Friday, April 25, 2014

Finding the Edges: The Art of Theme and Voice in Fiction and Memoir

Novelists and memoir writers know the agony and ecstasy of voice and theme.  Two make-or-break aspects of a book, they arrive last-minute, often at final revision.  Neither can be planned or manipulated by the author.  Most successful thematic writers, when asked, come up clueless about how their work finds its voice and theme.

Most writing teachers say theme and voice are impossible to teach.  The art of them (for it is more art than craft, with these two) must be caught.     

I agree--and disagree. 

As a writing teacher since the early eighties, I've practiced techniques to bring out meaning (theme) and allow natural strengths and uniqueness (voice) to emerge on the page.  Techniques train the creative self to sink into receptive, listening mode.  Techniques can alert you to what makes good meaning, how to ask for insight from others who may see it more clearly, and how to make room in your writing process to listen.  Voice is what comes as you become more of yourself on the page, reveal more, embrace vulnerability. 

Both are all about letting go rather than pushing ahead.  What allows you to let go the easiest?  And still keep writing . . .

When I was asked to teach a one-day workshop on "The Art of Voice and Theme in Fiction and Memoir" for the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis this summer, I began researching more fervently--how do other writers do this?  My workshop will be on Saturday, July 19 (click here for more information), and I have some time to develop it.  But as luck would have it, insights began coming across my desk.

Finding theme, or meaning, means limiting focus.  It sounds contradictory, but once you figure out what your book is about--which may connect with a place, an era, a relationship, or an event--you have something to write against.  As you write against this edge, you learn what is and what is not your story.  This seems, in my experience, to be the great doorway to theme and voice.

It feels counter-intuitive, yes.  We imagine that theme is about stretching wide and opening up, that more meaning comes from letting in greater ideas.  There is an aspect of expansion in theme development, but it's when we figure out what the story is really about, that theme begins to emerge.

Theme is meaning.  One of the exercises I give to my advanced online book-structuring classes is to write about what their book means to them.  What does it really mean to you, the writer?  Then write about the possible take-away for the reader.  Somewhere between these, theme or meaning often lies.

A great insight came from reading Dani Shapiro's new book, Still Writing.  Dani has a chapter called "Edges," where she cites a writer named Joshua Cody, author of the memoir, Sic.  Cody says, "the key to any composition, it occurs to me, is to write against an edge, a frame."  Cody is a cancer patient, and for him, cancer is the frame he works with.  "Put a frame around something, anything--the frame of cancer, say, around a life, and you've already gotten somewhere without willing it."  Shapiro adds, "writing against an edge . . . can be enormously helpful in giving you clarity about your particular corner of the crazy-quilt.  Your patch of land.  Your precise and unique bit of geography.  Your world." 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Ask yourself about the edges or frame of your book-in-progress.  Is your frame, or edge, nature or the wilderness, a certain relationship, coming of age or childhood, mental illness, cancer, disfigurement, rape or abuse, a serious illness such as AIDS or MS, the workings of tall clocks, sailing, a thru-hike?  What's the frame "through which you can see you story" and what edges or boundaries does it provide?

2.  Freewrite about this frame.  Decide, if you find more than one edge or frame, which is the most vital to you, to your story, if you had to choose just one.