Tag Archives: symbols

Head spaces, part 1

Many years ago I noticed that when my dreams included my workplace, the workplace was a weird amalgam of all the places I had worked at previously. Usually it was populated with the people I worked with at the time, but furniture, physical layout, and so forth, would include things from older work places.

Lots of dreams are that way. Frequently when I dream about family, any family, a lot of the dream will be set in the living room of my paternal grandparents. Except that the carpet is usually the giant persian rug that had been on the floor of Great-grandma S.J.’s living room. And often the ugly orange couch from the house Mom, my oldest sister, and I lived in after my parents’ divorce makes an appearance.

Over time my dream workplace has morphed, taking on some physical characteristics of each office or building I’ve worked in since. The resulting space is one that only makes sense in dream logic.

I could spend a lot of time trying to figure out why one detail is kept from one building and not another. Some people spend a lot of time mapping out the symbolism of their dreams. But while our subconscious includes details for a reason, the reason isn’t always SYMBOLISM. My dream workplace always has desks, presumably because pretty much everywhere I have worked there was a desk somewhere. I didn’t always have a desk of my own. Most of my jobs back in my teens didn’t require desks, but there was always someone at the work place whose job did require a desk.

A desk, then, is a prop that adds verisimilitude to the notion of workplace. Most of the time.

Certain desks may have slightly deeper meanings. I’m pretty sure that the desk with tons of drawers that never contain what I need represents frustration, while the emaculate immaculate desk with a place for everything and everything in its place represents insecurities.

If you thought that the clean desk would represent something positive, you don’t know how my brain works. See, the only way a desk of mine would be that organized were if I had just cleaned it out because I’m leaving the desk and/or job, or because someone else has messed with my stuff. Yeah, because of clean desk policies, I have had to move the piles off my work surface… But that just means that my sedimentary filing system has been moved out of sight.

Symbolism is always subjective, so if you’re looking for the meaning behind a set of choices your favorite writer or artist or director has made, just remember the words of Freddy Mercury: “If you see it, darling, it’s there.”

Birds black as coal

I’ve never been particularly good at symbolism—at least not in my own writing.

When symbolism happens in my stories, it is entirely subconscious. I remember some years ago another writer commented on one of my stories that she was deeply envious of the symbolism I’d pulled off. When she explained it to me, I looked at the story and realized that the repeated symbolic occurrence of pastiche/patchwork was there beginning in the first paragraph and continuing to the final scene. But I hadn’t planned it or even been aware that I was doing it.

Even back in school I always had issues with the notion of symbolism in literature. I remember reading one time that snow is always symbolic of death, so if a birth scene happens during a snowstorm, the scene isn’t about the beginning of a new life, it’s about the inevitability of death. Or it foreshadows a premature death of one of the characters. Or something.

And my immediate thought was, “what if the person just happened to be born in December or January?” I was foolish enough to raise that question in class. I was told not to be ridiculous; literature is totally under control of the writer, so things should never happen due to chance. No good author would set a birth during a snowstorm without meaning to allude to death, you see.

Which seems more than a bit artificial. Sort of like saying that a painter can never use the color yellow except in a painting about joy. Yellow symbolizes joy or delight or summer, right? So an artist can never depict a sad person under a lemon tree? And why does yellow symbolize joy? When a book is very old, the paper pages turn yellow with age. Or someone’s skin turns yellow while experiencing certain health issues. Why can’t yellow symbolize decay?

The answer is that, of course, yellow can symbolize either, depending on how it is used. Or it may not symbolize anything. Sometimes a lemon is just yellow, right?

Similarly, crows and ravens usually are assumed to symbolize death, but in the real world crows can be aggressive, clever, or clownish. I’ve witnessed more than one incident of crows skirmishing with seagulls over the contents of a public trash receptacle. It’s impossible to walk around certain parts of town without witnessing such an occurrence with some frequency. If a story I read mentioned one, it would evoke a lot of memories. Depending on how it was described, it might symbolize petty squabbling between family members, or disproportionate responses, or scarcity of resources. And while death can certainly result from petty disagreements or competition, it doesn’t have to. Crows fight with other birds over dropped food and so forth. It’s just something that happens.

Symbolism can add verisimilitude to a scene or story. The reader doesn’t even have to consciously be aware of the meaning of the symbols in order for them to work. But paying too much attention to them, as either a writer or a reader, can be a distraction.

As an author I can choose the setting, period, and characters of my story. I decide which details to describe, and which to leave unmentioned. But that includes the ability to include details not because they have a traditional literary meaning, but because they sometimes happen in the real world in the setting which I have chosen for the story. I shouldn’t include details that don’t serve the story. However, they should be included only because they serve my story, not in accordance to some academic prescription.