Every story, regardless of its length, pulses with literary themes at its heart. So for this week’s edition of “Theme: A Story’s Soul” at DIY MFA, I turn the column’s focus from novels to short stories. With the help of examples from authors Alethea Black and Ted Chiang, we’ll explore how short stories effectively examine their themes despite – or maybe because of – their word count restrictions and smaller “big picture.”
So, way back in August when I was at Writer’s Digest Conference, I joined several of my DIY MFA colleagues for a team podcast recording for DIY MFA Radio. 😀 It was SO much fun, and we talked about WDC, our tips on writing and attending literary conferences, and our DIY MFA “origin stories” (a.k.a. how we became involved with the site). The podcast is finally available for everyone to listen to on DIY MFA’s Patreon page for free. (In other words, you don’t have to be a paying patron to access it.) This episode is also a great resource for writers who are looking for tips on pitching their manuscript to agents.
Happy Spring, everyone! Who else is looking forward to the weather getting warmer, the flowers to start blooming, and the world to soon turn green and lush and vibrant again? 😀
OK, maybe I was being overexuberant. But spring is my favorite season, after all, and after a super-productive winter on the creative front, I’m looking forward to carrying that momentum into the next season. Plus, I have exciting news to share on two of my writing projects! (No, the current manuscript isn’t done yet, but it’s getting there. *wink*) So, without further ado, let’s dive into this edition of the Creativity Corner.
In my latest Theme: A Story’s Soul post at DIY MFA, I dive into a literary theme that’s difficult for writers to explore and painful for characters (and people in real life) to experience. Isolation isn’t the same as sequestering yourself during an illness or retreating somewhere to meditate. Rather, it’s a state of aloneness in which, because of your location or emotional state, you feel cut off from others. And when a story effectively illustrates isolation as a literary theme despite its challenges, it can offer intriguing insights about setting, relationships, and the human spirit.
Last year I read Sage Cohen’s Fierce on the Page, a collection of essays that encourages writers to transform their attitudes and habits so that they can unleash their creativity, overcome fears, and define success on their own terms – all ways in which they can practice ferocity in their craft. One of my favorite essays from the book is Chapter 14, “Build a Cathedral,” which Cohen begins with this allegory:
… [A] traveler in medieval times comes upon a stonemason at work. He asks, “What are you doing?” The man looks weary and unhappy. He responds, “Can’t you see I am cutting and laying down stone? My back is killing me, and I can’t wait to stop.”
The traveler continues on his way and comes upon a second stonemason. “What are you doing?” he asks. “I’m building a wall,” says the stonemason. “I’m grateful to have this work so I can support my family.”
As the traveler walks on, he encounters a third stonemason who seems to be doing exactly the same work as the previous two. He asks the man, “What are you doing?” The man stands up straight. His face is radiant. He looks up at the sky and spreads his arms wide. “I am building a cathedral,” he answers.
Wow. It’s such a simple tale, but the shift it made in my perception of my writing was like feeling the earth move under my feet.
How about a fun post today? As much as I’m grateful for writing last week’s tribute to the late Ursula K. Le Guin, I feel the need to do something lighter this week. Oddly enough, I know which topic to choose. Three of my book-blogger friends (Mogsy @ Bibliosanctum, Nandini @ Unputdownable Books, and Zezee @ Zezee With Books) recently posted Top Ten Tuesday posts featuring ten books that have been in their TBR piles for a while. I enjoyed reading their lists so much that I decided to do my own – and go figure, I came up with twelve books instead. 😉
So, in alphabetical order, here are the twelve books that have been waiting longest for me to read them. Let’s start with…
In early January, I was at a local bookstore when I came across Ursula K. Le Guin’s most recent book, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. This collection shows Le Guin, who excelled at writing a wide range of literature (fantasy, science fiction, children’s stories, essays, poetry), exploring yet another form of writing: blogging. Yes, No Time to Spare is a collection of blog posts, in which Le Guin shares her thoughts on family, the publishing industry, society and the world at large – and, perhaps most notably, aging. And I knew, just from holding the small blue hardcover and perusing the pages within, that it would be different from any UKLG book I’d read before.
Yet there was no question in my mind that I’d buy it. Because, after all, it’s Ursula K. Le Guin, my favorite writer ever. I’ve loved everything I’ve read from her in the past, and the thought of bringing No Time to Spare home was like opening my inner circle to a new friend whom I felt I’d known forever.
How fitting that this book, where Le Guin was contemplating the final frontier of life, was the last one she published, and the last one I bought by her, before she passed away.
When I noticed my next DIY MFA post was scheduled for the week of Valentine’s Day, I decided it was time for a case study on an appropriate and timeless theme: Love. If you think about it, though, love is one of the most frequently discussed and deeply profound themes in literature. Plus, the most compelling thematic explorations of love touch on romantic love as well as love of other forms (kindness, compassion) and in other types of relationships (friendship, family). This is the case with the two example novels in today’s Theme: A Story’s Soul post, and I hope you *love* the end result (or, at least find it informative). 😉
Remember how I said that I’m changing my posting schedule next week? That’s because I have two posts for you this week, including my first DIY MFA article of 2018. 😉
Today it’s a case study on legacy and immortality, themes that aren’t examined frequently in literature but can be insightful and profound when that examination is done well. So what makes Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel a brilliant example? By using a museum, historic plays, and two characters who represent different ways of building a legacy that can impact the next generation.
I guess I should start this post by wishing you a Happy Winter Solstice… But I’m not a fan of winter. 😉 Either way, it’s hard to believe that another season has passed, and what an inspiring and productive autumn it was, creatively speaking. The funny thing is, when I was writing the end-of-summer Creativity Corner, I was already looking ahead to fall… and I realized that October and early November would be the best time to get as much writing done as possible before Thanksgiving and Christmas.
What a fantastic decision that turned out to be – because I’m stunned at how much I accomplished since then! I’ll get into all of that shortly. And as always, feel free to share what you’ve been reading and writing (or revising, editing, etc.) this past season in your comments.