When we survey the work of writers, painters, filmmakers, and thinkers – particular themes, motifs, and images tend to come up again and again. Sometimes intentionally, other times accidentally, there is a tendency for our work as creators to follow certain patterns. In storytelling this is usually most evident in terms of themes surfacing in the work.
What in us drives us toward the repeated exploration of particular ideas? For clarity’s sake, the topic is best introduced through a frank mentioning of a few of the themes that have continually appeared in my own early student work. Even faced with clear project objectives and varying collaborators I have found myself returning to themes and images again and again.
The three ideas or themes that have most penetrated my own work have been remorse, dreamlike-fantasy-within-reality, and art as failed salvation. When I approach a project, I have never deliberately set about to explore any of these three themes. Only retrospectively, or perhaps during the process of shooting, have I come to realize that despite whatever theme or concept I am chasing – another more dominant thread has made itself apparent in the work.
The process of creating is the process of the careful and deliberate exercise of choice and taste integrated into the physical world. Taste is something we acquire through mindful engagement with the world, works of art, and ultimately manifestations of our assertions about critically important human values. Thus, if our taste arises from our basic human values and the particulars of our experience in the world – it does not seem improbable that embedded into our creative-taste might be unique tendencies that give rise to reoccurring images or themes.
Whatever the case – in my own attempts to rail against these tendencies and forge new independent patterns I have more often then not found myself instinctively returning to the themes that have so far guided my storytelling. This isn’t to say that new concepts and new themes are impossible to pursue – but in my own experience I find myself accidentally incorporating these more familiar themes into my explorations of new concepts and ideas.
It is easy to give in to the temptation of personifying the story and storytelling process. When you are engaged with it you cannot help but feel that powers outside and larger than yourself are at work. This emerges because of the nature of creative work to gravitate toward unity of ideas and applied creative choices. When we violate that unity, we often feel dissatisfaction at the result – when we maintain it or expand it, we feel a powerful satisfaction. Through this process it happens that we feel we are in a dialogue with a work outside of ourselves – but that in actuality is an externalization of the internal preferences and subjective emotional instincts of the creator or creators.
When we are engaged in a creative work and seeking that feeling of expanding unity, certain themes – because of their connection with our life experience or because of their natural emotional resonance with us – satisfy that desire for unity more than other expressed themes. And so, by steps and stages we find ourselves moving in familiar directions.
When theorizing about creative work or analyzing the work of an artist there is a tendency to ignore the painstaking, ongoing, life-defining, uncertainty.
The writer confronts the blank page – the director confronts the raw actor’s performance and the need to design and block the shot, the painter battles the empty canvas. This is essential. What eases that uncertainty? The artist’s own subjective emotional response to their specific creative choices. A creative action either feels right or it does not.
The artist can examine or scrutinize that feeling for a trace of coherence, he can seek patterns and carve for himself a methodology to battle the uncertainty in the long-run, but ultimately there is always the creator and his subjective impressions about the work he is creating. Because as human beings, we are finite in the scope of our life’s thought and the general direction of our life’s experience – we tend toward a specialization of inquiry. As human beings we are also naturally inclined toward categorization of our experience into patterns.
The perpetually unlucky man may see the hand of malevolent fate in everything he does. How would this affect his inclination toward particular themes and his subjective reactions to his own work? Would he feel satisfied by having told a resolutely hopeful story in a lifetime of despair? Of course every person reacts and interprets their experience differently – and some are inclined to rebel against their interpretation of their life experience through the channel of their artwork. In any case – it appears to be evident that experience and our interpretation of it has an enormous hand in shaping our creative inclinations – if even only in the negative.
In many ways the most personal connection we can have with artists as individuals is through the themes that surface in their work. Those themes may be emerging from years of experience. Though seemingly inarticulate, they are sincere in ways that the raw word or image can’t be. They are sincere reflective statements on what is deemed to be the essential. And they follow us. They follow us despite our better judgment. They follow us even when we try to lose them. They remain in pursuit – and may continue to do so – as long as we strive for honesty in our creative actions.