Sunday, August 30, 2009

Title and Theme

Note to self: and tip to up-and-coming writers: do not rely on Spellcheck. Otherwise you may end up keeping a dairy, as I apparently do. And I know nothing at all about cows. Though I did quite a bit of research on this for my last novel, which you will hear more about as we go.

If there is not a Murphy’s Law for writers, there should be. And it would state: Much like invisible ink, certain mistakes will not appear until after it’s too late to change it. Corollary: such mistakes will be an embarrassment.

Not that I would be embarrassed to say I keep a dairy. If I did. What embarrasses me is that I am a stickler for typos that slip unnoticed into professional work, from business letters to publications. I’m the one who will email a website to point one out.

But I digress.


The working title of my novel is Current Events, because originally each of the main protagonist’s family members were employed in one way or another with news or the media. That has changed, and so will the title – I already know that. But I’m sticking with it for now.

Here is how the storyline came about. Some years ago I went through a stressful, even traumatic, work-related situation that caused me to quit my job. Each time I spoke about it, it became clear to me that no one – not family or close friends – really understood. Tea and sympathy didn’t cut it. At one point I remember following my aunt around a shopping mall trying to tell her about it, just needing someone to listen, but she kept moving away from me, from one store display to another. I didn’t see it at the time, but later I realized either she really was more interested in men’s socks, or else she was choosing not to involve herself in her niece’s private business. And there I was, following her around, practically picking up my tale in mid-sentence each time she moved away. Aware of what I was doing, i.e., talking to a wall. But so in need – not of sympathy, but of making a connection. Of feeling that I was being heard.

Out of that experience came an awareness which proved itself again and again over the years. How the people who profess to know us best, often don’t know us at all, and don’t even want to. How they are not all that interested in knowing us. Easier to assume we are still the same child who pushed her cousin into the lake (brat) or spoke out of turn (know-it-all). The family dynamic is set when we are that age; in their eyes we never grow up.

When this work incident was still fresh in my mind, I began a short story about Caitlin, a woman who returns to her parents’ home, needing, as Dr. Phil calls it, a soft place to fall. She has just gone through something like I did. Note: beyond this, there is no parallel here to my own experience. Caitlin spends a week trying to get her family to understand why she had to quit her job, why she is moving, why she is having such a hard time. In the short story it is her mother she follows around a store because she cannot pin her down at home, cannot get her to sit still for half an hour and do something so simple: just listen. Like so many mothers of that generation, hers didn’t know how to listen. She only knew how to talk.

I never finished the short story. I could never bring it to a satisfying conclusion. But the idea of working with that family dynamic stayed with me.

That became the core of the novel, the theme, the central concept around which the plot hangs. The core, the theme, isn’t always obvious to me while I am writing. Sometimes I need to put some distance between me and the finished piece before I can say what it is about. I could tell you the plot. But when a person says, “What’s that novel about?” I never know how to answer. Is it about a boy from a dairy farm who goes away to find himself, only to wind up back on the farm? (Plot) Or, is it a cross-generational exploration of the different ways a man can value a piece of property. (Theme) Both happen to be true of my novel with the cows – the one with the four close calls.

Sometimes it takes someone else to point out your theme. Sometimes when that happens I think they are out to lunch. That’s okay; I don’t have to agree. And I don’t really care if a person gets something else out of my work – it’s a compliment, in fact. When there is more than one way to view something it can imply a depth – and that is a good thing. I only have problems when that person tries to tell me (and it has happened) that theirs is the only interpretation.

In the case of Current Events, the novel, the theme has been strong from the beginning. Perhaps because I’ve been thinking about it for so long, and because I did work on it as a short story. So I find myself writing to the theme, aware of it at all times. My concern now is to not make that obvious.

So now we have a title: Current Events.
And a theme: how we are misperceived by those who should know us best - our families.

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