How To Learn To Use Theme As Art was originally posted here:
Believe it or not, the way to learn to use theme as art is to practice meticulous worldbuilding.
What is meticulous worldbuilding? It doesn't necessarily have to be done consciously. You can program your subconscious to create universes around your characters, to wrap the background around the character in such a way that it makes logical sense that this character would do this thing at this time in the character's life -- and that the blowback from the action it would cause the character to learn an important lesson and change because of it.
But how do you do that? How do you train your subconscious to create universes that "work" in fiction, worlds that are "meticulously" built?
Beginners and amateurs (and outsiders from the writing profession) believe that whatever is going on in their own imaginations constitutes a story, a novel, a movie. They believe what they dream, imagine, wish, hope for, or dread is Art and is an "idea for a story."
Nothing could be farther from the truth -- and still be exactly, precisely, meticulously true at the same time!
When an untrained beginner "has an idea" -- they get fired up with the conviction that this idea is unique, and that its value commercially lies in its uniqueness, and that they therefore must take the advice of lawyers and authors of great properties like Superman and protect themselves from people who want to "steal their idea."
This fallacy leads them swiftly down a blind alley. Some go looking for a ghost writer or co-author -- a writer with writer's skills to "turn this idea into a money maker."
All professionals have been approached by (and mystified by) people who say, "I have this great commercial idea, but I just need someone to write it. I'll give you half the money!"
And all professionals are beset by people who have written a story, novel, script, whatever, and "I just want you to rewrite it; you know, give it a little polish." Or suggestions that they will use to polish it.
The amateur possessed by An Idea seeks a very specific emotional payoff. Nothing a professional writer can do to their material will produce that payoff. That's why there are so many unsuccessful collaborations or ghost-writer contracts. That's why professionals don't want to touch an amateur's idea -- doing so leads into a quagmire of the very internal, very personal, unique-to-the-idea-generator, emotional search for satisfaction.
That imagined satisfaction would come, the amateur believes, from "seeing my story in print." Or on stage or in film.
Hence the huge market for self-publishing. There is a small percentage of books which ought to be self-published -- but it is not a huge market. Predators have enlarged that market because amateurs will pay to see their book in print. What the amateur hasn't grasped is that nobody wants to read their story. The devastation they experience is usually not handled well.
The big gaping difference between the amateur and the professional writer is not whether you make actual money off your words, but rather whether you understand the mechanism inside you that produces IDEAS.
Do you know what an "idea" is, where it comes from, and what to do with it once you have it?
Amateurs believe their ideas are unique and therefore sellable.
Professionals know that among their ideas are a few really valuable ones that can be monetized because the idea is NOT UNIQUE.
If it's personal, it's not sellable but rather "self-indulgent."
A professionally saleable idea is universal. It is a perfect reticulation of an archetype (one archetype per story; not half a dozen of them at once). It can't be given away to another writer to write because everyone already has it. And therefore it can't be stolen.
Hollywood is full of stories about writers who had been circulating a script on a given topic or background - an idea - and when a movie comes out using that idea, the amateur sues the producer or company for plagiarism. As I said - some amateurs don't handle rejection well because they don't understand the concept of An Idea plus the concept of Monetizing An Idea.
The thing which makes an idea worth money to a publisher or producer is that the seeds of it already reside within the audience, and probably every writer on earth, past, present, and future. It will be recognized as "mine" by a vast number of people.
The amateur "has an idea" and it is "mine." And therefore, they believe, proprietary stock in trade.
The amateur who writes such an idea up into a novel or script produces what Marion Zimmer Bradley referred to as a "self-indulgent story." It's a story about themselves, not about humanity.
The amateur is trying to write about his/her own personal experience of the world, of people. The amateur produces what became labeled in Star Trek fanzines as the "Mary Sue" story -- where the main character is an avatar of the author. When the author is not conscious of that mechanism, the resulting story is even worse.
The amateur who is unaware is enthusiastically and ritualistically indulging him/herself telling their own personal story -- without grounding in the archetype.
The professional (even one who has never sold) is not telling their own personal story -- but is telling YOUR STORY, the audience's story, the world's story, a readership or viewership's story -- a constituency's story.
The process of telling someone else's story is not clinical, intellectually distanced, calculated, deliberate.
The professional does something different from what the amateur does only in that moment after the self-indulgent personal story has burst into consciousness.
The professional takes the personal story that erupts from the subconscious and traces it back to its roots in the archetype that runs that professional's own personality.
For more on archetypes and your personality and your personal life and how you fit into the set of patterns common to all humanity -- psychology, timed-patterns of life's challenges, and the "lessons" life hurls at you personally -- see Astrology and the Tarot.
Many of the blazing, world-wide instant classics are actually stories which are visible in the writer's natal chart -- but not in their lives. Karmic stories from past lives, perhaps, or unrealized potential.
If you don't like that esoteric approach, read a lot (hundreds) of biographies and autobiographies, learn sociology, psychology, anthropology, archeology, etc etc. Actually, it's a good idea to have a solid grounding in all these anyway, but Tarot and Astrology do provide shortcuts and for some people clarification. For others, they are nonsense.
The point is that somewhere inside the amateur and the professional writer lies something totally personal, absolutely unique, the purest definition of Identity, which is at the same time also completely universal, utterly common, the purest definition of Society.
Astrology depicts this graphically in the opposition of the 1st House by the 7th House.
So, at the interface between the very, VERY personal -- and the infinite, the divine, the root commonality of all humanity -- Art is born.
At this innermost sanctum of your being, you grok or perceive the core pattern of existence, a core that you share with many other human beings, none of whom are anything like you.
Your recognition of what you have in common with others who are less articulate than you are is your stock in trade, the Art you can monetize commercially.
Yet your recognition has no value without that twist, turn, flip, color, depth, variation on the themes that is uniquely you.
Each human being is likewise unique.
One of the myriad things we have in common, and thus can learn from Art, is how each of us is unique and yet the same.
That's why Hollywood insists that scripts be "fresh and edgy -- totally original" and at the same time "exactly like some big, huge blockbuster success." Huge blockbuster successes are huge because they are rooted in an archetype, something Blake Snyder terms "Primal."
What we all find comfortably familiar is uniqueness.
The Art of storytelling lies in showing (without telling) the reader/viewer how the uniqueness of a character traces back down into the subconscious, deep, deep, abstract, theoretically, ineffably, to that divine spot in Creation where we are all the same.
The Artist (in any medium) connects the celebration of our uniqueness to the safety of our sameness.
That act of showing without telling the nature of the connection between the unique and the archetype is the one skill the professional has -- that the amateur doesn't (yet).
Depicting the connection can be learned -- maybe even taught.
SEEING that connection can not be learned or taught. It is the Art that is born within. It is the core skill of the magician -- perceiving the True Name of a Thing and thus gaining power over that thing.
It is a Gift.
Because of that universal fact, we have the burgeoning field of the Adult Fantasy novel -- thick novels filled with elaborate worldbuilding and characters who are born with magic, and others who are not. It's a juvenile premise -- some have Talent denied to others. But it's juvenile because it's primal, an archetype. Like all archetypes, it's both true and false at the same time. The Archetype exists above the level of reality where true and false first divide (see my books on The Tarot -- The Not So Minor Arcana.)
So the Artist's job is to connect the celebration of our uniqueness (the part the amateur writer gets very well indeed) to the more abstract security and safety of our sameness - the safety in numbers, the safety in protections of Law and Privilege and Riches, the safety of joining a gang, marrying a strong man.
The juxtaposition of Celebration and Safety -- exuberance and relaxation -- the simultaneous experience of these two opposites is exactly analogous to orgasm.
That's why the end of a book is called a climax.
The ability to find that connection is a Gift, a Talent -- a Vision. The connection itself is not yours. You don't own it. You don't have a proprietary interest in it. You can't sell it. The only thing that is yours, that you can sell, is your way of describing that connection.
We haven't discussed this aspect of writing before because the method relies on gaining a solid grasp of what Art is, where it comes from, and how to practice it, either commercially or as "fine art." Commercial fiction is one thing -- Creative Writing is another, more akin to "fine art" than to reaching a huge, artistically illiterate audience.
Previously, we've discussed the thematic sub-structure of various sized stories and how using that thematic backbone lets you paint on a much larger canvas, using more point of view characters.
All these different writing skills we've been discussing previously are actually not a hundred different, separate skills to be mastered only separately. They are actually just one single, unified thing.
Once you have:
1) read about one of these skills (Worldbuilding, Description, Dialogue, Action, Suspense, Exposition (yes, you need exposition, just not in lumps), Pacing, Dramatizing, Characterization, Motivation, Conflict, Resolution, Climax, etc etc)
2)read some more novels, dissecting out how different authors use these individual skills, then tried writing bits and pieces of something exercising that skill
3)then (and only then) you must start to practice integrating them.
Here we're talking about Art-Theme Integration, probably the easiest cross-term to master yet the hardest to describe.
With each and every individual writing skill, you work on it separately, master it separately (producing your million words for the garbage can because a finished Work needs all the skills simultaneously, but you must produce work which uses ONLY ONE skill at a time in order to train your subconscious), then integrate each separate skill with each and every previously mastered skill. Yep. Actually learn to walk and chew gum; pat your tummy and rub your head; whirl a plate on a stick and juggle four balls.
It's a program you put yourself through systematically. Writing is a performing art and you train to do it just exactly the way a ballet dancer trains for the Met. Ballet teachers don't let you go en pointe on day one of your training. Writing teachers don't let you start your magnum opus on day one of the class.
Like any performing art, writing takes training -- much more training than skill or even talent.
The more systematically you work on it -- the faster your subconscious will start to comply. Remember subconscious can not be taught, but it can be trained. It has the intelligence of a dog. You need kindness, consistency, and positive reinforcement not punishment to alter a behavior.
Well, all this is very nice -- very theoretical, very pie-in-the-sky, and very inspiring.
But HOW DO YOU DO IT??
What do you do with your mind to find that vision inside you which SEES the ART with which the universe is put together?
Very simple. You live in the real world. Daily. You pay attention to the real world around you.
That's how you train your subconscious to do fictional worldbuilding. It's the same training a graphic artist goes through. There's a trick to using your eyes to see what is there and how it would look in 2 dimensions that would suggest the 3rd dimension.
If your readers are going to believe the world you build -- it has to be congruent with the world they live in even though it lacks a dimension or more. So you need to learn a trick.
People (you included) live in their own subjective realities -- some components dictated by social sanction, some by personal needs, some by family needs, etc. but all very subjective.
Remember that THEME is a statement that your work of Art makes -- theme is what you have to say about that connection between the infinitely personal and the ineffably universal.
But if you simply write what you have worked out about that connection, you end up with (likely a better selling) a non-fiction work on a topic using a thesis, not a story about a character illustrating a theme.
The THEME is what you have to say. Once you have had "an idea" then traced it back to its roots in the ineffable which resides inside you, found how it connects to everyone else in the world, you are standing there in your mind looking at this discovery, screaming WOW!!!
Now you are seized with an irresistible urge to run back and TELL EVERYONE about this incredible discovery.
NOW I UNDERSTAND!!!! THIS IS IT. THIS IS THE KEY TO THE UNIVERSE! IF EVERYONE KNEW THIS THERE WOULDN'T BE ANY MORE WAR!!!!!!!!!!
That urge to TELL EVERYONE is your theme trying to be born out of your Art.
What are you going to SAY????? To whom? Who would have a chance of understanding this abstract, intangible, free floating feeling of a concept?
If you run out your front door and start babbling to the garbage truck driver -- what will happen?
In my first award winning novel, UNTO ZEOR, FOREVER,
(free chapters at http://www.simegen.com/writers/simegen/ and choose from menu on the left)
there's a quotation I wrote as part of the thematic statement of the novel. This was my second published novel and I did attempt more skills than I had. So I used a "device" to nail the theme -- quotations from a hypothetical work. One of them does, I believe, hold true in the real world.
"You can not give Wisdom as a Gift."
You can't tell someone a fact and transfer your wisdom into their heads.
And if you manage to couch the fact in Art and weave a novel around it -- the readers won't gain the wisdom you injected into it.
Marion Zimmer Bradley quoted this quote: The book the reader reads is not the book the writer wrote.
And that's OK. The reader shouldn't be reading YOUR book. That's what professionals understand that amateurs don't.
Make that credo your touchstone. The book the reader reads is not the book the writer wrote.
You can't go into that astral plane space in your head and bring back wisdom and inject it into the heads of your readers.
All you can do is assure them that there is a connection between their personal individuality and something larger that all humanity shares -- maybe with other species on other planets, too.
Yeah, I know -- that doesn't help at all when you're burning up to TELL THEM EVERYTHING.
So you must take this inner Artistic vision and turn it into 1 to 4 clean, clear, related, statements. This will be the theme, and maybe as many as 3 sub-themes that form the backbone of your work.
Everything in the work will either be derived from the theme or you will have to go through on second draft and select one of the themes from the pea-soup you wrote and then delete everything that doesn't explicate that theme. It's work. It's what you do for a living. Delete.
It's a process. It takes practice to do it with precision.
Now, how do you tell if you've arrived at a thematic statement derived from your artistic vision that actually does reside within most all humanity? Or at least your audience?
You can get lost in your imagination. You need to do a reality check both before you dive into your mind to find the connection between your view of reality and everyone else's view of reality -- and after you've returned with your theme burning holes in your mind.
There are a lot of things writers do on a day to day basis that fosters the subconscious' ability to identify these "universal themes" and to particularize or individualize the universality into something unique that is not the writer's own self.
A lot of writers just wander over to the mall, sit on a bench and people-watch. Actors do that too.
Some go to movies and watch the audience at least as much as they watch the movie.
Some join clubs, do volunteer work, work for the Red Cross disaster services, volunteer for political campaigns. Well, everyone does something like that -- but writers spend their time while doing these things OBSERVING.
That's the key word. OBSERVING. Just like a graphic artist. Just like any performing artist.
Performing Arts usually require 2 opposite skills. First there's the writer who creates the script -- then the actors who perform it. The choreographer who designs the dance -- the dancers who perform it.
Writers find their "script" or choreography or sheet music on the astral plane, in that space inside where the individual connects to the ineffable. The UNIVERSE is already written -- it's your script. Once you've been given your script, you must perform it.
By training your ability to OBSERVE -- like a detective, or a professional athelete, or a river boat pilot, an actor, a musician learning a song by hearing it -- honing your ability to observe until you could happily trust your life to it, you train your subconscious to see the patterns beneath reality.
You will know you have a viable commercial property when you find a self-indulgent, personally inspired IDEA connected to an Archetype which you have seen expressed in your outer-reality in several ways recently. When that happens, it means the universal consciousness is engaged in the issue and ready to listen to what you have to say on the subject. When you have a MATCH between the archetype you have discovered and the subject a lot of people are engaged in, you have a commercial property.
And you can talk about that idea, rave about it to everyone, try your best to 'GIVE IT AWAY' and you won't be able to.
It's commerical value can't be stolen from you, plagiarized, etc -- because it arises from the Art which is uniquely your own. No matter how you shout about it -- no other writer will be able to write your book.
Of course, after you've put all the words down -- yeah, people can steal your words, so they have to be protected by copyright every which way you can think of.
That's the business of writing.
But the professional knows that ideas are cheap, plentiful, but can't be stolen.
Nobody is interested in your personal ideas except you. What is personal to you is personal to you -- boring to anyone else.
Read some biographies and you'll see. What is interesting about a unique person is how they are actually just like you and me.
Isn't that what people are searching for in a Presidential Candidate? Someone they can relate to who understands what life is like for them?
So how do you pull this off? How do you train yourself to see, at one and the same instant, both the intensely personal and the unifying ineffable?
Watch television. You never know what you'll see after you've spent some years training your OBSERVATIONAL SKILLS.
Here's an example. Very personal.
I recently watched a few clips of the Summer Olympic games in China. And I've seen many news clips of Chinese government meetings, stock trading floors, etc. And there were a number of clips I saw of Chinese rescue officials working after a big earthquake.
I SAW at that time, the visible evidence of the underlying social sanctions of the Ancient and Modern Chinese culture -- which I know from archeology and anthropology go back thousands of years.
China is a culture where the individual is secondary, the family, the town, the group is primary. The family name is given first -- the personal name second -- and they don't put a comma between to show they've been reversed in order.
The value of the individual is how they FIT IN - how they are THE SAME. People who work in an assembly plant wear uniforms. They move the same. They gather at the same hour before work to do Tai Chi or some exercises -- all in UNISON.
This never astonished me or attracted my attention before the 2008 political conventions were broadcast.
Of course, China is like that. We all know that. What's to notice?
Many times, I've heard interviews with business people in the new China where it is possible for private individuals to establish businesses. Over and over, I've heard native Chinese who were educated in America point out that China doesn't INNOVATE -- but they're real real good at copying.
With the heating up of the 2008 political campaigns, I had occasion to stare at the US Natal Chart -- we have an Aquarius MC with an Aquarius Moon right on the MC. Our business in the world, our reason for existence is to be DIFFERENT. To Innovate. To Need Freedom! To be individuals first. We have a Cancer (home; mother; apple pie; nurturing; business incubators) on the 2nd House -- our main value is the FAMILY. But the family supports the individual -- not the other way around.
When I saw the conventions in the USA, (a lot of it I watched on C-SPAN so I saw things the networks neglected to broadcast because it's boring) I observed something I had seen before but not observed.
There were thousands of people in the auditorium (for both conventions - same image), and they were all dressed alike, but no two were wearing the same thing. Each day and evening had its "uniform." (casual; dress casual; office casual; semi-formal; formal) But G-d forbid two women would buy their dresses in the same store!
Well, no -- there were some delegations that had adopted hats, scarves, jackets to distinguish their state. DISTINGUISH their individuality. But even the people who were "in uniform" -- were all differently dressed in some other way. Balloons on their heads, stovepipe Dr. Seuss hat, etc. And their body language was distinctive, too.
A similar gathering of Chinese who were intent on the formal installation of a political figure to an office would have been really dressed alike. They would sit in their seats, feet on the floor, eyes front, and cheer in unison in all the right places. In China, ceremony is ceremony.
The USA delegations (both parties) during many of the speeches (except the main ones network broadcast, but even then!!!) milled about their seats, talked to people privately, totally self-absorbed in their conversations, came and went -- whole sections were empty at times -- stopped once in a while to applaud a speaker, and a few actually listened. But each adopted an individual seated posture.
Even during the major speeches, TV interviewers nabbed celebrities for an aside conversation while the other celebrity was speaking!
Both conventions' speakers were speaking to a milling throng of individuals, not an audience.
There I am paralyzed by this VISION -- what would a Chinese citizen who had never seen anything American in their life THINK of America to see this?
I know what I think of China to see the way they behave.
I have seen political conventions, and other huge gatherings of Americans on TV before, and the audiences looked normal to me, un-remarkable, practically invisible. Everyone is like that everywhere I go -- so what's to notice?
Suddenly - everything is to notice! That's what observation is.
My extremely negative reaction to Chinese public behavior must be mirrored in the average Chinese person's reaction to American public behavior.
I would assume the images of the convention delegates' behavior broadcast world wide by at least CNN, if not many other networks, must be telling the Chinese that Americans don't take government seriously, that these American people know they have no sayso in how this election comes out, all decisions are made in the back room just like in China, the people have no power, and that they really don't care who becomes President of the USA anyway. All Americans care about is themselves as individuals.
Most of all, those images of our public behavior have to mean to the Chinese that we have no strength, no substance, no guts, and will be easily beaten.
OK, you may disagree with "what" I saw and how I've expressed it here. That's actually good. It means you have a VISION and therefore are an ARTIST and will eventually find a THEME to turn into a novel.
My point is that from the ambient "reality" I have extracted a contrast-compare essay subject, two cultures alien to one another.
Take that attribute, individuality vs. the collective, and worldbuild a galactic civilization, find characters who are in conflict because of the differing philosophies -- and you have something which can communicate to all the people who have seen these TV images I've described (millions).
Translated into thematic language, you would have Individuality Poisons Society. Or maybe The Individual Must Reign Supreme. Only through the group can prosperity be safe. Humanity's progress depends on the individual secure in personal freedom.
Apply to that some specific individualities, connect the individuals to the archetypes, cut, trim and hone a theme from all that, and you are ready to plot a novel.
Well, you are ready if you've studied enough philosophy to understand the long history of the argument and conflict between the individual and the collective (1st House/ 7th House in Astrology -- which lies athwart the perennial conflict of 10th House, 4th House -- career and home).
You don't study philosophy etc to find out what you think. You need it to know what your readership thinks so you can talk to them in a language they understand.
There is an old adage that you have no doubt seen in almost every book on writing you've read: Write What You Know.
You can't do that if you don't know anything.
It doesn't mean use your own profession, home, family, neighbors, school, education or job as what you write about.
You know this cliche: "I've forgotten more about XYZ than you will ever know!"
What does that mean? Think about it. It means this elder has reached the point of being an ARTIST in his field -- working mostly from the subconscious and thus producing results far superior to those produced by a neo who has to think about everything.
What "you know" -- is what you've forgotten.
And that's what you should write about -- that's where your Art can define THEMES for you.
In order to have forgotten something -- you must first learn it.
So the business of being a commercial writer is the business of learning something about everything. There is no field that isn't professional training for a writer.
That's nice because writer-types generally have an eclectic and far-ranging curiosity about everything but don't tend to stick with a subject long enough to become professional in it, at least not unless it involves the use of words.
Once you have a firm grasp of how the world works, and how it looks and seems to others, you can build fictional worlds that seem realistic to others. To accomplish that, you will have to use Theme as your main Artistic Medium.
So if you're a professional writer, you have an excuse to self-indulgently become a dilettante!
But that only works if you then use what you've forgotten to produce deathless prose!
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