A commonplace among fiction writers is not to write about “themes” but to write about characters in such an easy and effortless way that both plot—if you still believe in plot—and any potential “themes” emerge organically, almost as if by magic. In general I agree with and even applaud this notion; if, for example, I set out to write a story about the dual themes of failing infrastructure in public education and the growing problem of students disrespecting their elders, I might end up with a grouchy jeremiad rather than a character-driven narrative with the potential to move and delight. Too often, however, this commonplace becomes an excuse for writers to steer clear of political subject matter in favor of some specious notion of the writer as an impartial observer of characters’ inner-lives, as if those characters exist in a vacuum, forever free to express their pure and holy human desires without the complications of cultural and historical forces. For this reason, I try, in my own fiction writing classes, to complicate the common advice “not to write about theme” and instead sometimes urge the opposite: write toward your obsessions, I say, but do not begin with them.
Take, for example, my story about failing infrastructure in public education and students disrespecting their elders. Let’s say I’ve been worrying about those issues—and maybe I have been—and let’s say, further, thinking about the broken furnace and the student who won’t buy any books both trouble me to the extent I find myself returning to images of decay and willful ignorance every time I set pen to paper. Should I reject these impulses? In fact, I should embrace them: if I wake up every morning in a rage—and often I do—because of the nefarious machinations of the executive branch, I should honor those impulses for the sake of my status as a citizen and the sake of my status as an artist; indeed, the true artist could hardly ignore them.
Back to my story about failing infrastructure and recalcitrant students: how to write such a wonderful story? Begin with an image. Begin with a character. Begin with a setting. Two students are eating scrambled eggs in a cold classroom at six in the morning. The professor has yet to arrive because class doesn’t start until 7:30. Why have the students arrived so early? Why are they eating scrambled eggs? Why is the classroom so cold they’re forced to keep their coats on? Perhaps I begin my story, and realize I’ve been worried to death about the implications of the historic budget shortfall in the Oklahoma State legislature. Writing further, I realize there’s an American flag hanging in the corner of the classroom. What happens? How does the student, who came to class wearing his coat and hat but did not bring along books or a notebook and certainly not a pen or a pencil, regard the feeling of cold scrambled eggs forming a rock in his stomach at the exact moment he pledges allegiance to the American flag? Perhaps I have some hidden insight into these problems that I didn’t know about until I began writing this story.
Here again, my advice to students is to write toward these insights, but not to begin with them. Whatever insights we might have before we begin writing our stories, poems, and essays might be good for a lark—they might even be good enough for a Facebook post or a pithy tweet—but until the story begins, until the character spits a mouthful of runny scrambled eggs onto the cold floor of the classroom, until the professor walks in and says, “what in the hell is going on here; this American flag wasn’t here yesterday,” until we observe the characters in action, we’re merely talking, talking, talking and not telling a story at all. But it’s a mistake to ignore these insights, these obsessions, these “themes” in favor of some higher standard for artistic creation that never existed to begin with; there’s a reason James Baldwin’s great essay, “The Creative Process” calls the artist “the incorrigible disturber of the peace” and not the high-minded keeper of the peace. We must disturb the peace. Begin with a character. Begin with an image. Begin with a setting. The student spits a mouthful of scrambled eggs at the professor. There’s a disturbance stirring, and we’re listening.