At the recent winter 2018 Hamline MFAC Hamline residency, I gave a presentation on theme in nonfiction. It is the fifth of our craft elements that make up our core curriculum – along with character, plot, setting, and point of view. More than any other, theme is what involves the reader.
What does she come away with, when she puts down the book? What does he remember three months later?
My metaphor for theme is the twining trails. Our lives and our stories are shaped by two interlaced trails–the communal trail, which takes us/our characters into the physical world and the solitary excavation of our interior world. We need both trails to become who we fully are as humans, and so do the fictional and nonfictional characters in our books.
Theme in fiction can get buried in a complicated story line, and theme in nonfiction can easily get buried in the facts. In either genre, we can find our universal theme by mining our own inner trail, our understanding of the human condition and what drives us as people.
*How about the theme of your writing life? Do you have a personal symbol or theme that describes your process?
Mine is the spiral. In nature, a spiral travels in the path of least resistance. Not in a straight line, but circular, going deeper and deeper. That’s what I aspire to do in my writing.
* Do you have a personal theme that you have been working out in several of your stories?
This came up often in many of the presentations, how writers are drawn to write about a human condition in many stories, each time perhaps digging deeper and deeper.
Why don’t you take a few minutes and write on one or both of the questions above. You might gain some insights on your writing life and how to reveal the deeper vein of a current writing project.
See if you can get a writing friend to also write on these prompts and follow up with sharing. Consider sharing your theme in a comment on this post.
Claire Rudolf Murphy is the author of seventeen books of fiction and nonfiction for children and young adults, including Children of Alcatraz: Growing Up on the Rock; Daughters of the Desert: Remarkable Women of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim Traditions; Marching With Aunt Susan:Susan B. Anthony and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage; and her latest, My Country Tis of Thee: Song of Patriotism, Song of Protest.
Claire's 17th book, Martin and Bobby: A Journey to Justice will be published in September of 2018 during the fiftieth year commemoration of King and Robert Kennedy's tragic deaths in 1968. Recent events have renewed her passion for political activism and preparing her presentation on theme helped her deepen her theme in this upcoming book and other current projects.