Sunday, October 31, 2010
1. the practice of representing things by symbols, or of investing things with a symbolic meaning or character.
2. a set or system of symbols.
3. symbolic meaning or character.
4. the principles and practice of symbolists in art or literature.
The use of symbols in fiction is closely related to the development of theme in a narrative. When a writer sets out to pen the story of all sorts of interesting people pitted against escalatating conflict— and if you’ve read any manuals on how to grab a reader by the shirt collar and not let go, you know it’s of some importance to give your characters a fair amount of hell— she is keenly aware of two things. One, the story has got to be good. It’s gotta have meat. It’s gotta make readers cry, feel, laugh, deem the experience worthy of turning the page to see how it all pans out in the end. But, lo, there is two.
What does the story mean?
In life, and therefore in art, the human mind craves meaning. At the very least, it does when forking over hard-earned cash for upmarket commerical art. Readers pay to come away from completely voluntary participation in something which is not vital— and the appreciation of any art form, including literature, is not as vital to survival as say, food, oxygen, affection and coffee— with some sense that the experience was worth the trip, that it promoted fresh insight. Sometimes it’s as powerful as a full-on paradigm shift. Other times, it’s a lingering sense that something subtle, but nevertheless real, has changed within as a result of having engaged the text with not only the mind but the heart. One of the ways in which a writer accomplishes this strange magic is through the use of symbols— but herein lies the rub.
The introduction of a persistent symbology in any text must be subtle. I would be unhappy to stand corrected on this as I like to believe that readers don’t enjoy having theme crammed down their throats. Much as in the art of seduction, there must be a sort of waltz with the reader which can be spoiled— sometimes sadly beyond redemption— with coming on too strong. All of the masters have grappled with this. So we apprentices must, too. Having said that, it has been my experience that something ineffable happens through the process of simply putting the pen to page.
Have you ever broken ground on a story only to realize a hundred pages in that you have begun to cultivate theme through the use of a particular set of symbols without even realizing it? The bane comes when you recognize what is happening and then proceed to crush the fragile life out of the thing by deliberately trying to develop it. You go back and think to yourself, ‘hey, this part here is a perfect place for me to expound on this concept which has already insinuated itself so seamlessly later in the text.’
Might I make a suggestion?
Don’t do it. Don’t go back, once you recognize motif emerging organically in part by the use of symbols, and try to pepper the text with more. For the love of Wollstonecraft, Hawthorne and Fitzgerald— please— resist the urge to try. Just. Write. Write your story, from the most genuine place within you, and see if meaning doesn’t alight like a skittish elf owl on the cactus of your imagination.
In asking which came first, the execution or the idea, I propose the inquiry is not ‘one for the ages’ but rather a matter of watching something take shape beneath your nimble fingertips as you tap into the night, convinced that your own existence will be imbued with meaning if only you can flesh out that minor masterpiece and, hence, secure representation.
It’ll happen, scribe. Just dance. Until next time, dear reader.