The cool thing about THEMA is that prompt thing. Each issue of this cleverly-conceived magazine offers one premise (the prompt) and solicits whatever plots, poems, images and issues writers can come up with from that opening. Now, I don’t mean the opening or beginning of the story. I mean that opening into the imagination, that one key into story or wordplay. THEMA's threefold goal is: “to provide a stimulating forum for established and emerging literary artists […] to serve as source material and inspiration for teachers of creative writing […] [and] to provide readers with a unique and entertaining collection of stories and poems.” The theme for the summer issue was “About two miles down the road.” What would you come up with for that?
Maybe you’d come up with something having to do with travel. The prompt itself comes from such an incident. According to the introduction, a slightly deaf friend of the editors (who came up with the idea of the journal from reading their fortunes in a Chinese restaurant, so says their website) misunderstood their solicitous questions about whether he was able to find the gentleman’s restroom during a road trip. “It’s about two miles down the road,” he told them, but he seemed quite satisfied and calm, so they didn’t press him. Instead, they took it as the prompt for the next issue. And what a trip into the varieties of thought and experience it provides!
Travel stories, yes. Three wonderful pieces of creative nonfiction—“A Change in Plans” by Virginia McGee Butler; “On the Train to Warsaw” by Melinda Brasher; and “The Real France” by Julian Zabalbeascoa—describe mind-changing moments “about two miles down the road” from where they start. Zabalbeascoa says in an author’s note at the end of the magazine that he’s wanted to write his story for years; he’s delighted THEMA has provided the perfect opportunity, and I am too. Author bios show that most of the contributors are writers and teachers of writing; their love of language, plot, and character growth is well demonstrated in these pleasing, often suspenseful, always satisfying pieces.
“Mile 615,” poetry by KH Solomon; and “Learning to Breathe Night Air,” fiction by Shirley V. Hill are also about travel. But there are also stories of escape and near-escape. “Hoop Snake” by Sarah M. Lewis tells an eerie tale of running from near-monsters at the haunted house “two miles down the road”; and “Hero” by Linda F. Willing fills the reader with dismay, as the narrator tries to save a young hitchhiking woman from the angry husband behind them, and ends up wrecking the car, two miles down the road.
Quite a few of the textual images in this issue are of desperation, of being lost, of wandering. The narrator of “Just One Turn,” by Tony Press, took the wrong turn “two miles down the road” and now knows he will die of thirst in desert country where no one knows he is. Two lost and seeking characters in Randolph Thomas’s “Homing” haunt us with their insatiable longing.
And happily, hopefully, there are also images of joy and connection. Vaughn Wright’s “Down the Road a Piece” grants a new parolee hope and kindness just two miles down the road from the prison; and one of my favorite pieces, “Cold Storage” by Tim Bascom, is a lyrical prose poem in which a father and son wander together “two miles down the road” in the snow, loving each other’s company.
When I give a prompt in my creative writing classes, it often seems as though there is surely only one way to develop it. THEMA proves with every issue that writers everywhere have unique, appealing responses to any theme. Grab an issue, and those upcoming “One thing done superbly,” "Who keeps it tidy?" "White wine chilling," "A week and a day." You’ll agree—this magazine is one idea done many times superbly.