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Jan's Master Class--SYMBOLISM

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Postby hwnj » Mon Mar 23, 2009 2:08 pm

I move the metal detector slowly over the ground, finally hearing a faint beep. I move it in circles until I find the loudest tone, which is still quite faint. Placing my toe on that point, I pull a trowel from my tool belt, stoop, and commence digging. Each scoop of sand is run through the strainer on my right, making an increasing mound as the hole deepens and broadens. After some minutes, something clinks in the sieve, which I peer at through a magnifying glass. Setting sieve and glass to one side, I move the detector in and around the hole. It makes no more sound, and I am disappointed that I have expended such effort, not only finding nothing of value, but not even something recognizable.
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Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 23, 2009 5:03 pm

Carol, thanks for the heads-up on 'Hodie'--I'd stopped at 'Lo How a Rose".

I love your linked story, and appreciate so much that it had both symbolism and irony. I'm a HUGE fan of irony!
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Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 23, 2009 5:04 pm

Steve, I'd like to hear more about symbolism (or its lack) in parables.

So, are you anti-symbolism, then?
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Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 23, 2009 5:06 pm

Soren, you definitely have a director's eye! I'd love to be able to visualize scenes like that.
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Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 23, 2009 5:13 pm

hwnj wrote:I move the metal detector slowly over the ground, finally hearing a faint beep. I move it in circles until I find the loudest tone, which is still quite faint. Placing my toe on that point, I pull a trowel from my tool belt, stoop, and commence digging. Each scoop of sand is run through the strainer on my right, making an increasing mound as the hole deepens and broadens. After some minutes, something clinks in the sieve, which I peer at through a magnifying glass. Setting sieve and glass to one side, I move the detector in and around the hole. It makes no more sound, and I am disappointed that I have expended such effort, not only finding nothing of value, but not even something recognizable.


Hmmmm, Holly. Is the paragraph symbolic of the wasted effort we expend in pursuing worthless pursuits?

This might be a good example of what Carol and Steve and I mentioned earlier--who owns a piece of writing, the author or the reader? Because what if you have a completely different intent in this passage, and I just didn't see it because I'm fried from a hard day at work?

Something to think about...
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Re: Jan's Master Class--SYMBOLISM

Postby ThreeDee » Mon Mar 23, 2009 6:04 pm

glorybee wrote:[b]What other reasons can you come up with for adding symbolism to your stories or poems?



I needed to write my WC entry this week with a touch of symbolism, mostly because I was wrestling with the topic. The concept of the kingdom of God seemed very deep for my wee little brain, so I tried to dive into it wearing my water wings - allegory (but that's stretching at a metaphor right?).

I won't post it, just wanted to answer your question from my perspective. I used symbolism there because my mind was working through a difficult concept and thought it would be easier for the reader to follow me through symbols - does that make sense?

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Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 23, 2009 7:04 pm

Excellent, Di! Thanks for the input. Make sure to direct us toward the entry (or at least a clip of it) once hinting has started!
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Postby hwnj » Mon Mar 23, 2009 7:49 pm

"Hmmmm, Holly. Is the paragraph symbolic of the wasted effort we expend in pursuing worthless pursuits?"

Yes! Specifically digging for symbolism in otherwise enjoyable literature. How many people who would have enjoyed reading have been turned off to it by being compelled to dissect the required reading in English class? In my opinion, only the author is qualified to define whether or not there is meaning beyond that which is overt.
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Postby Verna » Tue Mar 24, 2009 11:53 am

I really appreciate the comments on my entry in the challenge this week, symbolizing the Kingdom of Heaven in my heart, very early in Masters.
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Postby Chely » Tue Mar 24, 2009 6:39 pm

What other reasons can you come up with for adding symbolism to your stories or poems?

1: Sometimes we want the reader to have to think about the story and its meaning, instead of spelling it out. Used properly, it can give a mundane piece a much more literary atmosphere.

2: Sometimes what we try to symbolize is too graphic, or too cliche, or simply "too close to home" to put right out there in literal terms; using symbolism can create a certain distance or closeness to its literal counterpart, without being offensive, crass or just plain boring.

As far as what Steve mentioned about others interpreting or OVER interpreting, I have struggled with this issue (but not about the parables). I know what I intended when I write something, and it always amazes me when others draw something else from it. This can get sticky when their interpretation is in stark contrast to my intent.

I have an example below in my signature:

Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Suess) did not ever intend on "Horton Hears A Who" to be a pro-life analogy. He--and then his wife after his death--have fought the use of the book (or quotes from it) in the pro-life arena...

But if you read it or watch the movie, it is almost IMPOSSIBLE to not make the connection. Intended or not, a story about unseen people being destroyed by those who can't see or hear them, parallels with society's abortion dilemma. "A person's a person, no matter how small."

As far as using symbolism in my own work, it's not something I use a lot, and I am grateful for these classes to differentiate between symbolism and metaphor. The WC piece that I saturated with both is The Stalker's Curse. I'll dissect it as I intended it, but it was clear from my comments that others interpreted the symbolism slightly different, but not in a way that changes the context...

My stalker looms outside my window. Though he evades my sight, I sense his menacing presence. My peripheral vision catches just a glimpse, but all that remains when I look is the circle of fog on the pane from his stale, sulfur breath. I hum a hymn, and the stalker flees.

After three days of rain, the hymns and prayers can no longer keep him at bay. The stench of my stalker wafts under my door. Alas, I no longer have the strength to fight him. The downward spiral begins. This curse—this genetic shrapnel—is like a thistle spur in my shoe; I am unaware of its existence until I lean on it just so. The searing pain brings me to my knees. My stalker delights in irritating the shrapnel, until the wound is a festering boil, abscessed and pustulant. I curse this curse. I curse the rain.

A weeping willow is my family tree. This same stalker had preyed upon its weary branches—bending them low—bruising their tender flesh. He infiltrates the deepest roots with a slow, rotting disease, and then ecstatically watches the malignant splotches spread to its furthest leaves.


Symbolism:
the stalker=Satan
window/door=my spirit/mind
the curse, the shrapnel, the thistle spur=depression (some interpreted this as alcoholism, but that was actually a metaphor later in the piece...his [the stalker's] poisoned apple, drenched in double malt whiskey.

Metaphor:
weeping willow=family tree/history of depression

This is my most "coded" work to date...but I don't think it would have had the same emotional responses by the readers if I would of just told the same story in a more literal fashion...kwim?

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Postby glorybee » Tue Mar 24, 2009 6:58 pm

Chely, I remember that piece VERY well...it's one of your most moving. And I think it's because of it's "coding" that it is so very powerful.

Interesting about the Seuss stuff--I had no idea.

I love to have a few more people weigh in on the 'ownership' of a piece of writing. Does it mean only what the author meant it to mean? Or does it mean what the reader thinks it means?

Perhaps a little bit of both?
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Postby SisJ » Tue Mar 24, 2009 8:45 pm

1) Frost
as symbols often do, all the concepts stand for themselves as well as something else. (actually, I'm thinking there is one word for a symbol sort of a thing that stands for itself as well as a bigger concept, and a different word for something that stands only for the concept, but I cannot remember the two words... help?)
"miles to go" can represent any task or journey, especially an ongoing task which might symbolically be called a journey (which is in vogue at present).

"woods" is harder... it would be hard for me to think of it as representing sleep because there isn't a farmhouse near, except that the chorus mentions sleep. But it could represent relaxation or play (watching them fill up with snow seems to be entertaining), the former of which could include sleep. I don't like the suicide theory and I don't think it fits, because the owner of the woods "will not mind me stopping here/ To watch his woods fill up with snow", and because the major objection is having things to do (usually people who commit suicide don't have a sense of connectedness and neededness and oughtness that goes along with having things to do) and watching the snow seems to be to be something that will be appropriate after the journey has been completed, and is appropriate as a brief break from the journey.

2) Hawthorne
The letter represents the personal shame and the enduring social stigma of sin, but the fancy, even gaudy, embroidery of it represents rebellion against the law which teaches that sin is wrong (and probably also against the idea that some sin is more punishable than other sin).

I like what the others said about the irony of hiding the letter behind Pearl.

5) Ackerson, Stolen
"mother"--herself and also home, comfort, love, safety, etc.
bleeding lip--difficulty of circumstance, resiliance, harsh treatment, weeping
bird--a bad omen, and with its flapping (after the caw), the uselessnes of resistance, the silence of that uselessness, and perhaps vanity (uselessness) in general

this just from the snippet, so I could be way off... going to read the whole thing later. :)
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." ~ John 1: 1, 14

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Postby glorybee » Tue Mar 24, 2009 8:50 pm

I've got to say here, that in addition to having some extremely intelligent things to say about symbols and their interpretation, you have also deomnstrated your superior intellect by treating 'Ackerson' just like 'Frost' and 'Hawthonre'.

Made my day. :D
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Postby swfdoc1 » Tue Mar 24, 2009 9:47 pm

glorybee wrote:Steve, I'd like to hear more about symbolism (or its lack) in parables.

So, are you anti-symbolism, then?


No, not anti-symbol. Just anti-deconstructionism. I do think that we can be personally persuaded that symbolism exists where it doesn’t and that that can either enhance or diminish ENJOYMENT of a piece. But I do not believe that imagined symbolism can help us UNDERSTAND a piece nor to PROPERLY INTERPRET it as an act of criticism.

I also think that we can use something in a book to make an analogy, but that is an independent issue of whether the author intended it. It is interesting that Chely mentioned Dr. Seuss in this regard. I once gave a talk (to “Religious Right activists” and fellow travelers, including those who were looking for ways to make the issue resonate with soccer moms) in which I used the pink mess from The Cat and the Hat Comes Back as an analogy for our efforts to fight the homosexual agenda. I said that no matter what efforts me made, things seemed to get worse and worse—pinker and pinker (as in the pink triangle). What we need, I told my audience, is a VOOM solution—a Federal Marriage Amendment. I’M SURE DR. SEUSS WOULD BE THRILLED! (By the way, please don’t take this thread political—I am just illustrating what we can do with the work of others.)

Now how absurd it would be for me to say that is what Dr. Seuss intended or that this is the true interpretation of the Cat and the Hat Comes Back. Yet deconstructionists do things like this all the time. I don’t believe that we can go part way down the path. I we say the reader controls the piece, what limiting principles can possibly exist to say our interpretation –which of course WE will always think is reasonable—can be permitted, but the next person’s can’t—which we might find bizarre, but THAT PERSON thinks is reasonable.

OK, new, item: I also believe that an author can put symbolism in a piece and then forget that he (he = common gender, not masculine) did so or at least what it represented. The story is told that Don McLean has forgotten much of the symbolism that he put in his song American Pie. I have no idea whether the story is true, but I find it believable. That leads to the interesting dilemma that everyone knows there is symbolism in a piece but no one may know what it means!

I think I may have already done that with my novel. I have a recollection of planting a symbol or two in the novel and can’t recall what it was. I’m afraid I may not even spot it on the next read through!

Now, the parables. A few parables are clearly allegorical and we know this because Jesus explains what each symbol represents. For example, in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13) Jesus explains:
18"Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. 22The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. 23But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown."


Similarly, (same Chapter) Jesus explains the parable of the weeds:
37He answered, "The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
40"As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

But the current conventional wisdom (which was "floated" during the Reformation, but only captured the field around 1900) is that unless Jesus explains that a parable is allegorical, we should not (or should only seldomly with great caution) interpret it as an allegory. We should only look for a main point, e.g., the gradual growth of the Kingdom, the value of the Kingdom, the cost of discipleship.

At an early stage in Church history and continuing for the better part of two millennia, not only were all parables interpreted allegorically, but the things supposedly symbolized were often then-contemporary events, people, institutions, etc., although sometimes the interpretation was done with an eye to otherwise ascertainable biblical truths.

In the first category were many of the items that the Reformation rejected, e.g., purgatory, preference for fish, Mary’s sinlessness. In the latter category is Origen’s interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan: The man who was going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the beast is the Lord’s body, the [inn], which accepts all who wish to enter, is the Church. … The manager of the [inn] is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Savior’s second coming.

The closest thing to symbolism (at least that I can remember!) in one of my entries is the bonsai techniques and shapes in Tricks of the Trade. In the piece, I actually called the bonsai techniques and shapes a metaphor, but what I did with it is not that different from the scarlet A in the Scarlet Letter. In all of Jan’s other examples, the symbolism is symbolism directed at the READER. The scarlet A is symbolism directed at the CHARACTERS. Similarly, my symbolism/metaphor was directed at my character, Agent 2317. Of course, when you do this, it is put in front of the reader, as well.
Steve
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Postby Symphonic » Wed Mar 25, 2009 1:02 am

I’m sorry! I can’t resist jumping into this discussion again–-but I’ll try to be brief!

Thanks, Steve, for standing firmly against deconstructionism! I can understand why writers often say that their published works belong to their readers. We want to move, inspire, entertain or inform those who read what we write. But postmodern literary criticism has taken this to an extreme, favoring tortured reader-response theories... theories that view great literary works of the past through a modern socio-political lens, for example.

So many works are rich with symbolism and meaning that we must probe beneath the surface to find. I think it’s possible and valid to discover symbolism in a work that the author placed there unconsciously, or perhaps forgot about it. We just need to be sure that we don’t carry this too far!

All right... I guess it’s time to confess the youthful indiscretion that I resisted sharing in my earlier post. Once, when was I was in graduate school, I shared an office with a rather humorless feminist. (My sincere apologies to any feminists reading this, and no offense intended!) Anyway, I wrote a parody of a feminist critique of Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods.” I thought it was quite funny, and shared it with my office mate, who said–-without cracking a smile-– “This is very good. You should send it to a journal.”

The sober lesson I learned from this is that it’s possible–-but neither advisable nor admirable--for a reader to impose an outlandishly ridiculous meaning upon a text. As a wise professor once said (to the amazement of a roomful of English majors!): “It is actually possible to make a claim about a work of literature that is wrong.”

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