Monday, August 19, 2013

Guest Post by Jill Domschot: "Yes, but What Does it Mean?"

Jill Domschot has published exactly one book, and I am already a total fan of hers. My review (5-stars, of course) called her novel Anna and the Dragon "more literary than fantasy, but...still fantasy true-and-true." What I fell in love with about her writing was the depth and quirkiness and thinky-ness.

And I happen to know it's chock-full of symbolism. Which is why I asked her here to post on that topic. I am happy to say she obliged. 

Without further ado, and mainly so I don't come of as some squealy fan-girl, here's Jill's guest post:

A classic example of a skeptical English student is Bruce McAllister, who, when he was sixteen, boldly set out to foil his English teacher by sending out questionnaires on symbolism to 150 well-known authors of his day (see this article). He did this because he believed authors, and not just scholars, should have an opportunity to provide answers to the nether world of fiction. He put forth four questions: Did the writer intentionally or unintentionally use symbolism? Did readers create symbols where none existed (and did this annoy the writer)? Did the writer believe that classic authors used symbolism in their books? Did the writer have anything else to elucidate on the subject?

The responses to his questionnaire were varied. Some authors, such as Jack Kerouac, denied using symbolism because symbolism is for “fiction” and he told “true life stories.” However, Kerouac was willing to admit that some authors of “fiction” intentionally place symbolic elements in their work, while others don't. Ray Bradbury was a symbolism denier of the wholesale variety, claiming that the intentional act of laying out symbolism destroys creativity, which is unsurprising. Bradbury loved to wear the artist cloak—in his case a magician's—in whose guise creative acts sprang unspoiled from his black hat. If the world knew how he created his art, the magic would be lost.

By contrast, Ayn Rand wasn't a denier. She admitted to both consciously and subconsciously using symbolism in her stories. This isn't surprising because Ayn Rand was, by ego focus, an intellectual. Intellectuals crave acknowledgement of their intellectual abilities. If nobody asks, they'll often tell, anyway. On the other hand, they're cagey about their methods. They want others to know they understand a subject or a process, but they don't want anybody to be quite at their level of expertise. So, while Ms. Rand was perfectly happy to give an affirmative answer to sixteen-year-old McAllister, she also added, “I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don't seem to understand.”

I'm not sure what Mr. McAllister expected in the way of replies. If he was attempting to prove to his teacher that most authors don't intentionally use the symbolism one learns from literature studies, he proved something else entirely—that authors are the worst people to ask such questions. I highlighted the authors above because their answers give away nothing but their own ego projections. One is too busy keeping it real; the next is too busy being creative to bother with such nonsense; the third is trying to maintain an aura of labyrinthine intellectuality.

At the same time, I'm going to make a shocking claim: all authors, even those who readily deny it, use symbolism, at the very least, on a subconscious level. Our subconscious minds are wired to respond to symbols. Many of us aren't aware of the way symbols affect us. Hence, many authors are unaware of the symbolism they employ. This general unawareness is why marketing campaigns are so successful. Once people are consciously aware of the way they're influenced by symbols, the advertising will cease to be effective. In a sense, aware authors are simply marketers of story. They might admit to using symbolism, as in the case of Ayn Rand, but what purpose does it serve them if they're too specific about their methods? They'll weaken their power to influence the reading audience.

Now that I've established how unreliable authors are when asked questions about—not just their methods—but their core motivations, I'll go ahead and do what my blog hostess, Kat, asked me to do in the first place. I'm going to give away some of the symbolism I used in my debut novel Anna and the Dragon. I take that back. I'm not going to give away “some.” I'll highlight one piece of symbolism I consciously used. After all, I'm an intellectual like Ayn Rand. I want the world to acknowledge my brilliance without understanding how I arrived at the dreamscape that creates my story.

When my protagonist, Anna, first meets the love interest, Franklin, he takes her to his apartment, where he falls asleep on a bed covered with an Indian tree-of-life spread. The tree-of-life is a simple, workable symbol for several reasons. First of all, it fits with the Portland environment of the nineties. Portland in the nineties has taken on the character of a hippy, free-wheeling place. Imagine for a moment walking into an upstairs, downtown apartment in a city covered by perpetual cloud cover, where all is green and dusky and gray outdoors—and set with brilliant, billowing Indian spreads indoors. That's the Portland I remember from my youth.

On a deeper level, almost every culture will instantly recognize the tree-of-life. It's what God barred Adam and Eve from in the garden of Eden. Its branches connects us to the heavens above and the underworld beneath. It is present in mythology. Even science uses it to denote common descent through evolution. In short, it's a powerful pictorial representation of physical and spiritual life (for an overview). This symbol, then, connects my story to a larger human reality. Ultimately, Anna and the Dragon is a story about characters choosing life. Franklin has a genetic heart defect, but Anna chooses life when she joins him on his bed—becomes his wife, has his child.

Even though authors will be cagey about their symbolism, naturally projecting their egos when asked to explain their methodology, I've chosen to be candid about this one small element to the point of … insecurity. I'm insecure at the moment, having just given away a secret. It's much easier, and just as enlightening, to sit in an English class taking apart the works of long-dead authors than it is to become self-aware about my own work. I hope the skeptical Bruce McAllister understands that writers are the worst people to ask now that he's no longer sixteen and, in fact, a writer of some merit himself.

Thank you, Jill!

And readers, if you didn't catch the links in the text up there, here's Jill's website and Anna and the Dragon on Amazon


Anonymous said...

I don't like to make generalisatons, generally. But I'm comfortable with saying that any writer who doesn't use symbolism is a crap writer. They're a stenographer or a typist or some form of putting words out there that doesn't involve CRAFT.

Not that you have to have endless scenes of people smoking cigars with cats on their laps. But symbolism is an important part of crafting fiction. I should know, with all the zero books I've published.

Katherine Coble

Jill said...

Both Kat and Katherine made me giggle this morning. Squealing fan girl?! You are so funny!

And to Katherine--I have to say I've never yet written a scene with people smoking cigars with cats on their laps. I must do so posthaste. Don't be surprised if you find such a scene gratuitously added to my next work.

Kat Heckenbach said...

I love your writing, Jill :D.

And I do think good writers use symbolism at least subconsciously. Granted, I maintain that sometimes blue curtains ARE just blue curtains.

What I love about what you say here is that it's different for each writer. The types of symbolism they use, and what it means to *them*--not just that it always must be some standard, agreed-upon symbol.

Jill said...

Kat, I agree. If everything in a novel was a symbol, it would be tedious. Either that, or you'd be in a Dali painting, or something.

Anonymous said...

Could someone please tell me what the blue curtains symbolise?

Katherine Cannot Sign Into Blogger, Day #267

Kat Heckenbach said...

I'm sorry about the Blogger sign-in thing. I've eliminated moderation, but I have to keep capcha or I get overloaded with spam :(.

Jill said...

Blue curtains are obviously symbolic of English teachers. On the other hand, blue curtains could be quite symbolic. I mean, windows are like eyes into a building, right? And humans are often represented as buildings with multiple floors, including with dark and hidden basements. What does it mean when a window into the house is covered in blue? ;) Yeah, I'm teasing Kat. Maybe blue curtains are indicative of needing a more inspired interior decorator.

Robynn Tolbert said...

OK, a 5 stars from Kat book under $10? I'm all over that. I bought it. I have two other books ahead of it in the TBR pile, but that won't take more than a week.

I am wracking my brains looking for symbolism in Star of Justice, but I can't think of anything deliberate on my part. My second book has stuff, so I won't argue, and I won't make any claims to literary genius or writing reality, but I'm gonna have to mull on SoJ 'cause I'm not seeing it.

Jill, I'm having trouble reconciling that head shot and the pic I took of you at Realm Makers in your steampunk outfit. Your hair is fluffier in person. :)

Jill said...

Thanks for buying my book! Well, you don't recognize me because I sent my evil twin who loves to fluff her hair and wear steam punk! ;) Actually, I didn't make it to Realm Makers, so it must have been another Jill, though I'd like to pretend I secreted myself (or my evil twin) there in disguise.

Gretchen E.K. Engel said...

I love symbolism in stories. I love that you quoted Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged is and probably always will be my favorite novel. What other major piece of literature has a female engineer as its protagonist?
I went straight to Amazon and purchased Anna and the Dragon. Actually, not straight to Amazon, I had to check my Kindle because I was sure that I'd already owned it.
I can't wait to read it.

Jill said...

Thanks for buying my book! Btw, my book has a computer scientist, which is almost as cool as an engineer. :)

Robynn Tolbert said...

Did Wordpress eat my earlier comment? I guess so.

I was confusing you with another Jill, Jill. I'm glad, too. My brain could not make you two reconcile into one without serious mutation.

I was thinking too hard about symbolism. I use the "star of justice" and the symbol of Radiac, but both are so "out in the open" as symbols, they didn't cross my mind. I guess I aspire to literary, even if I don't make it.

R. L. Copple said...

Jill, interesting way of looking at it. In my Reality series, I intentionally put in some symbolism/allegory. Some obvious and some obscure. It has been interesting to see readers find symbolism I didn't initially intend. Meanwhile, things like why the steam house is 8-sided would only be known by church historians and certain groups.

Meanwhile, my Virtual Chronicles is meant to be fun space opera, and I didn't intentionally put any symbolism...well, a little here and there as it relates to movies and TV shows. But I didn't really attempt to "say" anything with it, but readers find it saying something anyway.

Can't remember who said it, but saw the quote the other day. Something about once you release your book to the public, it is no longer "yours".

Jill said...

R.L., I've read Reality's Dawn, and I did pick up on a fair bit of symbolism in it. I haven't, however, gotten around to the Virtual Chronicles. I think you're absolutely correct (or that quote is). Once you release it to the public, people will find all manner of things in your work that you didn't mean. Stories are so fluid that way--so much more fluid even than physical artwork because the reader can live through story in the mind.

Jill said...

Robynn, I don't think you have to worry about being literary. Katherine and Kat both gave your book five stars, which probably means it's good. I went ahead and bought a copy, so I'll check it out for myself (find all those symbols you never meant in the 1st place, lol).

Unknown said...

Heh. Yesterday my husband and I had lunch with one of my beta readers. After we caught up on our lives, I mentioned that I was going to self-publish the Shatterworld Trilogy. She did some fangirling which is always fun. Then she said that one of the things she liked about the books was how the characters' names reflected their personalities and struggles so well. I shoved my lettuce around and tried to think whose name reflected what themes and personalities. Finally I said, "If that's so, it was accidental. But I'll let you believe I did that on purpose."