Writing Wednesday: Symbolism Is Alright in “Fiction”

25 Jan

I wasn’t a fan girl when I was a teen.  I never really had the audacity to write a letter to an author or musician or to stand in line to ask for their autographs.  These were important people with busy lives.  I didn’t want to interrupt their work with my silly, affectionate musings.  I had too much respect for them—and too much pride.  I would’ve been crushed if they’d turned me down.

That wasn’t the case with sixteen-year-old Bruce McAllister.  In 1963, he sent off a survey to the most famous authors of the day, including my personal favorites, Jack Kerouac and Saul Bellow.  And they wrote him back.

The Paris Review published these letters, in which the authors answer McAllister’s survey about symbolism.

Jack Kerouac’s response:

Symbolism is alright in “Fiction” but I tell true life stories simply about what happened to people I knew.

I find his use of the word “simply” so fascinating.  The response could be matter-of-fact (I’m just telling a story and not thinking about writerly devices) or it could be methodology (I tell stories in a simple manner and don’t put symbols in it).

A few months ago, someone read a portion of the memoir I’m writing and said they saw symbols pertaining to two of the people in the story.  They suggested I push those symbols further.  It was an interesting conversation because I was simply writing true life events, and the symbol they saw for one of the people just happened to be something central to who they are.  It’s something I associated with the person long before they became a “character” with “symbols,” similar to the ideas I wrote about in my Burnside Writers Collective essay “Coffee and Portraiture and the Associations We Make.”  The dangerous part, though, in assigning symbols in real life stories is that life and people are complex, not easily contained, shifting.  So when my reader pointed out the obvious “symbol” of one “character,” they immediately leapt to the conclusion that the other character was in contrast to that person and deserving of an opposite symbol.  Maybe there’s some validity to that idea in fiction, but in real life people don’t exist simply to define, parallel, or contrast other people.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.


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