“You can’t save the world.” I spent a few years in a writing group where that was a core principle. In other words, you can’t use your writing to as a platform to enact changes in the outside world. You’re one person, and your words won’t flip the world upside down. Setting out to make your work the next revolutionary piece of fiction that generates thought and conversation – it’s just not going to happen.
And do I agree?
Yes and no. See, I struggled with that concept a lot when I was within the group, and it’s one of the reasons I left. Because theme is such a subjective concept. Sit through any English class beyond elementary school and you’ll understand that much. How often have you listened to a teacher harp about “what the author meant” and wondered if said writer REALLY intended all of those meanings. (Or was their intent much simpler and your teacher’s gone insane reading too much into a handful of words – particularly if the author’s now dead and unable to speak for themselves)
Can you set out to write a Great American Novel that will change everyone’s perspective on something? Sure. Is anyone going to read it besides your mom? Probably not. Such books verge on preachy and dull. And while there IS a section for them, they don’t generate much revenue. I’m not discouraging you if you have your heart set on it, I just want you to have your facts straight.
No one likes being dictated to.
That said, can you explore a theme that holds deep meaning to you? That represents a point of view unique to you or your experience? Sure – why not? Can that theme potentially reflect something going on in the outside world? Absolutely. But are you going to change the world? No. I’m sorry, but no.
Here’s the kicker, though. You might change ONE PERSON’S life. You might influence the way ONE PERSON sees the world. You may flip the world for ONE PERSON. And THAT’S what matters. It isn’t changing the world. You won’t save the world. But you make the difference for SOMEONE. And that difference to ONE PERSON changes THEIR world.
Which is where I see the difference.
I have shelves of books that changed my life. They probably don’t mean anything to other people. Some have never been read by the bulk of the world. They haven’t influenced the world. They don’t change public policy. They aren’t groundbreaking thoughts. But, for me, the words mean EVERYTHING. And not because some teacher lectured about the author’s intended meaning or theme. I don’t even know if the theme I took away is what the writer meant in the first place (it may not be).
This is why we WRITE, though. To give our words to someone out there that desperately needs them. To connect with someone looking for SOMETHING. Someone experiencing the same things we are, seeking the answers we have (or don’t have but are really good at fantasizing). Those are the themes we explore in our books. Not groundbreaking revolution.
I don’t know what Madeline L’Engle intended when she wrote A Wrinkle in Time. I know that, as a smart little girl in the third grade, Meg became a hero. She was smart, too, and she told me that there was nothing wrong with being a smart girl. That’s what I took from that book, more than anything else. I held it close through years of taunting (from guys AND girls). It was my personal beacon and promise. No, the book didn’t change the rest of the world (I know thousands who’ve never read it), but it changed MY world from that point on. I pursued a science major. I refused to dumb myself down so I’d appear appealing to those around me and gain popularity. I embraced my intelligence in a way I may never have otherwise.
Teachers bored me into a stupor, carrying on about the themes and hidden meanings in Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. I held onto one thing: the woman who burned to death in her house of books. That was me – IS me. It’s literally me (there are books in every room of the house), but her determination, her commitment, her defiance – they spoke to me. It’s the most powerful part of the book, for me. I don’t know if it’s what he intended, but it’s what sticks with me.
Theme is critical – but not in the way people think.
You write what moves you. But it may not be what the reader takes away. You may write a single line that stops them cold and forces them to set the book down and cry. You may stun them with a paragraph you felt was a throw-away. Everyone approaches books from different places, and you NEVER understand what their story may be. You may craft the words they needed to hear without any intention. It’s saving a person unintentionally, and it’s beautiful.
My favorite line from Hamilton doesn’t appear on any of the licensed merchandise. I started crying the second I heard it, and it shook me to my core in a way the rest of the musical didn’t (Don’t get me wrong – it’s amazing, and I love it. I just didn’t react as strongly as I did to this line):
“I wrote my way out.”~Hamilton
It encapsulated my life in a way nothing else ever has. Is it what Lin-Manuel Miranda meant for the musical’s theme? I doubt it. But it changed MY world. Everything stopped, crystallized, and shattered in those fractions of seconds.
Write the theme that’s clawing it’s way out of your heart. Don’t TRY to save anyone. Don’t attempt to fix the world, because it’s impossible to accomplish. Reaching ONE person – however unintentionally – THAT’S possible. You’ll connect to someone in a way that will change their life. It’s worth more than saving the world.