What is the Theme of Your Life?
Here’s an exercise to drive you crazy:
Ask yourself, “What is the theme of my life?”
I suggest this for two reasons. First, because it’s so hard for us as writers to grasp the idea of “theme.” What the hell is it anyway? How is it different from “subject?” From “concept?” An exercise like this (aside from being fairly mind-bending) is a great way to get a sense of exactly what “theme” means.
My second reason is because I was watching the documentary about Tony Robbins last night, “I Am Not Your Guru.” I only got to watch the first quarter of it, so I may have grokked its message prematurely and incorrectly. But my early assessment is that a lot of what Tony Robbins does in his “Date With Destiny” 6-day events is to force the attendees (often one-on-one and very much in-their-face) to at least consider the question, “What is the theme of your life?”
“Who are you?”
“What is your destiny?”
“Why were you put on Earth?” “Is there something that you, and only you, are equipped to do? What is that—and why the hell aren’t you doing it?”
At this point, lemme let Tony Robbins off the hook and continue only in my own voice, turning to what only I myself believe.
The hardest aspect for most of us to grasp about such questions as “What is the theme of your life?” and “What is your destiny?” is simply the seemingly egomaniacal idea that our lives do have a theme and that we ourselves do have a destiny.
Do you believe that? You? Me? One of seven billion egos/bodies/carbon units on the planet? Us? Isn’t that pretty exalted? Pretty megalomaniacal?
Or let’s put it another way: what is the theme of your life as a writer? The theme in your work?
It’s one of my bedrock beliefs that we discover who we are, not just by our actions (though that’s a big part of it) but, if we’re artists, by the works we produce. What films has Matt Damon made? What poems did Sylvia Plath write? What albums has Beyonce recorded? Is there a theme to the collected works of Bob Dylan?
What about you and me? Have we written (or even partially-written) more than one work? What do these works have in common? Is there a thread running through them?
If a graduate student in Literature were to examine our writings, even our uncompleted works and works in progress, what theme would he or she identify within them?
If you’re a reader of this blog, you know that I believe in previous lives. I believe that you and I did not arrive in this dimension “in utter nakedness,” as Wordsworth once wrote, but as already highly-individuated and evolved souls.
Yes, I believe in destiny.
Destiny = theme.
Do we have a purpose, you and I? Yes. Were we put here for a reason? Yes. What is that reason? That’s our job: to find out. To find out and to act upon that finding-out.
If we’re artists we find out what our destiny/theme is by doing our work, even if we have no idea why we’re doing it, why a specific idea seized us, why we were compelled to write about the stuff we’re compelled to write about. Write it first, then step back and ask, “What the hell was that about?” What does it tell me about my own preoccupations, my passions, my obsessions?
That’s our theme.
That’s our destiny.
If you watch the Tony Robbins documentary, you’ll see that he uses extreme methods of theater, of confrontation, of personal proximity, touch, voice, profanity. Why? I think it’s because most of his event attendees are so young. They haven’t been on the planet long enough, or had enough experiences to provide them with a graspable reflection of who they are, what they want, what their destiny might be. So Tony has to shake them up. He has to rattle their cages, not just to wake them up so that they’re receptive to something, but to seed the belief that they do have a destiny, they do have a theme, their life is about something.
For you and me as artists, time and the work itself will tell us our theme. What do we love? What subjects capture us? And how does our treatment of these subjects change and evolve over time? Do we “solve” one issue and move on to the next? How is Issue #12 related to Issue #1? Did Sarah Vaughn’s last album display an evolution from her first?
What was her theme? What is mine?
What is yours?
Wow, Steve. I looked up from this post to see the books I’ve written so far — and thought about the books I have in the works. It’s eerie how the titles could be chapter titles of my own life. Thanks for still another window into my soul!
I love being forced to think.
My theme, Steve, is in contrast to yours, I’m more a nihilist in the sense of believing this life is it, being an atheist and a naturalist influences my characters and themes, and one of my desires is to insert Socratic questions into the flow of my work in such a way that they are hidden even if ubiquitous.
But what I also realize is the other running theme is that life is incomplete without a soul mate, a spiritual connection between two people who live a life together in a bond of intimacy, passion, and commitment.
An old contrast, I realize, both denying the sacred and yet realizing that without it, life is a prison.
I think this is my only desire: to love and be loved.
Everything else is a means to that end.
As Commodos in Gladiator said, “I’d butcher the whole world, if you’d only love me.”
Oddly, or perhaps because of fate, the only reason I’m a writer, the only reason I’m even here, poor, virtually homeless, wandering, dedicated to this course, committed: a woman and my (misguided) love for her.
Thanks for helping me see this more clearly and at a deeper level.
Let’s hope, for the sake of the world, that my love life works out.
Yes Michael, you have penned my biog, “I’m even here, poor, virtually homeless, wandering, dedicated to this course, committed: a woman and my (misguided) love for her.”
We are both wandering and I am wondering why. This juice is a disease.
My son has a better grip on pragmatic reality. He says, “Dad, you’ve got more degrees than a thermometer, chuck this writing malarky, go and get a haircut and a proper job.”
So it’s reassuring to know there are others are here who can’t help themselves either.
You at least, have a voice, a writer’s voice. You belong. Your dream belongs. All you need to do is let the reins loose.
Michael, your comment about your “only desire” makes me think of this very short poem, Late Fragment, by Raymond Carver:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Cool, I like that poem.
I realized, thinking about this: I’ve helped to create 3 human beings, and not only are they are amazing, none of them have robbed any banks, you know?
So, I’ve made the world a better place, in that small way.
There’s a theme that runs consistently in these Writing Wednesday posts. If I were to illustrate by extracting phrases, it would look like:
* us as writers
* us to grasp
* your life as a writer
* We discover
* What about you and me
* have we written
* examine our writings
* Do we have a purpose, you and I?
* For you and me as artists
We’re responsible for doing our own work. But if you’re here and reading, you’re part of a tribe. One theme here might be “communality.”
If you have lived a thousand lifetimes – I feel I have every day… then you will know where ‘grokked’ came from.
Grok, Carbon unit, Sassy Sarah Vaughn
Thanks Mr. PressField!
Grokked – brings a smile to my face – grokked plays a huge role in the memoir I’m writing as the love of a group called Church of All Worlds turned me from wanting to die to desiring to live. I learned to grok there.
My major theme is there is healing from abuse and no matter what we have suffered, there is hope, joy, and peace possible. We all have a purpose and nothing in the universe is wasted, even the tough times help us to grow.
Heather, I so AGREE with your theme that there is healing from abuse and all that you say and will write about in your memoir. The BEST. 🙂 Joy, Peace and Happiness BE with you on your continuing Journey.
Loved this post. I just happened to watch the doc about Tony Robbins also, two days ago. Saw the whole thing. The way you talk about finding “theme” here is something I’m spending more mind-energy on this year. I have to. If not, I will keep multitasking, spreading my energy and lose all effect of channeling my energy in the right direction.
And previous lives have a lot to say for the whole of who we are. Nice to see you have a broader understanding than most people 🙂
I replied to your email today. Don’t know if you get it or not.
Love your latest book also btw, helps me a lot.
Love this post – thanks for making us think about theme in an even bigger way!
Thanks, Steve, for another thoughtful post. I noticed years before, before I published anything, that all my stories were about about people who were searching for their lost parts. They called into the darkness, and that turned out to be the theme of my fantasy trilogy. I have also noticed that, only looking backward, of course, that I was predicting my own growth patterns with my fiction. So fun to have foresight, even if it isn’t obvious until later.
thank you for your latest book. Another excellent source of inspiration.
Theme? At the risk of sounding like some kind of sycophant: Few against the many -to be a majority of one if necessary after a careful look at BOTH sides of an issue.
One other theme is Giving more than you receive.
OK I watch a lot of movies as you will see.
Since viewing the 1962 film The 300 Spartans -in 1962 btw- I felt I was there. I grew up longing to be a Spartan but ended living my life as an Athenian. I admired the few against the many the 300, Horatius on the bridge, Henry the 5th at Agincourt, our Founding Fathers, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at Little Round Top, Rorke’s Drift, Emile Zola, McAuliffe at Bastogne, and my Father Vincent Pepe MD.
Dodging the “shoulds,” getting liberated, has been a theme of my life. I suppose the lives of Athenians are not written about in the type of stories I read as a boy, and so I thought I “should” be a Spartan. There is of course a difference between “longing to be” and “should.”
In the novel Revolutionary Road the protagonist’s friend, who enjoyed the war years, and enjoys shinning his shoes, destroys his character trying to be an uncultured regular guy, and marries an uncultured woman. I can relate.
I think that those who think they “should” be Spartans are in for heartbreak if they are in fact sensitive and have high I.Qs. In Orwell’s novel Burmese Days the protagonist goes off for a career in the adventurous tropics before he ages enough to realize that he is too sensitive to believe in imperialism.
Some deep thinking required here.
I think I know what my theme is and yes, it’s turned up in life and in all my writing. Transformation – finding the strength to be my true self.
I’m sure I can create a better catchy tagline though.
I gave myself permission to change themes somewhat dramatically throughout my life. But now I see the overarching grand theme connecting them and it’s one of the distinct pleasures of maturity. The perspective of a novelist is a lovely vantage point from which to view what might otherwise look like a junk heap of unproductive adventures. But now they are fitting together as my story. You are my role model in this wonderful way to look at my life, not to mention actually writing!
I hate it when I read the blog a couple of days later, I feel like I’ve missed the conversation. I’ve been thinking about the ‘theme of my life’ since you started writing about theme a few months ago.
I believe I’m beginning to accept that it is OK for me to have a theme, for me to have a purpose, to be naked before the Gods, and to approach a toe-hold of comfort with the discomfort this requires. I’ve struggled for so long between narcissistic hubris and a sense of worthlessness (same coin) that it was impossible for me to even consider this question with integrity.
The previous posts all resonate with me, this blog is a den of relief for me. We are 9 days from our 6th annual race, and everything is a knife fight. It always is.
I wrote a note to Kelly this morning before leaving for the Y. It was about the gratitude we should feel for the opportunity to be stressed to nearly breaking–but for something we’ve created, for something we believe is important, instead of an unruly boss/Neanderthal co-worker who’s own issues are projected upon the rest of the office.
My sad observation is that most people never even consider the questions routinely posed in this community. I understand why. It is scary. New responsibilities are inherent in accepting a theme, and it is lonely. So much easier to join the sheep.
Thanks again Steven and all that read/add content.
Steven this is a gem. I actually was just on Netflix the other day thinking of possibly viewing the documentary.
I am a very strong believer myself in Destiny and recycled soul. I am certain that if we unplug and clear the slate the web reconnects and our true vision appears.
Thank you so much for all your art. I passionately enjoy it my friend
Steven – even though our spiritual beliefs are vastly different, our thinking jibes almost to a T. What’s up with that?
I will spend the next few weeks thinking about the themes of my stories.
It is fascinating to me, because, when I write, I don’t know what characters will show up or how the story will evolve. Sometimes, a whole scene will “jump into my head” while on vacation or driving to work. And I wasn’t even thinking about my screenplay.
Thank you, sir.
May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you. Shalom!
It’s taken me a while to find the write genre in which to express my theme. See, here, Steve, you’re getting philosophical and literary critic – and I love it. But we shouldn’t forget the writer/editor dynamic/tension: we can’t do both simultaneously. If we write to our theme, rather than to the story, or, put another way, if we try to force the them onto the story, instead of let the story reveal it organically, we’ll get something superficial or cliched.
We also have to consider the pulp writers, or their equivalent in other artistic fields, the ones who churn it out, short story after short story, so quickly they need to use pseudonyms to get it all in print, or who flood a genre with what we critically dismiss as plot/potboilers. Is there a theme in that mass? And do prolific writers like Stephen King have a non-trivial theme? (At some literarily critical level, yes. Obviously, the theme of a life is different.)
I have to disagree with Tony Robbins’s method a bit. While there are times where a “wake-up” call approach is necessary – the military (boot camp), for instance, or an athletic team training camp, and for older folk, perhaps those on a downward spiral-perhaps-for most of us, an outside artificial “wake up” call approach can be off-putting and counter-productive. That question – what’s the theme of your life, why are you here – I suspect haunts a lot of people. And they don’t necessarily need to be told the answer; would that answer be theirs to own, or be someone else’s on loan, so to speak? Only if they actually know how to phrase the question. They need to be guided to discovering the answer. That guidance may be as simple as a directive/suggestion to do a specific thing.
There is of course a whiff of the mystical in what you say. There must be. And to read the great writers talking about writing, one encounters the same – a “lapse” into the poetic, an indulgence in the mystical gossamer of prose.
There is a joy in the discovery of one’s theme. It is part of the self-dialectic, if you will. But to presume that everyone has a theme, everyone has a purpose, is to pre-presume (I just made that up) that there is G-d and a “vast Eternal plan” in which each small-in-itself part is cosmically significant. And that, as artists discover, is awesome in both meanings of the word.
To be honest, this brought me to tears. I have hit a point where this is where I am stuck. Without this full understanding of theme and the story, anything written seems empty and meaningless. What is a writer who doesn’t elicit emotion, action? If you cannot connect to your true self how can you connect to the reader, to the page?
Copywriting instead of ‘writing’ has allowed me to build walls to ‘protect’ me from my theme. This is a hard truth. Thank you, Steven, for this post.
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