I’m spending the weekend at the Sirens conference in Washington state. The best part about such conferences tends to be meeting other book people – writers, editors, agents, fans, booksellers. The second best part is talking books with book people, because there are always people with a different angle on things to poke you into thinking harder about writing and the things one can do with it.
One of the topics that nearly always comes up when you get a bunch of serious non-writer book people and a bunch of intent writers and would-be writers together is that of symbolism and, by extension, process. I pair them because my experience has been that the discussion starts with someone asking “Do you decide on your symbolism before your start writing, or do things come up as you write and you make them symbols?”
Before I get to answering that, let me pause for a brief definition: for purposes of this post, symbolism refers to some sort of larger meaning that can be applied to things in a story. Under the right circumstances, anything in a story, from character death to goldfish can “mean something” – that is, it can represent something more than the obvious literal object or event itself.
Most of us have been trained by years of English Lit classes to look for symbolism in stories. Some English teachers appear to think that all stories are written in a kind of secret code deliberately invented by the author, which must be deciphered in order to properly enjoy the story.
This is nonsense, but it is particularly pernicious nonsense because in promoting this view of books and stories, these folks not only ruin the simple enjoyment of books for many students, but also often convince would-be writers that the only “right” way to write is to first sit down and invent that secret code that future graduate students and English teachers will have to teach their students to understand.
Coming up with suitably deep, significant, and interconnected symbolism becomes a burden…and if (as often happens) the story starts to veer from the planned symbolic underpinning, the would-be writer faces a decision crisis: should she force the story to follow the original (and now less satisfying) plan, or should she ditch the plan and the laboriously-worked-out symbolism, and let the story go where it wants? And if she lets the story go, will she have to come up with a new set of symbols?
Several things get forgotten in all this. First, every writer has a different process. That means that some writers will make up symbols in advance, some will latch on as the story grows, some will add them or poke up their significance during the rewrite, and some will ignore them altogether, letting the story or their subconscious handle that aspect.
Second, in order to come up with a suitably coherent, deep, etc. set of symbols in advance, a writer has to have some idea of what they want to say. While many writers will tell you that knowing what you want to say before you begin is a necessity, this is obviously not the case, or there would not be so many “blank page” writers whose preferred writing method is to sit down in front of a blank page/screen and surprise themselves. A writer who is at the extreme end of the seat-of-the-pants, make-it-up-as-you-go scale is unlikely to find much utility in making up symbols in advance, as it is quite possible that the symbolic items won’t end up in the story at all.
Third, even if you do make up a secret symbol code, there are going to be symbols in your story that you didn’t deliberately and consciously put there. Because in addition to whatever you do deliberately, there are going to be things that become symbolic because of the way they occur in the story that you didn’t notice. There are also going to be things that are symbolic to you personally, most of which you probably don’t consciously realize unless you have had years of therapy to uncover the fact that you have always associated the fishpond in your grandmother’s yard with her death from choking on a fishbone, so you always unconsciously use water as a symbol for death. There are things that people already think are symbolic of something, even if you decided that particular thing ought to mean something else in your story. Finally, there are going to be things that are personally symbolic to each of your readers, which you won’t know about and can’t control and which mess up your deliberate or unconscious symbols (like the reader for whom water is a symbol of life, or fish are a symbol of fertilizer).
The vast majority of the writers I know do not bother much about the symbolism of their stories. They let the symbolism, if any, grow out of the development of the story itself. There are a few who can figure out what they have done after the first draft is finished, and go back and tweak it during revision to make it stronger and more consistent.