Theme and the Power of Story
Storytelling is among the oldest and (most important) forms of communication. From their crude beginnings as a series of sounds and gestures, they graduated to speech, then (perhaps) cave paintings. These likely evolved to petroglyphs before the first system of written foms of communication.
Common to all those forms is purpose or intent. A theme. We communicate to connect with each other at our most basic human level. The unconscious heirs of our inventive ancestors, we connect and communicate with each other through stories to enrich our lives and ensure our collective survival.
From the very beginning, stories have always had themes. Someone, somewhere is reading this and muttering to themselves, “Oh crap. I’m back in sophomore English class.” Nope. You’re safe. But it’s true. Every story worth reading has a theme, even those whose purpose is principally to entertain. Communicating a theme (or themes) is the motive force behind storytelling. I think this is especially true of writers. As one author once wrote:
“It is only when you open your veins and bleed a little onto the page that you connect with your reader…”
As melodramatic as that may sound, most authors will vouch for the (sometimes) excruciating pain of baring their souls for their readers to see. This is true because meaningful truth comes wrapped in authenticity and (often) powerful emotion. Soaring, joy or overwhelming despair, in all good writing there is an inseparable tie between theme, (or purpose) and emotion. That emotion may be the quiet satisfaction of reading a story well told or the soul-shaking flash of satori, but either way, the reader knows when they have read good writing.
Anthologies and Theme.
If by definition, all good stories have a theme, then a collection of them will have them, as well. But do anthologies have a unifying theme? Maybe. Anthologies aren’t necessarily a collection of stories written around a theme. Often, they are a collection of stories unified by genre, as in a collection of coming of age stories, or science fiction yarns.
In the case of Through the Windshield, the stories contained in the anthology are unified by theme rather than genre. In broad terms, Through the Windshield spans several genre from contemporary fiction, to coming of age to science fiction. But what all the stories in this collection have in common is the protagonists, each for different reasons, find themselves balanced on the precipice of life-altering change.
The Leitmotif of our Age.
It’s a commonplace bordering on cliché to observe that life is change. It is implicit in the rhythm of the seasons, in our own growth and that of our siblings. This has always been true. A case could even be made that all literature is dependent upon if not about, change. It is not only the human condition, but the story of all life.
But in the second decade of the 21st Century, change as we know and experience it, is accelerating—and doing so exponentially. It is driven in part by the fusion of instantaneous and non-stop communications and exacerbated by high-end data collection and analysis tools. As a result, our experience of both time and change feels increasingly compressed and for many of us, stressful.
Thematically, all of the stories in Through the Windshield call the readers’ attention to both the promise and the threat of the runaway change and shifting paradigms. It is the leitmotif of our Age and for most of us, at once exhilerating and frightening. It’s hard to be true to ourselves, when there is so much uncertainty about who we are and what our place is or will be.
Art and Change.
In the short run, there’s not much we can do about the inevitable discomfort associated with shifting paradigms, beyond recognizing that they are shifting and recognizing some of the forces driving those shifts. But over the long pull, we need a way to place that change in perspective and to feed our souls as well as our bellies. Existence is not life. We must find time to manage change in ways that work for us, and paradoxically, this is never more difficult or more necessary than when time is at a premium.
We cannot control the world around us, but we own, lock, stock and barrel, our reaction to it. Balance, understanding and to a surprising extent, peace itself is not what is happening around us, it is what we allow ourselves to feel in the face of what the maelstrom that is 21st Century life.
Earlier in this post, I observed that storytelling is one of the earliest ways by which humans connect with each other at the most fundamental level. Stories have survived and will continue to do so as a means of connecting, because we are at our best when we are relating to each other.
Dirk Sayers is the author of three books. West of Tomorrow, Best Case Scenario. Through the Windshield, Drive-by Lives is his third release, a thoughtful anthology of short stories whose principal theme is change.