Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Looking for Themes In All The Wrong Places


I was going to come back here and tell you all how I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had two seconds to rub together, let alone time to blog, but you know what? You all are smart cookies. I bet you figured that out on your own. Plus? It is fairly boring to talk about.

So instead I thought I’d talk about something that’s been occupying quite a lot of my mental space lately, namely themes. As in the core themes of our work.

[Warning: Possible navel-gazing ahead.]

Part of this was brought about by the fact that I am having a teensy bit of an identity crisis, genre-wise. I was able to straddle a young middle grade and an older middle grade series fairly well. But I am now pulling a dark, older YA into the mix and it kind of tipped me over in terms of understanding who my audience is, what my relationship to my readers is, how I pull all of those various wildly different parts of the authorial me together. Do I talk about the book that’s out now or the one that I’m working on? Does it matter if they’re two separate age groups?

The inside of my head has felt far too much like a hamster wheel for my liking. However, one can only flounder so long before it gets way old and all that’s left to do is get over it and move on. So here I am. I will be having my identity crisis in public and hope that it will be a learning experience for the rest of you.

My website is also due for a massive makeover, and before I could do that, I had to understand the answers to some of the above questions. Actually, I had to figure out the right questions to even ask.

When looking for a story theme, the questions I use are:

What life lesson does your protagonist need to learn?
Where, in her/his emotional landscape, will this journey take her? Will she/he be facing old fears? Discovering new ones? What will they be?
What issues will most of the book's conflict be arising from?
What direction is her/his growth going to take? Learning to accept, forgive, redeem oneself, stand up for what they believe in?
What will they have struggled with by the end of the book?
Also, look at your protagonist’s goals and motivations. What direction are they pointing in?

And while those questions work well for finding themes in a given book, they weren’t helping me step back and get a better picture of how all the various themes I work with tie in.

So I had to go looking for new questions.

What truth am I telling? What is my core truth, the one I go back to time and again. I searched my books, the school talks I give, my work on Shrinking Violets and over on GeekMom. Hell, I looked high and low. I kept stepping back, further and further away thinking if I could get a distant view, I could see the patterns and landscape better.

But I neglected to look deep, deep inside, to that place we all try to hide from the world. Which is highly ironic since that’s one of my biggest messages to kids when I do school visits—that their unique quirky self is their biggest most powerful weapon. Even if it’s the part of themselves that gets them in the most trouble or they find most embarrassing—that core is where all the best stuff in their life will come from.

And then I stumbled on this quote from Caroline Myss (found via Justine Musk's Tribal Writer blog) “You cannot live for prolonged periods of time within the polarity of being true to yourself and needing the approval of others.”

And my immediate thought was, you can’t? Because I have been doing that since I was old enough to breathe.

And it occurred to me that I have been engaged in a battle between being true to myself and pleasing others my entire life. An epic struggle for self acceptance.

Duh. There’s my core theme. Once I named it, I could recognize it in all of my work. It wasn't just about accepting our quirks or turning our weaknesses into strengths, but the constant polarization of opposing needs: that for self acceptance and that for pleasing others. Poor little Nathaniel Fludd, struggling between his innate timidity and wanting to please the intrepid Aunt Phil; Theodosia, needing to do something about all the magic that swirls around her, but not wanting to upset the apple cart with her parents.

Gawd! No wonder I’m exhausted all the time!

The other thing that occurred to me was that I will likely never have this fully mastered. Like a recovering alcoholic, it will be a one day at a time kind of thing. Maybe, at some point, it will be a week at a time or I will even be lucky enough to have a month long reprieve from this struggle. But I suspect it will always be a part of me, and even more, that that is a good thing because that is where my core story juice and passion come from. Putting characters in situations where they can experience transformative change that brings them one step closer to true self-acceptance.

So that is my core truth and one that all of my characters struggle with as well. I also think it’s why my stories tend toward middle grade and YA—because those first steps towards self acceptance and separating ourselves from our family and peers’ expectations for us come at those ages. (Also, clearly I am emotionally stunted. But in a productive way at least.)

The thing is, by recognizing our core journey, every daily challenge can have deeper meaning and be one more step on an ongoing path to the next stage of transformational change.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot the last couple of weeks. How about you? Are you guys all way more evolved than I am and have known for a long time your deepest, most core themes?


Leanne said...

This is such a wonderful post! Finding your core theme, one that keeps popping up time and time again, is something I've never considered. Thank you!

Robin L said...

Oh good, Leanne! I was hoping the post you be helpful to others!

Deva Fagan said...

Thought-provoking post! Thank you Robin!

I must admit I don't know what my own personal core theme is, but I like the list of questions you propose very much! I'll certainly be thinking more about this.

Robin L said...

Deva, if it hadn't been for the new book coming out next year and the desperate need for a website overhaul, I'm not sure I would have spent too much time on this issue either. Necessity is the mother of...introspection? :-]

KJ Bateman said...

Core themes? I wish I knew. Most times I am slogging away asking myself "what the heck is this story about?" But then I realized that your character's struggle between pleasing people and being true to self is the story. No struggle, no story.

So, now I am going to look at my character and see what she is struggling with.

Sydney said...

I think a lot of people share your struggle. The duality provides the (internal) tension and makes your characters more interesting. When you think about it, it's yin and yang: pleasing people as opposed to being true to yourself. Congratulations on your insight. Do you think it will affect your writing?

I haven't discovered mine yet (but then, i haven't really looked). I wonder if it's something that you need to search for. It sounds like it's just there, whether you're aware of it or not).

dixie said...

Sydney is right, our core theme is right there, hidden in plain sight. The trick is owning it. I find that it's either embarrassing or it hurts.

Robin L said...

Good luck in the theme hunt, KJ!

Sydney, I agree that it's there whether we search for it or not; but I think when we discover it, that discovery allows us to use it to grow rather than just tread water.

I do think it will help my writing in a couple of ways: 1) Just personal understanding of how all the various types of writing I do tie together and 2) It will allow me to get the core of my stories more quickly, with less floundering around. Or so I hope.

Dixie, strangely enough, while it has been embarrassing, it has also been freeing, as if I don't have to pretend anymore. :-)

dixie said...

And not strangely, I agree with you.

Gabby said...

Thank you R.L.! This was an insightful post. I read the Beastologist books last year during my freshmen year of college and they were fantastic! I'm in the transition of showing my true self (studying to become a bookbinder/book conservator not a 4 yr college girl) to everyone since my family and friend don't seem to get why I want to do this, but I'm fairly confident in myself and I think that'll show once I have the experience to back me up. The post helped and I'm so glad I found your site. Love your work.

Robin L said...

You're so welcome, Gabby.
The funny thing is, I came *thisclose* to deleting this post earlier this afternoon! I was searching through the blog, looking for an older entry and stumbled upon this and thought, eh, I should maybe delete that.

But now I'm very glad I didn't.

And book binding and book conservation! What a fascinating career you will have!