The following was originally posted on my website September 13, 2012 (before it was hacked), but as I was going through material I managed to save, these thoughts still resonated. If you’ve read them before, I hope you don’t mind my re-sharing.On holidays this year, I met up with Angela Dorsey and Barb Cameron (wonderful friends who also happen to be excellent fellow BC writers) for a sushi feast, a bookstore binge, and lots and lots of writerly talk. (Such a needed refuelling and refreshing!)
At one point I asked them why they write. I guess I was looking for some grand eureka. I also asked if there were topics and/or subject matter they personally considered taboo or off limits.
The conversation zipped all over the place in a myriad of fascinating (to me, anyway) directions and off shoots. One comment, made by Angela, particularly struck me: everything she writes must explore something that (for her) is a theme of value.
Other than that, she has no rules regarding things she will or will not write about, or how a theme is explored in terms of language used, situations depicted, etc.
She went on to explain modestly, maybe even a little self-consciously, that by saying that she doesn’t mean every story she writes has some big deep theme (though I’d argue most her stories do). A focus can be as simple (or complex!) as looking for home or valuing friendship.
Work must explore a theme of value. The idea, to me, is profound. Is, perhaps, the Eureka I was looking for when I ventured into my forest of questions.
I have long pondered why some novels’ scenes on difficult subject matters, for example, rape—feel somehow wrong or almost sensationalist, while others on the same topics, perhaps even more graphic in their detail, etc., feel somehow right and important to the story and to your reading/relating to it—even while they’re deeply disturbing or unsettling or rage-invoking or whatever.
In my own work, I’ve worried about crossing the line between honestly exploring and rendering what it’s like to be human and being gratuitous.
My worry was foundless. Theme dictates content. If one’s exploring a theme of value—which resonated with me as something I do, too—events in story, regardless of how graphic, disturbing or sexy they may be, will not feel gratuitous. The work’s objective prevents it.