In the history of Western higher education, writing has changed significantly in the last 100 years. Originally essays and papers and exams were an opportunity to explore a topic and to discover what the student knew and believed about that issue. Then over the years, especially in America, they devolved into a sort of regurgitation of what the student had been taught, proof that they'd been listening to the teacher and had absorbed the "knowledge" of the textbook.
But that sense of exploration is not dead and is, in fact, at the heart of many of the best writings. It's one of the things I love about the novels of Ian McEwan. I can feel that he is exploring some aspect of human relationship and usually, conscience and values. Michael Connolly's mysteries often have this same sense of exploration, particularly in the mind of his main character. On the other hand, I grew tired of Sue Grafton's alphabetical series because the author and characters didn't seem to be exploring anything.
I suspect the exploration and the theme of the novel are related but I also suspect not necessarily. (I use "suspect" since I haven't given that great thought yet.) I know that it is essential that something deeper and fundamental get explored in good writing. That exploration may be what is original as each of our explorations will be filtered through our experience and beliefs, which are as unique as our fingerprints. In fact, that may constitute our literary fingerprint.
So as you work on your essay, your short story, your poem, or your novel, what are you exploring? Which character is your spokesperson? What situations or experiences will guide the characters exploration? Interesting to ponder as I move into the second draft of my novel.