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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

What's your theme? by Kaye Spencer

One of my sister Prairie Roses, Gail Jenner, wrote a blog on April 6th (Easter, Spring...Thoughts on the Season) that prompted me to look inward at my own writing, which is the topic of my essay today. You can read her blog in its entirety here:

This is the excerpt that resonated with me.

[Gail wrote:] Last night I decided that even the most trivial story carries an element of something deeper, or does it?  Are we satisfied with the words we select and with the stories and/or themes we portray? Is it any accident that certain stories resonate with us and demand to be heard?

My response to this metaphorical question is, no, it isn't an accident that certain stories resonate with us, both as readers and as writers. Stories that stay with us long after we've read THE END are stories in which the author has masterfully crafted all the elements that make up a story. For a quick creative writing lesson, these elements are:

Of these story-structure components, theme is the glue that holds the story together. To take Gail's thoughts about theme and take them down my own metaphorical path, theme is the message the author intends (consciously or subconsciously) to communicate to the reader.

It's not uncommon for an author to write all their stories around one or two themes. As readers, we turn to stories with themes that "speak" to us. Think about those few special books that stay with you.  What is at the heart of the story that makes it so memorable? Identifying that 'something' can be elusive. We can't quite get our hands on it, but we know it at an instinctive, visceral level, and we return for more.

I know my theme. It's loneliness. Not being lonesome, not being alone, not being lonely, but the utter hopeless agonizing heartache of loneliness.

Loneliness shows up in every story I write. I can't not keep it out. But where did this loneliness come from?

Perhaps it was my only-child upbringing until I was 13, or that I was a loner all through school (still am) with few friends. Experiencing a difficult mother/teenage daughter relationship may also have influenced my feelings of loneliness. Could my tendency toward loneliness stem from the traumatic brain injury I suffered at 18 and the resulting *holes* it left in my life from the loss of many of my childhood memories? Or did an early, and ultimately disastrous marriage, and then raising three children on my own have something to do with it? Other factors could have been my battle with clinical depression (eventually won that war) throughout my twenties and into my thirties only to have panic/anxiety attacks muscle past the depression.

Maybe there are no reasons.
                     Maybe it’s a combination of all my experiences.
                                      Maybe it’s just how I’m hardwired.

Whatever the reasons (real or imagined), it's no wonder I titled my first published novel, Lonely Places. It was published about 27 years after I started it. Lonely Places is the work of my heart in which I poured my fears; my fist-raised-to-the-sky-anger at life's challenges; my hanging onto my rope of hopefulness in the face of hopelessness; and, ultimately, my ever present feelings of loneliness. The story is largely autobiographical, although set in the Old West of the late 1800s. I wrote this story for me. I self-medicated (so-to-speak) through writing. I wrote to keep hold of my sanity when I thought I’d suffocate from what life was throwing my way. But, this story survived as I survived. It matured as I matured. I didn’t give up on this story, and it helped me not to give up on me.

[Aside] Just in case you’ve grabbed a tissue—not to worry. I had a fun/good childhood, and I’ve lived a satisfying, adventure-filled life, so don’t break out the sad violin music just yet. *grin* 

Now, for your loneliness listening angst, here is Marty Robbins with Mr. Shorty, which is, at its core theme, a story about the hopeless isolation of loneliness. This verse, beginning at 40 seconds into the song, is the part that gets to me every time.

There in his blue eyes was sadness
That comes from the need of a friend
And tho' he tried, he still couldn't hide
The loneliness there, deep within.

[Another Aside]  Lonely Places, with a sequel in the works, is currently out-of-publication and undergoing 2nd edition revision.

So, my questions for you are...

As a writer, if you have a recurring theme that runs through your stories? (share?? *hint hint*)

As a reader, are you drawn to stories with certain themes? What about these stories speaks to you so you keep coming back for more?

Until next time,


Twitter - @kayespencer


  1. Interesting reading, Kaye, and definitely spurs me to thinking.

    Most all my books are about truth emerging from deception. Even the ones that don't, do. My short stories are all over the map, though. Hmm. I'll have to think about it more and see if I can come up with a theme that touches on all my work.

    1. Jacquie,

      It is interesting to dig down inside what makes us tick as writers. My stories often have an underlying message about redemption, trust, and perseverance. With my female characters, they eventually discover the empowering independence of their inner strength.

  2. Kaye, I am swept away by your courage to reveal your true self in this article.
    Although I have defined my theme for my stories in a sentence, I have never done it in a word. I have also not recognized my unintended theme until I read your article. I had to really get down and think about it after reading your article.
    Underneath even my intended theme is often a theme revolving around maternal love, either the lack of it, or the introduction of it by a nurturing character. Although my mother and I were very close, she was frequently very sick from rheumatic heart disease which, eventually took her life when she was only 54. Because of her illness, she was often hospitalized or at home, but confined to bed. Sometimes I felt guilty because I wanted a healthy mom who could go places and do things with me. Often, I felt a lack of nurturing because of her frequent illness and receded into my own world where I could write stories about how I wished things could be. But, taking a serious look at what I write, I see now what is at the base of my story lines and all my motherless characters.

    1. Sarah,

      You made me smile with your comment about revealing my true self. :-) I wrote and rewrote this blog post to keep it from turning into a maudlin poor-poor-pitiful-me True Confessions essay. *wink*

      I empathize with you about yearning for "mother love". I grew up in an upper middle class, stable mom/dad/younger siblings/grandparents environment, but my parents were not demonstrably affectionate to each other, and my mother was never and still isn't affectionate toward anyone. Does it make sense, though, that I still knew I was loved, but not because of words or physical touch. This aspect of my life comes through in my stories at times. In fact, in a novel of mine that PRP will publish in a few months, the arms-length relationship between the heroine of the story and her mother is very much what I've experienced.

  3. Hi Kaye:

    Great post! I'm flattered my own triggered such a powerful response. I feel exactly as you about theme. As a writer--but as a teacher before that and as a reader before that -- I have also found 'theme' the core of great writing and stories! For me??? I think I'm a 'forgiveness' and/or 'redemption' kind of gal. I look to find hope in every life, too. I have been accused of being a Pollyanna at times, but that's not how I see it.

    I, too, suffered from clinical depression and was hospitalized for it; it came from my own smaller traumas in life that came to light later on. But even in the midst of it, I always found that there were people, and for me--God-- that offered us great hope and a way to redeem the dark/negative side of life. I love stories about second chances, recovery, self-discovery. I'm drawn to serious period pieces and historicals where the characters find that help or strength to persevere and through it, rediscover love and hope.

    Like you, when I attempt to write without those themes, they find their sneaky way back into my stories!!! So I've given up trying to write around those themes :-)

    Thanks for sharing, Kaye. We could have some long girlie conversations about life :-)


    1. Oh, Gail, I would love to get together with you and our sister Roses for some long girlie conversations about life. As I'm becoming more and more acquainted through blogging and FB interactions with the Roses, I'm realizing how much we have in common. And I really, really like and appreciate that.

      I, too, like stories with second chances and self-discovery, and these are themes that often show up in my stories.

      Depression is an insidious disease. By the time a person realizes (or family realizes) what's happening, you're already so deeply in Depression's grasp that it's a long, hard road back to 'normalcy' (if that's really possible).

  4. Kaye,
    Deep themes, and I believe loneliness resonates with so many people on many dfferent levels. We all deal with the issue, some better than others, but I also think the climate today creates more loneliness. We have online friends, but do we have them to take the place of face to face, or is it just easier to speak with out fingers than our mouths? LIfe does have a way of giving us the fodder for our stories, and they are our lives. I believe we live vicariously through our stories.
    Many believe me to be strong willed, and I am, but my characters take it to the farthest possible and still stay connected to those they care about. If I had a theme to my stories it would be resilience. Winning through no matter what is thrown at them.
    Some really good questions and a most fascinating post. Doris McCraw/Angela Raines

    1. Doris,

      Loneliness is an interesting *animal* in that even within the camaraderie, comfort, companionship, love, and affection of family and friends, I still struggle with feelings of being alone in the world, of being disconnected. It's the lone, lonely, loner aspect of my personality. lololol

      As I look back on my life, and if I'm really honest with myself, I have to admit there really isn't much I'd like to do differently. Did I make poor choices? Yes. Was I (and am I still) my own worst enemy at time? Of course. But darn it, I had such adventures and experiences that I can draw upon for story fodder (just as you said).

      I've probably taken this saying too literally, but it's a good one:

      Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and screaming, "WOO HOO! What a ride!"

      I've certainly had a good ride so far, and I hope for another good many years to come. *grin*

  5. Kaye that is so sad. I am sorry but I do feel for you. I guess my theme is not loneliness but being alone. All by myself. I love deeply and hold on tight to my family. My biggest fear is losing them and being alone. I admire you. You have been through so much and yet you live life t its fullest. That takes courage. The theme to my books are basically all the same. Through love and perseverance everything will work out in the end. I know real life isn't nearly as neat as that but that's why we read.. to escape and have happily after's.

  6. Barb,

    Ah, shucks, don't let my ramblings be a downer for you. I wander into introspection land every now and again and this was one of those time, I guess. lol

    I agree with you wholeheartedly, "...I know real life isn't nearly as neat as that but that's why we read... to escape and have happily ever after's".

    I'll take this a little farther and add that I write romances because I need to create the happy ever afters. :-)

  7. Kaye,
    I'm a little late, but wonderful post. I applaud your candor, and your resilience. I'm acquainted with depression, panic and anxiety. :-) It certainly brings a huge amount of gratitude to my life today, if there's any silver lining to it. I do believe your right about recurring themes in a writers work. I'll have to think more on mine. I'm drawn to mysticism and can't seem to keep it out of my work. I've always been like this since I was a child. But along with it is a heavy dose of insecurity--about my place in the world, etc. I think I translate this into my characters, at least the female ones. Take care! I'm a great fan of your writing.