I wrote the following article for a guest blog post on the wonderful blog, The Book Connection. Check it out here for some great info and insights about books and reading.
“We’re all strangers connected by what we reveal, what we share, what we take away–our stories. I guess that’s what I love about books–they are thin strands of humanity that tether us to one another for a small bit of time, that make us feel less alone or even more comfortable with our aloneness, if need be.”
I spent thirty years as a high school English teacher before I left the confines of the classroom and became a full-time writer. I still chuckle, however, when I think of the questions commonly listed in well-intentioned curriculum guides, that ultimately led to tortured and puzzled expressions on the faces of the seventeen year olds sitting in my classroom.
One of the most popular questions was, “What is the theme of this novel?”
Here’s how the discussion usually went:
STUDENT: What’s a theme, Mrs. DeLuca?
MRS.D: A theme is a thought or idea the author presents to the reader that may be deep, difficult to understand, or even moralistic (standard definition from most literary guides). It can be extracted while reading the work.
MRS. D: ( throwing the literary guide aside)Well, it’s a message about life that the author wants to communicate to you, the reader.
MRS. D: Because it’s important to that writer. Important enough to want many people to know about it.
STUDENT: And how do you know that?
MRS D: Because I’m a writer and that’s what drives me to sit alone for hours on end in my office, in the hope that one day someone – maybe you – will find a connection with my theme, my message, my idea, my story. That you will share a place, a character, an image, an idea that was meaningful to me - that resonates with you and has an emotional impact on you. That links you in some way with me, the writer.
Each story we write is driven by a desire to share something unique with the reader. In my first novel, The Pitman’s Daughter, I wanted to transport the reader to an impoverished mining village in North-Eastern England during the 40’s and 50’s, where people fought to survive and ultimately escape to a better life. In my YA novel, The Forever Ones, I wanted to pose the chilling question, If we could genetically modify people to stay nineteen forever, who would control the technology? Big Corporation or Big Crime? In my novel, Unnatural, I wanted to explore the terrible injustices Victorian women suffered when eminent “mind doctors” claimed an indisputable link between reproductive problems and insanity.
In all cases I hoped the reader would uncover the important idea that inspired me to write the novel. That even though they didn’t live in that time or place, they could find something in the story that was relevant to their own life experience. In other words, a connection.
My experience with all those high school students showed me, however, that books resonate in different ways with different people. That’s the beauty of reading – of sharing the human experience. The writing process becomes even more rewarding when the conversation goes both ways. When the writer reads reviews or joins the book club discussion of his/her book, the connection becomes even stronger as both reader and writer share common perspectives, experiences and emotions, those “thin strands of humanity” that link us all.
Oh – and by the way – those tortured students really came to understand this idea when they wrote their own stories. They really had to think about what they were trying to communicate to their readers. It was the most scary but thrilling experience for them to share their stories with trusted peers in a secure workshop setting. That’s when they learned the most about each other and about what unites us as human beings. A lesson I hope they’ll never forget.