I have written all my life, but it was only in college that I discovered the thesis statement. My professors prized them highly, selling them as magic wands of clarity to wave over fuzzy prose. There was nothing like a thesis statement to unravel tangled thinking. Every essay, they insisted, should have one, to be worthy in their eyes.
A thesis statement meant taking responsibility for all that I said. I had to say in the first paragraph what I wanted to prove, such as “Little Red Riding Hood is Gullible,” then I had to back up my general claim; I had to prove it, preferably again and again, using as many supporting details as possible.
I was a skeptic, and I was all for thinking clearly. I even became a writing tutor who explained how to write, and develop, thesis statements. As a student, and nerd, I could not have respected them more.
But I was also a fiction writer who as a kid had written lawlessly and recklessly. The unhinged fiction writer in me, the creative inner child, the incorrigible spinner of vampire tales, was not a fan of thesis statements. I worried that the formula led to boring and predictable writing. To be fair, my professors were not looking for art. They were looking for sound arguments and clear thinking from students who were, by and large, accustomed to neither.
However, I felt strait-jacketed, particularly when writing about personal experiences. I wanted to experiment, to play, to start my stories at the end and vice-versa. Beginning my essays by writing a thesis statement set my writing on tracks rather than allowing me to wander freely through the Wild West of my imagination. It seemed to forbid the adventure of getting lost or stumbling upon new insights. It felt like riding a fake horse in an endless circle on a carousel as opposed to galloping on a real horse through an open prairie, past roaring rivers, crumbling bridges, and quaint cottages.
A thesis seemed to require drawing a quick, definitive conclusion from the very start, but in my writing, I kind of enjoyed my indecisiveness. I was not always sure what I wanted to say when I sat down to write, and I liked my temporary confusion. I wanted to discover what I wanted to say as I said it. I liked to meander my way to insights, and I liked to be surprised.
Of course, that is not really a good argument against using thesis statements. Any clean, logical, zipped-up essay might have an unbelievably messy history behind it. Most any rough draft has a lot of useless content that needs trimming. In any writing, a rough draft also provides space to wander. However, there was something about a thesis statement that said to me, “This is serious. There is to be no dallying and no foolishness. Decide what your purpose is before you begin, and stick with it at all costs.”
my thesis-driven essays had begun to sound all alike: “I will show that Pinocchio, through various means and methods, attempts to become a real boy despite numerous trials and temptations thrown in his path.” I used the same dull phrases again and again, such as “to illustrate” and “moreover.” Every other phrase seemed to be “for example.” By my senior year, I wanted to rip all my literary analysis papers to shreds.
That is why, as soon as I got out of college, I returned to my old meandering ways. I started some of my essays in the middle of the action or “in medias res” to use the Latin term. I wrote without regard for rules. I threw down trite phrases on purpose, just to spite the platitude police. I became a shameless word wastrel. I was out of school. I could say whatever I pleased. Who said I even had to prove anything? I would use obnoxiously big words followed by the most opprobrious slang if I felt like it.
Like a vagabond with a grocery cart, l started writing many of my blogs without being sure when I began what my destination would be. I was wandering through a wilderness of words, letting myself get lost, letting go, ready to exchange what I thought I knew for what I could discover.
There are many rewards to writing this way, and they are why I will never get bored with writing. When I write to learn instead of trying to perform, my writing often comes to life in ways that surprise me. When I meander, when I forget about what I am trying to prove, when I toss efficiency aside, impressions shift. My memories, and how I perceive them, can change. Mountains of old, distorted assumptions crumble.
My experimentation has led to some unexpected insights. Decades after I was bullied as a kid, I wrote about it. It was a surprisingly emotional process considering all the time that had passed. I was traumatized not so much by the bullying itself, but by the belief that I had not fought back or stood up to the gang of bullies much, who were popular and had a lot of support all over the school. I had essentially shut down and taken refuge in silence. While writing I realized that, being eleven years old, I had lacked the life experience to know how to deal with such widespread ridicule and sustained daily, year-long abuse. I stopped blaming myself. I became sympathetic to the confused, bullied child I once had been, and I realized that I had done the best I could under extreme circumstances. Plus I remembered all the times I had fought back, although it had not been every day. Writing about my experience changed my entire perspective.
Letting a conclusion unfold naturally from the writing process, rather than throwing down a conclusion and setting out to prove it from the first paragraph, does more than deliver an interesting finished product. I actually emerge from the writing changed, with more understanding and even, sometimes, catharsis.
I sometimes even feel as if I am asking my writing a question rather than sharing what I already know. My question, “How do I overcome my annoying obsessive-compulsive behavior?” became the short story “The Mechanical Siren,” in which an android is told she must overcome her programming if she wants to survive.
I still use thesis statements in my writing, but I am no longer a slave to them. If I find that my final drafts are lacking in purpose, I use thesis statements to get me back on track. I ask, what is my central message? What am I trying to prove? What truth do I want to convey?
Even in my fiction, thesis statements have a place, except I think of them as statements of purpose, or themes. Without a clear sense of purpose, my stories would lack focus, and they would be almost impossible to finish. Without my ability to wonder and my willingness to get lost, my stories would be mechanical and I would miss out on the potential to let my writing change me.
It turns out that in the world of writing, it is possible to ride a fake horse right off the carousel and into the prairie without ever getting lost beyond the point of no return. The academic discipline of organizing thoughts and the artistic pursuit of wandering were never in conflict after all. They are just just contrasting parts of the same pursuit, each of them powerful, and each belonging to their own place and time.