Over the weekend, one of the eleven-million pictures that made an appearance on Facebook was a Venn diagram displaying a relatively tiny crossover between what authors mean when they write, and what English teachers think they mean. It’s a joke, based on the collective years of agony most of us spent having to read a story and determine what it’s really about. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? For example, when I took English 101, I remember having a knock-down-drag-out literary argument with my professor over Randall Jarrell’s Death of the Ball Turret Gunner. For those of you who haven’t read it, here:
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
The professor had just finished lecturing that the poem was about humanity’s neverending spiral toward war and violence. I found myself becoming upset with the distance such concepts built around the main character of the poem. I raised my hand, and said I disagreed – that it was about a dead guy. You’d have thought I’d thrown my English book at the professor, he turned so red. I ended up having to write a short paper on the poem, to explain my position. Yeah, that’s a good way to punish me…make me write something. *laughs*
My teacher and I were both right. I didn’t express myself well in the inital argument, being 18 and completely convinced of my own brilliance. I didn’t know how to tell the teacher that I thought the poem was not only about a broad theme but about the pain and helplessness of a specific man whose death didn’t even end up being anything more important than a mess in the turret of his plane. It offended me that the teacher only wanted to talk about the bigger points, when it seemed to me that the one man’s tragic story was more important.
An author rarely has only one point to make in his work. When we write a story, we’re writing about a person and a world and events, all of which bring in different aspects of the author’s psyche. The reader will discover the theme that means most to him in the reading. While the classics have been studied for years and their themes thoroughly fleshed out, I still think that every work has a depth that can speak to the reader in individual ways. Ten people can read your book and all come up with different ideas of what you meant, depending on their own experience. Everything we write has a link to something within us. We may not even realize there’s a theme to our work when we’re creating it, but it’s there. It’s echoing in our voice. It’s peeking behind our words, showing itself only after the work is complete and can be observed as a whole. The reader who feels trapped will see freedom in the story, and the reader who’s lonely will find friendship. If you’re determined to find the underlying theme in a story you’re reading, far be it from me to stop you. But remember that sometimes the theme will show itself when you stop digging for it. When you’re writing a story, don’t stress so much about choosing your theme or making your book about something deep and meaningful. Meaning reveals itself through the words you choose and how you put them together.