Tag Archives: story theme

My Writing Process – Step 2: “Let the Theme Rise Organically”

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

– Mary Oliver, “Sometimes”

God, save me from the productivity that would sacrifice everything you’re doing in me to chase an image of “supposed to.”

So naturally, after step 1 comes step 2. “Step 1: Set Out to Return” posits that submitting to what God is calling you to, where he’s sending, is job 1 for the writer. I see this as a journey that starts and finishes with knowing it will involve, nay, require, a return to the  beginning. Because writing is like life and art is all about recovery of ourselves. (If that seems super deep, that’s because it is.)

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Step 1 was fun to write, so I’m continuing with step 2 this week.

The second step in my writing process, which I’ve never put into words before but has gotten me thinking, follows the theme of submission and adds to it discipline. There’s the obvious discipline of showing up to write 6 days a week for as long as I have that day, but in my daily writing process, after considering the true starting place and establishing the goal to return to it eventually, there’s a specific action I have to take. And it still isn’t writing.

Sidenote: we’d prevent so much wasted time by simply not writing too soon. Many writers don’t know or don’t care about this, and maybe they simply can’t help themselves, but even if you only learn it as you write, if you want people to read your stuff, and I do, and if you want an editor to edit it (and yes, you do), then I believe the theme has to rise naturally from the story, from the character’s true plight. And that means slowing down and thinking before you dive in. *Note on the sidenote: this is also true for anything resembling memoir or personal narrative.

Which means step 2 is that you have to discover your theme, so you don’t write trying to illustrate it. If you set out thinking you already know what big truth you’re going to reveal with your story, you’ll fail. Sure, there are pro writers who can do it, but like figuring out your true identity (“Identity is received, not achieved,” as my friend Chase taught me), the theme must be discovered. The journey must be allowed to define the story and the telling of it. Otherwise the theme will be artificial, added as an afterthought.

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Theme–what your story’s about–starts as unintended but soon becomes intended. And when that happens is all about how well a writer has learned to humble themselves, silence their need to teach, and pay attention to what the story is revealing. And in the beginning, often, this takes a trustworthy outside editor or close-reader. If you have one, you know they’re gold.

As I said, it may be possible for seasoned writers to “hide the strings” with good editing, but often, a tip-off of amateur writing is that the theme wasn’t discovered so much as intended from the beginning. And often, it seems it wasn’t executed well because there was no learning process captured, no fire in that journey.

Now, go back to that prayer at the top, because this could also become a “supposed to.” But a story is supposed to teach the writer its lesson(s) first. Imagine going through something as life-altering as becoming a parent for the first time and not learning anything from it. Yet people do it all the time. We think we have to be strong leaders, use our stories to teach. But stories aren’t widgets to plug holes in people. And when you think of them this way, you’re limiting its potential for something you can start selling before the necessary ink has been spilled.

Too many of us simply don’t yet have the presence of mind to pay attention to what a story is really saying. And it’s a travesty, but it’s for some fairly obvious reasons. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to establish this.

Goodness, life is distracting. And we want to think we know what we want, but we don’t. And others want different things, and compounding complexity causes destruction. How tragic when someone simply continues pushing for their initial goal even after they realize it means others will suffer. The Bible says such poor folks are cursed (Heavy, I know, but I think of “quenching the spirit” and “woe to them” and “causing others to stumble.”) And again, happens all the time. Maybe we all do it to some degree if we justify such “winning discipline” to remain dedicated to our vision.

Is remaining undistracted and “productive” really the key to success?

Anyone could be a hardnose and prevent what could ultimately free us and countless others. What if instead we’re supposed to let go and let ourselves see beneath what we thought we knew? (Hear the deeper theme of submission here again.)

Writers want to write books that matter, which means revealing what others miss. But what if they can’t until they realize what they’ve missed? For me, step 2 involves, nay, requires, embracing the struggle for a greater discipline: accepting that no one gets to say they intended where they ended up when they set out. I think useful, timeless, inspired books aren’t intended or earned so much as discovered through sacrifice.

So the question is,

Will you commit to listening to your life?

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Commit to struggling, flailing, uncertainty, mystery, and some very unromantic trials? I believe from all I’ve read, all I’ve written, this is the only way to ultimately offer the truth. Because the primary truth any story conveys is always about struggle–and it should be.

I get it. I want things to be easier too. We all do. It’s just that you can’t see the reason the story needed telling just like you can’t see the real reason the journey needed taking until you take it. And unless you listen to your own plight, your own deep desire and greatest struggle, you’ll never know what simple thematic statement is beneath it. And that’s how your story will ultimately speak about everyone’s plight.

Don’t we all somehow know this already? It’s one of the greatest confirmations, that “Oh-wow-me-too” response. We can’t intend that; it’s a gift. If you let go of personal intentions (for your life, for your work) you’re freed to finally see and reveal universal, biblical truth.

I believe there’s no other way. (“Narrow road,” “die to self,” “walk humbly,” etc.)

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It could be that we’re made writers far more than we intend to be. But you were given a story to share and you can trust that. And when you do, you won’t have to prove it anymore. You can let it say what it wants to. You can intend to have your intentions changed and set out to find your theme, even when you think you’re supposed to know it already. It’s worth letting go of supposed to’s.

The distractions are strong, but these 2 steps–setting out to return, and listening for theme–are nearly all I needed to write. There’s just one more step I use consistently before writing and it’s a practical one about filling up before pouring out.

And I’ll share that next week.

For the higher purpose,

Mick