Monday, December 16, 2013
Know Your Theme
When I was a student Ron Carlson came and gave a lecture and I got to go to a question and answer gig afterwards. As he was answering questions, he talked about how a lot of MFA students are super worried about not being too didactic or obvious about their message. They focus on being subtle. But he said something that surprised me. He said to throw subtlety out the window.
It hasn't been till more recently, though, that I've begun to understand a little what he's talking about, and how it applies.
See, I am definitely one of those writers who is hyper-concerned about being too obvious with their message. I love it when the text is rich enough to provide multiple meanings and solutions, and lends itself to deep analysis. Even more than that, I hate it when books or movies get into, like, children's talk show host mode and almost sound like, "And from this story, children, we learn that..." Or when a show (*ahem* Glee *ahem*) starts pushing their own agenda so hard you just feel like you're getting stuff shoved down your throat whether or not you agree with them.
So yeah, I don't like didactic or agenda-pushing stories. I like it when a story is ambiguous enough that I can sort of glean my own meaning from it. However, I've gotten feedback on a few things where people have told me that they're not sure what I'm trying to say, or what they're supposed to take from the story. I tell them, "I'm not trying to say anything, I want the reader to be able to take their own meaning."
And I think that's the problem. The point of writing is to say something, something important, something so important to you that you want to shout it to the world. I've realized, I feel that way about everything I write but sometimes I'm so scared of offending people or not connecting with people that I end up becoming too vague and obtuse and not connecting with anyone. I've had readers tell me to just come out and say what I want to say, that a reader really does need to know where the author is coming from. It's better to have a reader disagree with you than not know what you're trying to say in the first place.
I think the key is how you handle it. We are all writers because there is something we want the world to understand. We have a theme, a message, in each of our stories and we have to own it. We just need to be very, very aware of how complex issues and people are, and aware of the people who disagree with us and why they disagree with us, and acknowledge it with understanding and compassion. As long as you don't portray your theme in the light of everyone who disagrees with me in the slightest is a stupid, naive, misinformed, backward and brainwashed idiot (again, are you listening Glee?), you should be fine :)
Example time. Have you all seen Captain Phillips, the latest Tom Hanks movie? So, with a theme you have to make a statement, say that something is good and something else is bad, right? And do that with compassion and understanding and acknowledgement of complexity. Captain Phillips does this brilliantly. Yes, its a battle of sea-men versus pirates, but this movie acknowledges the humanity of the pirates, and the really complicated and hard things they themselves are dealing with. It acknowledges complexity and lets you leave the theater with much more than just, "pirates are scary and bad, huh?" It makes you think. And besides, its just a really gripping story and Tom Hanks is freaking genius, obviously.
Because being heard, getting our message out, that's why writing is important. The world is a better place when all our voices are heard, which is why we became writers. And if we can speak with strength and determination as well as understanding and compassion, the complex people on all sides of complicated issues can benefit.
Do you agree? Have you read books/seen movies where the theme is either too vague or too exclusive?