I joined the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. It feels so good to be part of a writers’ group again! Last Saturday I attended my first session. It was a Literary Salon, hosted by memoir author Priscilla Stuckey (Kissed by a Fox, © 2012). She read some beautiful passages from her book, and when she was done she answered questions.
Naturally, it being a writers’ group, the discussion turned to process.
She said that it took nine years (!) from inception to publication (she’s a professor of environmental humanities at Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona, and said she had to learn the creative process), but when she first started trying to query agents she wasn’t getting any bites. She took her story to an editor for help. The editor got back to her with, “The best part of your story hasn’t been written yet.”
Can you imagine being told something like that? After having worked soooo hard for soooo long… and thinking you were done…!?! Of course Priscilla was devastated, but when she calmed down and digested the editor’s words, she really went back and thought about her book. It was a series of nature experiences she’d had. But that was all. That’s when, she said, she went back and wrote the “thinking parts” of her book – the things that would ultimately weave and tie her real-life stories together. She attributes her ensuing ability to get an agent to the fact that she’d found a theme.
I thought about this, and at first I dismissed it. Fortunately, I thought, I’m a fiction writer, and fiction doesn’t have to have a theme. It’s not like I have to be out to convey some higher message through allegory or anything. Some writers do this, and it’s fine, but it’s not an absolute necessity. In fact, for thrillers, the main “theme” is the plot, itself, right? All I have to do is to tell a good story, and tell it well.
Or so I thought.
Then I thought about it some more. And I remembered something I’d read by one of the best-selling authors of all-time:
Mostly I don’t see stuff like that until the story’s done. Once it is, I’m able to kick back, read over what I’ve written, and look for underlying patterns. If I see some, (and I almost always do), I can work at bringing them out in a second, more fully realized, draft of the story. Two examples of the sort of work second drafts were made for are symbolism and theme….
But wait. Symbolism doesn’t have to be difficult and relentlessly brainy. Nor does it have to be consciously crafted as a kind of ornamental Turkish rug upon which the furniture of the story stands. If you can go along with the concept of the story as a pre-existing thing, a fossil in the ground, then symbolism must also be pre-existing, right? Just another bone (or set of them) in your new discovery. That’s if it’s there. If it isn’t, so what? You’ve still got the story itself, don’t you?
If it is there and if you notice it, I think you should bring it out as well as you can, polishing it until it shines and then cutting it the way a jeweler would cut a precious or semi-precious stone….
Does that make it necessary to the success of your story or novel? Indeed not, and it can actually hurt, especially if you get carried away. Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create a sense of artificial profundity. None of the bells and whistles are about story, all right? Only story is about story. (Are you tired of hearing that yet? I hope not, ’cause I’m not even close to getting tired of saying it.)
Symbolism (and the other adornments, too) does serve a useful purpose, though — it’s more than just chrome on the grille. It can serve as a focusing device for both you and your reader, helping to create a more unified and pleasing work. I think that, when you read your manuscript over (and when you talk it over), you’ll see if symbolism, or the potential for it, exists. If it doesn’t, leave well enough alone. If it does, however, if it’s clearly a part of the fossil you’re working to unearth — go for it. Enhance it. You’re a monkey if you don’t.
[From On Writing: A memoir of the craft, by Stephen King, © 2000, pp. 197-200.]
I don’t have to have a theme. My stories are what they are, and they come out of my head in whatever way they choose to do so — and not for the primary purpose of having some hideously clunky message imposed upon them. But if one or two of them did have a message that was already there, I’d better make sure I find it. And to do that, I have to listen.
In first drafts I’m little more than a scribe, desperately trying to type as fast as the story wants to come out. But the next time around, I need to think and hear what it was that did come out. I have to make sure I’ve shown the tale for what it really is. After all, I don’t ever want to be told that I’m a monkey.
Or that the best part of my story hasn’t been written yet.