Four readers are provided with a story to read. Upon completion they are asked, “What was the story’s theme?” Or, “What is the author telling us?” Chances are, each of the four different readers will have received a different message.
As a kid, I always struggled with “what is the story’s big idea?” questions. I figured, “Hell, he’s just telling us a story.” Regarding Chaucer or Hawthorne or someone else, I responded with those words once in Mrs. Lundin’s literature class at Chico High in about 1969 and discovered immediately, and in no uncertain terms, that I had given the wrong answer. To this day, I still consider myself not nearly as literate as I should be, because sometimes, by God, the guy’s just telling us a story. And isn’t that good enough?
I’D BEEN TOLD, over and over, that a writer gets an idea and then formulates a story to make that idea come to life for the reader. Then, last summer, I heard from Ron Carlson, director of the graduate program in fiction at UC Irvine and author of Five Skies and The Signal – two wonderful short novels. He also authored Ron Carlson Writes a Story in which he says:
The word “idea” has always made me vaguely nervous when I’m speaking about story because it has such a neat and narrow definition. An “idea” can be articulated. And sometimes things that impel me into a story cannot be articulated.” [pg. 17]I raise this because upon the completion of my own work, I am:
a) never sure there is an idea communicated;In short, not only did I not get Chaucer’s message back in high school, I can’t guarantee I get my own message now.
b) never sure I’ve communicated an idea if there is one; and
c) never sure if the communicated idea is universal enough to create resonance with an audience.
I LIKE TO WRITE. I like to create images and tell stories. I like to start with a small incident or recollection, gussy it up a bit and see what comes of the thing. I don’t always know how it will finish or what truth, if any, will be revealed.
I recently provided a draft of a story to an associate, then another, then another, until I reached about six friends or acquaintances. I asked them to “tell me in a sentence or two what the story was about.” If it has some universal resonance, I reasoned, maybe it’ll be a story I can market. I was gratified to receive several thoughtful responses about big, universal truths – none of which were in any too similar to the others and none of which aligned exactly with what I thought the story was about once it had spilled out on to the paper.
I don’t know whether this is good news or bad news. I think Mr. Carlson’s words have taken me off the “main idea” hook so to speak. But I wonder what Mrs. Lundin would say. I don’t know what to do with the story in question, but maybe, that’s all it is: a story.
Church of the Open Road Press