Good writing is difficult for many reasons. Let me count the ways.
1. For the most part, there’s no “one right way,” no universal standards of quality. Even the laws of grammar are forever in flux, subject to the influence of what’s currently popular in literature, in traditional media and even in social media. Sure, experience has taught us many principles that form the basis of what we now judge to be effective writing. Yet, sadly, none of us will ever earn a congratulations-you-have-arrived-at-100-per-cent-writing-proficiency badge. Language is flexible. That is its beauty, its majesty, its mystery. And its bane. In other words, writing is not math.
2. It requires endless decision making. Just when you’ve decided upon what to write, you need to decide upon which related ideas to mention. Just when you’ve decided how to begin a sentence with the PERFECT word, and what length the sentence should be, and whether its subject should come early on or later, and whether to append clauses and phrases for greater complexity, and which word will receive pride of place at the caboose, for maximum punch; just then you must do it all over again for the next sentence, only this time bearing in mind that the the new sentence must complement and/or provide contrast to the previous one. And when you’ve pinned down the JUST-RIGHT word over here, you need to pluck a new unbeatable choice over there. Paragraphs must work together. Redundancy must be weeded out. Ideas must echo and support one another. Structure must be established and maintained. And so on, and so forth, ad nauseum.
3. It reflects the writer’s soul. Because writing is an art, the web of words woven by the writer ensnares something of his or her essence. This opens a writer to judgment in a very personal way. When the relationship between writer and reader is good, there is a profound intimacy. Which is why we curl up with a good book. Which is why I feel like Stephen King and Kazuo Ishiguro and Suzanne Collins are three of my closest pals. The flip side of this dynamic is the possibility of being exposed shamefully to the world. No one wants to be rejected. But writing requires rejection. At least, sharing writing does. And, except when to clarify one’s own thinking, writing is pointless if not shared eventually. So the eighth grade students in my classes must risk rejection nearly every school day, every time I ask them to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Welcome to Literacy!
4. It requires deeply analytical thinking. Obviously, right?
And that brings me to the subject of theme, the focus of my recent lessons.
Think for a moment about the original Toy Story.
What would you say is this film’s most important theme? (Disclaimer: I point to Toy Story for purposes of discussion, because I anticipate that a majority of my students and my blog readers are familiar with the story.)
A. “Together we can accomplish anything.”
B. “Never give up.”
C. “You’ve got a friend in me.”
D. None of the above.
I hope you chose D, because, though Toy Story conveys each of these theme choices (except that C needs rewording), none expresses the film’s most significant theme, which is:
“True leadership and happiness depend on fulfilling one’s life purpose.”
How do I arrive at this conclusion? Arriving at the answer constitutes the meat of my recent classroom lessons. So let’s start at the beginning…
What is theme?
According to dictionary.com, theme is “a unifying or dominant idea, motif, etc., as in a work of art.”
More specifically, it is the message from the author to the reader (or viewer, or audience, or…) Authors convey many messages via theme, symbolism, metaphor, characterization and so on, but a key theme depends on a story’s principal player(s), typically one protagonist, and it usually stems from a character flaw or problem. If we know the protagonist’s greatest flaw or problem, we can trace throughout the path of the story any related change or growth, and by story’s end we will typically find that the narrative’s trajectory points to the author’s message, the key theme.
Who is the protagonist?
In Toy Story, though Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear share the spotlight, Woody is the protagonist because he is the character faced with the most significant (in human terms) problem: impending loss of power, influence and control; and deposition from his long-held status as Andy’s favorite toy and as leader of the toy box.
What is the greatest character flaw?
Woody’s greatest flaw is pride. He is indignant when Buzz wows the crowd with his novelty, his laser and his impressive wingspan. Consider the following exchange:
Mr. Potato Head: Hey, a laser! How come *you* don’t have a laser, Woody?
Woody: It’s not a laser! It’s a…
[sighs in frustration]
Woody: It’s a little light bulb that blinks.
Hamm: What’s with him?
Mr. Potato Head: Laser envy.
Laser envy indeed. Cheeky pun… and point taken. Woody envies Buzz. He’ll never be a Space Ranger dedicated to the cause of immobilizing the Evil Emperor Zurg. He’ll never sport his own wrist-mounted laser gun or even a little light bulb that blinks. He’ll never engage a pair of retractable wings and fall with style. Could it be that his days are numbered? The thought alone stings. Being the original Sheriff of Andy’s Room, Woody can’t abide the prospect of a new sheriff in town. He won’t stand for it. His pride won’t let him.
To what does this flaw lead?
In Toy Story, Woody’s flaw of pride leads to his and Buzz’s separation from their boy, Andy. Early in the film, Woody, hurt and desperate, attempts to run Buzz down with R/C in order to knock him behind the desk so that he will be out of view when Andy chooses a toy to bring with him to Pizza Planet. When Woody’s plan misfires and launches Buzz from his windowsill perch, out of Andy’s room, Woody is not remorseful but delighted to have his new nemesis out of hair and presumably out of his life. A series of unfortunate events leads to Buzz imprisoned in a sadistic (from a toy’s perspective) neighbor boy’s toy grave of a bedroom, to Woody accused of Buzz’s murder, and to Woody’s banishment from Andy’s room by his formerly loyal supporters. Left with no other option, Woody must rescue Buzz to exonerate himself and win back his honor and his place in Andy’s room.
Observe the following scene snippet, in which Woody and Buzz are momentarily homeless and hopeless, and they’re ready to rip out each other’s throats:
Buzz: [Woody, scared, walks backwards and he gets startled by Buzz. Buzz keeps talking to his "mission log"] And according to my navi-computer, the…
Woody: [whispering] SHUT UP! Just, SHUT UP, you idiot!
Buzz: Sheriff, this is no time to panic.
Woody: This is a perfect time to panic! I’m lost, Andy is gone, they’re gonna move to their new house in two days, AND IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!
Buzz: Mine? My fault? If you hadn’t pushed me out of the window in the first place…
Woody: Oh yeah? Well, if *you* hadn’t shown up with your stupid little cardboard spaceship and taken away everything that was important to me…
Which was Woody’s position of prominence and especially his pride. His pride injured, he snapped. And he and Buzz both paid a steep price.
What changes? What is learned?
Woody changes once he realizes that he’s lost sight of the prize. Just as Buzz learns that he really can’t fly, that he really is a toy and not a bona fide Space Ranger, Woody realizes that being a toy means putting Andy’s needs first always. His life’s purpose is to make Andy happy. In his own way, he forgot that he is a toy.
Here we pick up where the last excerpt left off. When Woody shouts at Buzz, he is missing the irony in the fact that he too is a toy, and his actions have led to their homelessness and their sudden status as LOST TOYS!
Buzz: Don’t talk to me about importance! Because of *you*, the future of this entire universe is in jeopardy!
Woody: WHAT? WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?
Buzz: Right now, poised at the edge of the galaxy, Emperor Zurg has been secretly building a weapon with the destructive capacity to annihilate an entire planet! I alone have information that reveals this weapon’s only weakness. And *you*, my friend, are responsible for delaying my rendezvous with Star Command!
Woody: [pauses and looks incredulous] YOU! ARE! A! TOYYYYY! You aren’t the real Buzz Lightyear! You’re – you’re an action figure!
[holds hand up to eyes indicating something small]
Woody: You are a child’s play thing!
Buzz: You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity.
[waves in military fashion]
[starts to walk away]
Woody: Oh, yeah? Well, good riddance, ya loony!
In this diatribe Woody is identifying the solution to his own problems, only he doesn’t know it. He needs to discover the true meaning of being a toy, to refocus and to work with his fellow toys, including Buzz, in order to marginalize their own needs and desires and prioritize one thing: serving Andy.
…again, that the theme is:
“True leadership and happiness depend on fulfilling one’s life purpose.”
The specific lesson is that Woody’s happiness and his status as a true leader depend on fulfilling his life purpose of serving Andy. But for theme we must generalize from the story specifics to what the author wants us to take away for our own lives. The generic version of the theme quoted above applies to us all.
And so, in Room 134…
On Friday in my classes students practiced expressing themes carefully and accurately. Thursday night’s homework was to finish reading a short story suitable to each student’s reading level. Some read Rudyard Kipling’s “Rikki-tikki-tavi,” some read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” some read Anton Chekov’s “The Bet” and others read Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” They all collected their thoughts on sticky notes as they read, attempting to trace text evidence for theme throughout the narrative. Yesterday they worked in groups to share and discuss what they had read and the notes they had jotted.
This was no easy task. In “Rikki-tikki-tavi,” for example, no character learns or changes much. So readers needed to formulate theme by comparing the ways in which two different families in the story, protagonist and antagonists, serve their families. In “The Lottery,” readers needed to see that the community as a whole must be viewed as a character. In “Bartleby,” readers needed to come to grips with the fact that the eponymous protagonist dies because he does not learn or change.
Despite the difficulty of the task, most students discussed the stories intelligently, probing extensively and analyzing closely until arriving (with guidance) at their own statements of theme. Here is a sampling of what they wrote:
Students’ Theme Statements
“Good families protect each other but do not kill others to provide for the family.” (“Rikki-tikki-tavi”)
“People need to change when times change.” (“The Lottery”)
“A community that thinks that the ends justify the means will be ruined.” (“The Lottery”)
“A community that isn’t open to change will destroy itself.” (“The Lottery”)
“Knowledge can lead you through life if you embrace it.” (“The Bet”)
“When you walk away from greed, freedom will greet you.” (“The Bet”)
“Greed blinds you from the true meaning of life.” (“The Bet”)
“Greed blinds you from suffering, but wisdom will set you free.” (“The Bet”)
“Untreated depression will eventually take over your life, and soul.” (“Bartleby, the Scrivener”)
“Depression consumes your soul, leading to lack of purpose and motivation and ultimately death.” (“Bartleby, the Scrivener”)
In my favorite movie, A Christmas Story, when Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields assigns the class A THEME she is not, of course, referring to the sort of theme I have been talking about; but perhaps she might as well have been, because when teachers ask students to do the hard work of thinking critically, the look on many of their faces is one that seems to be crying, “Awwwwwww!”
Yes, thinking hard is hard. Yet once we get used to it, we gain confidence and hard also becomes fun. In my class, that’s what we’re aiming for!
(Or, for the purists: In my class, it is for this that we are aiming!)
Note: What I call theme is often referred to as “author’s message.” The latter is really a more specific expression of the former. Some might, for example, say that the key theme in Toy Story is “fulfilling one’s life purpose” and the author’s message is “True leadership and happiness depend on fulfilling one’s life purpose.”