In writing, to find a story’s theme, I think it is helpful to equate the finding of theme to the work of a carpenter.

The first draft is the gathering, buying, crafting of the individual parts. The subsequent drafts serve to organize and assemble the piece. You tinker a bit here, tailor there, flip entire sections around, and re-cut or refashion some parts. Then, once that shape is compl…ete (this could be the third or tenth or seventieth draft), you hone your story.

In the honing you sand out rough spots (remember, the rougher the sandpaper the better here) and cut or chisel into the wood decorations and designs: grooves, symbols, lines. This last part is the glory of writing. It is here, I find my theme. I would not say the theme is the glue that binds the story together. Rather, let me suppose that it is actually craft that truly binds a story.

Theme, i argue, is the way the story feels when you sit in it. The specific curve of the chair’s arm that supports the reader’s leaning frame. Theme is outward, seen, and rejoiced over. A house can have a theme, a party can have a theme, so also can a story. But unlike a themed house or party, the story’s theme comes from the work. It is engrained in the fabric of the wood. The substance of it speaks to the creator what it needs to be, and what needs to be revealed. It is this speaking that determines the writer’s sand-strokes, that chooses his color of stain. Here he sands and oils or perhaps sands only just, purposing the piece for its eventual place: the porch, the dining room, the study, the child’s play room.

The style of the work is somewhat separate from the theme, but both do work in tandem. Style demarcates the method, biases, and flavor of the writing, in much the same way carpenters favor certain woods or brands of tools or the topics/items he prefers to construct. Style affects the shape, but style addresses the manner the artist approaches his work. Theme is the feel, the specifics, the way the wood is sanded, the chisel marks in the symbols, the amount of sanding upon the armrest, the lean of the chair, and the modifications to the original design. Theme is subtly constructed with supple, simple, stylized strokes. And when you find it. I hope you will recognize it. But, perhaps you won’t. It is a deep thing, an impression on and pressing by the soul upon a work for the purpose of self-healing, pleasure, or discovery. If you can’t identify it, rest in the story, lean back, let your hands rub the work’s curves, let your fingertips brush the grain, and if there is a sense of “Ah,” a releasing of the breath, and feeling of rightness – then don’t worry about finding your theme, for theme has found you.

%d bloggers like this: