For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Discovering our Themes

'Theme is not the same as plot. It is a broader term. The theme illustrates whatever universal idea the story puts forward, while plot has to do, instead with the literal events that occur in the characters lives'.
Laurie Henry, Fiction Dictionary

I've been trying to understand the themes I'll be working with in this new novel, tentatively titled Between Worlds. Theme is a fundamental part of story. In a sense it's the central idea, a point the writer wishes to make. It generally explores human nature in some way, perhaps the relationship between mothers and daughters or between humanity and nature. Perhaps the legacy of injustice or the power of forgiveness. Sometimes moral statements, proverbs such as 'crime does not pay' or 'honesty is the best policy'.  And often dualistic elements such as good versus evil or madness versus sanity. With theme we search the depths of our stories, exploring the endless shades of grey between the black and whites of life.

Theme helps to give a story a satisfying shape, depth and purpose. It communicates a kind of truth about the way human beings act and think or feel, in a way that is sometimes universal, reaching beyond difference to what is essential within all of us. Of course, theme is closely linked to human emotion, and the themes we choose, either consciously or unconsciously, are generally linked to issues or passions within our own lives. If we distinguish (as I do) between factual and emotional truths, then it is theme that sometimes makes a work of fiction more 'true' than a memoir (more on this in a future post).   

Often a theme is only found in retrospect, when examining a completed story. Sometimes it is found during the process of writing and sometimes it can be the seed of an idea from which a story grows. When we are looking for our themes we can sometimes find them in the title of a story or in its opening pages, and nearly always in the inner journey of our main character/s. What they learn (if anything), suffer or experience is key to the theme.

In Dear Writer, Carmel Bird, speaks of the importance of writing about what we care about. This of course doesn't mean that we have to write solemn, politically correct stories. It means that we need to write about what moves us. Sometimes we need to find out what that is by asking ourselves what themes resonate with us. What makes me angry? What can't I bear? What do I love? What do I believe in? What makes me laugh? In the answers to these questions lies a novel, or in my case, two novels and the seeds of a third.
Like many writers, I explore similar themes in all my work, though there has been a clear development of these themes in my writing to date. I imagine this will continue as my writing develops and as I evolve as an individual. My novel, Gathering Storm is a work of fiction, but many of its themes are ones that are close to my own heart. Storm is haunted by the secrets and lies that fill her childhood as well as events that occurred well before her birth. In Gathering Storm, I explored identity and dislocation in a personal sense, through family history and genetic inheritance, but also from a broader cultural perspective, in relation to nationhood and citizenship. Gathering Storm is very much about place and belonging. It also explores the nature of truth, the power of lies and the damage they leave in their wake. But probably, most importantly, it's about identifying and breaking free of negative patterns by turning around and facing the monsters in ones life and taking the journey from anger to forgiveness and compassion.

Flight, is also about belonging and identity and like Gathering Storm, it documents the journey to become oneself and live ones life in relation to that, instead of through the wounds that can be inherited from ones ancestors, from ones culture, and created through the experience of living. In it, I again set out to explore memory in a personal way:  pre-verbal memory, as well as those memories which remain hidden in the unconscious. But this time I have taken it even further, venturing into the realms of mysticism by exploring the idea of carrying memory from past lives, wounds that inhabit the deepest parts of ourselves and cause us to shut down. Two stories are woven through this novel, the title itself reflecting a double meaning, one of running away from something, the other of ascension. The outer journey is the one described in the synopsis and a metaphor for the inner journey towards self and the healing of old wounds.

In many ways Flight is about innocence, exploring the archetype of the victim. In contrast, Between Worlds will be about guilt, about facing the monstrous within oneself. It will be at once a metaphysical thriller and a celebration of the magic of everyday living. And its developing themes will once again reflect my own, sometimes hazardous journey through life.

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