WRITING WEDNESDAY: A Brief Note About Symbolism
I see a lot of people talking about symbolism as if it’s a lesson you learned in High School English, and symbols are delicate little seedlings you cultivate, nourish, and plant carefully in the fertile loam of your TOTALLY NON SYMBOLIC story so that some beret-wearing reader somewhere will pause in his Baudelaire recitations long enough to read your book, notice your flowering seedling, and go ‘oh, how clever’.
This is not the case. Symbols aren’t hothouse seedlings–they’re more like weeds.
The core symbols in your story are the things you can’t kill, no matter how hard you try. Round-Up, Killz, newspaper and winter frost–you could try anything, and it wouldn’t work. Symbols are dandelions, crabgrass, and clover. Symbols, in a word, fuck up your lawn.
They fuck it up, of course, because they’re hardy. Because they’re malleable, unkillable. Because they belong there–because they should be growing there. They come with the territory. You don’t have to do any extra work to get them in there–they’re there already.
What you want to do, if you’re a smart gardener, is learn to work around them. Deal with them. Otherwise, you’re going to plant some poison in there that kills your whole damn story.
Or, if you insist on the English Essay method–your delicate little seedlings, imported at some cost from Shanghai, where they know about these things in spite of the entire fucking city being paved, will die as soon as they touch soil. Because they don’t belong. Because they aren’t right.
Write your first draft. Just write it. Forget, for however many weeks it takes you, that you’re going to be the next Charles Dickens or Faulkner or whoever. Forget how pleasantly surprised you’re going to be when they chuck your Pulitzer at you. Forget all that back-patting self-congratulating bullshit and write a story.
After that, wait a while. Have a celebratory drink or five. Figure out where on the shelf you’re going to place all your awards. Whatever keeps your monkey chunky.
Go back and read. I could tell you to try and read it like it’s the first time you’ve seen it until I’m blue in the face, but that’s honestly close to impossible anyway, so just read it.
What jumps out at you? What do your characters keep looking at, what do they keep doing?
I’m writing a story right now about a young magician with a few mental problems who stumbles into a mess of real magic he isn’t quite equal to. He’s a sullen, hostile, brooding little person. He has, for many years, refused to acknowledge who he is or the truth of the place he’s come from.
What does Russell Attridge notice about people, first and foremost? Hair. Especially on women–especially dyed hair, treated hair, permed hair. He goes so far as to describe his mother’s hair as ‘the headdress…of some ancient peroxided Babylonian queen’. He judges women by their hair, almost.
I wasn’t planning on making hair an important symbol of Russell’s subconscious loathing of quackery and fakery. I wasn’t planning on hair being exemplary of the trapped feeling he gets around his mother, around his own illusions, which he knows are not real, and which in and of themselves symbolize his desperate yearning for the hidden magic and mysticism of his childhood. I wasn’t planning on a character’s hair–treated or not, kept up or not–denoting the character’s honesty.
In fact, I totally came up with all this after the fact. English major, remember? It’s what I do: make shit up. Green carnations. Art for art’s sake. Bullshit.
How, then, did it happen? If I didn’t plant my own tidy little literary orchids, how did they grow?
The answer is somewhat metaphysical, which you guys probably know I hate by now. But it is, simply–quit being yourself for a minute. Quit thinking about your writerly life, your possible Pulitzer, whether or not you’ll be making rent this month. When you are writing, be your character.
How, you might ask, is it possible for a slightly dumpy, happily parented twenty six year old arts professional to turn into a male magician who survived childhood abuse?
Well, I know men. I know magicians. I know people–adults about the right age–who’ve survived childhood abuse and neglect. I learned a LOT about magic, and abuse, and let what I learned influence how I thought. This isn’t anyone’s story but Russell’s. How Russell perceives his own surroundings will, therefore, be exactly how I perceive them, looking around as Russell. So it is what it is. And what I notice, slumping around a small Southern post-factory town with forgotten lockpicks in my pocket, is hair.
So you’ve got your tough weeds already. When you edit–pruning, for the sake of metaphor–all you have to do is cultivate them. Not too much–nobody wants to call more attention to weeds. But trim them, yes. Shape them. Make them a harmonious part of your literary garden instead of an add-on, or an eyesore.
Save the Phoenician sailors for poetry. Save the poppies and the games of chess for poetry. Let your prose ‘symbols’ be loose, and fast, and leave stuff open for discussion. The literary interpretation should be left up to book clubs and critics.
Your story should be you.
And if somebody doesn’t agree, fuck ’em. If you’ve thought long enough and hard enough about what being someone else might be like, it’ll be realistic enough. Believe in yourself. Other people can’t do that one for you.
PS–How many times have I ended a post with the phrase ‘fuck ’em?’ Probably a lot. I know.
If you want to read the first and second rough-draft chapters of this story I’m talking about, check ’em out here:
Or–yeah, I have to do it–buy my book.