly once put it. Isn’t it?
I mean, that message is there, certainly. It’s a part of the story like bones are part of a person. It’ll shine through when the editing and the rewriting and the rebuilding are done. Right?
But what if it doesn’t? What if, like the tin man, I forgot to build the heart into this thing, and I’m trying to bring it forth into the world to rust and wander aimlessly following the whims of some tart from Kansas? Rome wasn’t built in a day. You can’t build a house without a blueprint unless you don’t much care about trifles like structural integrity or roofs that don’t leak or, you know, functional plumbing (there’s a joke in there somewhere about how my story is total unredeemable sharknado, but I won’t be the guy to make it). I’m counting on the theme to spring forth like flowers after a spring rain, but I’ve salted the earth with my failure to plan ahead. To nutshell all this, I suddenly feel a bit silly about professing any sort of “expert-ness” about any of this writing business.
At any rate, I dispensed all this “advice” to her. Put thoughts of theme aside for now; focus on making the story compelling first and let the theme follow after. Upon further review, I wonder if I sound like that guy at the party wearing the bellbottoms and insisting that they’re coming back into style. What, after all, do I know about any of this except that I’m having a heck of a lot of fun giving myself headaches and tearing my hair out over whether this story is ever going to actually work.
So, I’m really asking. Where does theme come from? Will it bubble to the surface like a bath fart or does it have to be coaxed out of the darkness like a feral kitten? Do you have to plan for it for a theme to resonate or does it just happen like water spots on your wineglasses? What, in short, makes theme work?