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Wisdom Harvests the Tree of Knowledge

Many great writers have used the themes from their own lives as the themes in their books and stories. Do you know what your themes are?

What is the theme of your life? Everybody has at least one; most of us have a number of them, each taking a turn in the spotlight, and then fading for a time. However, it may not have occurred to you to see things in that way. Writers consciously make use of themes in their works so they are accustomed to employing them as an important aspect of writing fiction. Not surprisingly, many great writers use the themes from their own lives as the themes in their books and stories. To put it another way, writers tend to write about what deeply interests or preoccupies them. Readers tend – often unconsciously – to choose writers and books that deal with their own themes.

Writers embody the theme or “idea” behind any particular story in the work’s characters, places, and events. They usually settle on a strategy during the conception and design stage of the writing process. You might say that the basic theme or idea of a novel has something to do with what the author “loves well.” In the course of the story, authors contrast what they love with what they reject, thus clearly presenting the theme, and their position on it, to the reader.

Regular visitors to this blog will recognize my themes in the assorted posts, although some get more exposure than do others. You are probably visiting this blog precisely because some of my themes are also your themes. I am sure you have already realized that it is not necessary to have the same viewpoint on a theme to share that theme.

What Are My Themes?

As you can see, the things I “love well” comprise a package of related and overlapping ideas. Whenever I lose sight of my dominant themes, my life begins to flounder. You may already be aware that the same is true for you. Here are a few of my less dominant themes:

Examples of What Classic Authors Have Loved Well:

  • Henry James – Europe and its culture. Although American, James lived in England and often toured on the continent. He filled his novels with contrasts between Americans and Europeans.
  • Ernest Hemingway – courage and death. We all know the stories of Hemingway’s macho lifestyle. His novels are legend.
  • E. M. Forster – human decency, freedom from artificial constraints and constrictions. The Merchant Ivory films (A Room with a View, Howard’s End, A Passage to India, etc.) of Forster’s novels have made his themes familiar to millions.
  • D. H. Lawrence – sex. Or as Colin Wilson more elaborately put it, “social life distorts us and prevents self-realization.” Lawrence challenged conventional morals with such novels as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Rainbow. He sought to find an English vocabulary for writing about sex in the more open way practiced by the French.
  • T. S. Eliot – religion. After living an ascetic life for years, Elliot converted to Anglicanism. His poetry is an expression, and extension, of his spiritual beliefs.
  • Albert Camus – justice. Camus was born in Algeria and became caught up in the moral aspects of that nation’s ruthless war of independence against colonial France.
  • Bernard Shaw – evolution. He was against the Darwinian kind, however, and considered it ugly. Shaw was a member of the Fabian Society, an organization of English socialists aiming to achieve socialism by non-revolutionary methods. They believed in slow but steady change. His plays often dealt with moral, economic, and political issues, especially the promotion of his own socialist ideals.
  • H. G. Wells – science. Wells combined his love of science with a burning desire to live by his pen. The result of his search for commercially viable books based on science was such novels as War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and The Invisible Man.

I will mention just one example of a contemporary writer’s theme. Booker Prize winner Penelope Lively’s work often deals with the effect of the past on the present. I have singled her out because I happen to like this theme and it is becoming remarkably popular.

Preoccupation with Themes

As I have already noted, the nature of their work makes writers more conscious of life themes than are most people. As is the case for everyone, the themes that preoccupy a writer are laid down or, if genetically determined, activated in childhood. Once established, a theme undergoes a process of evolution. It begins to unfold and develop by picking up related information and integrating relevant life experience. The mind, equipped with its set of major and minor themes, becomes an evolving system. As adults, writers incorporate their themes in their work, where they continue to unfold and develop in ever-greater complexity and subtlety. Occasionally, significant insights will lead to paradigm shifts, whereupon the writer moves to a deeper understanding of the themes with which they grapple.

The Life-long Commitment to Themes

Since the themes in their work are so often themes in their lives, writers sometimes display life-long commitments to their dominant themes. One might say that writers embody their theme, or that the theme is incarnated within them. This reality leads to the phenomenon of recurrent themes where an author will return repeatedly to ideas that are related. Canadian poet and prose writer Duncan Campbell Scott wrote stories with themes like the growth of self-knowledge, the effects of emotion and time, the devotion and tensions of family life, the commitment to one’s fellows. The practice reflects writers’ attempts to explore and understand the themes in their own lives.