Look first to theme

“I have no idea what this means, but I love it,” Chuck said about Julie’s phrase “the everlasting sting” of illegal drugs she’d taken at 14. There were murmurs of approval in the room.

“Yes,” I said, “it works.”

“But why does it work?” asked Julie herself, now all of 19, her misspent youth behind her.

We’d been in class almost two hours, workshopping for almost an hour, and I was tired. I couldn’t answer her fair question. She’d broken a basic writing rule: explain such jargon or avoid it.

Driving home, I did what I’m always telling students to do: look first to theme. What’s the work truly about, its focus, its deeper meaning? Her close call in the drug culture formed the narrative, but Julie’s essay was really about change, how some people grow and others get stuck.

Tom Wolfe seldom explained the wilder language he used in his hyperkinetic new journalism. But he did when it mattered: understanding the insider phrase “the right stuff” was central to the theme of his book of the same name on how macho pilots shaped the space program.

In both Wolfe’s and Julie’s work, Hemingway’s iceberg theory applies: the iceberg owes its dignity to the fact that nine tenths is below the surface; if a writer leaves out something s/he knows, readers sense the depth. The question is always what’s necessary to move the story and achieve the desired effect. Less can be more.

The writing process is rather mysterious, but craft can usually help explain the result. Look first to theme.


Filed under MY LIFE, teaching, education, theme, workshopping

2 responses to “Look first to theme

  1. Richard, it’s interesting that your brief post reflects the ‘theme’ here – less is more! Your writing is great because it simultaneously makes no assumptions about your readers while allowing them to explore on their own the subject at hand. You need to get Feedburner going so I can subscribe …

  2. Dinty

    I dislike the word theme, as you know. But I like this insight: “was really about change, how some people grow and others get stuck.”

    The more that I teach, the more I value finding the “other thing,” below the surface, that an essay is trying to address.