Wednesday, November 22, 2006

What's Your Theme?

Glenda asked an interesting question the other day about whether writers always know the theme of their novel. She says that she writes with a conscious awareness of theme, but was quite amazed when a fellow writer pointed out to her that:
... that there was one all important theme that runs through all my published books that I hadn’t even noticed, and yet is central to them all. When I thought about it, it was so obvious I felt a fool for not recognising that it was there. Duh. I mean, how stupid can you get?
Some time ago I came across a very interesting piece called The Three Abouts on Caro Clarke's writing website which is well worth chewing over. (As are the other excellent writing articles Clarke has archived here.)

Clarke says:
There are three "abouts" to every story. The writer has to know the first one, has to learn the second, and has to accept the third.
The first about is the obvious "log-line" of the story which you know before you begin. The second about only emerges as you rework and rework you piece, and is gradually pulled into focus. and the third about is the about the readers of the book see there, and it may well take you completely by surprise:
It is not the writer's business to decide what the theme, the third great 'about', of his book is. That is the readers' job. The writer has to choose the log line and then be adventurous and brave enough to accept what his story is telling him. The theme lies like a vein of gold within the story, formed by the pressures and fantasies weaving in the writer's brain, it lies waiting to be found. The theme is where the reader creates the writer.
I remember Anthony Burgess writing in his autobiography (but cannot find the exact reference and am being driven mad looking for it!) that one day while he was a visiting lecturer at a US university, he stood outside the hall doors and listened in on a lecture about one of his novels - and was astonished that the lecturer revealed things about the book which had not occurred to him while writing it - although what he said struck Burgess as quite true.

It's nice, isn't it, to ponder the reader's role in making meaning?


sympozium said...

Oh I remember the Burgess bit as well! It's in the 2nd volume of his auobiography...

bibliobibuli said...

i think so but be damned if i can find it (i spent hours!!!)

Janet Tay said...

Hi Sharon,
This is a really interesting issue you've raised as I've often wondered myself whether writers have a theme in their heads when they start a novel. I think from a practical point of view, one should, in order to keep a consistency throughout the novel.If I remember correctly, Jeanette Winterson once said that people like pattern, i.e. recurring themes/ideas. It seems rather mechanical to write with with a conscious theme though, to me anyway, but I guess it's naive to think that good writers don't plan their work. But there is a silly romantic part of me that likes to think people write when possessed by the Muse and therefore any themes that occur are solely from the subconscious! ;) Good example of solid theme - Disgrace by JM Coetzee.
Oh, also Jeanette I think chooses her titles first so that might help in keeping themes consistent.

Jordan said...

A similar thing happened to me after writing a couple of short stories, thinking of ideas for a couple more, and mulling over a novel that I've been 'writing' in my head for a few years now. I realised my stories tend to be about redemption, particularly with regards to families---fathers and sons, to be more specific. That last point is important because I spent nine years estranged from my father, a difficult period that only ended when I swallowed my pride and showed up at his doorstep. Still, for a long time, and for some reason, I really wasn't completely aware that all of that was having such an effect on my writing.

madcap machinist said...

Here's soundbite from Ralph Waldo Emerson: there is creative reading as well as creative writing.

But we know that already of course :)