What Is the Theme of Your Life?

And then it was Conor’s turn to ask me a question.

“Do you believe in natural talent?”

We were about an hour into a conversation we were recording about music – music itself, the music industry, being a musician – and I was stumped. I knew what I wanted to express, but I couldn’t do it. I don’t remember exactly how I responded – you’ll hear it when we publish the conversation – but after we were done I thought about it some more and so this piece is a further exploration.

You see, I am of the opinion – inspired in no small part by Steven Pressfield’s work – that whether you’re a musician or a crack dealer or a horticulturist, you were not born a blank canvas. You cannot be simply moulded or shaped into just anything, or programmed like a computer. Of course, your environment and your experiences influence who you become, from the day you’re born to the day you die, but the exact way that they influence you is determined by your true self.

(If you want a simple piece of evidence for this way of thinking, just think of any sets of twins that you know. Should they not by rights be way more simliar to one another than they are, having had more or the less the same environment and circumstances to grow up in? The ones I know might compliment one another nicely, but they are completely different people.)

Take me, for example. I’m finding – as I rack up more and more days in a row working on story craft and fiction – that there’s really only a very small number of things I’m interested in writing stories about.

It turns out that you can only write so many scenes and chapters – that you at best print out, read through, scrawl with red marker pen and throw in the bin, and at worst give no more than a cursory glance before holding down the backspace key until the screen is white again – before the pieces of crap your imagination keeps serving up start to look awfully alike.

The same characters popping up, with different haircuts. Getting themselves in the same sorts of scrapes, and out of them the same sorts of ways. Caring about the same sorts of things, appreciating the same sorts of members of the opposite sex, feeling righteous indignation over the same sorts of injustices…

And many of the things that bubble up out of me and onto the page seem to have been straining to come out for years – completely against my will. At the end of 2015 I wrote the first draft of a novel long-hand whilst Brando the baby slept in the afternoons. It was fun. But it was also crap. I never did anything more with it. The reason I bring it up is that five years on, no matter how hard I try to write anything else, I keep basically rewriting the same story.

When I first noticed this happening, I didn’t like it. It spooked me into thinking that I must just be a one-trick pony, that there was no point in me trying to write anything because I seem only to be capable of telling this one story and I can’t even figure out yet how to tell that one well. And I wondered whether I should just give up before I disappoint myself again.

But passages like this inspire me not to:

Generally, great writers are not eclectic. Each tightly focuses his oeuvre on one idea, a single subject that ignites his passion, a subject he pursues with beautiful variation through a lifetime of work.

Hemingway, for example, fascinated with the question of how to face death. After he witnessed the suicide of his father, it became the central theme, not only of his writing, but of his life. He chased death in war, in sport, on safari, until finally, putting a shotgun in his mouth, he found it.

Charles Dickens, whose father was imprisoned for debt, wrote of the lonely child searching for the lost father over and over in David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations.

Moliére turned a critical eye on the idiocy and depravity of seventeeth-century France and made a career writing plays whose titles read like a checklist of the human vices: The Miser, The Misanthrope, The Hypochondriac. Each of these authors found his subject and it sustained him over the long journey of the writer.

What is yours?

Robert McKee – “Story”

You don’t need to be infinite. You merely need to find your theme – the one subject you can “pursue with beautiful variation.”

What is your theme?

You might not be a writer, nor have any intention of ever becoming one. But you’re something better than that – a human.

And the things you do every day are not random, no matter how much they might seem so. Your actions which make up your days, which make up your life, are not a mess of unrelated impulses. There is a thread. Just because it’s not obvious doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Find that thread, start pulling on it, and never look back. Forget about all the things you thought you should have been or could have been. And start expressing who you actually are instead.

To me, this is the definition of natural talent. A common thread that runs through your veins. A proclivity. A potential. Something that means one thing lights you up and another leaves you cold.

But of course, discovering it is just the first step. Because will knowing what your theme is make you happy forever after? Of course it won’t. No matter how clear it is, you’ve still got to live it, haven’t you? I might know the theme of my story, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to write itself. I’ve still got to put my blood, sweat, and tears into it.

Knowing the theme of your life might not make life any easier. In fact, the opposite will probably happen. Life will be harder, because you can no longer plead ignorance – whereas before you could say you didn’t know any better, once you discover your theme, you have nothing to hide behind any more. You know what you’re supposed to be doing, and not doing it hurts.

But I will say this: even as somebody still very much on the bottom rung of the ladder of living his theme, the bottom rung of the right ladder is infinitely preferable to the wrong ladder, or to no ladder at all.

I hope you enjoyed this. And I hope if nothing else it inspires you to be more compassionate to yourself. Who you are is more than enough… but only if you accept yourself with open arms.

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