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Writing: Is It Themes or Story?

In 2013, a study by three researchers at the University of Toronto suggested that people who read literary fiction are more comfortable with ambiguity, tend to avoid snap judgments and can deal better with disorder and uncertainty. Publishing in the Creativity Research Journal, the researchers found that reading fiction may help people open their minds. (You don’t have to read the entire study; a short and succinct article in Salon translates the study from the original Academic-ese.)

Business executives don’t read novels to help them make decisions. But perhaps they should read novels to help them understand the culture around them. They might make better decisions as a result.

I spent a career writing non-fiction – speeches, articles, reports, studies, and essays. And I read the business stuff I had to read – The Wall Street Journal and a multitude of business and trade publications. But I also read a considerable amount of fiction and poetry, and the understanding followed was reflected in my career work. I don’t think I could have written a lot of what I did without having read Charles Dickens, for example, or The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (as bad a novel as it was, it changed the laws governing food production).

Reading fiction and poetry also leads me to ask myself questions, like “What are you trying to say in your own fiction?”

I have three published novels and a fourth is in the works. I would be kidding myself and everyone else if I claimed to have had specific themes in mind when I started writing. What I had was the story at hand, a story that kept insisting it be told. I wasn’t thinking of grand ideas or themes; I was completely focused on telling a story, a story that often seemed to have a life of its own and characters who did things I didn’t plan on them doing.

In On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts, Charity Craig (co-author with Ann Kroeker) says this: “We have something to say that can come only from us. Though we often find ourselves, our lives, in the pages of others, what’s missing? Where is the story, the perspective, the hope that only I can express? I can look and look for it, but I’ll never find it until I sit down and write.”

I can reread those three novels now, and I can see the themes and ideas. But they were not, and are not, intentional. But they’re there, and I didn’t really know what they were until I sat down to write:

There is nobility in the world. There are people who know, and who live, what it means to serve.

It is possible to act honorably, no matter what trials or disasters one faces.

There is evil in the world, but it will not overcome the good.

The best way to teach people about God is to live as God would have you live.

Forgiveness is a gift, a gift to give and a gift to receive.

If I had been determined to write a novel with any of themes as my purpose, I likely would have written a very bad novel.

Photograph by Luke Stackpoole via Unsplash. Used with permission.

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