What symbolism?

My sister, a high school English teacher, asked me today if there’s any intentional symbolism in my book. Apparently she’s teaching her students about symbolism in The Great Gatsby, and they think she’s a little full of it. I have very vivid memories of thinking the same exact thing in high school. Who decided everything has to MEAN something? Can’t the green light across the bay just be an annoying green light?

I stopped to think… and couldn’t come up with a single example from my own work. I was a little worried because isn’t that what good writers are supposed to do? They’re supposed to have allegory and symbolism and themes and whatever else we learn about in every English class ever. If the classics have it, “it” makes good literature.

I continued to muse on this until I met up with my writing group tonight, and asked them the same question. And they nodded, knowing without a doubt that they write intentional symbolism. But Miss N made a very good point about the things we focus on when we write, and different writers focus on different things. Plot-driven writers focus, obviously, on plot, while detail-driven writers focus on making their details meaningful (often leading to that thing called symbolism). If you can do both you’re probably the greatest writer ever, and we all hate you. But most people have a preference for one or the other.

Does this mean one way is better than the other? (Commence a lot of people saying, um, yes). I say no. I have read books that are rich in detail and transport you to that other time or place. And I have raced through the page-turners that waste no time drawing us into emotions and dialogue and action. It’s like the difference between sweet and salty. Let’s stop and pretend for a minute that you’re a rational person who loves both sweet and salty. Though really, we shouldn’t have to pretend anything… it’s undeniable that they’re both delicious. Sometimes, though, you only want one or the other. (For the time being, we have to forget there are things like chocolate-covered pretzels, which just implode the universe).

The point of this food-based tangent (of which there are many in my life) is simply to say that symbolism, and its sister concepts, can be used beautifully, but don’t need to be used all the time. You simply have to decide what kind of writer or reader you are. Do you generally prefer stories with vivid detail, or those with a whirlwind plot? Does your preference change with your mood? Or do you insist on having only the best of both worlds? I think this is one of the most important questions you can ask yourself as a creator or a consumer of books. Knowing yourself in this regard, and knowing that there’s nothing wrong with the way you feel, can lead to more positive experiences with reading and writing.

So yes, symbolism is real, and it’s colorful, and lyrical, and ripe. But it’s not always around. And that’s okay.

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