You Begin With Words

“The theme of art is the theme of life itself.” Lawrence Durell

Theme is topic, idea, or subject matter. It is merely a simple way of defining what you are writing about.

When I think of ‘theme’ bad memories come to my mind about the themes we had to write about in high school. When the teacher handed out assignments like “Write a five-hundred-word essay on your favorite sports, your most embarrassing moment, etc.” We had to do this once a week and since I studied three languages, all at the same level, I had to do it for all three. And the themes that the teachers came up with each week were ridiculous. Oh how I dreaded those assignments.

However, during my senior years, we had a history teacher who changed everything. On the first day of class he asked us to write a short piece about an incident that was a turning point for us in our lives, a moment of great significance to us. We’ve all had moments when we have been humiliated, embarrassed, laughed at, bullied, disappointed. And those moments have left their marks on us. Then, throughout the year, this particular teacher often brought a story, usually a news article, to class and he would ask us to analyze it and see if we could come up with a different twist and rewrite the piece with a different ending in mind. For the first time, writing assignments became a pleasure for me, and I became the happiest person writing.

As writers we are aware of the major elements of storytelling: plot, character, style, idea, mood or emotional effect. Of the different theme patterns, none affects us more than the idea. It makes us think. In the words of Ronald B. Tobias:

“Ideas are like the wind; they have force, they have energy, but they rarely have much shape.”

As authors, we flourish on ideas, new and old. But we can’t force our readers to think in a certain way. We can only make them think about or contemplate our ideas. And if we can convince them to like our ideas through the unique way we present them, then we have succeeded and that’s what makes us stand out and be different.

There’s a famous story about a French impressionist painter and a famous French symbolist poet that I find interesting and would like to share with you.

“You writers have it easy,” mocked the painter. “All you need is a few ideas and a pen. Now, painting is hard. Every brushstroke is one-of-a-kind, not like words- they’re always the same.”
“If it’s so easy, why don’t you write some poems?” challenged the poet.
“All right, I will.” The painter accepted the challenge, and steamed off to his studio to write his great poems.
Several weeks went by before the poet bumped into the painter at their favorite watering hole. From the painter’s sheepish grin, the poet guessed things weren’t going well for his friend.
“Written any good poems lately?” the poet teased.
“I don’t understand it,” confessed the painter, still puzzled by his aborted attempt to write poetry. “I had good ideas. They just wouldn’t turn out right on paper.”
“That’s because you don’t start with ideas,” the poet smiled knowingly. “You begin with words.”


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