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What an astute group of students! These young men and women are in Angie Johnson’s storytelling class at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato.

If you’re a writer, try this exercise:

Sit down with a group of people who’ve read your book and have them come up with a list of what they see as your obsessions or themes. Leave the room while they do this. Come back into the room and tell them what you see as your obsessions, the themes that you keep coming back to again and again. Then, compare the lists.

I did this with a group of engaging and curious students at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato this week. They wanted to know what my obsessions were, and I wanted to know from them what they thought they were, so we compared lists.

Now that I’m working on a second manuscript, I am seeing themes from my memoir reoccur. Most themes are general, but occasionally they get really specific (I think I’m destined to always find a way to reference the Manson family in whatever I write).

Here’s what I saw as my themes:

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Here’s what the group came up with:

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I loved it! You can see they identified some of the ones I said. They came up with some that I had forgotten about, like storytelling and stoicism and faith. Others kind of surprised me, like age or beauty/age. That one is funny, because in the past couple of years I’ve been thinking more about age and aging and midlife.

One was really surprising: summer. I’m a winter person, so I didn’t realize how many good memories were tied to warm days. I suppose that’s when I spent the most time in cemeteries.

In my current project, my biography of Camilla Hall, many of these themes are present: father; faith; family; stoicism; unnatural death; Minnesota; small-town; storytelling.

I’m sure I’ll always be led to write these obsessions. You have to write from your gut and honor your voice.

What themes do you keep coming back to again and again in your art?

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