7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 157)

December 23, 2011 | 31 comments

— 1 —

Last week we had a moment that made us realize that Yaya is fully settled in to her new house in our neighborhood: The other day she was talking to a neighbor she recently met, and the neighbor commented about how busy she must be with her job. Yaya is retired, so she was confused by the question. She asked the neighbor what she meant, and the neighbor replied, “You own a daycare, don’t you?”

Ah, yes. You know you’re fully integrated with the Fulwiler family when people start asking you if you run an in-home daycare.

— 2 —

As I mentioned, the tree is decorated. There were some naysayers who were skeptical that we could figure out a way to get the star on top, seeing as how the top of the tree is only half an inch below the ceiling.

There was talk of saws and clippers and all sorts of work to reshape the top of the tree that made me tired just thinking about it. So I stepped in and solved the problem, Jen-style:

Nobody has even noticed that our star is tacked to the ceiling, just kind of hanging in front of the tree. I win.

— 3 —

Fellow writing nerds, listen up! I’ve stumbled upon something really interesting that you’re going to enjoy pondering: The critical importance of theme. The way I’ve come to see it, the theme of a story is the underlying element of it that transcends the individual events and touches on the universal human experience. Especially in memoir, it’s what takes your story from forgettable navel-gazing to an expansive story with wide appeal. For example:

  • Scene 1 (no theme): Dude writes about eating a tomato.
  • Scene 2 (with theme): Dude writes about eating a tomato. He explains that he grew it in his farm’s garden, and that this is an heirloom variety that would have been eaten by the farm’s original owners back in 1812. It is the evening of his 40th birthday, and he reflects on the fact that all the people who enjoyed these same tastes back in the nineteenth century are now gone, and that his own life won’t last forever. As he savors the textures and flavors and aromas of the tomato, he resolves to make the most of each day from here forward.

That’s an example from the memoir The Bucolic Plague by Josh Kilmer-Purcell. Scene 1 is how he could have written it, which would have been uninteresting; Scene 2 is how he did write it. The themes of “man reflecting on his mortality” and “the importance of savoring simple moments” animated the chapter, and elevated it from a self-centered journal entry to a moving glimpse of the universal human experience.

Fellow writers, heed my example and save yourself a lot of work: A large part of the reason that I am re-writing my book for the third time is that I had not nailed the theme the first two times around. I had not chosen one universal aspect of my experience that I would use to drive the main storyline, and the result was that I could never figure out why it kept feeling kind of flat.

— 4 —

Understanding theme has helped me enjoy reading as well. I’ve realized that there are certain themes that I enjoy more than others, and I now select new reads in part based on what the theme is. Here are some examples from popular books:

  • BOOK: The Kite Runner | THEME: Redemption
  • BOOK: The Help | THEMES: Finding empowerment in oppression; speaking the truth despite personal risk
  • BOOK: Eat, Pray, Love | THEMES: Living life to the fullest; the search for spiritual enlightenment
  • BOOK: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years | THEME: Living life to the fullest
  • BOOK: Three Cups of Tea | THEMES: Living life to the fullest; finding fulfillment in giving back to others

I may not have perfectly articulated these themes, but you get the idea. Also, each author has his or her own take on the theme. E.g. In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s take on the theme of “living life to the fullest” seemed to be something like, “In order to live life to the fullest, a person must have complete autonomy to do whatever she wants” (or something like that). Interestingly, whenever I read a book that I just can’t seem to connect with, it almost always comes down to the author not seeming to have a clear theme.

— 5 —

Was all this talk of theme making you wonder if there could perhaps be any Christian themes in the classic children’s tale The Princess and the Pea? If so, you’re in luck. That’s exactly what Anna Mitchell and I were talking about on the SonRise Morning Show last week:

— 6 —

Remember how I gave up coffee a while back? The problem was that I often felt like a rage-filled madwoman about an hour after I’d drink a cup, probably due to blood sugar issues. Anyway, I’ve found that if I drink coffee on an empty stomach, it’s fine. As long as I have a cup before breakfast, I don’t experience any of the ill effects that used to hit me from my after-breakfast cup. Especially now that cold weather is here, I’m ridiculously excited about having coffee back in my life.

— 7 —

I’ll leave the linky list open until Tuesday for those of you who might want to do Quick Takes a little later this week due to holiday craziness. Merry Christmas, everyone!



  1. Emily

    I love the tree decorations! Looks beautiful. I wish I knew more about writing books (lets be real, I will never write an essay ever again unless I have to) but I can tell you that theme is important! I can’t wait to read your book!
    Merry Christmas!

  2. Kendra @ The Nerdy Wife

    I approve of your star on the christmas tree solution 🙂

  3. Laura O in AK

    We haven’t got the angel on top of our tree yet for similar issues.

    As for great versus ho-hum writing, I couldn’t agree more about needing a good theme underlying the whole piece. Having done what seems like a gazillion book reviews this year, I can say that there are some books being published that are ho-hum. I can only hope to have wonderful elements throughout my writings and not fall into the trap of flat pieces.

  4. Jackie Briere

    Merry “Christmas” Jennifer ! I like your idea to tack the star up . It’s clever . Thanks for the writing lesson as well . I don’t write but it’s good to know anyway .

  5. Amy @ You Shall Go Out with Joy

    I think your star idea is genius! Of course, we didn’t even put up a tree this year–we had a party planned that would mean 10 toddlers in a small living room. It didn’t seem like a good idea. (Plus, we’re away from today till the middle of January) Instead, I just taped the lights that would have gone on the tree to the wall in a tree shape, then taped ornaments around them. So, as you can see, I think tape is a perfectly acceptable decorating aide. Merry Christmas!

  6. Jeanne G.

    I love the Christmas tree solution. Merry Christmas!

  7. Ellen Gable Hrkach

    A Blessed Christmas to you and your family, Jennifer!

  8. Contra

    Love that attached the star to the ceiling instead of the tree!

  9. Theresa in Alberta

    the book “The Help” is one of the BEST secular books I have read in years!!!
    Merry Christmas to you and yours eh 😀

  10. Kathleen Basi

    The Yaya thing made me laugh. What a blessing she is!

  11. Judy Dudich

    Merry Christmas to you and your beautiful family, Jennifer:)
    That “star” resolution was absolutely “genius”!
    Glad to know that Ya Ya is all settled in her new business, I mean, house! LOL
    I relate…once, the Jehovah Witnesses came to our door as we were sitting down to lunch with my hubby, who was home from work that day…The “lead-woman” of the group craned her neck around my husband’s tall stature…smiled…and then asked, “What IS this place?” to which hubby replied, “Pardon me?” and the woman continued, “This place…with all of those children…is this some sort of school or day care or *facility*?” My husband chuckled and said, “Nope! It’s just *us*…my family, sitting down to some lunch!” The woman’s mouth dropped and she shook her head from side to side many times and then said she’d come back at a more *convenient* time.
    Thanks for 7 Quick Takes…it’s a highlight in my bloggy-weeks!
    BTW…after reading your post…I am breathing a sigh of relief that my book “HAS A THEME”! Whew!

  12. Laura

    Merry Christmas, Jen. Love the star solution.

  13. Elizabeth

    Brilliant star solution!

    Wow, thank you for the reminder about theme. I have a novel “I’m working on,” but I think I’m just afraid to see how bad it would be. If I keep the theme element in mind, at least I have some kind of guideline. Thank you! Merry Christmas!

  14. Maria Johnson

    I’ve been enjoying your tree adventures. Our children are grown, and only one lives at home. My husband and I mentioned that we were going to get a small fake tree that comes with lights and that was met with outrage and various full blown dissertations on A Charlie Brown Christmas. As of today, no tree, but there are rumors of going to cut one down this afternoon.

    Merry Christmas!

  15. Tami Boesiger

    Merry Christmas, Jen!

  16. Barbara C.

    I had to laugh at the Yaya one. We had new neighbors move in at the other end of our row of townhomes. We have four kids, but our garage is usually where all the other kids in our section hang out, too. I’m the only parent who supervises, and we have tons of toys and stuff. The new neighbors asked my husband if I ran a daycare. LOL

  17. Leanne Shawler

    Yeah, theme. sort of related to that mysterious thing called “voice” which nobody has ever been able to define or help you define beyond “I know it when I see it”. It’s interesting that of your favorite books, three of them are about living life to the fullest. Maybe that’s your theme for this book? The theme that you are attracted to tends to be the one you write successfully about. I never thought about using theme for non-fiction though, so that is good to know!

    Merry Christmas!

    • Karyn

      Leanne, the current writing curriculum tries to teach kids “voice” and it is difficult. I finally ‘got’ it when I read books by people I had only heard give talks, like Peter Kreeft. I could hear his voice. Another one is GK Chesterton. I’ve never heard him, but every book of his has a distinct voice. Like theme, I think it’s better understood through example than definition.

  18. Melanie

    Love the star!

  19. Rosemary

    My problem is always focusing too much on theme too early in the drafting stage! It makes everything else grind to a halt.

  20. Karianna@Caffeinated Catholic Mama

    I have to join the chorus of “Thank you for the tip about Theme!” I’ve been working (and re-working and sketching and plotting) a YA novel but I haven’t considered theme… I wonder if that will help chug things along…

    Have a Very Merry Christmas!

  21. priest's wife

    MERRY MERRY CHRISTMAS- a big virtual smooch to your ‘day care provider’ 😉 I guess that’s how you can handle so many kids- having them in day care all day

  22. Trisha Niermeyer Potter @ Prints of Grace

    That’s great that you came up with a solution for the star that didn’t involve chainsaws, branches, or a highly trained crew of tree-scaling scorpions:) I read the book Story Engineering, as per your recommendation a while back, and I found it is a great resource to use while writing. Thanks for the tip! Please let me know of any other books you’d recommend reading or writing while you working on the memoir-as I’m in the process of rewriting a memoir manuscript as well. I pray you and your loved ones have a glorious Christmas and that your manuscript is coming along nicely. God bless!

  23. Karyn

    Merry Christmas, Jen, to you and yours.

    Thanks for continuing to fit Quick Takes into your busy schedule–a true work of mercy.

    I’ve been enjoying your comments about writing–last weeks about understanding when to condense and when to expand. Definitely one of my weak points. I had to write a “spritual biography” for entrance into the monastery and it was about 25 pages. Most are about 3-5. Ooops.

    I think theme is best understood by example and not by definition, although yours was a good one. It’s also interesting that you point out that there may be an overarching theme, but each section or chapter may also have a sub-theme.

  24. Tori

    We had a little trouble getting our angel on top of our tree, too. The top of the tree is just a little funky. And off center.

  25. MelanieB

    I’ve never tried to write a book; but my suspicion is that even if you’d had in mind that “I need a theme” it would still have taken you at least one draft, if not two to pin down what the theme is. At least that tends to be the way I write shorter pieces. The first draft or two is me figuring out what I want to say and the final draft or two is me getting it into a shape that actually says that.

    I love your take on The Princess and the Pea. I’ve always found it an odd story; but have been very drawn to it at the same time. I’ve always thought the princess was kind of self-centered and over-sensitive– it’s all about how poorly she slept that night; but I love how you turn the story around and make it other-centered. I’m going to be pondering this and trying to figure out how I can use it with my own kids. I hope some day you collect all these insights about children’s stories and publish them somewhere. I think they’d make a great book.

    Also, I love the tree topper.

    So glad to hear you are able to drink coffee again.

    Merry Christmas to you and all your family

  26. elizabethe

    Hi Fellow Writing nerd!

    What you say here about theme reminds me of a piece I read about movies. There’s a great post at Big Hollywood (conservative movie/entertainment news website by Breitbart) where the author talks about something similar to theme, but not quite. It really sort of functions alongside of theme. He talks about “thinking inside the box” and how choosing a central motif can help you focus your movie/writing. He talks about how the box “gold” in the movie “Goldfinger” functions, and how by referring back again and again to “gold” it helps the movie makers (not just writers) make choices that serve to unify and add depth to the movie.

    Here’s the link:


  27. nancyo

    I wonder if sometimes the theme finds you rather than vice versa? Today I did a post of images of the Nativity, but there are more than seven, so I’m not putting it on Mr. Linky as a Seven Quick Takes post. I hope to participate more in 2012.

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