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Feb 9 13 6:06 AM

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In today's newsletter Mariann talked about theme. There is a very strong theme in Mariann's book, Into the Briar Patch: A Family Memoir and I'm hoping Mariann will join us over the next day or two to answer your questions. Provided she has power, she's in Connecticut, so in the middle of the storm. So fire away. Has anyone identified a theme or themes? Whose struggling with this concept? Does everyone understand it? 

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#1 [url]

Feb 9 13 8:06 AM

Yes, we still have power in CT! We are under three feet of snow, but that just means we get to stay inside and drink hot chocolate. Windy out there! All roads are closed.

I'll be happy to answer any questions. I've been following the forum and the blogs, and there is so much wise advice about writing that I see you folks are passing back and forth. I'm really impressed. So many people are getting words to flow out onto paper. That's your good, golden raw material. Congratulations to everyone!

As a college prof, I've taught writing for 40 years, so I'm ready to answer your questions about any aspect of writing. As Lynn says, fire away!

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#2 [url]

Feb 9 13 9:49 AM

I do struggle with both theme and plot for my family history writing.  I have a lot of information about my ancestors but don't quite know how to come up with a theme or plot.  For instance data on my character for this writing - born in 1855 in Ohio, moved to Iowa and married by 1878, poultry farmer, father, had six children, two died as young infants (which think should be part of the challenge he and his wife faced) died at age 49 in 1904.  I have quite a bit of other peripheral information on him and his extended family.  Can you give me some questions I could ask myself to try to come up with a theme?  I found your article in the newsletter interesting and it gave me some idea of what a theme might be but will apreciate any additional help.  Thanks - Jo

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#3 [url]

Feb 9 13 11:50 AM

Mariann, I read the prologue to your book and got some great ideas for my own theme.  Also interested in checking some of the books you relied on. 

 I was particularly interested in your writing about how religion played a part in your life, differing from your ancestors.  This gave me some good ideas for my own book, and helped with narrowing in on my theme.  

There are a few places I'd love to quote in your prologue, because they perfectly fit with my narrative.  Thanks for sharing this with us.  Bettyann 

Bettyann Schmidt rhinegirl.blogspot.cim

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#4 [url]

Feb 9 13 2:11 PM

My Theme as written in late January is:  Write a story that draws a comparison between the lives of my paternal grandparents and their great-grandparents (my paternal 3x-great-grandparents) both generations choosing to branch out in search of a better life.  Their great-grandparents chose to emigrate to the US in search of a better life, but still focused on farming.  My grandparents choice to leave farming and move to the city. In both cases family was important to their successes. This is the basis of the story as currently plotted.   

But then the real conflict of theme and plot (if I get the courage to right it) is move two generation to the future - my generation - a generation where none of my siblings have chosen to stay in the area we grew up, but have spread across the country - again in the search of a better life, but at what cost to family. The loss of regular interaction with family; no after Church Sunday Mid-Day Meals. 

This probably points to a need for me to read more books by others on this topic.  I have been in a bit of a lull the last two day, fighting off some bug, where it hurts to think about writing... so I am a bit late on yesterday's and today's commitment.


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#5 [url]

Feb 9 13 4:47 PM

I'd say, think of your theme as a position you're taking, a whole-sentence position. Take a "stand," even if it's controversial. (Any general "stand" you take will naturally leave you some "wiggle room" for exceptions and modifications, not to worry.) 

A "stand" might look something like these sentences:

In my family, the choice to leave home for a better life was usually the very best choice available.
In my family, leaving home strained family relationships at first, but eventually made them stronger.
My family members have typically chosen to leave home for a better life, whatever the cost might be to family relationships.

OR (if you want a comparison theme)
Older generations in our family have been able to leave home for a better life while still preserving family togetherness, but our current generation leaves home and then lets family contacts lapse.

Vary your "stand" as you wish. Any strong and relevant generalization about your family patterns can serve as a theme, a "stand." Don't be afraid come out with your own definite belief. It's the "definiteness" that will give your family story momentum. (And you can always qualify or hedge it later, as you write.)

Please, ask me a question! Let me know if this advice is helpful, or not. (P.S. I don't recommend reading more books at this point. Just create this kind of "stand" or focus sentence stating what you really believe.)

I'll be happy to chat more about your theme, in any way you'd like.

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#6 [url]

Feb 9 13 5:02 PM

Dear Bettyann,

I'm so glad that my book was able to give you some ideas for your own theme, and of course you are welcome to quote my prologue -- I'd be honored. As for religion in my life, compared with religion in my ancestors' life, the main difference is that they were fairly doctrinal and I'm not a follower of any doctrine (or dogma). But all of us are attracted to spiritual truths.

I've put together my own collection of beliefs that borrow from the life of such figures as Jesus, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King. That's wrapped into the main theme of my book. These figures were brave enough to accept humanity's limitations while still having hope. You've heard the saying that the perfect can be the enemy of the good? A zealous pursuit of the good, in the experience of my family history, can itself turn into something very harmful, even evil.

I'll be glad to answer any other observations or questions!


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#7 [url]

Feb 9 13 5:23 PM

Thanks mariann,

The first of your suggestions is probably the one closest to the mark. And probably the one that matches what is being written. Decisions always have consequences; the trick is in how we respond..

They are all food for thought. I appreciate your rewording to focus on a "stand".


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#8 [url]

Feb 9 13 5:26 PM

Dear Jo,

I'd suggest that to find a theme, you could temporarily step away from the specifics of your main character (the one born in 1855--your great-grandfather, perhaps?) and ask what most matters to you about his life. 

Did he have some outstandingly brave character traits? OR did he endure many hardships without succumbing to despair? OR was he the kind of person who always had a joke and a good word for everyone? OR was he a character who often slipped into trouble but usually managed to escape? In other words, what quality, in general, do you think was the center of his character? Focus. Choose a main one.

Here's another exercise: What three or four adjectives would you use to describe him? For example, people might describe the familiar figure "Satan" as deceitful, vengeful, and cruel. (Not suggesting these for your relative!)

You're looking for a theme that is like a strong and general sentence to describe what this character is like, and why he matters to you, something like...

My g-grandfather was the most self-effacing man I have ever known, taking credit for none of his accomplishments.
My g-grandfather struggled all his life with illness and death, so much so that he came to question his own faith.
My g-grandfather was an easygoing and carefree person who was able to live in the moment, despite all the hazards of fate that he encountered.

See what I mean? For a theme, create this kind of a statement. There are hundreds+ of possible statements you could come up with. This kind of statement makes a strong, "opinionated," somewhat edgy claim about your main character. Strong enough to interest the reader. This kind of statement makes your character matter, makes him visible, right out of the gate. Create your favorite statement that you think can embrace all/most of the details and facts you have.

Ask me some more questions! Let me know whether this is helping. I'm here to help.


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#9 [url]

Feb 9 13 8:05 PM

Thank you, Mariann, for the article on theme and writing. I love your last thought, "What's next?" I've found it very hard to settle into "What's next." Your description of the superego thoughts make me think you are reading my mind. One day, I tracked everything I did. The moment I sat down to write, I was assailed by those thoughts. I even wrote them down because I was so surprised. Mainly, "You don't know what you are doing and you need to learn more." Then I'd pick up a book on characterization and read for 30 minutes. Or I'd decide I really needed to get my plot more together and when I spent time on it, discovered I already had it together.

Still learning to settle into the story. Very happy when I acheive it. And not being as hard on myself when I don't. 

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#10 [url]

Feb 9 13 8:35 PM

Thank you for your response.  It helps quite a bit.  Here is my initial theme.  Please understand I never knew this man or even his son, my grandfather, so I have no stories handed down. However, I have one letter he wrote to his family which gives me the sense that he loved his family quite openly.  Also newspaper articles where he wins first place in the county fairs for his farm produce displays his success in his career.  The last thing to influence my statement was his bid for sheriff of his home county, the results showing the respect he had of his constituents.  I also know he l

What do you think?

My great grandfather was a devoted family man, as well as a respected and successful member of his community.
Thank you for any suggestions.

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#11 [url]

Feb 10 13 4:53 AM

My theme is:Life often presents challenges too great for us to bear, but  with faith and courage, we can overcome and gain strength.

My story is mainly about relationships and grief recovery. It starts and ends with the elder cousin who connected the family and encouraged me in my genealogical quest. The middle portion is the story she promised me to write: about our youngest daughter who was tragically killed.

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#12 [url]

Feb 10 13 7:34 AM

Dear Deb,

Your theme sounds like a really good general focus. Since I'm on the "advice" squad here, I'd suggest narrowing your theme just a little to your own family and ancestors, instead of the "we" and "us" approach. (Of course, your story will imply "all of us," but the pronouns put any writer in danger of sounding preachy.) Your family must have its own characteristic and signature resources of faith and courage, whether through certain religious beliefs or parents or intra-family bonding--resources that have enabled them to overcome burdens

All families who overcome are admirable. A particular family who overcomes can be personal, emotional, and suspenseful:  How will they handle the next blow? Who will help get them through this time -- what Bible verse, what relative, what meditation, what moment of epiphany? With suspense, you can build momentum and page-turning appeal. 

Your story sounds very moving and appealing to many. So many people could relate to challenges that seem to arrive almost on top of each other, so much that they are unbearable.

Good wishes,

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#13 [url]

Feb 10 13 7:59 AM

Dear Jo (jarnspiger),

I think that's a good start. I would ask, what qualities did your GGfather have that enabled him to earn these accomplishments and have these effects on others?

I realize that it's hard without family stories, and without knowing him. But you have the letter, and you may have several other sources from which you can "tease out" more about his character and personality: (1) Do you know people who did know him or have heard of him, relatives or friends, whom you could interview, even if only over the phone? Other family members love to have their thoughts quoted in a family memoir. (2) Are there qualities still resonating and alive in your own family, or your relatives' families--cousins or siblings--that you suspect may have been "handed down" or taught to them by your GGfather--do some of you love your family openly, as he did? (3) Are there obituaries of him, or some record of his service or work? (4) Do you have a photograph of him that you can "read" by his expression or stance and other hints?

Showing what is special and intriguing about this man will give your book momentum. My guess is that it's somewhat unusual for a man to love his family so openly -- the emotional "part" is so often assigned to women. If you can extrapolate or speculate on a unique cluster of qualities your GGfather possessed, they could help to surround and display the facts you have accumulated.

I'll be glad to answer more questions anytime!

Good wishes,

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#14 [url]

Feb 10 13 8:05 AM

Dear Gayle,

I'm so glad the description of the superego thoughts helped. Every writer has them! John Updike, the famous novelist, said that overcoming his internal "censor" was his biggest challenge.

In my opinion, reading more books can be a trap. The job is to clear your censor out of the way and read the book of your own thoughts -- the most interesting and compelling book there is. Then let those words just flow out of your fingers.

You'll know you're there when your awareness of "performing" writing subsides, and the subject you're writing about takes up full residence in your mind. It's a good feeling, even ecstatic.

Best of wishes,

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#16 [url]

Feb 10 13 11:01 AM

Mariann, I really enjoyed your post yesterday about theme.  I especially loved how you illustrated that any material can be utilized to explore a variety of different themes.  And while your book on how your family’s slaveowning past affected subsequent generations sounds like a really interesting read (I will be checking it out), I also would have loved to hear what you could have done with the disappointments of hard work and education.  That theme tantalizes me too. 

I am currently blogging my family history.  My theme changes from post to post (my most recent posts were on blood bias in genealogy and expanding my family tree by 6 generations in a single leap.)  And I just wanted to say that I think your advice holds for small bits of writing as much as for books.  I find I often do ‘kitchen sink’ writing of everything I know, but that I never like it until I pick just one story to tell, one theme to pursue. 

It isn’t easy to be ruthlessly committed to theme but I really do like my writing better when I am.  And I keep reminding myself that I can always retell the story again in service to a different theme.

Thanks again for the advice, Leslie

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#17 [url]

Feb 10 13 2:10 PM

Thanks, Mariann.  There were several quotes that spoke to me and helped describe my own family research.  

This is one of those:  "...I believe it is more nearly true that the past forever inhabits the present, whether we know it or not--the past remains, waiting to be understood."

I've pretty much proven this through researching and writing my family history.  

The only way I can write the narrative is to be a character in the book.  The oldest  daughter of the complex man, the alcoholic who was both gentle and kind, but was haunted by a past I had to unfold.  

I haven't narrowed my theme entirely, but finding my father's long-ago ancestors and the hardships and struggles they faced, coming to America, settling in poor, cramped inner-city tenements,  on down to the boy my father was when he had to take care of his family...learning of all of this has changed my life.  I want it to affect my cousins and siblings, our children and grandchildren.  That's my reason for writing it.  You talk about in your prologue also about having to overcome your own struggles.  I've had to do that.  I think it should be part of the narrative.  

The only theme I can think of is "Survival."   I guess my question is:  How do I phrase that?

Bettyann Schmidt rhinegirl.blogspot.cim

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#18 [url]

Feb 10 13 6:39 PM

Dear Bettyann,

I think being a character in the book is a wonderful idea. That opens up some additional paths for presenting theme.

For example, here are two different choices. 

First choice: a theme that evolves through time. You could open with your character (you) in the past, at the very beginning of your exploration, with a skewed preconception of what you will find. For example, "I set out to find how my father could possibly have lost so much control of himself that he became an alcoholic and made my life miserable." Then as you make each discovery, you (as a character) alter your theory of your father. Your views evolve so that by the end of the book your theory has greatly changed, for example, "I learned that the weight of my father's responsibilities through life could make him retreat temporarily into drink, but nothing could ever make him mean or cruel. He was too gentle a man." Your final theory of your father, whatever that is, would be your theme. Your theme would be a statement about what kind of a man your father really is. (Your reader would be making that discovery with you--the character you--step by step.)

Second choice: A theme that unfolds by looking back, one chosen moment at a time. You could start with your current conclusion about your father that you hold at the moment of writing--the theory that you the author now have of your father. State in a sentence what kind of a man you really think he was. It can be an enigmatic sentence, or a roomy one. Maybe create a sentence about the lengths he had to go to in order to survive, and then add some introductory paragraphs to ease into the subject. Following that intro, you the author could then take the reader back in time, either in some chronological order OR in ANY other order you choose (for example, from your most painful memories of him to your most comforting). Your structure would be chosen as you wish, to support your current conclusion or "take" on what your father was really like and why. 

Either structure (or some mix of the two) would be great for presenting your theme. You have some super potential for momentum and suspense. A reader would always be asking, How did this person (you) lay to rest all these ghosts of the past? How did she ever manage to change her life and her views of her father?

Hope this helps. Please ask me whatever further questions occur to you. Wishing you all luck, 

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#19 [url]

Feb 10 13 6:53 PM

Dear Leslie,

I'm so glad my post was useful to you, and I hope you will enjoy the memoir. I do believe that there are endless themes to be plucked out of one's imagination and beliefs.

There is a lot to be said for kitchen sinks, especially when they're full of interesting items. Theme is basically a way of ramping up interest and making the items really matter. I'd say that theme doesn't have to be ruthless. It just has to be intriguing, something that makes the reader ask, "Hm, how can she possibly claim that?"

Some folks would say that theme provides an answer to the "So what?" question. A reader is thinking, "OK, but what does it all add up to?" and you are providing that reader a big interesting treat of an idea or ideas. Food for thought. Yum.

Thank you for such thoughtful and friendly responses!


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#20 [url]

Feb 11 13 9:50 AM

I think trying to focus on a theme is a great idea.

I'm trying to write about my ggrandfather b. in 1845 Ohio moved with his family to Iowa in 1857.  Joined the civil war effort in 1863.  And though I have his records and pension forms I can find no evidence he was in  Andersonville Prison a story he told his children over and over about and they in turn told their children and grandchildren.  It has colored the family's thinking of him and our role in the conflict.
  In addition he was I'm told a wanderer always looking for the grass to be greener somewhere else.  He married in Iowa in 1866, she died in 1876 after having I believe 4 children, 2 survived.  How he ended up in Greene County,Missouri to marry my great grandmother the following year I do not know.  They moved to various spots in Kansas before going to WA state.  I know they live a time in Spokcane and in Puyallup and also some letters from friends indicate they wandered about a bit in Oregon too before joining a brother in the panhandle of Ok arund 1893-4.  I have homestead papers for there.  He lost his oldest son of thee second marriage in 1899 along with the brother living there and around 1900-1902 returned to Puyallup Wa where I am told his wife refused to make another move and so they stayed.  I have family stories with a newspaper clipping to verify saying he knew and worked with Buffalo Bill Cody freighting in the 1870's Kansas.  But then again he seeme to have a wife and children back in his hometown in Iowa. The years between 1866 when he married her and 1877 when he married the second wife are a a mystery except for the birthdates of children and death of his wife.  I cannot find him or his brother in the 1870 census.

I was thinking of making the civil war my theme but now I'm wondering if it would be better to use Samuel was a wandering sort, always thinking the grass was greener somewhere else?  

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