You can’t let go. You have not taken control. Just admit it. There is at least one, but likely several themes you simply have not exorcised from your writing that trip you up. If not a theme, I’ll bet it’s a character, an image or a setting that you can’t shake. Though I’m a fiction writer, I am sure this applies to non-fiction writers and poets too.
“Every artist is undoubtedly pursuing his truth. If he is a great artist, each work brings him nearer to it, or at least, swings still closer toward this center, this buried sun where everything must one day burn.”
While I’m in agreement with Albert Camus’ point above, I’m pretty sure that mediocre and just plain good artists are also swinging closer to this center of truth in themselves in their thematic repetitions. In editing clients who’ve been patient enough to work with me repeatedly, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in the work of favorite authors–bestsellers (Jodi Picoult) and underground favorites (G.K. Chesterton ) alike. And, of course, it turns up in my own work.
WhenI worked with the intrepid Alice Mattison my final semester at Bennington, I was shocked by my own denial regarding my recurring themes.
My writing was theme-heavy, emphasizing stories of frustrated parents and their angry children who seemed to be waiting for cues on how to behave differently, which I continually failed to provide.
In a letter Alice wrote to me:
“There’s nothing wrong with writing about one subject, and after I read two or three [of your stories] I thought, “Well, she can give the book the title “Bad Mothers”…Most of these mothers are unrelieved: they aren’t complex, they are just awful. I don’t mind that sort of horrible character in general—I don’t think every single character needs to be complex—but so many bad characters…with no good traits…of the same category makes the work add up to a scream of rage about mothers…”
Believe it or not, my first reaction to this was not to fall apart in tears. I laughed. Hard and long. She was so right! And she was kind enough not to point out all the Absent Fathers who quietly slipped out of scenes, giving the Bad Mothers center stage.
She went on to write,
“What you need is for your reader to be able to take each story on its own terms instead of being so struck by the pervasiveness of the bad mothers that they become a theme instead of just being part of the subject matter.”
In order for the writer to get to the place where she can construct stories that stand on their own terms, a lot of close scrutiny at our work is necessary, to discover what repeats. There’s is powerful energy in that which keeps trying to get through, but that energy can either trip us or transform our work.
These mothers and fathers of mine have been unfairly under-used. It turns out that they have feelings too, and quirks and longings and unfulfilled desires worthy of exploration. Now they’re just road signs pointing, “Go deeper here. Don’t give up there.”
What themes keep coming back to you? How do they help your work? How do they trip you up? If you’re an artist of another kind besides writer, I pose the same question to you!
Give yourself an assignment to attempt to change some of your themes!