W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Friday, April 14, 2006

No: 43 The Use of Symbols

D-L Nelson will run a short story writing workshop in Argelès-sur-mer, France, the last weekend in October 2006. Anyone interested in it should contact her at donna-lane.nelson@wanadoo.fr.

The use of symbols is one way to increase the depth of your writing. Many a doctoral thesis has been written on symbolism and there are many that still can be written. This newsletter will only skim the surface to plant a seed, the phrase plant a seed being a symbol itself, albeit it trite one. However symbolization is a potent tool in your writing craft kit. The word tool here is also a symbol because is a concrete representation of a something abstract.

Webster defines a symbol as “something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance; especially: a visible sign of something invisible.”

Let’s look at two different categories of symbols: “universal” and private.

“Universal” symbols
Symbols that are “universal” or symbols understood by everyone can be tricky. The word universal is in quotes because “universal” symbols break down culturally. This would be a problem if writing is to be read by more than one culture. Anyone who has lived in another country or even read literature from a previous epoch needs a guide to understand what the symbols mean if they recognize they are symbols at all.

Flower symbolism, for example, is culturally based. Chrysanthemums, the national symbol of Japan for a long life are associated with death in France and are used to decorate graves November 1st. However, if a person is writing about France they wouldn't want a French man to give Chrysanthemums to his lover unless he was sending her a very nasty message and if your readership is American the inappropriatness needs to be explained or shown in someway.

Color symbolism is also culturally based. White is the color that symbolizes virginity and purity which is why wedding gowns are white in Western Culture, but Indian women are married in red. Imagine the looks guests would exchange in a small English town if a bride walked down the aisle in a bright red wedding gown.

Freud and Jung both agreed certain symbols reflect the ability of the mind to hold a distinct piece of information, but they never agreed on the commonality of symbols. At a recent art exhibition of masks rife with all types of symbols from feathers, brushes, colors, expression. They werefrom all over the world. However one had horrible pointed teeth teeth, furrowed lines pointed down from the forehead and mouth, horns painted in black. It would probably not pass as a symbol of happiness in any culture.

An apple and snake might not mean a lot to someone who had never heard of Adam and Eve.

Writers, therefore, need to be careful if they use certain cultural symbols. They will have to conjure up something to trigger recognition by the target audience. In using symbols of a culture such as Welsh animal symbols (e.g. a boar for courage) it has to be clear to the reader not familiar with the standing of boars in ancient Welsh cultures. This must be done subtly rather than with sentences such as “watch the boar appear in a chapter 5 and the hero will now do something brave in chapter 6.”

Naming characters after Roman gods might work if the readers knew Roman mythology. If they didn’t the writing would have to be strong enough to carry it without the knowledge.

None of this means that writers can’t include culturally uncommon symbols if they are used in such a way that the reader will understand what the writer is doing, at some level. The reader that knows the symbol system will get ever a greater understanding of the work.

Private symbols
These are symbols that the writer sets up for him/herself. The only limitation is the writer’s imagination. There are the easy and trite symbols of an expensive car to represent the attainment of wealth (goals). John Grisham, when he stepped out of genre writing of legal thrillers, used the painting of his childhood home as a symbol of something important in the status of his family certainly far less trite than buying a Mercedes.

The symbol must remain constant through out the piece unless the change is clear to the reader. For example, a Mercedes can represent success but if a man loses his wife because his wife cannot support what he had to do to get the Mercedes, then it also becomes a symbol of failure. However, failure is the other side of success and therefore the symbol mutates logically into something that is related to its original meaning strengthening the power of the symbol.

The private symbol must hold on its own merit. Orwell makes good use of Pigs in ANIMAL FARM to represent capitalists.

Be careful however not to over do symbols or be too cunning which will leave a writer open for charges of precious writing.

Many writers have admitted that there are times what critics see symbols in their writing that were put their totally subconsciously. Perhaps that is the best use of symbols possible.

1. The connections (between symbol and object) should be valid and reasonable in a plain literal sense as well as a metaphorical one, and be consistent through the whole story. A knife can be a symbol, but it also better be able to cut string. And if it represent cutting free, cutting loose, in the story’s beginning, it better not be used to prop up a bookcase and then forgotten later on.”
Ansen Dibell BEYOND PLOT

2. He especially enjoyed watching Mrs. Sen as she chopped things, seated on newspapers on the living room floor. Instead of a knife, she used a blade that curved like the row of a Viking ship, sailing to battle in distant seas. The blade was hinged on one end to a narrow wooden base. The steel, more black than silver, lacked a uniform polish, and had a serrated crest, she told Eliot for grating. Each afternoon Mrs. Sen lifted the blade and locked it into place, so that it met the base at an angle. Facing the sharp edge without ever touching it, she took whole vegetables between her hands and hacked them apart: Cauliflower, cabbage, butternut squash. She split things in half, then quarters, speedily producing florets, cubes, slices, and shreds. She could peel a potato in seconds. At times she sat cross-legged, at times with legs splayed, surrounded by an array of colanders and shallow bowls of water in which she immersed her chopped ingredients.
Jhumpa Lahiri MRS. SEN

Note: In this story the knife is a tie to Mrs. Sen’s home, her doing things as she would have if she had not been forced to move to Cambridge for her husband’s work. It could also symbolize that she is cut off from her own people but at the same time her following her culinary customs ties her to the people back home.

3. Whan that April with his shoores soote
The droughte of Marche hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veine in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr;
Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smalle fowles maken medlodye
That sleepen all the night with open ye -
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages -
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seekn strange strondes
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Canterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martyr for to seeke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seke.
Chaucer CANTERBURY TALES PROLOGUE Talbot Donaldson edition - regularized spelling - Scott Foresman 1975)

Note: Nature arises in all things in the Spring, as symbolized by April showers and the soft breezes of the zephyr wind, while the still-young Sun has gone halfway into Aries and the birds are kept awake at night by the force of Nature.

1. Take something you’ve written that has no symbolization. Then rewrite using a symbol. Here’s an example: The scene is a funeral of an old man, a real patriarch. People talk about him, food is passed around. Until this point there is no symbolization. Then a chair is added as the symbol. The chair is where he and no one else ever set. He called it his throne. Although there are not enough seats no one has sat in the dead man’s chair until his oldest son goes over and sits down. Everyone gasps, and the wife thinks, the king is dead, long live the king. The chair becomes a symbol of the transfer of power from the father to the son.

2. Look at an object (tree, cup, pencil, lamp, whatever) and create a story using the object as a symbol.

1. Good web site. Dictionary of symbols http://www.umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/A/

2. Thanks to Dr. John McLaughlin, a Medievalist, who supplied me the opening lines from the CANTERBURY from his class along with my apology that I didn’t remember the symbolism. However, I can still recite the passage.