In my experience, a lot of English Lit teachers will talk about THEME like it’s this big hammer that the author uses to bludgeon a point home. I was always vaguely suspicious about that. For a while, I maintained that theme was something that people who didn’t write used to make sense out of things that they read.
So I called bullshit on it probably far more than was warranted.
Part of that, at least, was due to the fact that I rarely thought about theme as I was doing my own writing. Now, maybe I was doing it wrong. Some very good writing teachers (who are writers themselves) would say that’s the case.
I’ve come to realize that while I don’t always do it consciously, I do tend to gravitate towards certain themes. I like themes of social justice. I like themes of uncovering unpleasant truths.
And judging from the story I just finished, I also like exploring the theme of “Hiding who you are to satisfy the pre-conceptions of others will only end in tears.” I explored this previously in my story for Cthulhurotica, “Fishwives of Sean Brolly” where a mild-mannered husband starts to accept his true sexual desires. The moment where he declares that he is not a freak, and that he just knows what he likes, still resonates with me.
Not for any strong personal reasons, mind you.
Get your mind out of the gutter.
But it’s all part of a much greater theme of accepting truths, personal and otherwise, no matter the consequence. Hiding that truth can be devastating. A life spent lying to yourself corrodes the soul.
I was surprised when Amos, a friend and member of my writing group caught the similarity between Fishwives and this new story–surprised, because I hadn’t noticed it myself. The conclusion to the story changed from the original outline, and I’m not sure if it was an organic outgrowth of the story, or as a result of Amos pointing out the path underneath my feet. I didn’t go where I planned. Not exactly. I went somewhere darker.
I hear you asking, “Tell us about this new story, Nate!”
Well, while there several key elements I have to keep under wraps for now, I can tell you a little bit about my influences and why I was excited to write it.
You know, other than theme.
Have you ever been to Minneapolis? I haven’t, but I’ve been wanting to check it out for academic reasons for well over a decade. There was a time in my misspent youth when I was studying sociology. I know. Big shock, right? My fascination was (and still is to a great extent) the loss of public space in our country. Minneapolis, specifically their Skyway system, is a prime example of that.
Minneapolis has cold winters. Like, why-the-fuck-do-you-people-continue-to-live-here cold. But the wheels of commerce can’t just shut down during the winter months (which I believe are September through May in Minnesota). The business owners couldn’t very well enclose the streets and sidewalks and heat them. For one, the streets and sidewalks are public property. Also, that’s a huge economic undertaking. So to accommodate shoppers, they built the Skybridge network, a series of enclosed walkways that criss-cross the downtown core.
It’s a pretty goddamned big system.
And it’s private.
Meaning, the rights you have as a citizen in a public place (free assembly, for example. Or even just the right to be there at all) is nonexistent. You know what you won’t see in the Skyways? People begging for change. They aren’t really welcome there. And each individual business is more than happy to have their own security show such a person the door.
And in this case, that door leads to the street.
I suspect there are beggars on the streets of downtown Minneapolis. I also suspect that they’re largely invisible. Forgotten.
Being an “undesirable” in a place that gets to dictate where you can and can’t go has got to suck. And it’s something many of us in this culture don’t have to deal with on a regular basis.
As an added bonus, it was decided that my story would take place in the 1980’s. There was a lot going on in the 80’s. I decided to focus on the transitioning punk rock music scene, as traditional punk gave way to Oi and Hardcore. And Minneapolis had a thriving punk scene. One of my favorite bands, The Replacements, came out of there. I was introduced to punk through, among other bands, Husker Du, also from Minneapolis.
I had my location and I had my character–a punk youth, an outcast in a frozen city. I had the secret elements I was working with. And the theme fell into my lap from there. And knowing the theme helped pull the story together in really short order. 3 days, in fact, not counting a morning of jotting down notes over coffee.
The experience was positive enough that I’m no longer so quick to call bullshit on this whole theme thing. I’m going to give it a try and see what comes of it. So far, I’ve been pretty happy with the results.