By Steven Pressfield
Published: July 27, 2016
Here’s an exercise to drive you crazy:
Ask yourself, “What is the theme of my life?”
I suggest this for two reasons. First, because it’s so hard for us as writers to grasp the idea of “theme.” What the hell is it anyway? How is it different from “subject?” From “concept?” An exercise like this (aside from being fairly mind-bending) is a great way to get a sense of exactly what “theme” means.
My second reason is because I was watching the documentary about Tony Robbins last night, “I Am Not Your Guru.” I only got to watch the first quarter of it, so I may have grokked its message prematurely and incorrectly. But my early assessment is that a lot of what Tony Robbins does in his “Date With Destiny” 6-day events is to force the attendees (often one-on-one and very much in-their-face) to at least consider the question, “What is the theme of your life?”
“Who are you?”
“What is your destiny?”
“Why were you put on Earth?” “Is there something that you, and only you, are equipped to do? What is that—and why the hell aren’t you doing it?”
At this point, lemme let Tony Robbins off the hook and continue only in my own voice, turning to what only I myself believe.
The hardest aspect for most of us to grasp about such questions as “What is the theme of your life?” and “What is your destiny?” is simply the seemingly egomaniacal idea that our lives do have a theme and that we ourselves do have a destiny.
Do you believe that? You? Me? One of seven billion egos/bodies/carbon units on the planet? Us? Isn’t that pretty exalted? Pretty megalomaniacal?
Or let’s put it another way: what is the theme of your life as a writer? The theme in your work?
It’s one of my bedrock beliefs that we discover who we are, not just by our actions (though that’s a big part of it) but, if we’re artists, by the works we produce. What films has Matt Damon made? What poems did Sylvia Plath write? What albums has Beyonce recorded? Is there a theme to the collected works of Bob Dylan?
What about you and me? Have we written (or even partially-written) more than one work? What do these works have in common? Is there a thread running through them?
If a graduate student in Literature were to examine our writings, even our uncompleted works and works in progress, what theme would he or she identify within them?
If you’re a reader of this blog, you know that I believe in previous lives. I believe that you and I did not arrive in this dimension “in utter nakedness,” as Wordsworth once wrote, but as already highly-individuated and evolved souls.
Yes, I believe in destiny.
Destiny = theme.
Do we have a purpose, you and I? Yes. Were we put here for a reason? Yes. What is that reason? That’s our job: to find out. To find out and to act upon that finding-out.
If we’re artists we find out what our destiny/theme is by doing our work, even if we have no idea why we’re doing it, why a specific idea seized us, why we were compelled to write about the stuff we’re compelled to write about. Write it first, then step back and ask, “What the hell was that about?” What does it tell me about my own preoccupations, my passions, my obsessions?
That’s our theme.
That’s our destiny.
If you watch the Tony Robbins documentary, you’ll see that he uses extreme methods of theater, of confrontation, of personal proximity, touch, voice, profanity. Why? I think it’s because most of his event attendees are so young. They haven’t been on the planet long enough, or had enough experiences to provide them with a graspable reflection of who they are, what they want, what their destiny might be. So Tony has to shake them up. He has to rattle their cages, not just to wake them up so that they’re receptive to something, but to seed the belief that they do have a destiny, they do have a theme, their life is about something.
For you and me as artists, time and the work itself will tell us our theme. What do we love? What subjects capture us? And how does our treatment of these subjects change and evolve over time? Do we “solve” one issue and move on to the next? How is Issue #12 related to Issue #1? Did Sarah Vaughn’s last album display an evolution from her first?
What was her theme? What is mine?
What is yours?
Posted in Writing Wednesdays
ADDITIONAL READING » ON WRITING
by Mamet, David
Technically this isn’t a book about writing. It’s about Tinseltown and David Mamet’s love-hate relationship with it. But, along with Mamet’s witty and cantankerous evisceration of show biz, Bambi vs. Godzilla delivers masterly and extremely useful insights on getting movies made, surviving criticism, paying the rent and in general surviving Hollywood while retaining some scrap of sanity and integrity. Mamet is not just any writer. When he takes on a subject, you get it in context succeeding context—commercial, aesthetic, moral, ethical, legal, Talmudic, Tantric and Vedic. It’s like reading Thucydides if he’d loaded his stuff into a ’65 Mustang and split for the Coast.
by Phillips, Larry W.
Papa never actually sat down and wrote a book about writing. Rather, editor Larry Phillips has compiled 140 pages of hard-core Hemingwayisms from the author’s books, stories, and letters. Great material, particularly the fragments of correspondence to Scott Fitzgerald.
by Lukeman, Noah
As an agent and editor, Noah Lukeman read thousands of manuscripts from aspiring writers. He got to where he could tell in the first five pages if a submission was worth his time. In this gem of a book, he tells you the most common mistakes writers make—and how to eradicate them from your manuscript.
by Williams, Nick
A no-nonsense how-to manual and psych-yourself-up kit, for those of us who sometimes need a swift kick in the butt to get us going.
by Steinbeck, John
When he was writing East of Eden, Steinbeck kept a journal—just a few pages each morning, which he’d scribble as a kind of warm-up before turning to the actual manuscript. Fascinating insights into the writer’s life, inside and outside the covers of a book.
by McKee, Robert
I always say that McKee is not only the best teacher of writing I’ve ever seen, but the best teacher of anything. I’ve taken this three-day intensive course twice—and I’ll take it again. Yes, McKee has been spoofed (in the movie Adaptation) and lionized (in a New Yorker profile.) But that’s because he’s the best. Full disclosure: McKee and I are friends. McKee wrote the foreword for The War of Art. McKee teaches this class in cities all over the U.S. and Europe, even as far away as Israel and Singapore.
by McKee, Robert
This is the book that goes with Robert McKee’s Story Seminar. Terrific for writers in all media, but take the “live” McKee first. You’ll get more out of the book if you’ve heard the man deliver his stuff in-person.