Hamline University MFA Program
St. Paul, Minnesota
Speech on Theme
July 16, 2010
Good afternoon, and thank you for welcoming me so warmly to your cozy family! I’m delighted to be with you, to be able to share some time together, and – this afternoon – to talk about – THEME.
I’m conscious of the fact that what I say about writing is being shared with fellow travelers, many of whom are much further down the writing – and living – road than I am. I may be older than most in the room, actually, but one does not need to have lived long years to have lived an experienced life, and to have gained wisdom. So I salute you! I come to learn.
I have an old Bible given to me by a friend in our senior year of high school at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. I wasn’t particularly religious, but she was. I was into being deep and erudite that year :>. I collected quotes. Inside the front cover of that King James Version, I wrote a sentence credited to Socrates:
The unexamined life is not worth living.
It was 1971 and I was 17 years old when I wrote those words. I was full of ardor and idealism, the privileged daughter of a vainglorious Air Force colonel; a young girl who was heading back to the States for college, who had no idea that within a year she would be married to a boy she didn’t know and would have a baby girl. Another baby would follow quickly, along with shame, embarrassment, and abandonment by her family, the boy she married, and the society that declared her an unwanted statistic.
It would be many years of statistical living before I could dare give myself permission to rekindle the idea that I had a life worth living, and to envision a way to give that life expression.
For many years, once my life settled in Frederick, Maryland, my creative juices flowed into raising children – four in all – nurturing a second, challenging marriage, and creating a somewhat chaotic home life that, at its best, offered a haven for the wildly-different personalities that peopled the house we lived in for 25 years.
The idea that I could be a writer, that I had something of value to say, came to me slowly, but it would not be denied. As the children grew and as I read to them, I said, I want to do this. How can I do this? And what do I have to write about?
Now, many years later, years that included teaching myself how to write, writing for free until I had enough clips to take to a paying publication, writing for magazines and newspapers for years, discovering children’s books, getting someone in publishing to pay attention to me as, for ten years, I sent them manuscript after rejected manuscript, selling my first books, living through a second divorce that I thought would kill me – and publishing four novels, two picture books, with books waiting in the wings, and a brand-new, loving marriage inviting me into the rest of my life… I received an invitation from Mary Rockcastle to come speak to you about theme.
And this excited me! Because one thing I would very much like to learn about…. is THEME. !!
When Mary contacted me, I thought, O, sure, I can talk about theme, I’m all over theme, I know exactly what theme is, I write about the same themes over and over!
Family, Kinship, Connection… and their cousins, grief, loss, sacrifice, redemption, joy
But when I sat down to put words to paper, I got stuck. I went back to Mary’s email, and I saw that there would be a faculty lecture on theme – I wished fervently to have those notes in advance! – and a panel on theme – could I make it to the panel before my talk? and a breakout! on theme – oh-my, what in the wide world could I possibly add to all this?
So I began to panic: What IS theme? How does one define it? I went back to my email from Mary once again. And I read:
We’re looking at vision/theme in July. Or, as our faculty say, the “aboutness” of the story.Lisa thought you’d be a particularly good choice to talk about this. :>
But I did notice that word “aboutness.” I can talk about aboutness. I’m all over aboutness, as a matter of fact, dahlings. Aboutness and me – we’re like this. [crossed fingers]
So I want to thank Lisa Jahn-Clough — and Liza Ketchum, Jackie Martin and other good friends — for suggesting me to the good folks at Hamline as someone who would be good to talk about THEME….
until my invitation arrived to speak here,
until I started to put words to paper,
not only did I not know what theme WAS,
I began to worry that perhaps my books HAD no theme,
that perhaps I had neglected to put a theme IN them!
So that’s been the problem!
So I went to my husband, my new husband Jim, and I asked him: “Love of my life, what is theme?” And Jim, who is an avid reader and an egghead as well as a killer piano player, said,
It’s the one thing you carry away from the book.
What does that mean? I asked.
It’s something universal, he said. Then he started asking questions:
I wonder, do authors revisit the same themes over and over?
is theme like the unstated understory?
do you mean the obvious narrative line of the story, or something underneath that? say, deep structures vs surface structures.
does a particular author have particular themes in her work,
or does the work itself suggest the theme?
Then he ended with, “You could spend years on this speech!”
I had three weeks.
And in the past three weeks, I’ve decided that what I want to tell you about is a personal journey to aboutness.
Aboutness is ‘about’ examination. If the unexamined life is not worth living, then the examined life reveals what it’s all about…….. Alfie. :>
For a long, long time, I knew I wanted to write, but I didn’t know what I had to write ABOUT. It was more of an urge than a possibility. Has this happened to any of you? Yes? Yes.
So … aboutness. Let’s talk about aboutness. Let’s lay a framework for it.
As human creatures, we are in a constant state of discovery and rediscovery, which – if we are lucky – creates a curiosity and a thirst for knowledge that lasts all our lives. This discovery/rediscovery takes place in each individual, and also on a larger scale, in families, communities, nations, and society as a whole in different degrees and intensities.
It’s evolution – you can see it throughout history. An individual’s evolution is reflected in society, and vice versa.
Literature chronicles that evolution.
Today’s novel would not have been possible in the 1700s for many reasons; one of them is because people’s understandings have changed, and deepened.
But some things do not change. There are fundamental human necessities that are universal. Shelter. Food. Reproduction. Survival wasn’t easy before there was a surplus of food or people – before there was community. (and of course, even today this is a problem.)
There weren’t as many people, there weren’t systems in place, and when those things did exist and when a relative ease was felt, human beings were capable of expanding their thinking – it was possible to have people in a community that didn’t have to spend all their time thinking about survival.
Then came diversification – of tasks, of responsibilities – to take care of the needs of the society. There were holy people, there were kings, there were fishermen, weapon makers, fire keepers, potters, people to make make things — useful objects, including the cloth to make clothes. People to tend things – animals, children, crops. As society grew, so did the mind. And vice-versa. Thinking grew – there would be another season like the last one, in a year’s time. There were landmarks – the moon, the stars, the tides. Language grew, and along with it, stories. Suddenly there were people who held the stories – painted on cave walls, created the myths, sang the songs, told the fables, and handed them down.
I am being simplistic here; I am trying only to make the point that, over time,
Societies became more complex. This created new tensions and new problems. And it also opened up space for new possibilties, such as Religion. Medicine. Science. Literature. Dance. Prayer. Lady Gaga! — just checking. :>
In his book How to Write, Richard Rhodes say “Story is the primary vehicle human beings use to structure knowledge and experience.” I love that. Let me repeat it.
A novel is the story of an ego, the journey of a separate self. In order for story of any kind to exist, there had to be a certain level of self-awareness and a certain kind of experience in the world, of the world, with the world, and with one another.
This self-awareness was helped along and encouraged in the 17th & 18th centuries. During the Age of Reason, rationality became widespread and replaced superstition as an organizing principle. During the Age of Enlightenment, there was an explosion of everything! In all fields! including the rationale and the understanding of the human mind and its motivations and workings, which brought about an examination of the self.
The unexamined life is not worth living. The philosopher Socrates knew this in 400 B.C. He died, in part, because people could not accept his post-conventional thinking. He rejected the myths that kept people safe and orderly. He encouraged rational thinking.
The modern science of psychology – of which I have availed myself on many occasions! SUCH AS IT IS :> — did not exist until a certain point in time, then along came the pundits and pretenders, the seers and the saints, and a refining of our basic human needs – a universal developmental hierarchy of needs.
There are many proposed hierarchies. I work with Abraham Maslow’s. Maslow is considered the founder of humanistic psychology – he brought a new face to the study of human behavior. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs covers all the bases – the body, the mind, the heart, the spirit… or the physical, mental, emotional, psychic parts of ourselves.. here they are:
To love and be loved.
To be safe.
To achieve – or, to have purpose.. to matter –
All five of these basic human needs need to be satisfied – externally and internally AND THIS IS IMPORTANT — internally and externally — in order for a human being to become self-actualized… to become whole and fulfilled and able to give to another human being the benefit of his or her hard-won wisdom… to be able to let go of his own ego enough to take on the role of the other – to sympathize. To empathize. To sacrifice. And care. And love.
These needs fluctuate and change as we grow and become. And they are at the heart of the most excellent literature. They are what every story worth its salt is about.
These needs are the aboutness – about which I write. They are the themes to every story I write, and the theme to every story I love and hold dear to me that is written by someone else.
So – again — let’s look at ABOUTNESS.
The writer’s task is to communicate on common ground with the reader. As a reader, the particulars of your life experience may be different from the details of any story you read, but the general underlying truths behind the story will be the connection you seek when you immerse yourself in another world. This holds true for picture books, novels, non-fiction, memoir – all stories.
Listen to this again because it’s important – “the writer’s task is to communicate on common ground with the reader.” But what does that mean? How do you DO that?
Let’s talk a little bit about what we have in common. I want to show you a little bit about my own life, and how my own stories came to be, and I want you to make notes as I do, whenever you make a connection with me. I’ll guide you through this, and I don’t want you to think too much or too hard about it, I just want you to sort of free associate (even though I hate that term) and let your mind open, your heart relax, and your pencil doodle on the page.
Your job here is to capture whatever comes. Just capture. Don’t worry about what it means or what to do with it next. Be messy, if you want to be – or be real neat! As much or as little, big or small, draw, doodle, get comfortable, but not too comfortable. This will go fast; the more you can give yourself over to it, the more connections you will make not only with me, but with your own heart, and your own story.
If you like, dedicate a page to those five basic needs, and put them across the top of your paper – make five columns – and see what happens.
NOTES FOR DEB:
I wrote FS because I wanted to explore justice.
I wrote Love, Ruby Lavender, because I wanted to remember those days growing up in Mississippi that had been so precious to me – I had no idea that I would tap into grief and loss as I wrote this book. It was a process of revision, with Liz Van Doren pushing me to find out why Ruby and Melba wouldn’t talk to one another, and why they disliked each other so much. I don’t know, I told Liz. You need to find out, she said. And, as I stuck with that story…
I wrote ELBTS because my 23-year-old marriage had fallen apart suddenly, without warning, and I was bereft. Then I turned fifity. Then both my parents died, within three months of each other. The divorce was final. I had to move. The youngest of four children graduated high school and went off to college. The dog died. I gave expression to my grief by writing Little Bird.
To me, the theme of that book touches on all five of those basic human needs, as they all came into question for me.
I wrote Countdown because I wanted to call back to me the family I grew up in, before it got too complicated and messy, and before we began to fall apart. It was a time in the world that felt crazy, but I was safe at home.
I don’t think about theme when I write. But I learned what it was, by reading.
As I talk, keep listing – whenever you make a connection!
As a kid, I read though my father’s vast library of books. I remember my shattering as I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, my terror of Dracula, — and my complete bewilderment of The Mill on the Floss.
In high school I read “the great literature.” Romeo and Juliet (I WAS Juliet!) and Great Expectations, and even Heart of Darkness (a novel I found absolutely obtuse in every way, in my senior year of high school). :>
I had learned to read, yes. I had learned to read as a reader, too – for enjoyment. But I had not yet learned how to read like a consumer. A consumer – a human who consumes literature – reads also, whether consciously or subconsciously, for understanding. For connection. For enlightenment, even. To satisfy those basic human needs. And – remember — as I entered my young adult life, I dropped out of sight for literally years, while I attended to those very basic of human needs: shelter. food. Every day.
College was out of the question, but the library was free. I scoured the non-fiction shelves and learned how to nurse a colicky baby, plant a garden, roast a chicken, fix a toilet, and more. You non-fiction writers: these books saved my life!
It would be years before I had the spaciousness in my life to come back to regularly reading for pleasure. When I did come back to fiction, it was through the Book-of-the-Month Club and a little book they wrote and published called:
The Well-Stocked Bookcase: Sixty Enduring Novels by Americans Published Between 1926-1986.
This is from the introduction to The Well Stocked Bookcase: “For the lover of fiction, those novels you first read with delight – the conviction that YES, this is what life is really like – never lose their special hold.”
I was about to finish my college education.
I was 33 years old, and I knew I wanted to be a writer. I had had some success freelancing, after reading through the 800 section in the library and teaching myself how to write an essay, but I was about to find out that I didn’t know how to understand literature. Sometimes, I didn’t even understand what I was reading.
Look Homeward, Angel was on the list. I was mightily heartened to see that Heart of Darkness was NOT. :>
Delta Wedding was on the list. Gloria Naylor describes it beautifully in this little book and writes, “…the novel explores a continuing Welty theme – the strengths and weaknesses of Southern family ties.” Really? Well, yes, that’s in the book, but is that a theme? Is it the only theme? Can I differ with it? I can – and maybe will.
When I think about my new husband (my new husband!) Jim’s explanation of theme, “the one thing you carry away from the book,” I have to say I disagree with Gloria Naylor. It wasn’t the strengths and weaknesses of southern family ties that stood out for me, it was the love that surrounds even the decay of a way of life, and the knowledge – the understanding – Ellen gives it to us – that all of life is fleeting. How wonderful it is to belong. How safe it feels. How much it matters. I was sure Eudora Welty kept herself firmly anchored here and the novel revealed itself to her as she wrote.
So I had questions.
From Delta Wedding (which remains, along with Deliverance, my favorite novel of all time), I moved on to From Here to Eternity – loved it, but A Farewell to Arms? I had no context.
Gone With the Wind – I had never read it – but, oh, honeychild, what a romp! Miss Scarlett? Me. :> (extemp)
The Grapes of Wrath – I cried… this is perhaps the first piece of great literature I read wherein I recognized the writing as exquisite… and I believe I recognized it as such because I was reading and reading the great literature and it was beginning to seep in. I realized for the first time that writing COULD be exquisite, that it involved choice, and I wanted this choice.
The Catcher in the Rye – I had no idea what I was reading.
A Farewell to Arms – I had no context
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter? No idea what that was about. From the description in the little book: “… depicts the loneliness of the human heart and the societal indifference and hypocrisy that deepen it.” what does that mean?
Nickel Mountain by John Gardner – I just could not keep going.
Other Voices, Other Rooms: I was confused – so confused – but I could not tear myself away from Capote’s prose.
Rabbit Run – it felt totally foreign to me. oh, I had led a sheltered childhood!!
Song of Solomon about did me in – and I adored it. Tender is the Night, The Sun Also Rises,– didn’t get ‘em. Conrad Richter’s wonderful Awakening Land trilogy The Trees, The Fields, The Town, — they changed my life.
What all these books had in common were that they were stories about ME: lost childhoods and disillusionment and abandonment, betrayal, guilt, sacrifice, joy in the morning!, the power of love, the amazement of forgiveness, the gift of redemption.
These authors – many of them long dead — were talking to me! Telling my story! I could see myself, on some deeper level, even though I couldn’t always understand what I was reading. But it was okay to skip stuff I didn’t understand, as long as I felt something. Right?
Faulkner was my last straw. I read The Sound and the Fury and was so confused I was sure I was stupid. But I wasn’t stupid.
I was a naïve reader, and I needed help. Who could explain to me what I longed to learn?
It was 1986. That baby I’d had as a teenager was now a teenager herself, in high school, assigned a term paper on Willa Cather’s O! Pioneers. Alisa read it and said she didn’t get it. I read it and adored it. But I could not talk with my daughter about the book’s themes or help her write her paper. Lisa’s teacher had given her study aids, and one of them was in the reference section of our public library, so there we went. And there… I discovered treasure.
Those brown volumes on the library shelves explained it all to me:
They were called Contemporary Literary Criticism – CLC
You want to know what the book’s about? What are the themes? What is the symbolism? How are characters formed and nurtured? How does she DO that? Well, joy and happy day! Here it was.
One of the most important things I did for myself as a writer was learn how to understand the deeper structures of what I was reading. Learning about the structure of story and its ABOUTNESS made all the difference when it came time to write stories myself.
When I started writing for children, I read everything I could get my hands on, especially if it was like what I wanted to write. I studied it, I tore it apart – especially picture books… those glorious stories poured out in one helping! That’s what I wanted to write!
I never once – not once – thought about theme as I studied these books and took them apart.
I had much larger fish to fry, and – although I couldn’t tell you this then, I now know that those larger fish held within their bellies the themes I would revisit over and over again.
I had been lost and now I was found. Understanding what I was reading set me free.
I began to read bodies of work – all of Cynthia Rylant, for instance, all of Katherine Paterson, and I sought out everything I could find about their process – their ABOUTNESS. I stood at a huge, clunky copy machine, dropping in my dimes, to copy Cyndi Rylant’s autobiography in Something About the Author, then I came home and read it, over and over – ABOUTNESS was in there – her themes came directly out of her life. She juxtaposed old people with young, she glorified simplicity and quietness and family love despite differences, and even guilt and redemption… belonging. Belonging was so important to her, and to her work… and I had, for so long — ALL MY LIFE! – wanted – needed to belong!
I found out how to open my heart to what I wanted to say, because I read The Great Gilly Hopkins and watched Gilly’s heart break, then watched her pick herself up and go on, reborn, reinvented.
I began to read like a writer. And I began to see what these books were about – they were all about the same thing those well-stocked bookcase books were about, and the same thing my entire life was about, and the same thing we are, all of us, about.
five basic human needs.
to love and be loved
to be safe
to achieve/do (to matter)
They are not desires. They are needs.
And since they are human needs, and because literature chronicles our evolution, these needs must exist in your stories. The best stories incorporate all of them. The Grapes of Wrath. Missing May. To Kill a Mockingbird. AND — Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. Big Mama Makes The World. Snowflake Bentley... You have a host of faculty right under your noses who are writing these kinds of books, full of ABOUTNESS.
[read from these books – I have the places marked]
Listen to the last pg of The Great Gilly Hopkins: What is the theme?
Here are the last paragraphs of Delta Wedding: What is the theme?
Here is the middle of Mr. Dog: What is the theme?
Here is the end of Honey I Love: What is the theme?
(But I love, I love a lot of things, a whole lot of things: And honey, I love you, too!)
Here is the ending of The Relatives Came: What is the theme?
I don’t think about theme when I write, because I know it will come.
I think about what my character wants. What she wants is what the story is about, and what the story is about — its ABOUTNESS — will touch on one or more of those basic human needs.
It’s that simple… and that hard.
What has helped me more than anything, both in plotting and in uncovering theme, is a Focus Sentence.
The focus sentence for Countdown is: Franny Chapman, age 11, wants more than anything in the world to have her teacher notice her, the boy across the street fall in love with her, her best friend remain her best friend, and not to be invisible at home…:> she also is afraid the world will blow up any minute, and that she will lose all that is dear to her.
My focus sentence becomes my outside story, it keeps me on track with the plot. Knowing the focus sentence and understanding my main idea allows me to work from the inside out.
For me, theme comes from the inside out. And, sometimes it TURNS me inside out. It is a fathomless mystery. It is grace. It comes on soft cat feet, like the fog, when we are faithful to our hearts and our stories.
In my work, I plumb my childhood desire to be seen, to be heard, to belong, to be safe, to matter, and my adult belief that we all matter, we all long to be heard, to be seen to be safe, to belong, and that that is where we find our common humanity, and our individual stories. Unique to us. No one else can tell these stories, in our voices.
We are charged with telling them. It is an act of grace that you are here. What is it you have to share with us? What is your deepest belief? WRITE IT DOWN.
As writers, we hold secrets and keys that we don’t even recognize until we get in touch with our own aboutness and find ways to put it on the page. Look at your lists, and listen to this poem by Cavafy:
GROWING IN SPIRIT
He who hopes to grow in spirit
will have to transcend obedience and respect.
He will hold to some laws
but he will mostly violate
both law and custom, and go beyond
the established, inadequate norm.
Sensual pleasures will have much to teach him.
He will not be afraid of the destructive act:
half the house will have to come down.
This way he will grow virtuously into wisdom
Take what you know, marry it with what you feel, and infuse it with what you can imagine. Shout your aboutness to a world that needs to hear it. Touch your deep gladness – or your deep sadness – and allow it to meet the world’s deep hunger.
For you do not just live in the world. The world lives in you. From the days of cave paintings to the world of Socrates, through the ages of Reason and Enlightenment, industrial and technical revolutions and beyond, right on into the future and worlds unknown – it’s your job to chronicle our days, to reveal our secrets, to heal our hearts.
One day I will write about those days when I was a young girl living in my car and stealing cartons of milk from the local stop ‘n’ shop so I could feed my children. One day I will write about the family that abandoned me and my children, and about how they, too, are worthy of dignity and respect. How they, too, needed to feel loved and safe, how they wrestled their demons. How we are more alike than we are different. How we are, in fact, one.
We must look beyond the flawed people and places in our lives, and beyond our own inadequacies, to realize we are beings of light and life, with great gifts and the capacity for goodness.
I am not a philosopher or a psychologist, or even a learned woman. But what I do believe is that we are each important, and I try to show that in my fiction. From the greatest to the least, we are each important. From the king to the pauper. From the priest to the sinner. From the mother to the child. Each choice, each breath, changes the world. We are connected.
So allow your story to happen. Allow your mind to open. Allow your memories to surface. Allow your heart to feel what it needs to feel. The divine play is happening around you all the time, every moment. The only limit to the revelation of your story is your willingness to turn and look.
Theme will take care of itself. It will well up from the deepest place you can touch. It’s what you’re working toward, all along, and never know it until it emerges, a glad surprise, just right.
Your story – your life – is not about you. It’s not about the editors or publishers, the gatekeepers, the readers, the critics, other writers. Your story is about US. The many are one. The world is one. That is my one true theme that encompasses and satisfies every need. That’s what it’s all about.
ABOUTNESS is the reason we are here on this planet, telling our stories, finding our way to one another. Literature exists to reveal us to ourselves, to connect us to one another, to scold us, comfort us, shame us, scare us – redeem us — to make us weep and laugh and realize, over and over again:
I AM HERE.
I DESERVE TO BE LOVED.
I MATTER. SO DO YOU.
So. What is in your heart? What is your burden? What is your joy?
What are you trying to touch?
YES, this is what life is really like.
The unexamined life is not worth living.
Or, as Frederick Buechner says it so eloquently:
“Here is the world.
Beautiful and terrible things will happen.
Don’t be afraid.”