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Recurring Themes (Or, Are My Issues Really That Obvious?)by Sara Zarr
I've heard various metaphors for the recurring theme dynamic. Some put it this way: each writer is dealt one hand of cards, and throughout our careers we're playing that one hand in different ways. I tend to describe recurring themes as being part of a writer's DNA something so deeply embedded in us that even we don't notice it until we've written three or four books. There's a kind of Writer Genome Project that goes on for each of us as books come out and patterns and sequences emerge.
I wrote three novels before the first one was published, so my second published novel, Sweethearts, is really number five. About six months after that came out, I finally started to decode my own DNA. At the moment, I can summarize it this way: I write about families whose members fail and disappoint, but still love each other in their pathetic, inadequate ways. My agent once pitched me as "the Anne Tyler of young adult fiction," not because my writing style or my audience are similar, but because Tyler, too, writes about families and their failing, inadequate ways "domestic fiction," if you will. (Though I wonder why, when a woman writes about families, her books are "domestic fiction," and when men do, the work is "literary." But that's a different topic for a different essay! And I'm sure the Pulitzer-winning Tyler has no complaints…)
Of course, one reason it sometimes takes writers awhile to identify our own recurring themes is that we don't literally write the same book over and over. We tell ourselves that, with each book, we're exploring new territory by using different characters, settings, and events. And we are. Sometimes this obscures the DNA, or acts as a card trick to make that jack of diamonds look momentarily like a two of clubs.
When Sweethearts was in the final stages of editing, I panicked because it suddenly looked to me like the exact same book as my first, Story of a Girl: something from a teen girl's past has consequences in the present that affect all her relationships, especially her family relationships, but eventually she sees that they are all doing the best they can. Forgiveness and/or redemption ensue. Yet when I talk to readers of both books, nearly all of them remark on how different Sweethearts is from Story of a Girl. So it appears I have managed to fool some of the people some of the time. Still, when you get past plot points and geography and personalities and social class and clothes and cars, there is that functionally dysfunctional family waving hello. I know that two books do not a career make, nor do they even qualify as a pattern, but you'll have to trust me when I say that my three unpublished novels fit the mold in content, if not quality.
And… so what? Is it good, bad, or neutral to recognize thematic patterns in your own work? When it comes to recurring themes, I'm of the mind that knowledge is probably not power, at least in terms of the work. Think about it too much, and I might find myself straining to write a sci-fi epic in a world where there is no such thing as a family unit. On the other hand, if I start a book project and it doesn't seem to be fitting into the pattern, I might worry that it's not "a Sara Zarr book," that I'm straying away from my brand, and I need to force things back on course. And any time a writer forces anything, results will not be good. This is why I like the DNA metaphor. As someone who, at age 38, is currently five-foot-two, I know now that I will never be five-nine. Spending time wanting to be five-nine, hating or even pondering at great length my five-two self, is pointless at best, destructive at worst. I have a feeling that even if I were able to write in a relative vacuum, devoid of self-knowledge, in an entirely different genre, somehow young Xnunon on the planet Feek would manage to have complex relationships with characters resembling family, who fail, disappoint, and then forgive.
Maybe it's only interesting to the writer herself to discover her own hand of cards. Readers want a story, not a pattern. It's the specifics of a story that make it really ping our various reader radars. When I think about Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years, I don't think about a generic clueless, failing family. I think about the reading lamp in Delia's boarding-house room, and the dress she buys in the thrift shop, and the way her longing for a new life that doesn't suffer from actual responsibilities or relationships resonates with my own occasional fantasies of severing all ties and disappearing into the mist. By the way, Delia eventually comes face to face with her own recurring themes, and again takes on a caretaking role that means she now has not one but two complicated lives.
I think that's what is so interesting to me and my writer friends about recurring themes. We write in ways that, we generally hope, reflect real life, or at least look familiar to humans. And in life, recurring themes are a recurring theme. We never quite conquer a pet vice, or a relationship pattern, or a communication habit. We're haunted by our particular demons. We sometimes look at our lives and wonder, "Now why is this issue coming back into the picture when I thought I had it all worked out?" Humankind, too, as a unit, acts predictably within our recurring themes of hard times, good times, war, and the swinging pendulum of politics. The process of writing itself presents a recurring theme. As I'm in a major revision for my next book, I feel like I can't do it, that it's too hard, that it's beyond me. And I think, "You felt this way with Sweethearts, and with Story of a Girl, and it all worked out. So pull yourself together already."
Knowing what's in my creative DNA as a writer may not help me get my work done, or overcome my real-life recurring themes, but it helps me talk and think about my stories. And now that I understand that this next book, like all my books before it, will at its heart be about a family, I can fix my attention on the specifics that will keep it from being a theme and transform it into a story that will, I hope, resonate with readers.
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Sara Zarr was raised in San Francisco, went to high school in Pacifica, California, and now lives with her husband in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is the author of Story of a Girl and Sweethearts, and can be found on the web at www.sarazarr.com.