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Finding Hidden Themes…In Your Own Writing

When I was in high school, my English teachers always asked, “What was this author really saying? What did they mean? What does this object represent?” And I, even though I loved English class but was still a moody teenager, would inwardly groan and wonder…can’t a rose just be a rose? They probably mean just what they wrote. And, because I already knew I wanted to be a writer one day, I would silently plead, I hope people don’t dissect my writing one day. I’m just going to write what I mean and I hope my readers can see that.

Well, surprise, surprise…I was wrong.

Turns out, as much as I actually do try to write what I mean, what I mean isn’t always super straightforward. Take that sentence, for example.

Let me back up. As I’ve been preparing to launch my debut book of flash fiction, I’ve been sending out copies to friends in order to get some feedback, create some buzz and get some reviews. My friends not only delivered feedback and reviews, but they also gave me a little glimpse into my own psyche.

“It’s an empowering experience which I thought played with gender roles in an intelligent and unique way.”

Take this quote from a review from my friend, Stewart (and no, I did not pay him to write these incredibly kind things), “I think we’re given glimpses into the parts of Allison’s life which have hurt, brought joy, and lust for hope.” I certainly did not mean to give a glimpse into my life. In fact, most of these stories have a supernatural or sci-fi element and could not have felt further from my life when I was writing them. But then he says of one story, “On full display is the role of women of all ages in society,” and “It’s an empowering experience which I thought played with gender roles in an intelligent and unique way.”

I don’t share these quotes to toot my own horn, though, toot toot. I share because, as we were discussing some of his observations, I realized that yes, my views of gender roles were on full display in many of my stories. In “The Final Cry,” which you can find in the Future Visions Volume 2 anthology, a married couple is faced with a brutal reality and the way they cope with their grief represents how I’ve always seen grief handled by the women around me.

He pointed out that he was surprised that it was the woman who took on a particular task that would (hopefully) help the couple move on from their grief and I realized I was surprised he was surprised. Women have always taken on tough roles in my life and I am never surprised to see the things they can endure when it’s men that are supposed to be the “tough” ones. I knew I thought all of this, of course, but never was it so obvious to me than when the themes in my own writing were recited back to me.

Women have always taken on tough roles in my life and I am never surprised to see the things they can endure when it’s men that are supposed to be the “tough” ones.

I was also asked, by another friend and an early reader of my book, if one aspect of a particular story was a theme for mental illness. I said no, it was simply about a mind control device. And then I thought about it and it turns out “simply” was the wrong word. While I did not intend this story to be about mental illness, I would never pretend to understand what it’s like to live with it, I have, as I explained to him, always been fascinated with “the line between reality and the things that exist only in our heads…” and the fear of not being able to differentiate between the two. And isn’t that a little bit the same as a mental illness? Our brains tell us one thing and pretty soon we can’t tell what part is true and what part is the disease.

Like I said, I have never had to personally deal with mental illness but I have had a loved one who struggled with addiction and I saw this line, the line between truth and the addiction, blurred every single day. I have always wanted to write about this but didn’t think I was ready. Turns out, if I take a closer look at my writing, I am already writing it in small ways.

So, why do I find this outside view of the themes in my writing so helpful? Because now that I am aware of how I feel, I want to explore it more. Why should we as writers take a look back at our own writing to find unintentional themes? It might just teach us a little bit about ourselves. And, if that’s not motivation enough, it might also give you more to write about.

I never wanted my writing to be dissected…now that it has…I’m ok with it.

What themes do you find yourself writing about unintentionally?

Psst…Flash in the Dark: A Collection of Flash Fiction, will be available on October 19th and the ebook is available for pre-order right now!

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