The woman, a rough shawl wrapped around her and the infant she clasped close to her breast, surveyed the barren prairie. The snowy landscape offered little shelter from the bitter wind. She walked until she came to a small ravine, with fallen trees and a low, rocky outcrop. She wrapped the infant tightly in the shawl, and lay it under an overhanging ledge, partially protected from the wind. Keeping an eye on the bundle, she began scouring the ground for broken branches with which to build a shelter for the night.
The story was neither written nor voiced. Rather, a series of tableaux acted out on a card table in my bedroom, where my mother had placed the rickety table, a chair, and me in front of a north facing window.The snowy landscape was comprised of white pillowcases, contoured by cardboard and any other prop I could salvage. The woman and her infant were clothespin dolls, replete with painted faces and glued on yarn for hair. The shawl was a piece of burlap found in my mother’s sewing box. The tree branches nothing more than twigs and bits of leaves and grass I’d picked up in our yard.
The entire fantasy landscape I’d created–painstakingly over several days–was for one purpose only: I was acting out a story of a desperate woman and her baby, surviving in the wilderness. The ingenuity needed to survive was what interested me.
My parents had very little money when I was a child, after my brother’s devastating illness kept my family strapped for years. My mother rose to the occasion, and saw to it that I went to school dressed acceptably, even if it meant ripping apart adult garments and remaking them into clothing for me.
She also supplied everything elementary school demanded. Somehow, between her artistic talent and her creative use of found materials, I often had the best decorated Valentine box or the best costume for the school play or pageant. Her motto, as she often reminded me, was “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I grew up believing that.
Fast forward to the advent of reality shows. I was an avid watcher of Survivor for the first few seasons, before it became more concerned with relationships than it did survival. I didn’t care about the personalities or the orchestrated challenges; what fascinated me was how they would find water, food, build a shelter, fight off insects, withstand weather. Sure, I knew I was watching a staged, television show, and no one was going to perish, but still . . .
I realize my fascination with survival, beginning with the make believe world I created on a card table, has dominated much of my writing. I believe we all have a dominate agenda in our writing, regardless of what genre(s) we decide to pursue.
A friend of mine, a very talented poet, writes with great understanding and compassion, whether her focus is on a shuttered and abandoned workplace, or on the process of grieving. The thin line between life and death hovers over her poetry, yet finds expression in a multitude of subjects.
One writer I know is a strong environmentalist, and preservation will be a part of every thing she publishes, even if the general story line is set far from natural world. Another will always address unequal justice in the legal system, regardless of whether the novel is a romance or a thriller. It seems we don’t stray too far from the themes that shaped our thinking, regardless of the content of our work.
I still follow my childhood passion for survival scenarios in my writing, although they are infrequently centered on a battle with the elements. Now, I find most of my work is along the lines of an individual surviving their circumstances, overcoming their personal conflicts, or finding the means to cope in our 21st century society.
It seems it’s to our advantage to identify the recurring motif underlying our work, if for no other reason than to solidify our convictions and provide a philosophical framework; a framework that comes in handy when we find ourselves writing something that doesn’t seem to coalesce into a concept that we–or more importantly, the reader–will grasp. Recognizing the dominate theme in the bulk of our work helps us get back on track and write more authentically.