Was Your English Lit Teacher Wrong About Symbolism?

– I am not a symbol-hunter myself, and I think talking about intentional symbolism, unless you are dealing with an allegory, is a waste of time. But I do agree with Asimov that’s its impossible to avoid unconscious symbolism, and I like what Ellison says about readers finding symbols being an indication that their mind is collaborating with the author’s work. I’ve said this before – there is a social element to writing that we do not talk about enough. “Composition” is a solitary activity, but it is only one component of what I think of as “writing.” Writing begins when you have an idea and doesn’t end until you have someone reading the finished piece. That is what I think.

101 Books

You always wondered if your college lit professor was just making crap up.

Turns out, maybe they were.

This article from The Paris Review offers a revealing take by many famous authors on how much symbolism played a part in their work.

Their comments were prompted by a letter from a 16-year-old Bruce McCallister in 1963. He was tired of the constant find-the-symbolism game in English class, so he took it upon himself to ask them what the big deal was with symbolism.

He mailed a simple four-question survey to more than 150 novelists. About half of them responded. The responses were varied, but most of the authors seemed to think symbolism is overanalyzed. Their comments were awesome:

The survey included the following questions:

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Word Count or Time Count?

– This is an interesting question. I think setting aside the time is more important than a specific number of words, and I try not to look at the word count until I am done with a writing session. That said, I obsess about the number of words I am producing, too. My goal for the next year is to average 500 words of fiction per day. For me that means writing at least 800 per day, because I tend to overwrite everything, so the first thing I have to do in revision is cut about a third of the draft.

I could not agree more.

This is C.J. Casey explaining to a poet-friend why she should read poetry. I am excerpting it because the larger point about the relationship between reading and writing will be a recurring theme here. Just scroll down and read my post from yesterday, or this comment thread at Scholars and Rogues, if you want to know how I feel about it. I’ve made liberal use of ellipses, because it’s a really long excerpt and I don’t want to just copy half a post. I have done my best to represent C.J. honestly here.

I haven’t yet said why you should read poetry. For this, I’m going to dip into the pool of metaphors, the pool of subconscious speech and imagery, the pool where we as writers go to pick out the phrases and images that we want to use for our writing. The actual pool itself is vast and inaccessible  . . . Most writers and artists have little pools of their own . . . and when we are casting about for an idea to write, or we want to add to something we want to write, we reach into the pool and pull out a handful of inspiration. This is the feeling you get when your paper suddenly fills itself of its own accord, when you feel like your pen is going to ignite because you’re writing so fast . . .

When we first discover that we, as creators, have access to this pool, it’s easy to get lost in the joy of creation. It feel so wonderful, better than any other experiences we’ve had in our young adult lives, to pull these ideas seemingly out of nowhere and pour them on paper. But unfortunately, the water in these pools is cloudy and opaque, We can’t see the bottom until one day we reach in and scrape our knuckles on the rock . . .

. . . The trick . . . is  to walk up the mountain, or around the mountain, where the collected subconscious of Mankind runs down in rivulets, cascades, and sometimes waterfalls. Do this, carrying your cap or a bowl, and dip it in. Then go back to your own pool and empty it . . . Let it mingle with your own ideas, your own subconscious. Let it form new worlds and new ideas. Then pull it out to work with it. This is essential… going to the works of others to recharge your own work. If you don’t, one day you will sit down to write and it will be as useful as trying to look out your elbow.

You can read the entire post at Stark Writing Mad. The post C.J. is responding to is at The 365 Poetry Project, which I follow with great interest.