The Writing Life

…a literary journey

Twist of Theme


As I turn the pages each month in my writer magazines I receive, I’m always dumbfounded by the number of advertisements for MFA programs. There are days I dream of taking such a step, but I always pull myself back into the stark honesty that I am really not a great candidate for such a program.

While I love doing my own studies (books, podcasts, writer blogs etc…), I think an in-depth program like the MFA would end up leaving me cold to writing. I have enough problems when I try to read like a writer – it takes out much of the enjoyment for me. I really don’t want to study each line of a novel I’m reading to see how they did this or that; it turns me into a student of the writer instead of a lover of the story.

I’m not totally immune though; I do appreciate metaphors and similes more now that I know how difficult they are to seamlessly insert, and I quickly recognize the annoyance if a writer changes POV mid-scene.

I could not be part of a book club for the same reason. There’s something in me that does not want to tear down a book to a base level with others to come to what we all think “it means.” I know this has to be a character flaw – but it takes all kinds I guess :). I just can’t imagine having to lose the organic feel of writing or reading in order to deconstruct things like character development, plot or today’s post topic – theme – in an ongoing classroom setting. (I probably though would have participated in the MFA program of old – smoking and drinking along with Stein, Joyce, Miller, Pound and the rest of the first wave of Paris expats!)

I’m often asked what the theme of my work in progress is. I’m guessing that many writers must start with a theme, and then write around it. It was really only after I was asked that question the last time that I started giving it more consideration. I mean, I know the story I’m writing; I know my characters and what changes they will go through – but theme? Such a BIG word! So much importance seems to be placed on it, that I started wondering did I know my theme?? I had learned much about themes in my college days, but was I giving it the proper regard in my own work?

After looking online at several sites that list anywhere from 10 to 100 of the common literature themes, I realized that my theme was right there on the list along with: “Man struggles against X” (where you can insert things like nature, society, inhumanity etc…), “Sacrifice brings Reward”, “Everlasting Love”, “Chaos versus Order”, and SO many others. It was there all along, without me even naming it out loud.

Coming-of-Age.

With a twist.

Twists are good.

My novel, Oldsters, is a coming-of-age story.

A coming-of-old-age story.

Oldsters tells the story we all hope to get to tell. How we got old, and what we did once we got there.

The story was born at the end of my father’s life. When he died a couple of years ago, he was 92 years old. Born in 1918, he had seen almost every decade of the 20th century. I started to cultivate characters of different ages, all over 60. I know we’re a society that thrives on youth, but actually the best stuff out there is in the minds of those who have lived many years. Their lives have seen love, loss of love, substantial political and societal changes, pop culture invented and reinvented so many times – to me, they are the interesting ones and no better material for a book.

So now, if you ask me what my theme is, I’ll give you a satisfied smile and say, “It’s a coming of age story. Coming of old age.”

PS: If you’re an MFA student or graduate, I applaud you – you are brave and courageous. My opinions are just in relation to myself, and I have mad respect for all writers no matter their experience or process!

write on…

2 comments on “Twist of Theme

  1. iamvickiroberts
    April 7, 2014

    Tristan, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m reading Anna Karenina here and there on my iPhone, but it’s not at all as difficult as people have made it out to be…just a story of how love makes us do desperate things told with a deft hand.

  2. Tristan
    April 7, 2014

    I think you’ve sussed out the theme at just about the right point. I believe that theme is something you figure out as you craft the story, usually somewhere late in the initial draft. I think that if you devote yourself to a specific theme at the outset it can hamper your creativity; better to let your story unfold the way it wants until it has enough legs of its own to stand on and then see if a recognizable theme has emerged, as often happens naturally. And it looks like that’s exactly what happened with your story.

    I also agree with you about the MFA. I’m sure it’s a beneficial degree, and I also admire those who’ve put forth the time and effort to earn one. But in and of itself, such a degree has little impact on one’s writing, in my view. Too many degree-holders remain unpublished while those without that degree do become published and to commercial success and critical acclaim.

    Besides, in my experience, the best stories, those most worthy of being emulated, tend to resist such in-depth analysis. When a story is so well-crafted that every phrase draws you in, that makes it all the more difficult to deconstruct it, almost as if the work were imbued with its own self-defense mechanism. When I encounter that, I have a deep-seated urge to just leave it alone and respect the work for what it is. Jane Eyre comes to mind as an example.

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This entry was posted on April 6, 2014 by in Oldsters and tagged , , , , , , , .
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