Don't try to make it symbolic.

water bubbles

I was invited to a Canadian fiction class at McGill University once. This Cake was on the required reading list for the course (!), and the students had all read the book and prepared some questions for my visit.

It was a surreal experience. When I wrote the stories, I hoped for readers. But I never considered that English students would study my stories and look for symbols and meanings in a literary context (as in, possible answers to exam questions, yikes). And yet there I was, talking to a group of intelligent readers who wanted me to clarify details about images I'd written when I was in an altered state of mind.*

One student asked if I wrote Anne drinking bubbly water in "Throwing Cotton" to represent the bubbly, optimistic and hopeful feelings she was having about pregnancy.

I had to tell her no, I didn't. But it was a very cool interpretation. I think I actually said, "cool interpretation." I felt decidedly un-academic. I hoped I wasn't disappointing the class with my flaky responses. But really, I was surprised and pleased by her intuitive analysis.

It was her sharp mind that turned that bubbly water into a symbol, not me. I just wrote the bubbly water because that felt like the true thing that Anne would want to drink when everyone else had wine. The scene called for it.

Besides, had I tried to write an image that symbolized hope and optimism, I would never have come up with fizzy mineral water!

Be wary of consciously creating symbols in your stories.

There's nothing that's more cringe-worthy than trying-to-be symbolic writing. Trust your subconscious! It's an expert at symbolism. It's been making symbols for you all your life.

Putting motifs in your story on purpose will not make your work more meaningful or more literary.

Look, themes and symbols happen. You don't have to try very hard to find them. Our brains are hardwired to find meaning in everything. So let go of trying to construct it in your story.

 

Three reasons to not write symbolically:

1. It's way more fun to let your subconscious make symbols for you, and to see what sub-meanings appear after you've written the thing.

2. Your story will read more honestly and naturally when you write to uncover the things you don't know that you already know.

3. Nothing you can think up will ever be more nuanced or more compelling than what your subconscious can conjure for you effortlessly.

 

Do not try to outsmart your story.

Write intuitively — when you come close to something that feels true, you can feel it like a tug on a divining rod. Know that when you're present in your scene and practicing the art of deep noticing, your images will be imbued with meaning.

Note: in your writing process, you'll probably find yourself writing a lot of untrue stuff, too. Sometimes you have to, even if it's just to get three wooden paragraphs in — but then if you're lucky, you'll find something at the end of the third paragraph that feels real and true. Deep noticing is a practice, and you get better the more you do it.

Spend your energy on the art of deep noticing -- not trying to think up deep literary symbolism.

In the McGill class, a student finally told me that he was under the impression that most of the themes and motifs that are taught in English classes are completely made up by the reader and the profs, and that they are not intentional.

"Yep," I said.

"So do you think there is there value in sitting and analyzing artists' motifs, even if they're completely wrong?" he asked.

But they're not wrong. Symbols may exist outside of a writer's conscious efforts, that's all.

It's a glorious thing to find meaning in images and motifs! It's a deep and rewarding process. A story is a tool you can use to think about your life. It's relevant, but because of you, not because of the author. What you choose to look at tells you something about yourself.

Therefore, dear writer, your intention should not be to give your readers meaning. Your job is to write something that becomes true when they read it. That's when the magic happens.

Isn't that even more mysterious and interesting?

Leave the analyzing to the English lit classes. Go into your story with uncertainty and curiosity, and be willing to write without knowing what it all means. Hold your pen like a divining rod. Focus on the truth-jolt you have when you come upon an image that feels like it existed before you got there.

xo,

Sarah Selecky

The 2014 Little Bird Winner!
In the spotlight: Jon Shanahan

17 comments

As a poet, as well as a writer of short stories, I've seen the truth in your premise many times. People will comment on some deep meaning in a piece I wrote that I had no idea existed when I wrote it. That's because it didn't. I just wrote what I saw and felt, hung it in the public square and let the passersby put their life experiences' glass upon it. It's quite exciting and affirming when they feel your writing like that, isn't it, Sarah?
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This lesson has been the biggest challenge for me, as someone whose "activist" personality constantly wants to "move" people or compel them to believe certain things. The greatest decision I ever made was to shrug off the perceived responsibility I had to the world (a responsibility I felt even in my creative brain). I learned to shut a door to that "intentional lesson-teaching" when I sit down to write. Instead, I practice letting my unconscious and my characters (and my "excellent taste" as Ira Glass would say) guide me on the journey that each scene or story wants to go on. I believe my writing, and my enjoyment of writing has been greatly improved by this. Thanks for the reminder, it's always great to see it in your words, Sarah!
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Oh! I should also mention that the irony of all this is that by shrugging off that responsibility and giving myself permission to be free,when I write, I've written things I have felt truly moved by. Things I think have a better chance of moving people than anything I wrote while believing my stories had to be in service to a greater "cause". This is because I became allowed to tell things that felt true. Truly true.
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Sarah, I love this post. I've learned so much from you on this subject. One technique that really works for me is to allow the actual objects and scenes I see in my daily life directly into my writing. When my very personal preoccupations -- fashion, flowers, the colour yellow -- lead me to notice something, like, really notice something -- a pair of lemon yellow shoes on the street -- I notice that image will pop naturally into my writing. If I am open to it. I often do my free writing outside, which I find really helps. The most specific symbols come right to the notebook. (Remember those evening fiction workshops in your garden?)
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Alison Beere

I remember arguing with my English teacher at 16 years of age. We were studying Twelfth Night and I was adamant that William Shakespeare would have laughed himself silly had he visited our classroom and listened in on the symbolism we were busily ascribing to everything. And yet as you say, the subconscious is an amazingly powerful tool, hard at work creating meaning even while the conscious mind is focused simply upon trying to keep us in our seat long enough to hold a pencil :)
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Joe! Yes, it's incredibly affirming. I also feel quite humbled whenever it happens. Something important and mysterious exists between writer and reader, and the writing is a transmitter. This relationship is invisible most of the time, but when a reader points out an unintentional meaning, it's such a gift.
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Sarah Selecky

Shannon, yes! I'm reading a book of essays right now by Leslie Jamison - The Empathy Exams - and what I love about is the writing is the way she tackles this topic. It could be full of "intentional lesson-teaching" -- aka, messagey -- but she doesn't go there. It's much more refreshing and humane to read work that shows up on the page to wrestle with something difficult, not to solve/fix/compel readers to act in a certain way. And as a writer, I think it requires a lot vulnerability to go there: to write honestly, curious, unprotected by "messaging". I agree though - it's way more enjoyable to write this way!
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Sarah Selecky

Totally.
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Sarah Selecky

Yes, Daphne! Again with the vulnerability of this, though. It's honest, and it's openly curious, and doing this means that you have to really put yourself out there. I think this is how and why fiction is so powerful. Even if the story you're writing happens in the past, or in the future, or in an imagined world entirely - when you allow the details of your personal preoccupations into your scenes, they light up the writing and make everything feel real. Because they ARE real. You know, I was weeding my garden and fondly remembering those summer workshops just yesterday! (My herb gardens are way overgrown - remember the herbal tisanes we'd drink?)
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Alison! So true. When I was in English classes, I bought the whole thing. I thought writers consciously came up with *all* of it. I had to unlearn a lot of conscious symbol-making over the years as a result. My earliest stories make me cringe with their super-obvious motifs. How smart you were to argue your teacher on this issue at such a young age! Much to her (his?) consternation, no doubt.
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Stephen D. Forman

I believe you've got it right when you say, "Leave the analyzing to the English lit classes." In another life I was a composer of primarily neo-Classical works. I remember a discussion with one of my professors, when working through a new piece, had turned decidedly theoretical. "Should this chord move to a French Sixth before resolving? Should we perform a Schenkerian analysis?" Snotty shit. To his credit, my teacher said, "Your job is to write, not to analyze. The theorists will come later." Smart chap. As they attribute to Freud (probably incorrectly, it turns out), "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."
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Sarah Selecky

Smart teacher, Steve! I love learning how this happens in different genres. I imagine a similar process can happen for choreographers and sculptors, etc. But I can also sense how seductive it is to want to puzzle all of the theory out before you make your art. There's always that creeping fear that you won't be "taken seriously" as an artist if you don't make your work theoretically sound. BAH!
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Do you feel the same way about themes? Can you set out to write a story knowing what themes you want to explore or should those form organically from the story as well?
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Sarah Selecky

Yes Noelle! Because I don't know if we can help writing the themes we write. They're there, whether we see them or not. For example, try looking back at some of your old notebooks and stories and read through what you were obsessed with back then... and how it relates and has evolved into what you're obsessed with now. Our themes may follow us all our lives, I think.
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This article was so timely for me. I am working on my first novel and I got way too academic about it. It started with a simple idea about a fantasy realm. Before long I was trying to incorporate every Jungian archetype, the symbolism of all the 22 major arcana tarot cards, and theories about planes of existence. I had decided that this other world had to be a perfect representation of the human psyche. Which probably gave my subconscious a laugh. I got so frustrated with the story - which had become more of a summary of Psych 101 than a story - I set it aside. But this article has convinced me to start up again with just a pen and paper and let the story tell itself through me. Hopefully getting my head out of the way of my intuition will help. Thanks! :)
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Courtney! WOW, this is great. The best part is that nothing is wasted. After doing all of that planning and research, now you can let it go and forget about it... and the richness of those symbols can seep into the story subtly now, without you even knowing it. Your book sounds amazing.
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It is so funny that this article should be here, for two reasons: 1. I HATED trying to find symbolism in the works we were studying in English class as a girl. It was miserable. Half the time, I wondered if the writers even INTENDED for those symbols to be there; I tended to suspect the teachers of making it up, themselves, just to make English class miserable. (It doesn't help that the stuff we had to read was so dull.) 2. I actually had something similar to your anecdote happen to me not too long ago. I'd written a story entitled 'Like a Glove'. And someone read/reviewed it, stating that she loved the symbolism of the title--as the antagonist happened to be wearing gloves. I had to confess that the "symbolism" was a total accident. It wasn't something I'd intended.
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