Exorcise Your Themes

In Business of Writing, Craft on July 30, 2009 at 4:39 pm

The_Buried_Sun_by_Mr_StampYou can’t let go.  You have not taken control. Just admit it. There is at least one, but likely several themes you simply have not exorcised from your writing that trip you up. If not a theme, I’ll bet it’s a character, an image or a setting that you can’t shake. Though I’m a fiction writer, I am sure this applies to non-fiction writers and poets too.  

“Every artist is undoubtedly pursuing his truth. If he is a great artist, each work brings him nearer to it, or at least, swings still closer toward this center, this buried sun where everything must one day burn.”

 While I’m in agreement with Albert Camus’ point above, I’m pretty sure that mediocre and just plain good artists are also swinging closer to this center of truth in themselves in their thematic repetitions. In editing clients who’ve been patient enough to work with me repeatedly, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in the work of favorite authors–bestsellers (Jodi Picoult) and underground favorites (G.K. Chesterton ) alike. And, of course, it turns up in my own work.

WhenI worked with the intrepid Alice Mattison my final semester at Bennington, I was shocked by my own denial regarding my recurring themes.

My writing was theme-heavy, emphasizing stories of frustrated parents and their angry children who seemed to be waiting for cues on how to behave differently, which I continually failed to provide.

In a letter Alice wrote to me:

 “There’s nothing wrong with writing about one subject, and after I read two or three [of your stories] I thought, “Well, she can give the book the title “Bad Mothers”…Most of these mothers are unrelieved: they aren’t complex, they are just awful. I don’t mind that sort of horrible character in general—I don’t think every single character needs to be complex—but so many bad characters…with no good traits…of the same category makes the work add up to a scream of rage about mothers…”

Believe it or not, my first reaction to this was not to fall apart in tears. I laughed. Hard and long. She was so right! And she was kind enough not to point out all the Absent Fathers who quietly slipped out of scenes, giving the Bad Mothers center stage.

 She went on to write,

 “What you need is for your reader to be able to take each story on its own terms instead of being so struck by the pervasiveness of the bad mothers that they become a theme instead of just being part of the subject matter.”

In order for the writer to get to the place where she can construct stories that stand on their own terms, a lot of close scrutiny at our work is necessary, to discover what repeats. There’s is powerful energy in that which keeps trying to get through, but that energy can either trip us or transform our work. 

These mothers and fathers of mine have been unfairly under-used. It turns out that they have feelings too, and quirks and longings and unfulfilled desires worthy of exploration. Now they’re just road signs pointing, “Go deeper here. Don’t give up there.”

What themes keep coming back to you? How do they help your work? How do they trip you up?  If you’re an artist of another kind besides writer, I pose the same question to you!

Give yourself an assignment to attempt to change some of your themes!

  1. As always, you have great insights.


  2. This blog is uncanny timing for me. I have been wrestling with this very topic in preparing to write the novel. That bath I mentioned a few days ago? I had an ‘aha’ moment regarding the elusive theme…so ‘aha’ that I am actually being superstitious about it and refusing to describe it in any detail until the novel is written. I had a teacher say a similiar thing to me years ago about needing a write a ‘theme’ out of my system. It was also about crazy mothers and *ahem* absent fathers. Who’d a figured?

    • Alegra–I KNEW we had more in common 🙂 My attitude isn’t that we must get rid of our themes, which might just be impossible, but that we shake them up–freshen them up, if you will. Maybe turn them on their heads. i’m trying to write Bad fathers and absent mothers for a little while but not having the easiest time of it. Maybe some day we can do a novel trade? I’m about halfway through a draft of something I love but don’t have enough time to give to it.


  3. I would love to do a novel trade! And, I would love to swap stories in general, I am sure it would end up in a lot of laughter. I’m actually attempting to do just that, to shake up those old themes and tell them in a peripheral way instead of head on with this novel. It is has been a ‘down the rabbit hole’ kind of a journey, but isn’t that how it should be? ;o)

  4. Well, apparently I am lacking in originality here because I too seem to have the recurring theme of “bad mothers” and “absent fathers”.

    I am, at this very moment, in the midst of exorcising this theme out of my system, hopefully in the most therapeutic of ways. I’m working on my novel as well, which is basically a big ‘what if’ scenario for my recurring theme.

    In one of my favorite books on writing, Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg, talks about “going home” and mentions how Walt Whitman returned to his hometown often after he left. I think that is what those recurring themes are: going “home”, back to that place that those themes stem from. It’s like finally getting that closure we all seek at one time or another, for whatever reason.

    I am glad I am a writer in that respect. I can’t think of any other way I’d want to go back “home”, than to do it through writing.

    • Yes, Kemari…it is going “home.” I think that’s what Camus was getting at, too. That “buried sun” inside of us all is home–home is where the truth lives or some such drivel 🙂

      I’m glad you’re a writer, too!

  5. Very thought provoking. I don’t know that I can put my finger on a theme in my writing right off the top of my head. Or maybe that’s just one abyss I’m not willing to stare over the edge at.


  6. Talk about hitting the nail on the head! I sometimes get so stuck on one theme, and then it’s all that I can think about. I mean it’s hard to just leave it and branch off onto something else, since it’ll still nag me in the back of my mind. For now I’m taking a little break to clear my head and just browsing through for some very-much-needed literary inspiration!

  7. Hmm….Not bad.Camus would have been proud of you.

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