Twelve Questions to Determine the Themes of Your Writing Life

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

When Gabriela interviewed me for a DIY MFA podcast two years ago, one of the questions she asked was, “What are some of the themes of your writing life?” At first my mind went blank. I’d never thought about my writing life from a big-picture perspective before. But the more I considered my writing career up to that point, the clearer I could see those themes.

And guess what? You – and all writers, for that matter – can also find themes in your writing life. It will requires you to dig a little, by examining the projects you’ve worked on and the patterns you’ve established over time. But by doing so, you’ll gain a greater understanding of what drives your writing-centric decisions, what improvements you should make, and which qualities you already have that will be instrumental down the road.

But… What Exactly Are “Writing Life Themes”?

The term “writing life theme” doesn’t refer to the themes or topics we write about. Rather, it refers to our experiences as writers. Each of us is unique in terms of the stories we write as well as our publishing path, sources of inspiration, and strengths and weaknesses. From that perspective, we can think of a “writing life theme” as a common thread that emerges constantly throughout our career, regardless of our projects at any given time.

How do you know if a concept is a theme in your writing life? It should embody these three essentials from our working definition of “theme”:

  1. It appears repeatedly throughout one’s writing career.
  2. It has been central to past and present projects (the external) and to one’s growth as a writer (the internal).
  3. It resonates with other people (fellow writers, target audience, etc.) on a universal level.

That last bullet is worth noting. Our audience here at DIY MFA is primarily writers, so we can relate to one another’s struggles or share certain rituals. But in many cases, the people within each writer’s audience or personal network will not be writers. They might not empathize entirely with your circumstances, but they might still recognize – or relate to – your heartaches, joys, or values in their own way. That’s why the themes of your writing life should be universal. They’re not specific to the writing community – they’re part of the human experience, just as literary themes are for characters across all genres.

So, how do you determine the themes of your writing life?

Part 1: Conduct a Self-Interview

Interviewing yourself will help you take a giant step forward in identifying the themes of your writing life. The questions that follow will be pertinent to your career so far, from the types of writing you’ve done to inspirations and motivations. This approach might remind you of Leanne Sowul’s post on crafting a mission statement. The difference, however, is that this self-interview will be grounded more in your past and present as a writer, as well as the reasons for pursuing your projects and other opportunities.

For ease of readability, let’s split this interview into four sets of questions. Group 1 covers the basics, or the Elementary Questions. I’ll share my answers as we go along to give you an idea of how this exercise is done, and so you can see how I arrived at my themes later on:

1) What are your primary writing projects?

Speculative fiction. Currently I have two YA fantasy manuscripts under my belt and am in the middle of drafting a YA magical realism novel.

2) What genres do you read most often?

Fantasy and magical realism, either YA or adult. I also enjoy historical fiction, science fiction, and literary fiction (either YA or adult on all) as well as poetry.

3) What other writing projects (freelance, creative, etc.) have you pursued?

I blog about literary themes at DIY MFA and the craft of writing at Writers Helping Writers. In past freelancing projects, I tasted samples of and wrote reviews on loose-leaf teas, and reviewed CDs and conducted band interviews for a music webzine. I’ve also had poems published in several online literary journals and two print anthologies.

Next is Group 2, the Existential Questions. It might seem early to go this deep in the self-interview, but these questions piggyback well off of Group 1:

4) Why have you pursued these projects?

All of my writing projects have been driven by passion. I’m passionate about music, tea, storytelling, and sharing my writing journey and the lessons I learn with fellow writers. I also view each project as a way of trying something new and “stretching my writing muscles” in ways they haven’t been used before.

5) Why do you write?

I’ve always struggled to express myself verbally. Writing has been the one outlet where I truly feel comfortable expressing those thoughts and emotions and then sharing them with others.

6) Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

Everywhere! Nature, places I’ve visited, life experiences, current events – anything that can evoke a strong emotional response in me, either positive (joy, peace, wonder) or otherwise (grief, anger, shock / disbelief).

For Group 3, we have the Evaluative Questions. These questions are meant to help you evaluate your favorite stories and your unique abilities as a writer:

7) What do some of your favorite stories have in common?

I love stories that feature character arcs or growth, eloquent writing, immersive world-building (either historical or fantastical), and characters I can connect with. (Not sure what your favorite stories have in common? Try this exercise.)

8) What are your strengths as a writer? What elements do you concentrate on most?

Realistic dialogue, well-rounded characters, transportive world-building, and evocative language – all of which I look for in the stories I read. Also, I feel comfortable with the editing process and enjoy polishing phrases and sentences until they’re just right.

9) What areas of your writing (either craft-related or psychological) have you struggled with and/or need improvement?

I frequently struggle with confidence in my writing and my ability to adequately bring my vision for a story to life. I also overwrite my first drafts and tend to commit myself to too many projects at one time.
Finally, Group 4 focuses on the Experiential Questions. Here, you can consider your “problem-solving” skills with your writing as well as the places (literally speaking) that your writing has taken you:

10) What do you do when you encounter writer’s block?

I usually switch to another scene in the manuscript or a different writing project (blogging, etc.). That way, I can keep writing while my subconscious works on getting me “unstuck.” Taking walks in nature often helps that part of me “wake up” and dig for solutions.

11) What events or activities have you attended or places have you visited for your writing career’s benefit (conferences, research, etc.)?

I’ve been to two literary conferences (Writer’s Digest Conference in NYC, Muse & the Marketplace in Boston), a writing retreat in Iceland, and the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. I also used to frequent local open mic nights for reading my poems.

12) Why did you attend these events or visit these places?

I wanted to learn about the craft and business of writing, especially during the two conferences. And with the Iceland Writers Retreat, one of many reasons for attending was to begin researching the island’s geography, geology, and wildlife for a future writing project. Finally, I went to open mic nights to fine-tune my poems before submitting them for publication or to celebrate a “yes” from a literary journal – and to confront my nerves over public speaking!

Part 2: Identify the Common Themes that Pop Up

As you read your completed self-interview, pay attention to any recurring concepts in your answers. They can be qualities you possess, shared themes in the stories you love and the ones you write, similar reasons for your writing-related decisions, or mistakes you’ve repeated. Some themes will stand out immediately, and others might surprise you. All of them, however, should ring true to you and your writing journey so far in some way.

Here are some of the themes I found in my writing life:

Emotion & Connection: Not only do I write to express myself and connect with others, but I also long for that same relationship as a reader. Relating to characters and being moved by the words themselves matters to me on both sides of the reader-writer relationship.

Passion: All of my writing projects been passion pursuits – and I’ve followed my general passion for writing to some incredible places. My love of the craft has also been my life raft, convincing to keep going even when my confidence hits rock-bottom.

Versatility: Trying different types of writing (and writing about a wide variety of subjects) has enriched my career and my life with skills, techniques, and knowledge I wouldn’t have acquired elsewhere. It also taught me to be openminded about where else my writing could take me in the future.

Learning: Every writing project has been a learning experience for me. So has every conference and writing-related event I’ve attended. I guess I’m an eternal student of the craft!

The Natural World
: For many writers, creativity and nature work hand in hand. I’ve learned to turn to nature for poetry and world-building inspiration and for solutions to writing blocks.

Courage
: Through passion, a desire to learn, and a willingness to experiment, writing has taught me to be brave. I wouldn’t have discovered a love for travel, stood in front of a microphone and a crowd, or shared some of my own vulnerabilities with the world if I wasn’t a writer.

The Benefits of Knowing the Themes of Your Writing Life

Now that you know the themes of your writing life, you can use them as guidance for your writing career. Knowing what makes you tick can help you refine your idea of success and make more informed choices about future projects. You might also discover patterns that have led to past mistakes, and then consider changes that can improve your process and strengthen your career’s foundations.

Or, maybe these themes confirm what you already know about yourself and the writing career you want to have. Either way, having this awareness of what defines you as a writer allows you to see how far you’ve come since the first draft of your first story, and how well those themes reflect you as an individual and your vision for the future. That in itself can be empowering beyond words.

What are some of the themes of your writing life? Do any surprise you? Were others easy to think of off the top of your head? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer.


 Sara Letourneau is a fantasy writer in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks too much tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and is hard at work on a YA fantasy novel. She also freelanced as a tea reviewer and music journalist in the past. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two print anthologies. Visit Sara at her personal blog, Twitter, and Goodreads.

  • Leanne Sowul

    Awesome post, Sara! I can’t wait to go through this list myself and get some insight into my writing themes 🙂

    • Sara Letourneau

      Thanks, Leanne! I’d love to know what your themes are if/when you get around to it. 🙂

  • JOHN T SHEA

    What do I do when I encounter writer’s block? PANIC! And eat everything in the fridge.

    But seriously, thanks for this, Sara. I too write speculative fiction, YA Dieselpunk at the moment. And a theme that runs through all my writing is machinery. The creation and operation of machines, large transport machines in particular, has always fascinated me. Trains, planes, automobiles and ships are our mind’s children and can be almost characters in their own right, as I’ve reflected elsewhere. They amplify our human qualities, strength and speed, good and bad. Dieselpunk is a descendant of SF in the sense of Science Fiction, but it could equally well be called EF or Engineering Fiction.

    • Sara Letourneau

      LOL! I hope the gobbling helps a little more than the panicking, John. 😉

      And yes, topics we’ve written about consistently can often serve as our personal writing themes. You could even take it a step further and say that, on a more abstract level, curiosity or passion could be some of your themes as well, since you might not have written so often about machinery had you not been curious or passionate about it.

  • Absolutely loved this Sara! What a great column – made me reflect on who I was as a writer, and why writing is such a powerful and inspirational way to live and touch others! Can’t wait for your next column!

    • Sara Letourneau

      Thanks, Abigail! Though I think Gabriela deserves a little credit for the idea, too, since she asked me the question in the first place. 🙂 Were you able to think of some of your writing life themes off the top of your head?

      • Gabriela always asks great questions! Yes I did! I thought about my themes a lot – usually they deal with unconditional love, suffering, grief, forgiveness, and courage. It helped me draw what I connect so much to certain books as well 🙂

  • This is a great topic to further explore! So far I’ve been writing fantasy, science fiction, and steampunk, which fits together with the stories I enjoy and topics I’m drawn to. I have several reoccurring themes, including forgiveness, good vs evil, courage, love of nature… It makes sense why I prefer more character-focused stories, and why I’m drawn to the beauty of nature and faery stories, and problem solving stories like mysteries, and those that deal with the natural elements.

    • Sara Letourneau

      Nice! And how about in your writing life, outside of the actual story-writing, E.? Do you notice any themes based on choices you’ve made as part of your writing career, or reasons for doing the things you’ve done?

  • I never thought of having a theme for my writing life. I’ll have to try finding mine!

  • Trina Burgermeister

    LOVE this post! After finishing my first novel (now with editor for final line edits before the dreaded query process!) I think it’s high time I think about this!! Thanks for sharing 🙂 xo

Enjoyed this article?

Spread the word: