Friday, December 13, 2013

The Shibboleth of Symbolism

Question 1:  If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a noise?  How about a big no duh?  The absence of ears to hear does not exclude the existence of sound waves.

Question 2:  If a man is talking and no woman is around to hear him, is he still wrong?  I always thought that one funny.  No comment.

Question 3:  If something is symbolic and no one thinks about what it means, does it still mean anything?

Consider the candy cane - the hook-shaped, pepperminty, hand-held confection of yumminess found often around December (timely of me, no?).  Rumor has it, and I don't know if this is an urban or a rural legend, that that candy cane is not red and white by pure accident, nor is it arbitrarily shaped.  Rather, there is a design behind its design.  The red and white represent the blood and purity of Christ, respectively.  The shape denotes the shepherd's crook; an obvious reference to the shepherd and the sheep.  Get it?  Heard this before?  Ponder it much when you grab a candy cane from the pencil holder at the bank?  They give out freebies this time of year, don't you know?  Crunch 'em if you got em'.

But about the symbolism, do you ponder it when you're unwrapping the noisy cellophane and twisting the cane in your taste-hole to make that pointy peppermint spike of death?  Maybe, not so much, sorta kinda?  The thought crosses your mind occasionally?  But, what do you always do when you eat a candy cane?  Enjoying the freakin' candy cane, that's what!

The peril of symbolism, in writing, is the risk that many (most?) people won't get it.  And of those who do, it amounts to either a 'big whoop' or a 'hey, that's really neato!' on the register of reading motivation.  In other words, a writer who writes to show off his symbolism is something like the writer who wants to show off his punctuation.  How many readers walk away from a story thinking, "Wow, great semi-colons."?  No one has won the Booker, Pulitzer, Nobel, Caldecott, or any other writing award based solely on either their symbolism, or their dynamic use of commas.

Now look - I like me some symbolism.  It's cool.  I think about the flag of the United States.  I think about the cross.  I think about why I used the word shibboleth in the title.  I also think about how literal-minded most of my students are.  Sad, really, that we don't consider the depths of meaning available to us.  But the symbolism isn't the thing.  The thing's the thing.

See, one of the problems is that the average, run-o-the-mill English major (think, person who wants to write) is taught that the use of symbolism in writing is tantamount to genius.  Maybe it is, or maybe said writer didn't have a better story to tell and decided to fill the prose with nouns meant to represent other things.  In this way, the story becomes something of a dense puzzle-box and people can sit around wondering, "What does it mean, man?"  And in the meantime, the fledgling writer focuses on being symbolic (amidst a myriad other literary [pronounced:  lihtoo-raahree, emphasis on the snobbery] devices they've been taught are also tantamount to genius by their English major professors who were, in turn, taught by their English major professors) and if that means the well-told story goes by the wayside, so be it.

Herein is something every writer should consider.  Some, but not very many, people read to admire symbolism.  Preponderantly, and on the other hand, most readers read because they're searching for a nicely written piece of writing.

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