For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Buried Treasure - Symbolism In Story

'Reason, science and technology pin us down to the literal fact, but symbols nourish the soul by pointing to something beyond what is known. Symbols quicken reality with meaning.'
Carl Jung

Today I buried Clown. The ceremony was poignant, though slightly incongruous. It was a finishing off, a letting go of sorts and it needed doing. You see, Clown was a stuffed toy from my childhood. He wasn't attractive; in fact he was grossly misproportioned, with an enormous torso, long thick legs and tiny arms. He was torn and filthy and his face was macabre, with an array of mismatching features and one eye missing. In short, Clown had been well loved.

For many years I had forgotten about Clown but a couple of years ago when my mother went into aged care, I went back to my childhood home to help pack it up, and there in the cupboard I found him. My mother had made this oversized stuffed toy for me; sitting up late one Christmas Eve so that Father Christmas could bring me a present, and I saw no contradiction in this, believing in my childhood way that they were working in cahoots. We weren't well off. Christmas meant treats, like chicken and tinned asparagus, pudding laced with an occasional coin and real cream, not the dreadful sort skimmed from the top of the boiled milk that we had for the rest of the year. There were few presents; undies from an Aunty, an occasional book or board game, and this particular year, Clown.

From the moment I clapped eyes on Clown, I fell in love. He became my friend and confidante, my ally, my comforter and my security. I poured into Clown all my angst and pain, the injustices I encountered, my sense of being different, of being misunderstood and unwanted. Seeing him again so many years later, I was torn between love and repulsion. I had moved on. I didn't need or want Clown anymore. He needed to go in the garbage bin but I couldn't do it, so in the end I stuffed him in my suitcase and brought him home. Since then he has been languishing in a cupboard awaiting his fate.

Today I had intended to write a post about characterisation but this episode with Clown made me think about symbolism instead. Clown symbolised a great deal for me. As an early much loved toy, he was a substitute for the absent mother. But as I said above, he was also a vessel for my unwanted emotions, an outlet that enabled me to get through difficult times. I don't know why my mother fashioned a clown for me to love rather than a teddy bear. Perhaps she wanted to help me see the funny side of life. Traditionally clowns represent a parody of kingship – irreverence, absurdity, ridicule. . . but there was nothing funny about my clown. He was sad but only because I had filled him with sadness. And while he was my protector he was also something for me to protect. Hence he deserved (and belatedly received) a better ending than the garbage bin. Symbols are both universal and individual, specific to a culture and a historical context, yet also transcending these things. They cannot be pinned down to a single meaning because they are able to be interpreted according to the cultural, historical and personal context in which they are placed. Clown meant something to me that was unique and yet in a story, a child clinging to a ragged stuffed toy tells every reader something about the character and needs of that child.

While many words are needed to express an idea, a symbol combines many ideas into a single word. As Anthony Stevens writes in his book, Ariadne's Clue: A Guide to the Symbols of Humankind, 'symbols tolerate paradox and can combine contradictory ideas; words are about one thing or another. Symbols awake intimations; words explain. Like musical compositions, symbolic forms are psychologically more athletic than words: they leap across national barriers'. In short, symbols inhabit the world of poetry. However, this doesn't limit them to poetic forms. As story tellers we can enrich and add greater depth to our work by consciously exploring the use of symbols. and as such, they are an important element in writing; one which we can use either consciously or unconsciously.

According to Stevens, 'the conjunction of sym (together) and ballein (to throw) emphasises the idea that the strange must be thrown together with the familiar to construct a bridge between the known and the unknown. . . . resulting in the experience of a new meaning.' In a sense then, symbols and metaphors are bridges to the unconscious, ways of explaining what cannot be explained, expressing what cannot be expressed. They provide us with access to essential truths, those that are felt but not measurable or possibly even visible.

My novel, Flight, is laden with symbols. Even the story itself is a symbol, or at least a metaphor for the journey to self, to an understanding and a remembering of who we are, to what Jung calls Individuation. Fern's story documents the journey from a mechanistic, conditioned life to one that is lived freely as a true individual. In the novel, the labyrinth is a strong symbol, and one that I consciously used. It has a two-fold reading. On a metaphoric level it is the story itself, the path Fern must follow in order to free herself. On a symbolic level it is the wilderness that Fern and Adam must find their way through in order to complete Fern's journey. There are other symbols in the novel, the snake, the bear, the eagle, the spiral, the cave. . . most of which I was unaware of at the time of writing. It was only later, in the editing process that I identified these elements and in understanding their meaning, was able to further develop them, adding a greater richness and depth to the story.

Symbols are not literal, they are not the language of the head, but rather of the heart. As a writer my goal is to find a synthesis between this language of the head and the heart; a synthesis that would create a more balanced means of interpreting the natural world and the human structures we have created. According to Stevens, symbolism is a language that transcends race, geography and time. It is the natural Esperanto of humanity'. This is a language that is fundamental for 'living stories' and one that is in danger of being lost in a world that tends more and more to a literal reading of story, rather than a metaphoric reading which allows for the transcending of difference and an embracing of the sacred.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:

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